It was that time of year again.
The Reject sighed inwardly. She didn't need her one attached eye to know what day it was. Laughter rang out all around her, loud and lively, and echoed off the curved stone walls. The Hidden Tower was thrumming with an energy unique to a certain day in the Neopian calendar and a certain day only. "I can't wait!" one voice enthused right on cue, amid much giggling. "Just think! We'll be able to see the faerie queen on her special day!" The Reject Faerie Queen Doll heaved another internal sigh. Yup. It was the second day of Relaxing; Fyora Day, year 16.
An Ixi looked her way and she shifted back before realising that the glance had passed her by. The movement was slight, only barely perceptible. "Not that anyone noticed," she whispered, lips tightening. The Reject's gaze fixed on the lines that streamed through the doorway and past her pedestal. Each face she scanned was turned expectantly towards the counter at the centre of the shop. The tall, willowy form seated there was a figure the doll knew well. It was one she saw day in, day out for hours on end but one that many of these Neopians, she was sure, had travelled great distances just to glimpse. More than a few pets had brows furrowed in exhaustion and several others had defined dark patches under their too-bright eyes.
Fyora's purple head bobbed as the queen – and shopkeeper – accepted a Neopoint bag, smiling at the compliments given with it. The Reject had to smile herself, if far less graciously, at the purchase the faerie placed in a bag. The Squeezy Tombola Guy Toy, she suspected, wasn't what the Kacheek customer had truly wanted in coming to Faerieland. "So very pleased to meet you on Fyora Day," the pink pet gasped out, sure enough, when she turned to leave. Her already-rosy cheeks flushed a hectic red. "I'm a huge fan!"
"Thank you." Fyora gave a nod. "You're too kind." It was the same response that she'd given the dozens before but enough to make countless gathered glare at the Neopet with actual envy. There was no doubt in the Reject's mind that they wished for the change to trade for those same short sentences from the faerie queen. The Reject could understand feelings of longing. Her own stare settled briefly on Fyora. It moved to regard the table to the queen's right, around which a gaggle of young girls had clustered.
The nearest Neopet exhaled in obvious admiration. "She's beautiful," the royal Aisha moaned to her two friends, lifting a purple-clad toy. It was, undeniably, true. The Faerie Queen Doll's soft lilac hair shimmered under the chandelier lighting and her huge mauve eyes, both securely sewn on, twinkled as though real amethysts. "I asked my mother to buy me one today, you know," the Aisha continued, "but she wouldn't come with me. Too expensive, she said." The Neopet pouted, twisting a curl round a claw. "A doll like this is worth the price, I say."
Her opinion had been shared by others. The Reject assessed the gaps in the collection lined across the table's polished length. Of the forty Faerie Queen Dolls that she'd seen brought out that morning, five remained. Even half of the Supreme Deluxe Faerie Queen Dolls just beyond had been cleared in spite of their higher price tag. Everyone in Neopia, it seemed, wanted a miniature Fyora. As the Reject watched, two more pets approached. The smaller of the pair, a striped Usul, had a skip in her step and tugged on her older companion's sleeve with vigour. "Look, look!" she squeaked, pointing. "There they are, Granny! Aren't they prettyyy?" She drew out the last word reverently.
The Reject's sawdust hand clenched. There was only one of her, one Reject. She sat by herself, alone, on her pedestal at the back, as she always did. She was always alone. All day she'd watched as the other dolls were taken up and admired. All day she'd remained behind, on the marble perch where she always sat, and wished and waited. She'd half-hoped, as she did each year, that this day would be different. That, like the other dolls, she, too, would find a home. A sound ripped itself free of the Reject's stitched-together lips. Whether it was a whimper or a snort, she didn't know or care. She'd been wrong. "Of course I was," she bit out, forcing herself to face the grim fact. "I'll never be bought." Not even on Fyora Day.
A quavery kind of voice broke through the Reject's reverie. "Yes, yes. Quite pretty," it said. The striped Usul's grandmother, a cloud Usul, nodded and began to hum rather abstractedly as she looked over the doll display. Her glance drifted a moment later and, fiddling with their silver frame, she pushed her glasses up from where they'd slid down her withered nose. "Argh," she complained in a croak. "The tape on the glasses' bridge is coming loose."
"Oh, Granny." Her granddaughter spun away from the dolls and chuckled. "You could just buy a new pair." She turned back and, as the Reject pulled at her own tangled hair, she ran a paw lightly over one doll's smooth, shining tresses. "These Faerie Queen Dolls really are perfectly gorgeous."
"A bit too perfect, though," the other Usul opined, "if you ask me, Violet." She frowned, surveying the surrounding displays with a beady, wandering eye, and the Reject Faerie Queen Doll straightened despite herself. This was the first time that the Reject had heard such a notion uttered. "The items I've found myself having the most attachment to," the Usul went on, tapping her glasses, "are those with their own odd quirks. Items with –"
"– character or history," Violet interjected, laughing. "I know, I know." The striped pet held out a paw. "But that's not why we're here," Violet reminded her grandmother. "You said that you'd buy me something amazing – an unbuyable – for Fyora Day, remember?"
Unbuyable. The word jolted through the Reject like an arrow. That was right. Huh. All that was sold in the Hidden Tower was supposed to be a prestige item, retailing for over 100,000 NP in price. The cheapest items were the Squeezy Tombola Guy Toys, 110,000 NP playthings popular throughout the day, and, at 16,800,000 NP, the most expensive were the Fans of Swords glittering on the walls. The Reject, with a pricing of 600,000 NP, was closer to the cheaper side of the spectrum but unbuyable all the same.
The Reject had to snort to herself. She was unbuyable, alright, but in the sense that no one actually wanted to buy her. Hurt again welled up within the Reject as she faced the facts anew. Who – or what – was she to hope for purchase? She was an undesired item. Undesired and undesirable.
Shaking her head, the Reject shifted her focus to something safer. Fyora was glancing up at the clock on the walls and her movement caused murmurs to rustle through the crowd. It was close to midday. The queen had known afternoon engagements and shop would be closing soon. It was really just as well.
Her hopes had been higher when she was first placed for sale. It had been so lengthy a spell ago that the Reject no longer recalled how much time, precisely, had passed since or, at least, tried to keep track. Yet the doll remembered still how she'd felt as if, stuffed though she was, there were an excited pounding in her chest.
That sensation returned to her. Cobalt eyes were squinting at the Reject from behind large horn-rims. They belonged to the old cloud Neopet; Violet's grandmother. Somehow she'd found her way over and the Reject had to fight down an impulsive urge to squeal. Could it be? Could it be that someone was actually interested in her?
The Usul's gaze narrowed. "Come over here please, Violet," she called over the general chatter and bustle. "There's something I want you to have a look at." Quietly, she added, "What an intelligent-looking doll." The throbbing the Reject felt intensified.
Her granddaughter's footsteps were reluctant. "But Granny," she protested, features dismayed, "the tower's closing in fifteen minutes. I want to pick out my present before then." Violet peeked back over her shoulder. No fewer than three Faerie Queen Dolls had been plucked from the table she'd left. "Oh! They're going to sell out, I know it!"
"Come here, Violet," her grandmother repeated, more firmly. "I think you might like this doll." Paws wrapped around the Reject's waist and moved to hold her up against the light. The Reject couldn't help a sharp if tiny intake of breath.
Violet's bright blue eyes became as narrow as her grandmother's. "Hmm," the striped Usul hesitated, advancing in slow steps. There was no bounce, no skip, in Violet's stride here. "I know that you like older... well, secondhand, things but I'm not," she admitted, "so sure. The doll's lost a lot of stuffing, don't you think? Granny?" The Reject let out the air she'd held with a twinge of bitterness. She should've known better than to hope.
"Not to mention," a third voice commented, "that she's missing her left eye and arm. Even," and, at this word, its pitch rose, "her hair's a mess." The speaker sniffed loudly as she came into view. It was the royal Aisha who'd praised the Faerie Queen Dolls earlier. "Items like that are trash." Her friends chortled behind her and the Reject stiffened. Not only were the doll's hopes disappointed but her private fears were being voiced aloud.
The Reject wasn't the only one who stiffened. Straightening, Violet drew herself up to her full height with a look at her grandmother's now-pale face. "I wouldn't say that," she told the other girl defensively, tone more serious than the Reject had heard it. The Usul grinned. "The best of items, I've heard, often have odd quirks." The Reject's gasp at that was far from tiny though, she knew, all present would dismiss the noise. It sounded like the Usul might really want to buy her.
"I myself couldn't have said it better." Fyora had appeared in their midst as suddenly as the Aisha had done, dress train floating in her wake. The faerie queen beamed as she glanced from face to face and her mauve eyes sparkled. "I'm glad to hear it, I must say. This doll deserves a loving home. She's been here far too long."
Violet's grandmother cackled as the Aisha retreated. "I have a feeling," the pet mused, agreeing, "that this doll is special." Special. The Reject had never been called that before, never heard the word applied to her. It was strange to hear, strange and shocking – and glorious. She wanted to join in the older Usul's laughter. She wanted to cry. Finally, it seemed, finally, she was going to a home of her very own.
The Neopet's granddaughter smiled nervously, regarding the faerie queen with some awe. "Granny, you say that about almost everything that you take a shine to." The Neopet paused, locking her vivid blue gaze to the Reject's. "And yet," Violet murmured, "there is something to what you're saying. The way she looks at me... it's like... she understands us. Like she wants to come home with us."
The Reject smiled to herself. The Usuls had no idea.