A smile stretched Emma's lips.
From inside her box, the Emerald Queen Usuki Doll could see her owner approaching through the sheet of clear plastic that separated her from the rest of Celeste's bedroom. The woodland Uni opened Emma's box and the Usuki toy shivered, as much from the thrill she felt as from the cool rush of air that met her fur.
Celeste set Emma down on her Fyora Inspired Vanity Table before picking up a brush and shifting the doll to face the purple dresser's large mirror. In the wing-shaped glass, the Usuki toy could see the proud gleam in Celeste's grey eyes as Celeste regarded her and, behind Celeste's image, the reflection of the shelving that lined much of Celeste's pale lilac walls.
The metal glinted in the sunlight that streamed in through the windows but it wasn't the brightness of the silver shelving that had caught Emma's notice. Celeste's extensive doll collection sat arrayed in their pink cardboard-and-plastic boxes across the dozen shelves and each and every glittering eye was fixed on Emma.
A fresh shiver ran through Emma, as thrilled as the last, and her smile widened before she closed her eyes and concentrated on the steady, pleasurable feel of Celeste's brush working through her hair.
Lazy satisfaction coursed through Emma with each stroke. She was, the doll thought contentedly, Celeste's favourite and singled out for attention each morning.
Her eyelids fluttered open as the brushing ceased and Celeste pulled Emma's white-blonde curls back in a high ponytail. "There. Perfect," the Neopet breathed, tying on a sequined green hair ribbon. "Just perfect."
Emma couldn't agree more. She gladly surveyed her appearance. The dress she wore had been sewn from a sumptuous brocade fabric and edged in ribbon and gold lace trim. Dainty jade earrings fell from her ears, flashing as she turned her head from side to side. She was every inch the doll Celeste wanted for her collection: the 'striking' and 'luxurious' doll advertised on the back of Emma's box.
This was confirmed when Celeste ran a hoof down Emma's hair before she returned Emma to her box, sighing. "Can't have my Emerald Queen doll getting dusty."
Emma nodded to herself with a delicate shudder. Celeste's dolls weren't like most other Usuki dolls and, though Emma received the most care, Celeste kept her collection in pristine condition.
This meant that they all spent the majority of their time in their boxes. Celeste had said often enough that they were too important to be played with and Emma was happy to accept what Celeste wanted if it pleased her. Emma loved seeing Celeste smile and nothing made Celeste smile more than having something to brag about.
Celeste ran an assessing eye over the rest of her collection, inspecting their boxes, while she moved to collect her bag in preparation for the day's activities. Emma's box, as always, was plucked from Celeste's dresser and placed into Celeste's satchel, positioned so that she could just see over the opening in the dark material. Celeste liked to have Emma on display wherever she went.
Emma fancied that all eyes were turned her way but didn't study more than two or three envious faces. The other Usuki dolls all looked much the same and she'd never differentiated between them after establishing that each newcomer posed no challenge to her favoured position.
Celeste's steps took them through Neopia Central and into the Bazaar as the morning sun climbed through the sky.
A tall structure came into view and Emma's brows lifted. She recognised the magenta and yellow paint. The flower-shaped roof, too, was as familiar to her as the doll figurine perched at the very top of the store.
She'd passed hours in Usukiland, perusing its stock with Celeste for the next rare doll to add to Celeste's collection. Emma reminded herself that there could be nothing inside to rival her perfection and her earlier smile returned as they pushed through the door. She just had to be patient and they'd be home soon enough.
"Hello, Pearl," Celeste half-sang, stepping inside and around a small Cybunny playing by the entrance. It was her custom to greet the shopkeeper here by name and the blue Blumaroo looked up at Celeste's call, beaming.
"Celeste!" Pearl enthused, eyes twinkling. "How have you been?" she asked, before noticing Emma in Celeste's bag when Celeste wove her way over to the counter. "You do like to carry your Emerald Queen about. Why, I don't believe I've seen you two apart since you bought her five years ago!"
Pearl, Emma remembered, had sold Emma to Celeste when the Uni was tiny. Emma had been Celeste's very first doll and had been there to witness each subsequent doll purchase that her owner had made.
Emma's owner laughed. "The Emerald Queen's the star of my collection right now. I wouldn't be much of a collector, would I, if I didn't tote around something like it to show off," Celeste told Pearl, patting Emma's box.
The doll rocked back a fraction. She could never help wincing at Celeste's habit of referring to her as an it.
Pearl's features grew fond. "I remember the day you bought her, Celeste. You couldn't have been much taller than my waist and had ever such a hard time pronouncing 'Emerald Queen'. Little did I know then that you'd become one of my best customers."
Celeste gave a noncommittal reply. Her glance searched the wooden displays behind the counter with a fixation that both Emma and Pearl knew well. Leaning forward, she shrugged off her bag, set it on the bench and moved to take a closer look.
Annoyance flashed through Emma at having been left behind. She craned her neck to peer after Celeste, fuming at how the cardboard faces of her box obstructed most of her view.
There was nothing – absolutely nothing – to worry about, of course. She considered possibilities that she might one day have competition for Celeste's attention only very rarely. All the same, there was no harm in seeing which dolls Celeste took interest in. If Emma hated the idea of competition, she hated being unable to closely scrutinise the dolls Celeste looked at still more.
Emma used her weight to push at her box from the inside and improve her position, legs aching with the strain.
Little Witch Usuki Dolls were common enough and Emma's glance passed these dolls by. The Little Sorceress Usuki Dolls were rarer and more gorgeously clothed, with their silken rose-pink robes and dark cerise capes trimmed in gold. Her gaze lingered on their garb and the flashing gems worn by the Fiery Princess Usuki Dolls a shelf higher before she recalled, distantly, that Celeste had one of both in her collection already.
Above the Fiery Princesses were Beautiful Bride Usuki Dolls. Emma suspected that Celeste's attention was on these.
She supposed, with a pout, that these demure-looking dolls were kind of pretty. Their hair was worn up in soft buns and they wore sweeping white satin gowns with matching veils. Emma's paws itched, despite herself, to try on their pearl-encrusted jewellery.
Celeste turned away and Emma found herself sagging. The doll straightened with a huff a moment later and irritation raced through her at the momentary weakness. She was being silly. There was nothing here that could rival her perfection. Right?
"Do you have anything else?" Celeste wondered and an odd look passed across Pearl's face at the question. "Any other new dolls? I don't know what I'm looking for but I really want to purchase a special new doll today. There's something, I feel, missing from my collection."
Pearl stepped forward and drew Celeste close. "Of course! Why, I should've thought of you before!" she hissed under her breath. Emma concentrated to catch the words.
"What?" Celeste demanded, curiosity piqued. She bit her lip as heads turned and Pearl motioned for her to lower her voice. The small Cybunny by the door, a plushie Neopet, stared with a particular interest.
"What is it?" Celeste inquired in a softer tone. Emma listened as keenly for Pearl's reply as Celeste herself, balling her paws before forcing the fists to unclench.
The Blumaroo shopkeeper slid a rolled sheet of paper from her pocket. She unfurled it with a chuckle as secretive as it was ominous to Emma's hearing. "I was about to put this up in the window," she confided and, though Emma couldn't quite see what was on the poster, she heard Celeste's intake of breath.
"Oh, sweet Fyora! A... a... Collector's.... a Collector's Edition Usuki Doll?!?" Celeste half-stammered and half-exclaimed. "You can't be serious! These dolls were available only through... through the gift bags given out at Usukicon in Year 11! They're–they're," she paused, struggling for coherency, "the ultimate collector's dolls! How did you come by one just now?"
Ultimate collector's dolls? Ultimate? Emma wasn't positive that she had heard Celeste correctly. She often found Celeste's excitement endearing but this wasn't one of those times.
Pearl had listened to Celeste with an indulgent smile. "She was offered to me through a private sale and I'd thought to sell her on." The Blumaroo laughed a little. "I'd thought to advertise her too but, if you'd like her, Celeste, I wouldn't mind doing a deal with you. I know that the Year 11 Usukicon was before your time as a collector."
"Yes! Yes! A hundred times, yes!" Celeste had long been vocal when excited and today was no different.
Pearl didn't try to quiet her this time and several sets of eyes, both doll and Neopet, shifted Celeste's way. Among them were the eyes of the Cybunny Emma had noticed. The plushie pet drifted towards them, a doll in either paw, intent on discovering what was going on.
It was Emma who wanted to shush Celeste. Had she gone mad? It was one thing to say that she wanted a new doll and another to suggest that the toy would be the showpiece in her collection.
Were she not fake fur and sawdust, Emma thought, her heart would be hammering and her cheeks burning with anger. Don't do it, Celeste. Was her owner really thinking of replacing her? Well, of course she was. Emma's self-assured facade started to crack.
"Name your price!" Celeste's textured face was as flushed as Emma imagined her own should be.
It was excitement, abundant joy, that the woodland Neopet felt, however, and not the resentment that had hooked itself in the pit of Emma's stomach. The Uni danced where she stood and the hooks pulled tauter. Celeste wasn't thinking of Emma at all.
Pearl spoke in Celeste's ear and Emma's owner stepped away with visible dismay. "What? I can't afford that!" She deflated further as Pearl flicked her a sympathetic look. "Can't you bring the price down?"
The pet shrugged and, this time, her words carried. "Oh dear. I'm afraid not, Celeste. I just told you the lowest I'm prepared to accept." Pearl reached out to pat the Uni on the back. "Any lower, unfortunately, and I'll be out of pocket."
Celeste appeared dispirited but Emma felt like cheering. Weight that had formed on her chest vanished and left her so light that she might almost be able to fly. What had been bad news to Celeste had been great news to Emma and she experienced only slight guilt, if that, for wanting to celebrate. Her position was safe and that was, surely, all that mattered.
"Couldn't you hold it for me? I could save and come back when I have enough to buy it." Celeste was finding it hard to give up but Emma was sure that Pearl would turn her down.
The Blumaroo wouldn't want to wait long to sell the doll. Not when there were, by the sounds of it, other prospective buyers who would be interested in the catch a Collector's Edition doll so obviously would be.
Celeste continued pleading but Emma tuned her out, eyeing the Cybunny that had come to lean against the other end of the counter. She didn't care to hear how much the Uni wanted the other doll.
She was startled by a high-pitched if tiny sound to her right. "Hello there!" a voice squeaked close by and Emma turned. Another doll – a doll without a box – edged into view. It was, Emma realised, a Magical Hair Usuki Doll. The toy's hot pink eyes sparkled as a second figure, also without a box, joined her.
"Hullo!" the Cheerleader Usuki Doll echoed, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Both grinned.
Though her first reaction had been swift, Emma's instincts now told her to freeze and she stilled to consider how to proceed. Her own eyes narrowed as she locked them to the face of the doll who had spoken and she felt her forehead crease.
One tense second ticked by. Two, then three. They weren't in the competitive setting that was Celeste's bedroom and these weren't Celeste's dolls. They wouldn't be cosying up to her in hopes of gaining favour through Emma. She felt paranoid at times when she thought in this vein though experience taught her otherwise. It was a reason why she didn't like associating with the other Usuki dolls in Celeste's collection.
No, both toys had no notion of the pressures Emma faced.
The purple-haired Magical Hair doll took Emma's silence in stride. "I'm Kaye," she said by way of introduction, "and this is Rachel." The Cheerleader Usuki Doll stepped forward at her name and shook her yellow-and-green pom poms as she waved.
Emma, on the other paw, had no clue what to say and even less inclination to return the Cheerleader doll's wave. She simply stared, sensing a wall between them beyond the plastic sheet that comprised the front of her box.
"Quiet, aren't you?" Kaye, the Magical Hair doll, pressed on. "What's your name?"
"Name?" Emma's lips shaped the word as uncomfortably as she might repeat a word from another language.
"Yes. What does your owner call you?"
"Oh." Emma thought for a moment, perplexed, and looked for Celeste before glancing back at the doll. Her owner was still haggling with Pearl and desperation was writ plain on her features. "I'm an Emerald Queen Usuki Doll."
Kaye laughed and the sound only confused Emma more. "I know that! I meant to ask what your owner calls you."
Emma stiffened further, defensive. "That is what my owner calls me." She chided herself for the annoyance in her tone. There was nothing embarrassing about that. Celeste called each of her dolls by their item names.
"What?!" Kaye covered her mouth when Rachel, the Cheerleader Usuki Doll, prodded her. "I'm sorry," the Magical Hair doll apologised. "I have a tendency to let my tongue run."
Kaye swallowed even as a new light entered her eyes. "Is that what you call yourself? Avery, our owner, says that every doll should have her own, individual name," she said. Her friend, Rachel, stomped on her foot and she winced.
"Don't mind her," Rachel spoke up.
It was too late and Kaye's last sentence bounced through Emma's mind. Every doll should have their own name? A ridiculous idea. One Emma wasn't surprised to hear had come from dolls who weren't part of a collection. Absurd sentimentality... right?
Emma's own lips parted as her thoughts whirled. "I... my name is Emma," she told them, the words spilling from her mouth even as they formed in her head, despite her own mental protests. She'd never talked about this with anyone but felt a sudden need to.
"My owner was very young when she bought me. She couldn't pronounce 'Emerald Queen' properly." Emma's eyes again sought out Celeste, over the head of the Cybunny nearby. She thought back to when Pearl had recalled this and to when she'd first met her owner. "Celeste called me 'Emma' instead for the first month."
Celeste hadn't called her that in years and very likely wouldn't remember that she ever had. Yet the name had stuck. It had become something that she had clung to, even identified with over the time that she'd been among Celeste's dozens upon dozens of dolls. Something that was exclusively hers and would remain hers alone no matter what her owner called her.
Emma glanced from Kaye to Rachel. "Your owner – Avery, was it? – just has the two of you?" They nodded, and she pondered what that might be like. Maybe, she thought, surprising herself with the fleeting notion, being a non-collector's item wasn't entirely horrible. Maybe.
Most owners didn't need that many dolls to play with and would buy far less than a collector would amass. There'd be no splitting of the owner's attention between dozens of dolls and toys could be content in the knowledge that, non-collector's items though they were, their owner cared about them.
Truth be thought, Emma realised, she wasn't all that sure that Celeste cared about her beyond her appearance, her worth as a collector's doll, although Emma wasn't about to admit that aloud.
Emma definitely wasn't as sure as she tried to tell herself that she would remain her owner's favourite always. Maybe she blurred together the faces of Celeste's other dolls because she was frightened by the thought of competition. She didn't want to give it a specific face.
Sudden longing made her bite her lip as she saw how freely Kaye and Rachel moved about. Increasingly, Emma had the sense that the cardboard-and-plastic walls she was enclosed within were shrinking. She felt so suffocated, so... imprisoned.
No, Emma told herself. No. What are you thinking, Emma? You like being a collector's item. Don't you?
Hoofsteps told Emma that Celeste was approaching with Pearl. "I really, really want the Collector's Edition Usuki Doll," Celeste moaned.
Emma stiffened without meaning to. Not that again? She'd thought that Celeste had accepted that she couldn't afford the doll. Pearl seemed to share Emma's line of thinking and made a soft clucking noise. Several more thoughts followed, fast and frantic, and the self-confidence she'd always forced crumpled. Why? Why couldn't Emma be enough for Celeste? How did Celeste think to pay for the new doll?
Celeste straightened, stiffening as Emma had done. "You buy dolls, don't you?" the pet asked Pearl and fright gripped Emma as her uncertainty over Celeste's affections flashed anew through her head. Her eyes zoomed in on her owner's face and, with that focus, the hair-brushing ritual in Celeste's room that morning seemed to fall further and further away.
Pearl's mouth dropped open in stunned comprehension. "Why," the Blumaroo replied slowly, "yes, I do... as long as they're in good condition and never for the same price, mind, as a brand new doll."
Celeste's grey eyes flashed. "Mine are in great condition." She picked up Emma's box and Emma felt the ice-cold clutch of terror in her chest. Celeste... Celeste couldn't mean? Her mind was confused but what Emma wasn't confused about was the almighty sense of betrayal ripping through her.
A similar bafflement flickered across Pearl's expression. "Are you sure, Celeste? Do you really want to sell this doll back? Hasn't she been with you for years?"
Each was a question that Emma wanted to demand herself but couldn't find her voice to ask. What she'd long dreaded deep down was quickly coming to pass.
Celeste swallowed but she nodded. "I've got other dolls at home I can fetch, too, and pocket money on top of that."
She darted a look at Emma and pushed Emma's box towards Pearl. "It's a real shame but once I save up again, I'll buy another Emerald Queen doll for my collection. No big sacrifice."
"Alright." Pearl sounded reluctant but she agreed.
The next few seconds passed in a blur as Emma's vision swam and her world folded further. She'd be replaced in two ways with the Collector's Edition doll assuming her position as Celeste's favourite and another toy later filling in the gap left for an Emerald Queen doll in Celeste's collection. Emma herself hadn't been worth anything to Celeste at all despite being Celeste's first doll. She'd only ever been a collector's item and it hurt.
She was distracted by Pearl's voice telling Celeste to wait before Pearl brought out the Collector's doll. "Avery! Come here, please," Pearl called, beckoning at someone a metre or two away. She turned back to Celeste and told the woodland Neopet, "I think I know a girl who might like your Emerald Queen."
Emma blinked as a small form crept into her field of vision and a furry face came into focus. Cool – and fresh, blissfully fresh! – air rushed into her box as Pearl opened its top flap and handed her to the other pet.
Bright eyes returned Emma's stare and the doll blinked a second time as she took in the rest of the Cybunny's mauve features. They were framed by a thick tumble of red curls that bounced about Avery's shoulders when she grinned.
This was the same pet that had been playing by the door when she and Celeste had come in and the same pet that she'd noticed glancing their way earlier. Paws wrapped around Emma's waist as Celeste's hooves had that morning and, if the air was cool, the plushie Neopet's touch was startling – and soothing – in its warmth.
"Avery," Pearl explained, "is my niece. She's been staying with me while her parents are out of town."
Emma sensed the shopkeeper looking at her but Emma's own glance was still locked to the pair of wide, curious eyes immediately before her. The light in that gaze was far gentler than any expression of Celeste's and it warmed her further. It wasn't a look of rejection that she saw.
"I've been meaning to find Avery a new doll to play with. This one here will have a good home with her, Celeste. I'd noticed her looking at the doll from the point you two came in. Funny, how things work out." Pearl chuckled; all reluctance vanished.
Emma did not hear Celeste's reply and she only barely registered Pearl turning away in her periphery. Her attention was focused on Avery. The redheaded Neopet smiled at her rather sweetly in setting her down next to Kaye, the Magical Hair doll, and Rachel, the Cheerleader doll.
Instinct prompted her to smile back despite her hurt and both dolls winked at her as Avery's own smile grew. So this was the owner that the two dolls had talked about. The one who believed that each toy deserved a name of their own: an identity beyond the type of doll they were.
"Hello," Avery told Emma, voice soft, "I'm Avery." Gesturing, she introduced Kaye and Rachel before asking something that made Emma's chest throb. "What's your name?"
It wasn't just hurt that Emma felt now but hope too, wild and almost disbelieving. Although upset, Emma did so want an owner who wouldn't see her just as a collector's item and even dolls who could be friends.
Over Avery's shoulder, Emma glimpsed Celeste paying for her new, magenta-haired Collector's doll and placing her box in Celeste's bag. Emma became conscious of a paw patting her hair and she looked at Avery. Her jealousy faded as her sense of rejection ebbed despite her pain.
Emma was upset that Celeste had abandoned her, certainly. Her distress was offset in part, however, by the knowledge that she had a home with Avery, Kaye and Rachel of a kind that Celeste could never provide her.
The Collector's doll was going somewhere where she'd spend most of her time boxed and never be addressed by a name that was hers and hers alone. Emma, though, was off somewhere where she'd be valued as a companion – for who she was and not what she stood for in a collection.
"My name," the doll said, hopeful, to Avery, "is Emma."