She knew it was wrong of her, but she couldn't stop herself from staring at every Green Uni that passed.
"Jules! You're staring again!" her brother hissed, tugging on her tail and glancing nervously around, as though worried that someone else would see his sister's rude actions. Jules tore her eyes away from the Uni she saw at the other end of the store and looked innocently around the store, pretending that she hadn't been staring. "Jeez, I knew I shouldn't have told you about those people," her brother muttered, pawing the ground and scowling a little.
"Well, I'm sorry, Pacer, but it just kind of creeps me out, okay?" Jules hissed back, her eyes sliding back to the Uni, who exited the store. "It's just – it's weird, okay?"
"I don't know what you're thinking," Pacer muttered, turning down one aisle and inspecting the shelves idly. "You're exactly the same as them."
"I am not!" Jules cried out shrilly, glaring at her brother furiously. The store fell quiet as everyone in the store looked her way, and she blushed furiously, ducking into the aisle after her brother to avoid the stares of the other customers.
"Shut up, Pacer!"
"What?" he snapped, staring at her for a long moment. "Seriously, take a look in the mirror, Jules. You're a Uni and you're Green. That makes you a Green Uni. Just because there are some people out there with too much time and a few extra Morphing Potions on their hands doesn't mean you need to freak out every time you see another Green Uni." The Kougra rolled his eyes and picked something off the shelves, strolling back down the aisle. "I'm going to find Dad. You better hurry up and pick what you want for dessert before everything's gone." With that, he sauntered away.
Jules sighed and hung her head for a moment. Well, it's not my fault, she thought rebelliously before picking a cookie and going to the front of the store to join the rest of her family.
"-And really, she's just taking it way too seriously-"
"Pacer, don't say that to Dad like it's all my fault!"
Maxwell sighed and turned to pay for their desserts, shelling out some neopoints before herding the two out of the shop. "Come on, you two, stop arguing about it."
They ate their desserts as they walked, Pacer giving an animated reenactment of their conversation in the store. Jules staunchly ignored him for all she was worth, but she still flushed again when he described exactly how she had silenced the whole store. When Maxwell actually chuckled at Pacer's imitation of Jules, she hid her face behind a wing until Maxwell apologised.
Jules finished her dessert sullenly and walked alongside her owner and her brother as they made their way back home. She tuned out Pacer's mocking and Maxwell's cajoling, content to ruminate silently, until-
"It was so scary! Mom lost the key to the house, and someone found it and just waltzed inside and put my brother in the pound! Someone else found him and adopted him before Mom could get back, but she went and contacted them right away. We're so lucky – the person who found him is really nice, so he's coming back to us tomorrow, but we were so afraid that he was going to be gupped-"
Jules stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes widening as the pair of chatting pets walked out of earshot. Gupped. GUP. Green Uni Project. Maxwell stopped a moment later, looking back in confusion. "Jules? What is it?"
She quivered slightly before dashing up to his side and burying her head under his arm. "Dad! I don't want to be gupped!"
Both of them stared at her for a moment, and then Pacer laughed uproariously, clawing at the ground in his mirth. "Jules, that's – that's ridiculous! You can't be gupped if you're already a Green Uni!"
"Pacer, be a bit more considerate," Maxwell said disapprovingly before turning his attention back to the Uni. "You don't need to worry about that, Jules, you know I would never gup you even if you weren't a Green Uni, and you're never going to wind up with a gupper, either."
"That's not what I mean," Jules sniffed, looking to the side petulantly and scraping a hoof against the ground. "I don't want people to think that I was gupped."
Maxwell didn't respond, and Pacer even stopped laughing at that remark. Jules looked up anxiously, waiting for comforting words, a reply, anything. When the seconds stretched on, though, she sighed a little and turned away. "I'm going to Kiko Lake again."
Maxwell looked like he was going to argue, but clearly decided against it. "Alright, then. Be careful, and make sure you're back in time for dinner." He patted her gently before turning away and beckoning a little to her brother. "Come on, Pacer," he said to the Kougra, "let's give your sister a bit of alone time."
Jules stayed where she was until her family was out of sight. Then, with another sigh, she turned and trudged on towards Kiko Lake. It wouldn't be the first time she had gone there; it was a good place to think with her bratty brother annoying her or her owner asking if anything was wrong. And that was all she wanted – a little time to think.
It didn't take long to get to Kiko Lake, and once there, Jules plopped down in the warm sand near the shore and stared pensively at the water. It was sparkling and clear, and she could just see some of the houses at the bottom of the lake. Lost in her thoughts, she didn't notice that someone was sitting next to her until a friendly voice said right in her ear, "From the expression on your face, it looks like you're one of the unlucky ones."
Jules yelped in surprise and fell gracelessly onto her side, staring blankly at the pet who had seemingly appeared right next to her. She opened her mouth to say something, but blinked and did a double-take. Of course, not even noticing that someone else was sitting beside you was strange enough, but what really struck her dumb was that the newcomer was a Green Uni.
"I'm sorry, did I surprise you?" The other Uni laughed lightly, shaking his head slightly. "Sorry, sorry, didn't mean to. You probably want to sit up again," he added helpfully. "You don't want to get sand in your feathers; it takes hours to get it all out again. Come with me for a while?"
Even though it sounded like a question, Jules couldn't bring herself to refuse. She blinked once or twice, but stood up anyways and gave her wings a ruffle.
"You'll come with? That's good. I'm Dare, full name Darian – only one letter off from Darigan!" He winked cheekily before continuing in the same jovial voice, "Well, come with me. What's your name?"
"Uh – Juliana. But I go by Jules." She was far too confused to do anything but answer his question and follow him.
"Jules, eh? Well, come along. You look like someone who needs us."
She couldn't help but stare at the other Uni, even as they walked along. He strutted like he thought everyone should be watching him and tossed his mane dramatically with each step. After a minute or two, he caught her staring and winked again, letting his mane settle in front of his eyes and picking up his hooves a bit more in a fanciful prance. "I know, I know," he said loftily, "I do make an enchanting and absolutely stunning Green Uni, but there's no need to stare and remind me – I do know just how gorgeous I am."
This time, Jules was too stunned to even blush. Still, she tore her eyes away and stared at the ground as they walked along, telling herself the same thing over and over again.
Don't think about GUP.
Still, it was a rather hard thing to do when she couldn't look anywhere without being reminded of the fact that they were both Green Unis, and it was enough to get her started on the cycle again. And was it her imagination, or had that pet over there looked at them for a second or two longer than necessary?
She shook her head sternly to herself, trying to snap herself out of that circle of thought. "Let's pick up the pace a little, shall we?" Dare said genially, speeding up a little into a trot. "We're going to be late if we don't hurry."
Jules quickened as well, keeping pace with the other pet. She was still far too confused to do anything but go along with him, but more than curious enough to ask a few questions along the way. "Where are we going?"
"Oh, you'll see," he replied, a mischievous glint in his eyes. "You'll see."
And she could get no more out of him.
After another ten minutes or so (during which Jules alternately asked more questions and sulked about not receiving any answers), Dare suddenly stopped and turned towards the trees in the distance, and Jules stopped mid-step, her eyes wide. "That – that's the Haunted Woods!"
"Oh, don't worry about it," Dare said breezily, without a hitch in his step. "We aren't actually going into the Woods, we're just going near it. We just don't want people to follow us, is all."
Jules hesitantly resumed following him, though she grew nervous when they passed a few outlying trees. She glanced about warily, looking from side to side uneasily, until Dare called out, "Hello, everyone, sorry we're late!"
Jules looked before her, startled by his sudden greeting, and actually took a step back, shocked into silence. There in front of her sat a good dozen Neopets at least, arranged in a circle on the grass and turning to greet Dare – and every one of them was a Green Uni, down to the last. She took another step back, staring with wide eyes at all of them, unable to fully comprehend just what was going on.
"Sorry, sorry," Dare was saying, smiling playfully. "I actually have a reason for being late this time. Come on, now, Jules."
Despite herself, Jules inched forward until she was just next to Dare. "I picked up a tagalong. This is Jules, and she'll be joining us today."
A chorus of hellos greeted his words, and Jules hesitantly glanced at some of the Unis. Some of them lay very comfortably on the grass, looking quite at ease with themselves; others looked vaguely unsettled, disgruntled, or downright miserable. Dane herded Jules over to lie down between two of the happier-looking Unis and gracefully sat down beside her, looking rather pleased with himself. Jules took a deep breath. Calm down, Jules, she told herself. Calm down; they're not all gupped. It's just a coincidence. They're not gupped.
"Well, now that Dare is here..." The Uni on her right sat up a bit straighter, looking around the circle in a dignified manner as she spoke. "This week's meeting of the Organisation of Gupped Neopets, Neopia Central Division, will now begin."
Jules's eyes widened.
"Well, let's do a round of introductions, shall we? Make the newcomer feel a bit more comfortable and welcome?" She paused, then looked at Jules. "My name is Iolanthe, and I founded this Organisation with my owner. I was one of the first Neopets gupped in this region of Neopia. I was previously a Faerie Pteri." Jules gaped, but Iolanthe continued on without pause, "A friend was supposed to take care of me while my owner was out of town. I know you're not supposed to do that – that's what the Neolodge is for – but my owner thought it would be better for me to stay with a friend."
She shook her head with a sigh. "Well, someone else found me first, and I was back in the pound only a couple minutes later, but a Green Uni instead. My old owner never re-adopted me."
She smiled gently at Jules, finishing softly, "But I have long since accepted and come to love being a Uni, and not all stories are like mine." She inclined her head to the Uni on the other side of her. "Maverick? If you please?"
When the second Uni told his tale, Jules could hardly believe it. He had an Electric Jetsam stuck with a terrible owner who had paid little attention to him. He had found himself in the pound more than once until one person adopted him, gave him the Morphing Potion, and abandoned him, all before the GUP was put on public display – and the next person to adopt him had kept him since.
"It was the first time that someone had wanted me for more than my rarity," he finished, looking rather content. "My life is far better now that it had ever been before. I'm grateful that I was gupped – if I hadn't I would probably still be passed around as a trophy."
They continued going around the circle, making brief introductions and telling the story of each individual transformation into a Green Uni. Some had terrible stories – one young Uni broke down crying as she told how her owner had illegally given her to a stranger in exchange for a Royal Paint Brush for her twin before she had been morphed and re-pounded. Some, though, were positively uplifting.
"I mean, take me, for example," Dare said confidently, his expression dazzlingly pleased. "I was a Maraquan Draik, and my owner earned every last neopoint to make me that way. But no-one ever saw me for who I was, then there was all this fuss about GUP.... And so my owner and I thought about it for a long time, and we decided that it didn't matter what I was, it mattered who I was. And first and foremost, I'm a Neopet, and what I am on the outside doesn't matter. And now that I'm 'regular' again, people don't just see the Maraquan Draik, they see everything else about me – the things that are really me."
Jules stared around at all of the Neopets, taken aback by everything she had heard. She hadn't quite gathered herself enough to respond, though, when Iolanthe began speaking again.
"So you see? The point of all of this is to show that gupping isn't right for everyone, but it's not absolutely wrong, either." She sighed once before continuing seriously, "There's all this fuss about GUP, and not many people seem to understand that it depends on the pet and the situation, not the owner or the Potion or even the colour and species of the pet." She looked at Jules for a moment, then asked gently, "So, Jules, what is your story?"
Jules blinked, drawing back slightly. For a long moment, she didn't know where to begin. Finally, though, she simply blurted out, "No, you – you're wrong. I'm not like all of you!"
All of the Unis stared at her, and for some reason, she felt shamed before them. Still, she continued hotly, "I'm not like any of you! I'm not – I'm not gupped like all of you were. I was born this way, and I've never been any different. I'm really a Green Uni!"
For a long moment, no-one said anything, and Jules was torn between standing proudly before all of these gupped Neopets and crawling into a hole to hide from them. After what seemed like an eternity – though it couldn't have been more than a few seconds – Dare questioned, "And the rest of us aren't 'really' Green Unis?"
Jules couldn't respond. She wanted to object to the meaning behind his words, to explain what she meant, but somehow she simply couldn't – because he was right. Silence reigned again, and finally Jules managed to splutter out something that resembled an apology. She fidgeted uncomfortably beneath all those stares, unable to meet any of those gazes, until Dare chuckled.
She glanced at him from the side, slightly confused. The small part of her that wasn't embarrassed was relieved that he wasn't insulted by what she'd said.
Dare was quiet for a moment, but then he said, "It's all right. The point is that – whether we like it or not – all of us are Green Unis now, just like you. But whether it was for better or for worse, what we are on the outside doesn't matter. A lot of people don't understand that you can't just classify GUP as either good or bad. Things don't work that way – it's good for some pets and bad for others. But then again, most people don't understand that it shouldn't matter whether or not they give their pets a Green Uni Morphing Potion. In the end, we're all Neopets, no matter what we've been in the past." He smiled gently, ruffling his wings as he spoke. "And that's why the Organisation of Gupped Neopets even exists – to show other gupped pets that it's not always the same situation and to understand that it can be good for some pets and bad for others, and to show everyone else that we're no different from them. And no matter what you are or how you became that way, there's no shame in being a Neopet – even if you've been gupped." He paused, looking at her with his head tilted slightly to the side. "Do you at least kind of understand what I'm getting at here?"
Jules nodded, sensing that there was still something about the whole situation that she didn't quite understand, but somehow, it was okay, because she would someday. "I – I think it's about time for me to get home," she finally said quietly, slowly standing up and shaking out her wings. "I need to be home in time for dinner, and... I've got some things to think about now. Thank you for having me," she added politely before turning and starting to walk away. After only a couple of steps, though, she paused and glanced back over her shoulder at Dare. "Maybe I'll see you around again?"
He smiled lazily, as though he had expected her to say it. "Of course," he replied, nodding in her direction until the sun glanced off his horn, making it gleam. She had a sneaking suspicion that it was deliberate – he certainly had a flair for the dramatic, probably from the days when he had been a rare pet in the centre of attention. After all, some things didn't change, no matter what one looked like. She gave him a slight smile, and he gave her a bright grin in return.
It took her longer to get back to her home on the outskirts of Neopia Central than she had thought it would, and she barely made it in time for dinner. When she came in the door, Pacer looked up from his book and yelled, "Dad! Jules is back!"
Maxwell came into the room from the kitchen. "You're just in time, Jules," he said warmly. "So, anything exciting happen on your little outing?"
Jules blinked, then said the first thing that came to mind: "I got mistaken for a gupped pet."
After all, that's what had happened, right?
Maxwell blinked in turn, clearly nonplussed by her rather offhand statement. "Really? I'm sorry, Jules, I shouldn't have let you go like that...." He looked rather worried for a few moments, and even Pacer perked up in interest, though he was pretending to ignore her and read his book. "I hope it wasn't too bad...."
Jules couldn't stop herself from smiling at that remark. She thought of the Organisation, and all those rare pets turned into common Green Unis, and Dare, and smiled. She almost tried describing it all to her family, but realised that there was simply no way she could explain what had happened.
"Don't worry so much, Dad," she said breezily, her smile widening. "It's not like it's the end of the world or anything. I mean, even if they're gupped, they're Neopets too, right? There's no shame in that."
No, it wasn't the end of the world, she mused, amused by the confused expression on Maxwell's face and the way Pacer dropped his book at her words. She pranced into the kitchen with a confidence that would have made Dare proud and tossed her mane with a grin. No, it certainly wasn't the end of the world – not for her, and not for any of them, either.