Pulling the Cork
The Marketplace was as it was every day: filled with the happy chatter of busy Neopets and their owners buying, browsing and selling. The sun shined brightly overhead, and the Buzzers and Beekadoodles hummed around the trees as eager pets made their way to the Soup Kitchen or the Shop Wizard. Everything was peaceful, content and, for the most part, normal.
Then an irritated voice rang out from the entrance to the Marketplace.
"Remember, Zelda, we're looking for a LIGHT Faerie this time. If you bring home another Fire Faerie, I might just go crazy!"
A blond-haired human came strutting from under the archway. Onlookers must have noticed how fashionable she was, the flashy woman dressed in sequins and poppy-pink silk; they probably missed the drab, dirty red Lupe wearing a frumpy potato sack behind her, struggling to keep up with her high-heeled stride.
"I know, Mother, I know," she uttered, straightening her bargain (more like garbage) bin clothes as they walked down the cobblestone street.
"I swear, Zelda," her owner said with a contemptuous tone, "sometimes I just don't understand how you can be so silly. I mean, how can you not tell the difference between orange-red and orange-yellow? It's not that hard. Your brother probably could've gotten it right the first try!"
The Lupe girl rolled her eyes. She hated being treated like she was an incompetent little servant. So she picked out the wrong Faerie bottle one time – ONE time – does that make her that much more of a loser? Puzzelda_553 thought not.
"Then why didn't you just get Seph to do this?" she asked bitingly, against her better instincts. "Or Melly or June, for that matter?" Her owner spun around, her blue eyes shooting daggers.
"They have more important things to do than run errands!" she snapped.
"Like the Mystery Island Training School?" Zelda guessed. "For Altador's sake, Mother, they're all over level one-hundred. Why do they still need training?" A hand connected with the back of the Lupe's head. "Ouch!"
"What did I say about taking back?" her owner scolded. "Altador, this is why I despise new pets – they're so... immature and rebellious! Disgusting! I knew I should've adopted and gotten a more disciplined one, but, no! I had to try something new and make one. What a mistake that was!"
Zelda did not flinch or start crying like she used to do a few months ago. She was used to this kind of treatment by now. She just accepted that her owner thought she was a piece of bent metal that needed to be beaten into shape, like her spoiled half-siblings. She often wondered if they had been different before coming into their owner's hands. If they had been free-thinking, curious, and (dare she say) rebellious, like her.
Her owner uttered a happy noise and grabbed Zelda's arm, halting her. Glancing up, she saw that the woman was eyeing a shop that seemed to be filled with everything Neopia had that was pink.
"Oooooh, such beautiful hats!" she sighed, her eyes sparkling. Then, as she tilted her head to admire the pink shop's wares from another angle, she must have spotted Zelda because she shook her head and looked down at the Lupe. Her giddy smile turned back into a condescending sneer.
"Zelda," she said, "I have some things to do, so – ugh, I can't believe I'm doing this after last time – you have to go and get that Faerie bottle." She was letting go of Zelda's arm just to grab it again and pull the Lupe close to her face. "Just remember that if you get the wrong Faerie again, you're buying yourself a one-way ticket to the Pound! Understood?"
Her pet glared back at her, but she held her tongue and nodded. With that, the blond woman turned sharply on her expensive-looking heels and swaggered off into the everything-pink shop, leaving Zelda behind.
I almost wish I was in the Pound, she thought bitterly.
The Lupe looked around. There must have been hundreds – if not thousands! – of shops to choose from. She had no idea where to start! Checking her pockets and feeling only enough to purchase one bottled Faerie (how convenient for her owner, she thought bitterly), she figured that she ought to start at the cheapest shops and go from there. Sighing, she shoved her paws in her hand-stitched pockets and started the long walk.
As she meandered by the colorful shop fronts, glancing enviously at the happy faces of the hagglers, Zelda thought about how much she hated her own life. From the day she had been created, it had never been a good one. She had woken up literally to that sneering face surrounded by a mass of blond hair. She was then dragged into a bright pink Neohome, where she was ignored by her new, well-groomed brother, Sephron7759, and sisters, Melancholygirl4_01 and PrettyJuneBug33, and then made a little housemaid by her spiteful owner. Her room was nothing but a grey floor, a grey ceiling, four grey walls, and a grey mattress, and it was probably going to stay that way because she only received money when she had to go buy something for her greedy owner.
Being a new pet instead of an adopted one, she had no "prior discipline," as her owner had put it, so she immediately grew not to selflessly obey her family but to secretly despise them. She knew that she had not been created to be bossed around like a butler, and she would have loved to voice her opinions about it. But, not wishing to push her family too far and end up stuck to suffer in the Pound, Zelda learned to keep her mouth shut and just go with her owner's ignorance.
Living with these people and never releasing her distaste, however, was not easy. Often Zelda bottled up so much rage that she gave herself headaches and had to stay in bed for the rest of the day. She often wondered if she was growing an ulcer in her stomach.
So she would instead take her frustration out on inanimate objects. She liked to rip flowers out of her owner's prize rose garden or tear up her siblings' plushies (though she would inevitably get punished anyway). When she could not (passively) harm her family's possessions, she turned her rage to something more reactive.
She hated the little Faeries because they reminded her of her owner: pretty, pompous and greedy. They always asked for silly favors in exchange for power. Looking at her siblings and the power her owner had been stuffing into them with all their training and blessings, she found it disgusting and wasteful. What did Neopets ever do with that power? Either nothing or something terrible. Faeries get their favors and the last laugh every time. Just like her wicked owner.
At night, she would sneak out into the neighboring forest to look for Faeries, and, once she found them dancing in their little Faerie circles, she would toss rocks at them or stomp their circles into the dust. Once they flew away in terror, she would sit in the destroyed circle and cry, hating her life, her owner and the Faeries.
Zelda wiped a tear off her cheek and continued to look for a shop with Faeries, hoping maybe to break the bottle against a tree later. It would serve them right, she thought. All of them.
As she passed the Shop Wizard's hut – panting from the great distance she had walked, in bare feet, no less (thanks, Mother, she thought) – someone rushed roughly past her. She stumbled, putting a hand against the pointed-hat-shaped hut to stop herself from falling.
"Jerk!" she called, seeing a figure in a dark grey robe rush away. What was that glinting in its arms? Squinting, Zelda thought that they looked like a bunch of Faerie bottles. She scowled. "Greedy, pompous jerk," she added to herself, straightening up. She imagined that Neopet opening all those bottles, hoping for an abundance of magical power, only to have maybe two of them would work while the others fly away, and, when he did get blessed, he only would get the most minimal power, and the Faeries would cackle at him and flutter away like annoying little Moquots. Disgusting, she thought and continued to look for shops.
After what seemed like an eternity of walking up aisle after aisle of storefronts, Zelda finally saw the glimmering of Faerie bottles on a shelf behind a little stand. She walked over to it, and a Korbat woman in a berry splattered apron inside turned to her, smiling.
"May I help ya, darlin'?" she asked with a cute drawl.
Zelda, uninterested in making friends, said, "I'm looking for a bottled Light Faerie." The woman nodded.
"I do believe I have one right here, shu-ga," she said, turning around. Zelda reached into her pocket for her money. "Lemme just-"
Her hand was reaching towards the shelves when it froze, fingers hanging inches from the now empty shelves. Zelda was just as surprised as the Korbat was. She could have sworn that she just saw at least two shelves full of shining bottles. Now there was nothing! The Korbat woman started to panic.
"W-where are all ma Faeries?" she asked, checking the ground and around other shelves littered with miscellaneous merchandise. "Thay were just here. Where did thay all go?"
Zelda was about to ask if this meant that she could not buy any Faeries when she heard cries behind her. Turning sharply, she saw Neopets and humans running about in a panic. Some were scurrying around in their shops as if looking for something. Others were collapsing on the ground in tears. Curious, the Lupe girl walked over to the frantic citizens, hoping to find out what was going on.
In front of one small shop, a brunette human girl was sobbing on the ground while her Cybunny was trying to comfort her. Zelda walked over to them, trying to not bump into any hysterical Neopets on the way.
"What's going on?" she asked them.
The weeping human looked up at her with big, shining eyes. "T-t-they're gone!" she said, wiping her nose. "T-they're all g-gone!" She collapsed against the Cybunny, who was much more in control than her owner.
"Someone snuck in our shop," she explained, "and stole all our bottled Faeries!"
Zelda's eyes widened. Two shops had missing Faeries? She looked around, her simple notice turning into full-blown curiosity. By the hysteria around her, she realized that many others had also been robbed. The Lupe was appalled. Who would do such a thing? And why? Well, power and greed were obvious reasons, she mused, but why steal so many at once?
"Stop!" a voice cried out. "Thief!"
Zelda turned her head just to see the hooded figure who had bumped into her earlier running her way. She jumped out of his way before he could collide with her, but not before seeing all the Faerie bottles in his arms! A slightly overweight Grarrl man came stampeding after him, slowing down by the time he reached Zelda. There, he stopped and put his hands on his knees, struggling to catch his breath. He glanced up at a startled Zelda and pointed ahead with a shaky hand.
"Thief," he repeated between gasps. "Stole... my... Faeries. Must... stop... whew..."
A flare of rage went up in Zelda's heart. Stealing so many bottled Faeries like this... how could anyone be so greedy? It was just like her silly owner and her need to have the best of everything.
Well, she would show this guy what for. Growling, she pursued the figure in robe as he ran through the chaos towards the archway exit of the Marketplace.
She hesitated for only a second at the exit, glancing back at the pink shop which her owner was still pirouetting through like a giddy schoolgirl. She would be extra mad if she found out that Zelda had left the Marketplace without her – mad enough to make the Lupe sleep out in the yard again probably. Would it really be a good idea to just leave? When she saw her owner swipe a colourful cherry blossom necklace from a baby Scorchio girl and put it around her own neck, she decided that, yes, it was definitely a good idea and continued chasing after the thief.
She chased him through the Neopian Bazaar. Her legs started to hurt, but her adrenaline was rushing, keeping her going with ideas of what to do when she got this greedy little punk. She could break those bottles over his inflated little head, or she could rub Faerie dust into his hair until it turned pink and blue! She smiled to herself at the thoughts of such punishment – punishments, she would later realize, she had wanted to do more to her hateful owner.
The robed figure ran into the woods bordering Neopia Central. Inside, the trees were not as dark as those of the infamous Haunted Woods, but they were not exactly filled with sunshine either, and Zelda almost lost her target a few times amid the dense foliage. Her waning energy did not help her either. She wondered how this guy could keep running so ceaselessly, and in so many different directions, especially after robbing a dozen stores in about ten minutes! Maybe those Faeries were helping him. She sneered at the thought. Faeries aiding their captor – how ridiculous!
Legs tingling, the Lupe girl had to stop, leaning against a tree to take several deep breaths. When she looked up again, she realized that she had lost the thief. Spitting a variety of cusses, she ran in the direction she had last seen him, unable to find tracks or evidence of his whereabouts. Where did he go, she wondered as she looked through branches and bushes. He could not have just disappeared... could he?
Then she heard quiet mumbling. Stopping, she glanced around and saw a faint glow through the tree trunks. Stepping as quietly as she could, she made her way to the light until she saw a tiny clearing. She saw a Faerie circle, lined with mushrooms and flowers, with little Faeries flitting brightly around it. In the center of the circle was the thief, placing about six or seven bottles on the ground.
Zelda glared at him and was about to pounce when she saw two other figures in robes step forward into the circle, both also carrying bottles of Faeries. Where had they come from? As she thought about it, Zelda noticed how they all looked the same in their matching dark gray robes. It hit her. She thought that she was chasing one person, when in fact she was chasing three at different times. No wonder this guy never ran out of energy, she thought.
The two other figures sat with their partner and placed their bottles with his. Then they all took one out of the glowing pile and held it up. Each placed a paw on the corks and pulled them out at the same time. The glows from inside slipped out of the opened bottles and turned into little Faeries, flying around with their friends over the robed figures' heads. One of the figures giggled childishly.
Zelda, not wanting to let these greedy freaks get away with stealing magic for their own gain, finally jumped from her hiding spot and attacked the first thief! The startled Faeries bolted while she wrestled the figure to the ground, holding his wrist down with one hand. She grabbed one of the straggling Faeries from midair and sat on the figure's chest, ready to turn his hair into cotton candy. The other two figures tried to get her off of him, wrapping their arms around hers and pulling. She fought hard, not wanting to let them get away with this. She promised through gritted teeth to stop them, shaking the shrieking Faerie in her fist. They would pay for this! They would-
"Zelda, stop it!" the figures said. "Please, Zelda, stop!"
She did stop, her hateful grimace freezing for a millisecond before relaxing into a surprised O. She looked down at the figure she was sitting on. His hood had fallen away, and she finally saw his face. He was a gold Gelert with handsomely-combed black hair that had (*cough* more than *cough*) a smidgeon too much mousse in it as well as shiny gold eyes and even a gold tooth. Zelda was so gob-smacked that she did not even realize that she let go of the Faerie, which chattered unintelligible obscenities at her before rushing to join its friends.
"Seph?" she uttered, getting up off her older brother. "What the-" She turned sharply and looked at the others. They had pulled back their hoods. One was a pink Aisha with giant curls that glittered like spun gold on her head. The other was a silver Usul wearing a gaudy pink wig filled with little curls. "Melly? June?"
The Lupe's siblings looked at each other guiltily, lowering their heads. Zelda was utterly stunned, to say the least. The thieves were her siblings – her goody-two-shoes, prim-and-proper, always-listen-to-mummy siblings? So many questions ran through her mind. What were they doing here? Why were they not at the Training School? Did their owner know about this? Why were they stealing Faeries?
All she could manage to ask was, "W-what's going on?"
No one answered at first, but then her Aisha sister lifted her head, biting her lip. "We... we were stealing bottled Faeries," she said in a high-pitched, timid voice.
"Well, yeah, I can see that," Zelda said, a little sharpness in her voice. "But why are you doing it?" About a million different reasons circled in her mind. "Is it 'cause you want all the Faeries' power? That's it, isn't it? You want all the power and wealth and stuff you can get your hands on. Just like Mother! You're all just like her!"
"What?" her brother exclaimed, looking confused. "Zelda, we-"
"All the world cares about is having more, more, more!" she went on unrelentingly, her eyes filling with tears. "Everyone wants something for nothing, taking from the weaker and the poorer. That's all you do – you, and humans, and Faeries, and everyone! I hate it all. I'm tired of it all. I wish I wasn't in this dumb family with all these selfish, greedy people and- and-"
"We're tired, too, Zelda," her Usul sister said.
She paused, tears falling down her face, and looked at June. "Huh?"
"I said, we're tired of it, too, Zelda," she repeated. "We hate being treated like our owner's dolls."
"It's true," Seph said. "We don't want to be dressed up and pampered and all that nonsense. We just want to be a family – you know, have fun and play games and eat omelettes and jellies until we puke. But, Mother..." She glanced at his robed sisters.
"She sees family as something you should cover with diamonds and glitter," Melly said sadly. Seph and June nodded in agreement. "So we made a pact today to not get any stronger through training or Faerie magic. We didn't go to the training school today, secretly getting our codestones refunded, and we went the Marketplace to steal bottled Faeries and release them back into the world. We didn't want them to be trapped and used like we are."
Zelda stared at them incredulously. They resented their owner's greediness, too? They went against her in ways she never even imagined? It was impossible; she had lived with them for months and never saw any indication that they hated their lifestyle.
She told them so. "You always went along with Mother's demands to be strong and pretty and powerful. I never heard any of you speak out against her."
"Because," June said quietly, "we didn't want to upset her. Despite her personality, she's still our owner, and we love her."
Zelda sneered. "Well, I don't," she said bitterly, crossing her arms. "She's always mean to me, and she never pampers me or loves me."
"She never did to us, either," Melly pointed out, "not for a long time."
Zelda started. "Really?"
The Aisha nodded. "We thought that she hated us, too," she explained, "but it turned out that she was just keeping her distance, afraid that we wouldn't accept her."
The Lupe stared at her sister. "Accept her?" she spat. "What are you talking about? You're the ones who have to work to be accepted by her. She doesn't care if we like her or not, as long as we like her."
June shook her head. "Not true. She covers herself in pink and pretty things because she's insecure. She likes to be in a place where she doesn't have to deal with people who judge her. Why else do you think she spends so much time here in Neopia? But, even with us, she has trouble, afraid to be close to us for fear that we wouldn't accept her for who she was. She is only mean in the beginning because she doesn't want to be the one who gets hurt. And then she dresses us up and makes us stronger because it's her way of saying she cares without actually saying it herself."
Zelda could not say anything. No, she thought, there was no way this was true. Her owner – loving and caring? Impossible!
But, now that she thought about it... did her owner not take her everywhere with her? Was she not always the active pet? Was she not always the first one fed (even if it was something gross or moldy)? She had been taken shopping with her owner today instead of her "favorites." And had she not always seen a hidden look of guilt on her owner's face when she slinked into her room at night with tears trailing down her face because she was feeling unloved? Back then, she had mistaken that look for disgust, but now she was sure it was actually guilt.
"Fyora's graces," she uttered. "She does care about me."
A paw settled on her shoulder. She turned her head and saw her brother, smiling comfortingly at her. "She cares about us all," he said, "even if she doesn't want to show it. She's just scared to give love for the possibility of not receiving any in return."
What was that Zelda felt in her chest right then? Was it understanding? Yes, she thought it was. She smiled at her brother and her sisters, smiled truthfully, compassionately, at them for the first time since she first came home.
"We should go back," Melly said, "and have a little talk with Mother. She needs to know that we love her, too." June and Seph nodded.
Zelda did, too. "Yeah, we should." Then she glanced down at the unopened bottles. "But I think there's one more thing we have to do first." Her siblings followed her gaze and nodded.
Kneeling down in the Faerie circle, all four Neopets picked up a glittering bottle each and put a paw on the corks. As Zelda looked at the fluttering Faerie light in the bottle, seeing the little hands pressed to the glass and the little face looking up at her with clear, innocent eyes, she made a vow. She would never to lose her temper and do harm – especially to a Faerie – again. It would be hard, but she knew that she could do it. Hey, if she could love her "greedy" owner, she thought with a smile, then she could keep a promise like this.
Zelda pulled the cork with her siblings, watched the glittery, grateful Faeries flutter away, and reached for another bottle.