In the Cards
The little Acara's short fingers clumsily tried to braid the stems of the roses together, hands starting to shake with frustration. Her harsh motions snapped one, and she tossed it to the dirt, letting out a quick shout of childish disappointment. She sat down, crossing her arms around her knees, and buried her face in her sleeves, defeated.
The little child glanced over her shoulders at the older Acara, just barely visible through her slightly transparent wings. For a moment, she was worried she would be scolded for her tantrum, but as her wings fluttered together and her company's face came into view, those fears were eased. The teenager was smiling softly, and sat down next to her, sitting her own half-completed ring of white lulus down. She retrieved the discarded rose braid, and plucked a replacement for the broken flower from a pile of ready-picked blooms. She took Vira's little hands in her's, and helped.
"Be gentle with them, Vira. Flowers are fragile, especially with the seasons changing..."
Vira's eyes snapped open, and she slowly and silently sat up on the branch she had been napping on. She heard multiple footsteps approaching on the path, along with a harmony of baby giggles and soft, gentle humming. She cracked a grin; her favorite targets were incoming. She stood and turned to face the other way, stood up on the tips of her boots, and allowed herself to fall forward. Her tail caught on the limb and halted her fall, and she swung upside-down before the group, face to face with the leader.
Vira smirked. "Boo."
The leader's petpet, a small Kazeriu, balked and let out a shrill noise of surprise, while the baby Aishas at her feet shrieked with delight. The Kougra, face-to-face with Vira, but unable to see the smirk (though she knew very well it was there), placed the back of her hand against her forehead in mock terror. "Oh goodness, Vira has found us. What shall we ever do," she deadpanned, expression as calm and amused as ever.
"Awww, Mrikuni, it's no fun when you're that obvious!"
"Yes, and 'boo' is a masterwork of subtlety."
Vira curled up and dropped down from the tree, kneeling to pat the twins as they ran up greet her. "You know how people feel about me; most of the time, 'boo' is enough. I'm guessing you're here for some help?"
Mrikuni nodded, silvery bangs gliding in front of cloudy eyes. "The Anna's are visiting Mystery Island to gather some poinsettias in bulk, and I've been tasked with finding holly. If you've left any alive, that is," she stated with a mischievous smile.
Vira threw up her hands. "So I like wrecking some flower beds, so what? I get BORED, Mrik!"
Her friend laughed. "Is that why you spend so much time at our house now?"
"You'd better believe it." She took Mrikuni's hand, and started to head down the path. "Holly's this way. And yes, there's still a lot of it, thank you very much."
"I applaud your restraint."
"So, collecting poinsettias in bulk fresh from the jungle, huh? Got big decorating plans?"
Mrikuni took the full basket from Vira, providing her another to be filled with white and red holly sprigs. "Sort of. You know how Annabelle is. We're also setting up a nice floral arch as a backdrop for the annual family portrait."
Vira shot her a glance, raising an eyebrow. "Portrait? What, like a painting?"
"Mm-hm. Like the ones in the hall to Mother's room. We commission at least two every winter."
Vira rolled her eyes. "Really? A portrait? What, do you have a winter home in Meridell? Why not just take a photo?"
"Oh, we do, they're just used as a reference for the painting. Can't keep the babies still that long. Also we need to make copies for Christmas cards. Can't expect to have a thousand tiny, card sized portraits, can we?"
At the mention of thousands of cards, Vira went silent. Mrikuni couldn't see her face, but she was fairly certain that the Acara was gaping at her. "Still hasn't sunk in for you that we're sorta nobility, has it?"
"Will it make it worse if I say we make two because one is casual for family and the other is formal for fellow dignitaries-"
Vira threw up her hands. "Dignitaries! You spend your days picking flowers with a monster when you could be sipping tea with princesses. You're incredible!"
Mrikuni shrugged. "I don't like tea."
Vira shot a pained look at the giggling twins, and returned to gathering holly. "Of course you don't."
"Actually, that's another reason I came to find you. Mother's asked me to invite you to be in the photos."
The Acara's hand hovered above the plants, and for all anyone knew the planet had stopped spinning, judging by how quiet it had gotten. "...why?"
"Well, you're my best friend. You spend so much time with us; you're practically family at this point."
Vira raised an eyebrow. "So your mother's willing to send out a few thousand pictures of..." she gestured to herself, "...this, to everyone she knows? 'Hello friends, this year Anna got a sketch in a museum, Aspen finally lost her first tooth, and Mrikuni's been out picking flowers with someone that has an entry in THE GALLERY OF EVIL!'"
Mrikuni coughed. "Well, actually, most of her associates already know."
Vira was silent, so Mrik continued. "She writes about us all the time. The way she explains it, you've become a sort of bodyguard for us."
That made the young monster laugh. She took a moment to catch her breath, then shook her head. "Yeah, because the girl who has a jumpy Kazeriu as a guide petpet and a collapsible scythe as a white cane needs a bodyguard!"
Mrikuni joined in, laughing and rolling her eyes. "Eh, you know how nobles can get. As far as most are concerned, I'm a delicate, disabled flower who foolishly requested help from a heinous fiend. They'd say as much, but nobody would imply anything less than perfection of us to mother. Her girls are to be respected; now, you're on that list."
Vira nodded to herself, leaning against the nearest tree. She wasn't all that surprised, to be honest; Lady Delftwing was one of the most friendly and motherly people she had ever met. She hadn't been in their house ten minutes before she had a cookie in one hand, cocoa in the other, and a spot in the pillow fort by the sunken fireplace. After so many years of isolation, the acceptance of the Delftwing family was almost sickeningly sweet. She really did appreciate it. At the same time, it felt strange to be invited to take part in the portrait. It was supposed to be a way to show off how beautiful the family was; to have a short, scruffy Acara amidst the group of elegant young ladies sounded out of place.
"Y'know," Mrikuni went on, "this is also an invitation to stay with us during the Starlight Celebration. It would break everyone's heart to think of you toughing out the winter in that little shack of your's. She's already has Annabelle set up a guest room for you."
Vira grinned. "Because I'd be stupid to say no?
"Because it would be stupid to keep Bells from decorating another room."
Her friend finally gave in, standing and brushing herself off. "Well, who am I to deny a summons from the great Lady Delftwing?"
She dipped into an exaggerated bow, almost falling over from the force of it, and the babies cooed with joy. Mrik sighed, relieved. "Good."
"If you think we have enough holly, we can head back to my place to pack," she loudly grunted when lifting the full baskets, "and if you don't think we have enough, take it up with an Earth Faerie for not covering the planet with the stuff."
Mrikuni quickly strode to her side, effortlessly taking one of the heavy baskets from her friend, and whistling for Izanami to follow Vira's lead back to her house. The other girl smirked. "Yeah, you're definitely a frail little girl. How ever did you survive before finding me?"
Mrikuni stuck her tongue out in a decidedly undignified manner, amusing the others. As they traveled, Vira considered the offer to be in the portrait. She still had her reservations, but it was hard to turn down such kindness.
'At the very least,' Vira mused, 'I can try to look my best for their sake.'
Mrikuni nudged the front door open with her elbow, backing into the front hall and setting her basket down by the entrance to the living room. "Mother, we're back! And we managed to drag Vira all the way back too!"
Vira shook her head, sitting her own collection of holly alongside Mrik's. "Hi, Lady Delftwing."
A gentle voice rose up from the next room. "Hello girls, we're in the kitchen."
The Aishas charged past the older girls to go meet their mother, while Mrikuni and Vira stored their coats in the nearest closet. The visitor took a deep breath through her nose, and the sweet scent of fresh cookies nearly knocked her over. She followed the babies into the kitchen, only slightly surprised by how elegant the Delftwing matriarch was dressed. The tall, camo painted Ruki had pulled her hair back into a high bun, and swept from oven to counter in a glittery silver dress. With a tray of cookies in one hand, a little Bori in the other arm, and the twin babies hugging her legs, she looked for all the world like a mother from a housekeeping magazine. Taking notice of the massive stacks of cookies on the breakfast table, Vira laughed. "I'm sorry, but are we trying to feed an army?"
Miha chuckled, sitting down the hot tray, sliding out of her oven mitt, and retrieving a plate stacked with dozens of imperfectly shaped cookies all in one fluid motion. She kneeled slightly, allowing the twins to pick out a few, before standing and holding out the plate to her guest. "Sort of. No doubt Mrikuni's told you how many people are on our mailing list. Some of these are for them," she winked at the Acara as she picked out a few and passed some to Mrikuni, "but most are just insurance. There's too many people in this house to risk running out partway through the month."
Vira took a large bite of a peanut butter blossom, giving a little nod of thanks and waving to Cosmo (who, as always, responded by shyly burying her head into Miha's side). Mrikuni elbowed her friend. "Mom's not kidding; one year we only baked about a hundred; Siyarine nearly burned the house down when we ran out."
"I'd burn the entire Haunted Woods down if I couldn't have anymore of these," Vira muttered between bites.
Miha sat little Cosmo down at the table, and turned to greet the girls properly. Upon catching sight of Vira, her smile faltered for half a second, before returning with a slightly amused glint in her eyes. "Vira, honey, are you wearing make up?"
Vira could feel her face get red (or redder, underneath the excess amount of blush she had hurriedly applied back home), and behind her Mrikuni blinked. "Make up? Is that why everyone on the way here was silent instead of freaking out?"
The little Acara wished the floor would open up and swallow her. "I haven't worn make up in awhile..."
The front door swung open, and the Peophin twins stumbled in, dropping massive crates of poinsettia blossoms by the holly baskets. Anna waved at the group in the kitchen, smiling. "All the flowers are ready!"
Miha grinned, relieved. "Good, that puts us ahead of schedule. Now we just need to set up the decor and finish getting dressed. Could one of you help Vira with that?"
Annabelle turned to face the smaller Acara girl, and seemed vaguely surprised, but smiled. "Oh, dear," she murmured good naturedly, reaching over to dab at the excess of eyeliner and lipstick with her nurse's apron. "I appreciate the attempt to make our work easier, but your dress is light blue; you should really try it on before applying make up."
Vira remained silent, staring wide-eyed at the red cross on the older girl's cap.
"Vira, I'm back! Goodness, you'd expect work to get easier after some time, but you'd be-oh honey, what are you wearing? Is that berry juice on your mouth? And chalk dust blush? Oh sweetie, you look lovely, but you'll have trouble washing that off! Here, I think we still have some of mother's old make up kits, let me help..."
Vira quietly whispered a name, shocked and lost in a near-forgotten memory. Had anyone been watching her face, they would've thought she was simply mouthing a word. Mrikuni, however, flicked her ears forward to catch what she said, and furrowed her brow in confusion.
"Mrikuni, we're going upstairs to finish getting ready!"
The Kougra blinked, then hurried after her older sisters and a very quiet Vira. The photographer would arrive soon, and she still had to put her own dress on.
"Alright, just one more, girls. Smile like you've been told a very unfunny joke, but you don't want to be rude. Good!"
The camera bulb flashed, and the second the light faded, the ladies all groaned and slouched, leaning against the wall and each other. Vira resisted the urge to rub the flash from her eyes, not wanting to smear what little eyeshadow Annabelle had applied. Mrikuni elbowed her, grinning. "See? Not that bad."
"Yeah, well, you can't see what I look like."
"You look amazing, dearest," Miha called over her shoulder, digging through a storage closet in search of something. Vira rolled her eyes, but smiled. She was a bit puzzled earlier by just how quickly the older twins managed to doll her up, until she got a chance to pass by a mirror on the way to the living room. It didn't make sense to her how little they had changed her; just a slight brush of blue dust on her lids and a light shade of gloss to match her elegant snowflake dress.
She was unable to deny it, however; she hadn't felt so pretty in years.
"Okay girls, the worst of it is over. Now we get to have some fun with it."
Vira looked up, and nearly screamed with laughter. Miha had returned from the closet with a stack of clothes in her hand, and the single most ugly sweater she'd ever seen over her dress. "Are... are those Turmaculus colors?"
The matriarch smiled, handing her an oversized sweater with a Santa Sloth embroidered on the front. "For the ugly sweater picture, it's go big or go home. Not everyone on our list is the stuffy formal sort. Merry Christmas, Vira."
Siyarine helped the younger girls struggle into their various neon jumpers, and Mrikuni pressed a button hidden in the sleeve of her's to make the bulb nose of the raindorf on the front glow rhythmically. The sudden change of atmosphere was astounding, and Vira smiled earnestly. "This is the single weirdest family in Neopia," she muttered, happily putting her's on.
"Of course we are. Now smile for real this time, ladies!"
The Delftwings and their guest struck several foolish poses, smiling or sticking out their tongues, and their uproarious laughter echoed throughout the house. Mrikuni put her arm around Vira's shoulder, and the two waved at the camera smiling. Maybe eventually, when the chaos had died down and they had all settled in, she'd bring up Vira's earlier episode, and ask who Lucy was.