25 Hiding, Y6
The first thing Dark_breed_Hyren noticed when he woke up that morning was that his legs were so far off the end of his bed that his knees bent and his feet touched the ground.
"What the…" The Grundo sat up to see who had sawed off half of his bed while he was asleep—and it promptly collapsed underneath him.
The second thing he noticed was that his voice had taken a sharp turn for the baritone, and seemed to almost reverberate off of the dried bamboo walls of his Mystery Island bedroom.
"What's going on," he said. It was a command, not a question, although to whom he knew not. Hyren reached up to rub the sleep from his eyes—and froze midway. Because his hands were no longer blue and stubby.
They were dark green and the size of hams.
A thousand thoughts and emotions whirled through his mind, struggling for dominance, and the one that breached the surface first was jubilation. "I'm back!" the suddenly mutant Grundo roared, leaping to his feet with a wild grin. His antennae brushed the ceiling.
"I'm back!" he said again, throwing open his door, inadvertently tearing it clean from the hinges and sending it crashing through a wall, and barreling down the hall. "Terra!"
It had been a little over two years since the mutant Commander Hyren had first met his future owner, and escaped with her and her Zafara from the clutches of his former master Dr. Sloth. A little over two years since Hyren had his mutation reversed in order to escape an untimely demise, and live a quiet life with his newfound family as an unassuming blue Grundo.
It would have been a lie to say he didn't miss that old body with its incredible powers of strength and stamina. He used to garner respect from his subordinates and terror from his enemies. Intimidation was as easy as a well-timed scowl—or punching a hole in a wall.
After the mutation was reversed, though, a day would rarely go by without other Neopets mistaking Hyren for a child. And despite his relentless regime at the Training School, he'd had to just accept the fact that he could never again wield a claymore or a polearm with anything approaching effectiveness.
But now, through some unknown power, all of that had changed.
Hyren rounded the corner. "Terra," he called, "I'm—AAAAUUUGHH!"
Staring up at him, a look of horror plastered on its deformed muzzle, was the most hideous creature Hyren had ever seen. Knobbly, wart-infested olive-green scales twisted around its draconian body, its wings were wickedly clawed and the membranes hopelessly torn, and its bloodshot, slit-pupiled eyes spun in its skull.
The creature let out a piercing screech of its own. "DON'T LOOK AT ME I'M HIDEOUS!" it cried Turning to run, it smacked into the wall and collapsed in a daze, one wing twitching.
"Wait a minute…" Hyren muttered. He would know that scream anywhere—it was the same one his brother let out every time he saw a Spyder, if a little raspier. The Mutant Grundo sidled over to the monstrosity and poked it with a two-toed foot. "Pharazon?"
"Who are you, what do you want, have you come to take me away because I'm ugly?!" ArPharazonTheGolden sniveled, curling into a ball.
Hyren picked up the Mutant Draik by his tail—the first time the Grundo had ever gotten to do that, he realised with a smirk. He was getting re-accustomed to this quickly. Although the fact that Pharazon had been transmogrified as well worried him a little. "It's me, buddy," Hyren said. "Your brother."
Pharazon opened his eyes, swaying upside-down like some kind of Draik-shaped pendulum. He was the baby of the family. Terra had wanted a Draik ever since the species was discovered, and scrimped and saved for a Draik Egg. Pharazon was hatched in Swimming of last year. "Hyren?" he asked. "Why aren't I yellow anymore?"
"Same reason I'm huge and awesome again, I'll bet," Hyren rumbled. "Maybe Terra knows what's going on." He carried the Draik to their owner's room, ducking through the doorframe.
Terra had somehow slept through Hyren's outburst of joy, and the Grundo deposited Pharazon on the floor and approached the slumbering teen. She hadn't changed much from when Hyren had met her. Mostly she'd just grown a little taller, but compared to him now she was still tiny. Lately she'd been experimenting with shorter hair, and it spilled around her shoulders in a light brown puddle. Hyren thought she looked better with it long, but he was wiser than to make misinterpretable remarks about a teenage girl's appearance.
He reached out with one meaty finger and poked her arm. "Terra," he whispered.
"Whuh…" She stirred and looked over her shoulder at him, and her blue eyes widened. With a start she sat up, taking a deep breath.
"It's okay," Hyren said with a grin. "It's me—Hyren."
The look in her eyes changed from terror to recognition. "Hyren?!" she stammered, reaching for her glasses and pulling them on. "What's… you're…"
"Yeah!" Hyren said, splaying his hands. "I have no idea how this happened, but isn't it great?"
"It's not great for me," Pharazon moaned, wringing his tail.
Terra rubbed at her face. "Whoa, is that a mutant Draik?" she asked. "How did he—" She paused, looking back and forth from the Draik to the Grundo. Hyren could practically see the gears in her mind whirring. "Oh no. Pharazon—"
"Hey, what's the occasion?" a voice asked from the doorway.
Hyren turned slowly, dreading what horrible mutation might have befallen his sister… and saw a completely normal-looking red Zafara staring at them with her head tilted.
"Cool, a mutant party," Blynn679 said, toddling into the room on her large hind feet. "Hi Terra. Hyren. Creepy dude."
"Augh!" Pharazon gave his tail another twist and threw his head back in anguish.
Blynn giggled. "Just kidding, Pharazon. Oh man, you look so cool as a mutant!" She began to circle the Draik, poking and prodding at him. "Ohhh neat, is this really your brain?" she asked, popping up behind his head.
"I—I don't know," Pharazon stuttered, "but you probably shouldn't—" Blynn jabbed it with a finger. Pharazon let out a yelp, convulsed, and began flapping his arms and clucking like a Peadackle.
The Zafara steepled her fingers. "I could get used to this," she said, a malicious grin creeping up her muzzle.
"Okay, guys, we have to try to figure this out," Terra said as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. "What did we eat last night?"
"Ham and Cheese Mashed Potatoes," Blynn replied. "With churros for dessert."
Pharazon finally stopped clucking. With a twitch of his head, he was back to normal and didn't seem to notice anything had happened as he said, "But we all had the same thing, and only two of us woke up this morning mutated."
"But—wait, Zafaras don't have a mutant form," Terra said. "So maybe… hm…"
"Oh, never mind that!" Hyren said. Why stand around wondering when his fondest dreams had finally come true? He figured it was best to just take the twist of fate and enjoy it. He picked Terra up under her arms and spun her around, feeling like things were finally normal again. "Let's go have some fun!"
His owner merely gave him a concerned look. "Hyren… didn't the Space Faerie say that you wouldn't survive being mutated again?" she asked.
The Grundo's antennae twitched. In his euphoria, he'd completely forgotten about that side effect of his adventures two years ago. "Yeah… she did," he said. He set his owner down and began inspecting himself. "But… I feel fine—never better, in fact. I was so sick when she changed me back…"
Terra clung to his arm. "What if you get sick again?" she asked.
Hyren took a deep breath. "Well… maybe she was wrong."
A burst of hope filled his chest like the sun breaking through clouds. Perhaps this was it: his penance as a blue Grundo was over. He puffed out his chest, flexing his massive muscles. "I feel like I've gotta do something incredible," he said, "like win a weightlifting contest, or tug a boat into Mystery Island Harbor by my teeth, or—or—" Unable to contain himself, he dashed out of the room, visions of grandeur filling his mind. Finally, everyone on would know him for who he was: strong.
Accidentally tearing the front door off its hinges as well, he careened outside and swiveled to a stop in front of their modest bamboo Neohome. The Grundo spat into his hands and rubbed them together. Crouching down, he grasped the corner of the house firmly and lifted with all his might.
With a terrific crack, he broke the entire building clean from the ground and held it a full metre above where it normally stood. An enormous grin spread up his face. Mostly he was relieved that Terra had chosen bamboo over transparishield or brick.
"Oh cool!" a young voice cried from behind him.
Hyren looked over his shoulder to see a small blue Chomby and a green Poogle gawking at him from the road. He winked at them and hefted the house a few times to show off.
"Oh man, that is so neat!" the Poogle said.
"Someday, I wanna be as strong as him!" the Chomby said, clutching her Jeran Action Figure as the two continued down the street.
"Hyren!" Terra's voice called from somewhere inside. "Put the house down, now!"
She wasn't very good at sounding disciplinarian, he noted with amusement. He'd just lowered their domicile back to the ground when he heard the familiar flutter of wings.
A rolled-up newspaper dropped onto Hyren's head, and with his enhanced reflexes he caught it as it bounced off. Normally that would have hurt, but thanks to his thick skull and thicker pride, it was barely a glancing blow.
As he unfolded the day's issue of the Neopian Times, however, his smile faded.
"So the powers that be have randomly declared today Mutant Day?" Terra asked through a mouthful of Shoyru Cereal.
"Apparently," Hyren replied, snapping out the newspaper so it lay flat on the kitchen table. He had eschewed his usual chair in favour of sitting on the floor, not wanting to break any more furniture. As it was, he still towered over the table anyway. "Which means in less than—" He glanced at the clock on the wall. "—Sixteen hours, Pharazon and I will be back to normal." He sighed, his massive shoulders slumping.
"And since it's an act of higher powers," Terra said, "the Space Faerie's warning must still hold. Today's all you've got. And I am not taking any chances after this."
"I wanna be a Mutant," Blynn grumbled. "It's not fair."
"Well, thank the faeries for that," Pharazon groaned, taking a sip from his glass of milk.
Blynn reached over and poked his exposed brain again, and the Draik shuddered and began croaking like a Greeble.
"In that case," he said between croaks, "I'm going to go ahead and hole myself up in my room for the rest of the day, if you all don't mind." With one final wall-eyed ribbit, he excused himself from the table.
Blynn giggled maniacally.
Hyren stood up and spread his hand on the newspaper, but quickly withdrew it when he heard the table start to creak beneath the pressure. "I have to make every second count! Incredible won't cut it anymore! I have to do something… world-changing!" He clenched his fist and stared off into the nonexistent horizon dramatically.
Terra chuckled and brought her bowl and spoon to the sink, then came over and nudged him with her elbow. "Well, would my big, strong, world-changing Grundo like to help me with grocery shopping?" she asked. "It would be really nice to have somebody to carry all those bags."
Hyren grimaced at her. That was not his idea of world-changing. "Er… no offense, Terra, but I really—"
"Weeeeewooooo!" A white Weewoo wearing a tiny postal cap flew through the gaping hole that had once been the front door. With one foot, it pulled a letter from the mailbag at its side and dropped it into Terra's hands, then flew out the other hole in the opposite wall—the one that the front door had crashed through.
Terra opened the letter, and her face lit up. "Oh, neat!" she said. "My pen pal is in town and he says he wants to meet up with me today!"
"What pen pal?" Hyren asked, leaning over her shoulder with a frown. "Do I know this guy?"
His owner folded the letter down so he couldn't see it. "The one I've been Neomailing back and forth for like a year now," she said. She tucked the envelope into her trousers pocket. "It's okay, he's really smart and funny. From Neopia Central. Has a Kacheek and a Uni, and a lot of game trophies." She clutched her arms. "Oooh, I'm nervous! I've never met him in real life before! What if I act like a total dweeb? What if he doesn't want to be friends anymore?"
"Go, have fun!" Blynn said, finishing off Pharazon's milk. "Hyren and I will take care of shopping for you! Right, big guy?"
Hyren folded his arms. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe I should go along with Terra, for backup." He didn't like the idea of her meeting someone on her own. He always played bodyguard to her, but for the first time he could actually look the part. And he would much prefer that to running errands.
Terra grimaced. "No, Blynn's right," she said. "I'll be fine. Sorry, but, uh…" She scratched the back of her neck. "It would be kind of embarrassing if you were there. You might say something strange, um… I need to do this alone."
"Oh." The Grundo's antennae drooped. He embarrassed her? Since when? Was it because he was big now? Or had he always been an embarrassment and never noticed?
Blynn snapped him out of his funk by grabbing his hand and tugging him toward the door. "Let's go!" she said. "We're burning daylight, here!"
"I'll say we are," Hyren said, staring up at the cloud-spotted sky. Maybe in town he'd find something amazing to do with his remaining hours of greatness, like rescue Neopets from a burning building or stop an evil faerie. Or at least get Terra to think he was cool again.
No dice. Hyren found himself sitting on the patio of a café between bursts of summer rain, waiting with a small herd of groceries for Blynn to finish at the local candy store. At first he'd entertained himself by looking around at all of the other pets who'd been mutated, but even that got old after a while, as it seemed almost everyone had tried to ignore their new forms as much as possible.
A few times he'd spot another mutant Grundo and wave cheerily, but the other Grundos would invariably respond with a dirty look. Hyren couldn't understand why. Being mutant was the best thing in the world for a Grundo. Especially because none of them had been mind-wiped in the mutation process this time around.
So now Hyren simply sat sipping a Cherry Neocola, reading one of the books they'd bought for Pharazon, thankful that he at least still fit under the table's umbrella—as long as he didn't try to sit in any of the chairs, of course.
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed someone staring at him, and he glanced up to see a Mutant Techo giving him a somewhat confused and pitying look.
Hyren wrinkled his lack of nose. "Can I help you?" he asked. While it was possible that she wanted to utilise his strength in getting her Kadoatie down from a tree or some such, her expression seemed to say otherwise.
She fidgeted. "Oh, I'm sorry, sir," she said, "I just couldn't help but notice…" Her gaze flicked down to the book he held in one hand. "That text seems a little… advanced for you. Would you like help understanding the concepts?" She added something under her breath about unkind owners giving their Neopets literature that went over their heads.
Hyren checked the cover of the book. Mathematics in Space. Looking back up at the Techo, his eyes narrowed. "No," he said. "What are you trying to say?"
She winced. "Er, well, it just seems that perhaps for someone of your species'… decreased intellect, there might be more suitable—"
"Excuse me?!" Hyren slammed the book shut and threw it onto the table. The entire table collapsed, and the umbrella fell down around his head, but he grabbed it and tossed it over his shoulder. "Do you say this kind of stuff to every Grundo, or just the mutant ones? Because reality check, we're all Mutant today, lady!"
"W-well, I know," she said, "but everyone knows that Grundos aren't very intellectual to begin with, and the mutation process dulls their brains even further—"
It was a universal constant, Hyren thought, that Neopets had stupid opinions and said stupid things. But today was the first day in a long time that Hyren thought he was immune to it. "I can tell you right now that's a lie," he growled.
The Techo's eyes widened and she began to back away. "Good heavens, I didn't realise Grundos became so moody when mutated!" she said. "The poor dears—"
Hyren's antennae flattened as he rose to his feet, towering over her. "So you think I'm a brainless chunk of meat you can talk down to, is that it?!" he asked. From around him he heard the nervous murmur of a gathered crowd, but he wasn't of the mind to care. Let them see his anger, he thought. That would teach them to underestimate him.
D-don't hurt me!" the Techo cried, turning and stumbling before taking off in a run.
Fuming, Hyren glowered at the other Neopets. They had similar looks of terror in their eyes as they edged away from the testy mass of muscle. It was the type of fear Hyren relished during his military conquests, he thought as he let the rage swirl within him.
It was also the type of fear he'd seen in Terra's eyes that morning.
The rage broke and he swallowed hard, looking down at his hands. "No…" he breathed, pushing the anger down. He realised that it didn't matter how big or strong he got. Neopets would still stereotype him over one thing or another, and would still say dumb things. And for all the grief he got for being short, suddenly this felt worse. He couldn't wait for the day to be over.
Leaping over the fence surrounding the patio, he took off at a run, trying to escape the scared faces, trying to escape himself. He'd tapped into parts of himself he thought he'd left behind when the Space Faerie turned him blue again. He'd left them behind for a reason.
"Hyren!" he heard Blynn call as he swerved around the corner of a building and took off for the jungle.
"Keep shopping without me!" he choked.
"But—I can't carry all of these bags myself! Awww, crumbs!" Those were the last words he heard from the Zafara as the lush undergrowth swallowed him.
Hyren ran until he reached a secluded beach, and then he spent the next few hours trying to drain the anger from his system. Finally someplace where he couldn't hurt anyone, Hyren lobbed boulders around, punched craters in the sand, and crushed rocks with his bare hands. As the sun dipped toward the horizon he attacked the massive swells, roaring defiance at the towering waves.
Sunset found him exhausted at last. He lay on the beach watching the sky redden. The sun, though hidden from sight by a nearby outcrop of mountain, cast its deep golden light on the ocean, rendering the water a translucent blue-green-grey.
It was time to go home.
Hyren found a Lemwart tree and picked an armful of the fruit for the walk back, hoping Blynn had found someone to help her out. He felt terrible for abandoning her, he thought as he chomped down on a Lemwart, but if he had stayed, it would have been much worse. Now he was just numb. It was better than the anger and the raw pride he'd held that morning, at least. His dream come true had turned into a nightmare, and it was all his fault. What was he good for, if not brute strength?
As he rounded a bend in the shore near their home, he noticed a small, solitary figure sitting in the sand, dyed orange by the setting sun. Hyren's antennae perked. Terra. He'd recognise that tacky Tombola-style shirt anywhere. But what was she doing out here, with her knees curled to her chest and her head buried in her arms—oh no.
He dropped his remaining Lemwarts and rushed to her side. In spite of the workout he'd given himself that afternoon, his Mutant body had rebounded quickly with sustenance. "Terra!" He fell to his knees on the sand beside her. "What happened?!"
She looked up at him, tears coursing down her cheeks, with an expression of abject misery. "He… he told me he doesn't want to be friends anymore," she said shakily. "He says I'm… not what he was expecting. He thinks I'm too weird and… and that I need to grow up. He doesn't want me to Neomail him anymore, either…" With that she collapsed into a fresh bout of sobs. "Why am I such an idiot?!"
Hyren threw his arms around her and held her close. "You are not an idiot," he said. "He is. It's okay. I'm here."
"I'm glad," she hiccoughed, hugging him back.
"You're awesome," Hyren said, "just the way you are. And anybody who doesn't see that because you don't fit their mold is a fool." As the words left his mouth, he realized it was something he needed to hear, too. He gave his owner a squeeze. "People who don't appreciate you don't deserve to be your friends, Terra. I don't think you can even call that a friendship."
"Thanks," Terra said.
They stayed like that as the sun sank below the horizon and the world turned to twilight, and Hyren felt his numbness get filled back up with a soul-satisfying warmth. She needed him, no matter what he looked like or whether or not he could lift their house. This scene would have played out the same even if he was blue and small. He was her family, and no alteration in his form could change that.
He would rather use his rapidly ebbing time as a mutant comforting her than doing anything that he thought would bring him glory or respect. His family was so much more important than that. He had made that decision two years ago, and he was ashamed that today he'd forgotten what he fought so hard for back then.
As the stars began to come out, Hyren asked, "Do I really embarrass you that badly?"
"No," Terra said. The teen wiped her tears on her sleeve and put her glasses back on. "No, I'm sorry. I… didn't mean it like that. I was just really nervous and didn't want to make a bad first impression." She frowned. "But now I wish you had been there, so you could have taught him a lesson or two!" She jabbed at the air with her fists.
Hyren laughed. "Well, next time anybody tries to be a jerk to you, I'll be right there with you to show them why you don't mess with my family!"
"It's a deal!" Terra said. She smiled, and his heart leaped to see her happy again. "Oh… how did shopping with Blynn go?"
One of Hyren's antennae twitched. "Oh. Right. About that," he said. With a grin, he pulled her to her feet and started down the beach with her. "Well, let's just focus on getting home. I'll fix us some dinner, how about that?" It still felt surreal. In less than eight hours he'd be short and blue again. This entire day would just seem like a long dream, fading with time. But he wanted to spend the rest of it with his family.
"Hyren…" Terra glared up at him suspiciously. "Did you leave Blynn to do the shopping herself?"
"So, what do you want for dinner? I'm thinking Honey and Bacon Burgers."
"Ooh, with Fruit Tarts for dessert!"
It was a good day.