Marlene strolled out of the kitchen, a cold can of Neocola in one hand and a somewhat-tattered paperback in the other. The white Zafara had gotten a lazy start to her day, but it was Saturday, a perfectly good reason for any Neopet to slack off just a little. She calmly made her way to the couch in the living room and plopped down, looking pleased as she began to read. Soon enough, she noticed her sister seemed to be running at a different speed than she was.
Her sister Cornelia, a mild-mannered faerie Eyrie, entered the room wielding a feather duster. She looked a bit unkempt, a rare occurrence and most likely the result of some serious cleaning spree. Marlene watched as Cornelia dusted the fireplace's mantle along with the objects perched upon it. She giggled softly at how thorough her sister was being. The small Zafara sat up, closing her book. "Er... Cornelia?"
"Oh, my goodness, Marlene," Cornelia exclaimed as she turned to realize her younger sister had been in the same room all along. "Have you been up for long?"
"Sort of. What're you doing all this cleaning for?"
Cornelia's soft amethyst eyes widened. "It must've slipped my mind to tell you earlier this week," she replied, absent-mindedly twiddling the feathers on her duster. "Elle's coming home later today, so I'm just preparing the house before she does. Remember to tidy up your room a little bit. Yours is probably in much better shape than Chip's, who should be coming home soon. Hopefully." She shook her head at the thought of organizing their brother's disaster of a bedroom.
"Sure thing," Marlene answered with a mock salute before her sister disappeared up the stairs with a vacuum in tow. As she leaned back into a plush pillow and resumed her book, she sighed at her owner's upcoming return. It wasn't that she disliked Elle. In fact, this was far from the case. Elle had a hardworking and pleasant personality that often drew others towards her. She'd managed to put a very nice roof over her pets' heads and had even made a few trips to the Rainbow Pool with each of them to boot. With all this said, Marlene had never been able to become close with Elle, unlike her siblings. Cornelia and Chip were lucky enough to have spent extra time with their owner. It was seemingly unfortunate that Marlene had joined the family the year Elle had begun to take her annual hiatuses. The few months that were summer were never enough time for Marlene to restart warming up to her owner.
An hour had passed when Marlene noticed a stray ball of dust clinging to her pallid coat. She started to pick at it, maintaining her still-troubled expression. The news about Elle had led her mind away from her book and now she could hardly concentrate. She heard the front door swing open and she craned her neck to peer over the couch. Her brother Chip had come home with numerous bags of groceries hanging at his wrists. He hip-checked the door to close it as he shifted one bag to another paw.
"Mar!" the island Lupe exclaimed, nodding at his sister. "Help me with these, will you?"
Marlene took half of the bags her brother had lugged into the house and followed him into the kitchen. She began to distribute the contents into the cupboards and refrigerator after they'd set the grocery bags on the counter. Chip grunted as he hoisted several large boxes of Asteroid Crunch into the pantry. Marlene winced at the unreasonable amount of unopened cereal boxes that still took up room upon the shelves.
"So," the Lupe said, wiping his paws with a washcloth before playfully mussing his sister's head. "I take it Cornelia's still straightening out the house?"
Marlene scowled and recoiled out of his reach. "She should be finished by now, though she did have to clean up for you," she replied, giving him a lighthearted whack with a paper towel tube in retaliation. She defiantly brushed a few tufts of fur from her face.
"Guess it's my lucky day," Chip laughed. His jaunty grin only widened as Cornelia emerged from upstairs. "Thanks, Corny, you're the tops."
Cornelia let out a little exasperated huff at the nickname. "Anything for you, dearest brother," she groaned.
The melodic ring of the doorbell suddenly interrupted the siblings' banter. "That's probably Elle," Cornelia gasped, making her way to the door with Chip, who was also evidently excited. "She's early."
Elle stepped inside with a warm smile, removing her sunglasses as she was met with the embrace of her two oldest pets. "Hey, you guys," she chirped, letting her arms fall away from Chip and Cornelia's impromptu group-hug. Marlene watched from a distance, taking note that her owner had dyed her deep-brown hair to a redder tint in her absence. Elle met Marlene's gaze and nodded, smile still intact. "Marlene! How've you been?"
The Zafara was momentarily caught off guard when she was addressed. "Oh, um, hi, Elle," she said, looking up feebly. "Pretty well." She gestured towards the staircase. "I promised Cornelia I'd clean my room, so I'll take care of that now."
"Ah... Alright," Elle responded as her eyes followed Marlene, who had already begun to return to her room. She looked pensive for a moment before turning back to her other pets to do some catching up.
The next day, the trio of pets had planned a day outing to Kiko Lake so that the house would be free for Elle, who would be hosting a luncheon for her friends. The brightness of the midday sunlight seemed to be a promising indicator that a boat tour on the lake would be perfect.
"You've got some extra sunscreen on you there," Cornelia noted, gently brushing her sister's nose with a talon.
"Oops, thank you," Marlene said, rubbing her nose with the back of her hand to even out the chalky white lotion.
The two were following Chip, who had apparently taken the responsibility of leading them to Kiko Lake, even though they'd all gone on enough trips to know the way blindfolded in a snowstorm. "Keep up the pace, you two," he shouted obnoxiously. "It'd be great if we could get there before they release an Elderly paintbrush for Lupes!"
"How about keeping it down, Chip?" Cornelia cried, throwing apologetic glances at passersby.
"Oh, hold on. I think I forgot to feed Tempo this morning," Marlene muttered as she stopped in her tracks and thought of her Biyako petpet.
Cornelia tilted her head a bit. "Hmm, shall we go back? I'd hate to see Tempo get sick again."
"Chip will be absolutely unbearable if we drag him back to the house because of me. I'll just run back and meet up with you guys at the lake later."
With that, Marlene raced back home on her own. Unlocking the door, she scurried into the foyer of the house and quietly made her way up to her room. She could hear Elle and her friends in a neighboring room, along with the occasional hushed clatter of glasses and utensils.
"Tempo? Oh, there you are," Marlene said, kneeling down to examine the space underneath her bed. Her Biyako made a persistent noise as it came out from its hiding spot and affectionately bumped its head into her leg. Marlene filled a bowl with food before leaving her room with a small wave in goodbye to Tempo. Marlene noiselessly closed the door and began to descend the stairs, hoping her siblings hadn't made it too far along without her, when she overheard the conversation happening between Elle and her company.
"...Spending a lot of time with your pets lately?" This voice belonged to one of Elle's friends. This question somehow piqued Marlene's interest and she huddled down behind the stair banister. She couldn't help but shake her head at herself for eavesdropping. However, she stayed put to listen to her owner's answer.
"I'm planning to," Elle was heard saying, cheerily. "Cornelia and Chip have been more than welcoming since I came back."
"And the other one? Marlene, was it? Pardon my curiosity, but she doesn't seem to come up a lot." Marlene bit her lip, a little stung by that last comment. Though it was true, she didn't want anyone to think Elle was a neglecting owner. She could then hear a small clang that she presumed was Elle setting down her glass.
Elle took a moment to respond. "Well, I guess you could say I never got off on the right foot with Marlene," she began, moving around a piece of lettuce on her plate with a fork. She then explained creating Marlene right before she'd begun to spend less time in Neopia. "I really do feel guilty about not being able to spend as much time with her as I did with her siblings." She let out a quiet, feeble laugh. "I suppose she's in her right mind to not want anything to do with me."
Marlene felt gutted after hearing this. She'd never intended for Elle to mistake her shyness for resentment. The despondent Zafara slunk back into her room as her owner's afternoon gathering carried on.
An hour later, Elle eventually brought her get-together to a close and exchanged pleasantries with her friends as they filed out of the house. Elle released a sigh and dusted her hands, taking a look around her. I wonder if anyone fed Tempo this morning, she thought as she began to climb up the stairs. They were in a rush this morning to get to the lake.
She eased open the ajar door of Marlene's bedroom. Elle then noticed two things: Tempo's dish still had a few remaining pieces of food and a blanket-covered, Marlene-shaped lump had occupied the bed.
"Marlene?" Elle slowly took a seat at the edge of the bed, rather unsure of what to do. "Shouldn't you be at Kiko Lake with Cornelia and Chip right now?"
Marlene pulled down her covers a few inches and peeked back up at the girl. She hesitantly sat up and curled up against the headboard. "You shouldn't feel guilty," she blurted, looking down bashfully as words started to tumble out of her mouth. "You had to be gone to take care of a bunch of things. Besides, I should've mustered some more courage to approach you the past summers."
Elle was so surprised by Marlene's sudden statement that, for a moment, she was stunned speechless. She smiled diffidently and pulled Marlene in for a hug. "It makes me so happy to hear you say that," Elle managed to pronounce. "But I should've taken the initiative to get to know you... Or maybe I should've just waited until later to take my hiatuses altogether. I'm sorry, Marlene." Her Zafara began to protest, but she shook her head firmly. "I've owed you this apology for a long time and I'd just like you to finally hear it."
Elle straightened up and met Marlene's gaze evenly. "How about we start over?"
Marlene's eyes brightened. "I'd like that a lot, Elle."
"Alright, it's settled," Elle declared, taking Marlene's paw in her hand. "We'll spend the day at Roo Island tomorrow, just the two of us!" She grinned. "But we should probably meet up with your brother and sister before they begin to worry too much."
The duo hurried out of the abode as the sun shined on above them. Things would soon change for the better between the pet and owner as they partook in some long overdue conversation the rest of the way to Kiko Lake.