JeffMango

Thanks, Thunderstorm (Trixie x Starlight)

Feb 16th, 2018
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  1. “You’re going.”
  2.  
  3. >Starlight’s mother had never been one to waste words
  4. >In fact, Starlight didn’t think she’d ever heard the woman use more than seven in a single sentence, at least not when she was around
  5. >When her mom informed her that she’d be spending her Spring Break working with the Teaching Engagement Activities Concerning the Under-Privileged (TEACUP) program, Starlight knew there wasn’t much she could do to argue
  6. >Those two words from her mom immediately slashed her dreams of a spring break spent reading by lamplight while rain lashed at the windowpanes
  7. >So, as you can imagine, twelve-year-old Starlight wasn’t exactly in the best of moods as she stomped up the front steps to the home of her assigned “partner” for the next week
  8. >The place was shabby from age, with peeling tiles and rotting wood surrounding the windows
  9. >Nevertheless, it was clear the place’s owner was trying their best to maintain it; the house was painted in turquoise pastels, as if to offset its disrepair with a bit of color
  10. >Starlight knocked twice on the front door
  11. >The door opened almost immediately, revealing a middle-aged woman with golden-blonde hair and a sunny complexion
  12. “Hello, Mrs. Lulamoo—“ Starlight started, but was immediately cut off
  13. >”Oh, you’re right on time! I like that!”
  14. >She beamed at Starlight, gesturing for her to enter
  15. >”C’mon in! Just wipe your feet, if ya don’t mind. It’s been so muddy lately!”
  16. >The woman spoke with the thickest Minnesota accent Starlight had ever heard; she felt vaguely as if she’d just stepped into a reshoot of Fargo
  17. >”Trixie’s upstairs waitin’ for ya. She’s so excited, you have no idea. Been talkin’ all week about how she can’t wait to meet ya.”
  18. “Great,” Starlight said, her voice decidedly less enthusiastic. “I, uh… can’t wait to meet her too.”
  19. >”Oh, you two will get along perfect, I’m sure. Ya want some snacks? I wasn’t sure what t’ make. Trixie doesn’t really eat much, so I got a much of different stuff.”
  20. “I think I’m fine, but thank you.”
  21. >”Are ya sure? I got Pizza Rolls!”
  22. >Starlight couldn’t say no to Pizza Rolls
  23.  
  24. >She spoke with Mrs. Lulamoon for a moment, over what to expect with Trixie
  25. >”She can be a real handful sometimes. The sweetheart is always lost in her imagination. But if you play along with her, she’ll be happy as a clam. More rolls?”
  26. >Starlight shook her head
  27. “Play along how?”
  28. >Mrs. Lulamoon shrugged
  29. >”I can’t exactly tell ya. You’ll know what to do, I’m sure. You been with TEACUP a long time, haven’t ya?”
  30. “A few years, I guess,” Starlight said
  31. >She tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice
  32. >”That’s just great, I really think so. You kids do so much, I really hope you know how much I appreciate it. I try to engage Trix as much as I can, but… but she needs someone her age.”
  33. “Right.”
  34. >Starlight sighed
  35. “Well, I should go meet her now, I guess.”
  36. >”Great idea! Trixie’s room is first on the right, once you get to the top of the stairs. I’ll be down here if ya need me!”
  37.  
  38. >Starlight climbed the stairs slowly
  39. >Each step she took creaked beneath her sneakers, and a deep sense of foreboding had begun to settle over her
  40. >She swallowed, her dry throat aching as she turned the knob to Trixie’s room
  41. >Internally, Starlight said some rather disgusting things about her mother for ever forcing her into such a position
  42. >The door creaked inward, revealing a tiny bedroom with a wooden floor
  43. >First, Starlight noticed the walls; the were a blank white, but maps of unrecognizable countries had been scrawled across them, amidst cartoony murals of clumsily drawn knights and dragons
  44. >A few toys were scattered around the room: a single lego robot, a handful of stuffed animals, and a pile of plastic swords that looked like they’d been bought from a discount Halloween store
  45. >There wasn’t much furniture other than a single dresser and a bed
  46. >And on the bed sat Trixie, a girl who looked to be Starlight’s age with silver-blue hair
  47. >She was dressed in a moth-eaten sweater and a pair of stretched sweatpants, and wore fuzzy socks to protect her feet from the probably splinter-inducing floorboards
  48. >Almost immediately upon hearing the door open, Trixie turned
  49. >Wide, violet eyes brightened the moment they landed on Starlight
  50. >”Ah! You’re here!”
  51. >Trixie launched herself off her bed, crossing the distance between her and Starlight in two bounds and wrapping her arms around the other girl
  52. >Starlight winced as Trixie’s hug closed around her like a vice
  53. >”It’s so cool to meet you!”
  54. “Y-yeah… you too…”
  55. >Starlight let out a tiny, choked gurgle, hoping Trixie would get the hint
  56. >She didn’t
  57. >Finally, just as stars were beginning to swim in Starlight’s eyes, Trixie let go
  58. >”My name’s Trixie!”
  59. “Mhm, your mom told me.”
  60. >”What’s yours?”
  61. “Starlight Glimmer.”
  62. >”That’s super cool! You sound like you could be a sorceress!”
  63. “Oh, um… thanks?”
  64. >Starlight backed up against the wall
  65. >She hadn’t expected this level of hyper-friendliness; it was like trying to talk to a puppy
  66. >”So, what do you wanna do first?”
  67. “There’s a list?”
  68. >”Sure is! I wrote down everything we can do together. Just gotta remember where I put it… stay right there!”
  69. >Trixie whirled away from Starlight and started rooting through her dresser drawers
  70. >Baggy t-shirts and star-patterned underwear went flying through the air; Starlight dodged nimbly aside to avoid being hit by a pair of panties speckled with little crescent moons
  71. >”I know I had some paper around here somewhere…” Trixie mumbled
  72. “I, uh, don’t really think that’s necessary, heheh…” Starlight said with an awkward chuckle. “Maybe we can just play a game or something?”
  73. >Trixie spun back around
  74. >”That’s a great idea! Let me go grab my Yugioh cards!”
  75. “Yugioh?”
  76. >”Yep! Stay right there!”
  77.  
  78. >Trixie went back to rooting through the dresser and pulled out a stack of cards, which she divided in half between herself and Starlight
  79. >Like most kids her age, Starlight had owned some Yugioh cards at some point or another when she was like eight, but they’d long since been lost
  80. >Still, the faded chunks of cardboard with their scrawling text and cartoony knights and dragons sent a squick of nostalgia running through her
  81. >She started to shuffle through the stack she’d been given, and was surprised to find that Trixie’s cards were mixed with several homemade ones, constructed from notecard with the monsters and text drawn in pencil
  82. “What are these?”
  83. >”Those are the cards I made. I don’t get new ones very often, so I make my own! I gave you all the best ones, because I won’t need them to destroy you.”
  84. “Destroy me, huh?”
  85. >Starlight was surprised to find she was smiling as she rooted through the cards
  86. >”Yep! You’re lucky this isn’t a *real* duel, or Trixie would be sending you straight to the shadow realm.”
  87. “I’m spooked.”
  88. >That got a giggle out of Trixie
  89. >”You should be. Now, let’s duel! I’ll start off with my Pot of Greed! It lets me draw two cards!”
  90.  
  91. >The game was, as you can probably imagine, an absolute mess
  92. >Starlight could hardly remember the rules, and it seemed vaguely like Trixie was making up some of her own
  93. >Then again, considering how complicated everything was, Trixie could very easily have been playing 100% legally and Starlight still would have been completely lost
  94. >Anyway, the game started out poorly for Starlight and quickly got worse
  95. >Trixie was playing some sort of ghost/zombie hybrid deck, summoning and reviving all sorts of graveyard horrors which quickly overran Starlight’s defenses
  96. >Which would have been brutal enough without Trixie posing and announcing every move
  97. >”Aha! You’ve activated Trixie’s trap card! Now all your monsters get destroyed!”
  98. “You destroyed all my monsters last turn.”
  99. >”Yep! That’s because I’m a superior duelist.”
  100. “Or because you took all the best cards.”
  101. >”I already told you, I gave *you* the best cards. You should try believing in them.”
  102. >Starlight rolled her eyes
  103. “Okay, okay. I *believe* in the cards.”
  104. >Starlight closed her eyes and drew from the top of the deck
  105. >Trixie leaned in closer, craning her neck to try and see what Starlight had gotten
  106. >”Well? What is it?”
  107. “It’s… you?”
  108. >The card was one of Trixie’s originals, and featured a crude drawing of her in a cape and wizard hat
  109. >In childish handwriting, the card’s title read “The Great and Powerful Trixie”
  110. >Trixie’s eyes went wide with mixed fear and delight
  111. >”That’s the best card! You can win now!”
  112. “I can, huh?”
  113. >Looking down, Starlight saw that Trixie had given the card version of herself only 1,000 ATK points, hardly impressive in the scale of the game
  114. “Huh. How do I win again?”
  115. >”Read what it does!”
  116. >Starlight scanned the card’s effect, which Trixie had also noted in her somewhat sloppy handwriting
  117. “So… playing this lets me control all *your* monsters?”
  118. >Trixie nodded vigorously
  119. >”Exactly! Because *nobody* can resist Trixie!”
  120. “I see.”
  121. >”Mom says my confidence is very attractive.”
  122. “Maybe not the word I would use, but yeah. Sure.”
  123. >Starlight shrugged, dropping the card onto the battlefield
  124. “Guess I win?”
  125. >”Sure do!” Trixie said, sounding surprisingly cheery
  126. >Starlight, internally, had assumed Trixie would be the bratty can’t-ever-lose type
  127. >But she seemed almost ecstatic at being beaten by her own self-insert,
  128. >Starlight didn’t really want to think too hard about that right now
  129. “So, now what?”
  130. >”Rematch, of course! I was just going easy on you.”
  131.  
  132. >They ended up playing at least a dozen more games
  133. >And, in most of them at least, Starlight emerged the victor
  134. >It was strange; each game would start out with Trixie absolutely destroying her with armies of zombies
  135. >But at some pivotal moment, just when it seemed like things were lost, Trixie would inform Starlight of the special abilities of one of the custom cards that Starlight held
  136. >Usually, said custom abilities weren’t written on the card at all, but they never failed to let Starlight come out ahead
  137. >It wasn’t hard to see what was happening
  138. >After each time one of the custom cards pulled Starlight from the clutches of defeat, Trixie would cheer
  139. >”This is just like in the show! It’s so cool! You should pose when you play it! Say something like, uh… ‘This was all just part of my plan!’”
  140. >Starlight found herself smiling again
  141. >She jumped to her feet and jabbed a finger towards Trixie, lowering her voice as far as it would go
  142. “You fool! You think you’ve beaten me? I just drew the key to my salvation!”
  143. >”Yes! That’s so cool!”
  144. >Starlight grinned, and somehow managed to flick the card such that it landed perfectly on the gameboard
  145. >Trixie just stared in awe
  146.  
  147. >After a quick lunch of peanut-butter sandwiches (one of Trixie’s favorites, apparently), the hail of raindrops began to clatter against the house
  148. >”Awww…”
  149. >Trixie looked downcast as she helped clear the dishes away
  150. >”I wanted to show you the Everfree.”
  151. “The what?”
  152. >”That’s what I call the woods out back. Dragons live out there.”
  153. “Yeah?”
  154. >Trixie sounded hilariously earnest
  155. >But, as Starlight stared at the shuddering walls of green canopy and shade-drenched trunks, she couldn’t help but agree with her
  156. >If dragons were going to live somewhere, they’d be pretty at home out there
  157. >The buzzing of rain against the roof intensified, and a low howl began to echo outside as the wind picked up in intensity, scattering leaves and scraps of twig against the windows
  158. “Jeez. That’s getting kinda intense…”
  159. >Starlight couldn’t keep the slight quaver out of her voice; she liked to think of herself as the kind of person that didn’t give into irrational fears, but something about the brute force of a thunderstorm always put her on edge, and particularly bad displays usually ended with her hiding under a blanket
  160. >”Is a little rain enough to scare you?” Trixie asked, grinning as she scooted up next to Starlight
  161. “It’s not the rain that bothers me, it’s the—“
  162. >On cue, a flash of lightning illuminated the swaying trees outside, followed almost immediately after by a cannonfire blast of thunder
  163. >Trixie yelped, and clung tightly to Starlight’s arm
  164. >”Heh… heheh…”
  165. >Up close, Starlight was internally a little gratified to realize Trixie was half a head shorter than she was
  166. >She patted the top of Trixie’s noggin
  167. “Should we get down in the basement, just in case?”
  168. >Trixie nodded, still not letting go
  169. >”Fine, fine. But, you know, only because *you’re* scared. But don’t worry! Trixie will be here to protect you!”
  170. >Starlight suppressed a chuckle
  171.  
  172. >Trixie pressed her tiny, warm hand into Starlight’s and led her down into the basement
  173. >The descent was creaky and involved several close encounters with cobwebs
  174. >At the bottom, Trixie scooped up a flashlight lying near the foot of the stairs and flicked it on, revealing a cramped, unfinished basement piled high with bulging cardboard boxes
  175. >None were labeled, but Starlight could see clothes, old photo frames, antique furniture, and weird painted knick-knacks peeking out of some of the open boxes
  176. “What is all this stuff?”
  177. >”Dunno. Some of it was dad’s. Some of it’s mom’s. Some of it is just stuff that we keep around. I kinda like it, though! When I get bored I can come down here and root around for something cool. Like this!”
  178. >From within one of the boxes, Trixie pulled out an authentic German Pickelhaube
  179. “Whoa! Where’d you get that?”
  180. >Trixie shrugged
  181. >”Family had it. No idea where it came from, but now it’s mine!”
  182. >Trixie plopped the helmet on her head, wobbling slightly under its weight
  183. >The thing was several sizes too big for her, kinda looking more like she was wearing a soup bowl than a helmet
  184. “T-that thing’s probably a hundred years old! You can’t just go around playing with it.”
  185. >Trixie rubbed her chin
  186. >”Hmmm… as your superior officer, Trixie is fairly certain she can do whatever she wants with it!”
  187. >Starlight grumbled, and Trixie went back to rooting through boxes
  188. >From the same box that held the Pickelhaube, she retrieved two French-military overcoats and a woolen ushanka
  189. “Did… did your family fight in every European army in existence?”
  190. >”Pretty much! Warrior blood flows through the whole Lulamoon bloodline,” Trixie said as she passed Starlight the ushanka and a coat. “Let’s play pretend!”
  191. “Don’t know how much we can do. We’re kinda holed up down here until the rain stops.”
  192. >As if to remind her that there was no chance of it stopping any time soon, several rumbling cracks of thunder punctuated Starlight’s statement
  193. >”Then we can pretend this is a bunker,” Trixie said, donning the overcoat; it trailed behind her like a dress. “We can make a fort out of boxes! It’ll be like being on the frontlines.”
  194. >Starlight was busy trying to figure out what exactly would make playing Trench Warfare fun, but she went along with Trixie’s dumb plan, and the two girls piled scooted together enough boxes to make a rough square shape, then draped an old wool quilt over it
  195. >Trixie crawled inside first, holding the flashlight like a lantern to illuminate the tiny fort
  196. >Starlight clambered in after her, cozying up next to Trixie in the cramped space
  197. >Everything smelled of dusty, and everything beyond the flashlight’s narrow bubble of light was pitch black
  198. >Combined with the right, it did really feel like they were huddled beneath a tent, somewhere on the wasted Rhine
  199. >Starlight shivered
  200. >”Are you cold?” Trixie asked, scooting a bit closer
  201. “A little.”
  202. >”Me too.”
  203. >Trixie hugged her legs against her chest, staring at the spot where the flashlight’s beam met the quilt and spilled outwards into a fuzzy cone of light
  204. >The orange glow caught in her eyes, giving them a shimmering, vaguely melancholic look
  205. >A few seconds later, her head drooped onto Starlight’s shoulder
  206. >”This helmet is really heavy.”
  207. “You can take it off, you know.”
  208. >”No. It’s too cool.”
  209. “Right.”
  210. >Another crash of thunder hit, this one loud enough to shake the foundations of the basement
  211. >Starlight squeezed her eyes shut, and she felt Trixie’s hand slip into hers
  212.  
  213. >They huddled together as the worst of the storm passed over them in a cacophony of howling wind and lashing rain
  214. >When it finally began to pass, the low pitter-patter of droplets against the rough returned, sounding almost deafeningly silent by comparison
  215. >The point atop Trixie’s Pickelhaube pricked Starlight’s cheek, making her open her eyes
  216. “Well that was… intense.”
  217. >Trixie nodded, nearly poking Starlight in the eye
  218. >She sat up and removed the helmet, holding it in her lap
  219. >”Starlight?”
  220. “Yeah?”
  221. >Trixie looked down, the deep shadows cast by the flashlight falling over her face
  222. >”I’m really glad you came here today. I know my mom probably… probably made you do it, right?”
  223. “Huh? I mean, she didn’t *make* me. I just joined the program, and…”
  224. >Starlight sighed
  225. “I dunno. You know how it goes.”
  226. >Trixie nodded
  227. >”You still enjoyed your time with Trixie, right? It was still fun?”
  228. “It was!”
  229. >”And will you be coming back?”
  230. “Yep! All week.”
  231. >Trixie nodded as she shut off the flashlight
  232. >In the darkness, she awkwardly padded across the stone floor, her hands groping blindly until they found Starlight’s shoulders and gave her a somewhat clunky, but definitely enthusiastic hug
  233. >Starlight returned the hug with one arm
  234. >The basement was pitch black; even with Trixie’s face only inches from hers, Starlight couldn’t see her
  235. >But she could feel Trixie’s breath, and the warm whisper of it across her cheek sent this strange, electric jitters down her neck and across her lips
  236.  
  237. >Twenty minutes later, Starlight bid goodbye to the other girl when her mom came to pick her up
  238. >The car ride home was silent, aside from her mom’s single question
  239. >”How did it go?”
  240. “Really well, I think. The girl I worked with—“
  241. >That phrase felt completely wrong, but Starlight wasn’t sure how else to phrase it in front of her mother
  242. “—was really nice. We got along really well.”
  243. >Starlight’s mom nodded, her eyes focused on the road
  244.  
  245. >That night, after she’d finished finished reading for evening, Starlight lay in bed and watched the headlights of passing cars race in glowing polygons across the ceiling
  246. >The final hug that she and Trixie had shared kept resurfacing in her mind
  247. >Something about it felt *off*, in a way she couldn’t quite describe
  248. >There was something incomplete about it, she supposed
  249. >Still, she had a whole week’s worth of days left with Trixie
  250. >Starlight was sure she could figure out what was missing
  251.  
  252. >The next morning, Starlight awoke twenty minutes before her alarm rang
  253. >She went through her morning routine in a methodic haze, her might still rolling over possibilities
  254. >What was that strange feeling?
  255. >There had been warmth in the embrace, plenty of it, but the flow of Trixie’s breath across Starlight’s face had seemed to open up something deep inside her, some narrow jigsaw-puzzle gap that thrummed in time to her own heartbeat
  256. >It was strange, to say the least, but Starlight tried to push such thoughts out of her mind on the drive to Trixie’s house
  257. >Yesterday’s storm has left the entire town scattered with debris; slick green leaves blanketed the asphalt, and chunks of branch ranging from twigs to car-sized tangled messes were piled haphazardly on sidewalks, streets, and lawns
  258. >A heavy scent of ozone and of wet earth hung in the sodden air, and it cooled the buzzing heat in Starlight’s chest as she took deep gulps of it
  259. >This time, when she knocked on the door of Trixie’s house, Trixie herself answered instead of her mom
  260. >She was dressed in a set of purple pajamas, which were themselves patterned with little blue and yellow starts
  261. “Hey, Trix—“
  262. >Starlight didn’t even get a chance to finish her greeting before Trixie was pulling her inside, jabbering away about her plans for the day
  263. >”Trixie’s so glad to see you! Today is going to be *super* cool! Not to brag, but I just happen to know a few secret locations out in the Everfree forest. I bet nobody else even knows they exist!”
  264. >The tone in Trixie’s voice made it evident that she 100% meant to brag
  265. >But Starlight went along with it, a little intrigued
  266. “Yeah? Like what?”
  267. >Trixie flashed her a devious smile
  268. >”That’s for Trixie to know, and you to find out! But first…”
  269. >With a sweep of her arm and a clumsy flourish, Trixie yanked Starlight into the kitchen, where two plates of sunny-side eggs, bacon, toast, and microwaved hashbrowns were laid out on the table, next to tall glasses of orange juice
  270. >”…breakfast!”
  271.  
  272. >So, Starlight wasn’t really accustomed to a full, delicious meal to start the day
  273. >Her mom had always been a bit more a fan of the “single granola bar and a cup of tapwater” school of breakfast preparation
  274. >After downing so much delicious food, Starlight felt like she could take on just about anything the day had to offer
  275. >Was this something that other people did every day?
  276. >Trixie, after finishing, still had some bread crumbs around her mouth, which she wiped with the back of her hand
  277. >”You ready?”
  278. “Uh, I guess so. Should we take anything with us?”
  279. >Trixie clapped her hands together
  280. >”Uniforms! The ones from yesterday! We can pretend we’re on a *secret* mission, behind enemy lines!”
  281. “Wont’ they get kinda dirty?”
  282. >Trixie waved away Starlight’s concern
  283. >”Ah, who cares. Not like anybody else is using them!”
  284. “Yeah but… but those are historical artifacts?”
  285. >”No, they’re junk from Trixie’s basement. C’mon!”
  286.  
  287. >And so, despite her protests, Starlight dressed in the same greatcoat and ushanka as yesterday, and the two girls trekked out into Trixie’s backyard
  288. >The air was thick with rain and slightly chilly; Starlight was a little grateful for the thick coat, now
  289. >Last night’s deluge had turned the ground to muddy slop, however, and her shoes sank nearly an inch into the sodden earth with every step she took
  290. “Isn’t your mom gonna be worried about us?”
  291. >”Nah. She’s not even home.”
  292. “Oh.”
  293. >Starlight was about to ask why, but the question died on her tongue
  294. >”She works a lot,” Trixie said without being asked
  295. >She was marching ahead of Starlight, a real trailblazer, her pickelhaube slightly askew on her tiny head
  296. “Right. My mom’s kinda the same.”
  297. >”Didn’t she drop you off today?” Trixie asked, puzzled
  298. “Well, yeah. I mean she’s at home a lot, but she’s not really, you know… around, or whatever.”
  299. >”I have no idea what you mean.”
  300. “It’s nothing.”
  301. >Trixie frowned
  302. >She paused at the edge of the forest, where a dirt path wound between a pair of crooked maple trees that formed a sort of scraggly archway into the clustered plantlife
  303. >Starlight caught up to her, craning her neck to get a look at the woods
  304. >For something found in your average midwestern backyard, there was a bit of a mystical quality to them
  305. >Trixie turned around and punched Starlight in the shoulder
  306. “Ow! What was that for?”
  307. >”Keep up your morale, soldier! This mission is vital to the empire!”
  308. “Right, right.”
  309. >Starlight playfully shoulder-chucked Trixie, and the two marched into the outer reaches of the woods
  310.  
  311. >A canopy of slushy noise closed in over them almost immediately
  312. >The woods were alive with the chirping and cawing of hundreds of birds, plus the ambient dribble of leftover rainwater filtering down through fresh green leaves
  313. >Each step on the forest’s path was melt with a wet slurp as the mud fought aggressively to hold onto Starlight’s shoes
  314. >There was no doubt they’d be ruined by the time she got back
  315. >Up ahead of her, Trixie proudly swung her arms, keeping time to a full military march
  316. >Droplets of rain plunked off the boiled leather of her helmet, and neither girl said much as Trixie led Starlight inwards
  317. >Starlight thought of the books she’d read on World War II, of American soldiers marching through the countrysides and quiet forests of Normandy, and wondered if it felt anything like this
  318. >Eventually, the sound of rushing water grew louder in Starlight’s ears, and they happened upon a narrow, clear brook that rushed enthusiastically over a bed of smooth rocks
  319. >At the other end of the creek, nestled between a grove of sycamore trees, was the dilapidated form of a long-abandoned shack, its roof nearly caved in and holes eaten into its wooden framework
  320. >Trixie noticed Starlight admiring the building, and beamed proudly as she pulled off her muddy shoes
  321. >”You like it?”
  322. >Starlight nodded
  323. “Seems a little dangerous.”
  324. >”Nah. If anyone tries to sneak up one us, they’ll probably get caught by all the rusty scrap and old nails lying around.”
  325. “O-oh. Okay.”
  326. >”And besides, I come here all the time! I call it Fort Trixie.”
  327. “Not the most creative name.”
  328. >Trixie shrugged
  329. >”Still a pretty good one. C’mon! We gotta cross the moat before any patrols spot us!”
  330. “Right, right. Of course.”
  331. >Starlight hadn’t really committed to the military fantasy, but she had to admit that her neck prickled a little at the thought of what could be lurking out in those trees
  332. >Trixie rolled up the hems of her coat and pajama pants and began to wade barefoot through the water, holding her shoes in one hand
  333. >Starlight did the same, shivering when the icy water met her skin
  334. >The current was almost terrifyingly swift, swollen by the spring rain
  335. >As soon as she made it across, though, Starlight immediately pulled her shoes back on, and kept a close eye out for the aforementioned rusty nails
  336.  
  337. >Fort Trixie, as it turned out, had two levels: a ground floor and an attic
  338. >Starlight didn’t quite trust the attic’s rickety wooden flooring, some of which had already collapsed, but Trixie tromped right up
  339. >Beneath the patch where the ceiling had collapsed, some old blankets were spread out in a sort of next, just big enough for two people to lie in
  340. >Trixie plopped down, and motioned for Starlight to lay next to her
  341. >Starlight did so, but spent the whole time praying that the boards wouldn’t suddenly give way beneath her
  342. >She settled down next to Trixie amidst a groaning of protesting cross-beams
  343. >There wasn’t much room on the blanket nest, so the two were forced to squeeze together, just a little
  344. >And, while Starlight wouldn’t have admitted it, having a warm Trixie next to her definitely staved off some of the early spring chill…
  345. >Up above, the gap in the ceiling left an unobstructed view of the slate-gray sky
  346. >Staring at it gave Starlight the strangest sensation she were upside down, as if she were floating above some foggy chasm that stretched impossibly far beneath her
  347. >”Whatcha thinking about?”
  348. “Nothing interesting.”
  349. >”Oh. I was thinking about dragons.”
  350. “Huh. Is that gonna be our next mission? Finding a dragon?”
  351. >”No way. If there’s any dragons out here, Trixie is gonna stay outta their way.”
  352. “Smart idea.”
  353. >Trixie nodded, scooting a little closer to Starlight
  354. >”But… maybe we could take one on together.”
  355. “You think so?”
  356. >”Trixie knows so. Adventures are much better with you around.”
  357. “Oh.”
  358. >Starlight felt that puzzle-piece hole in her chest tremble
  359. “I’m glad. I like our adventures. They’re… pretty chill.”
  360. >”Awesome! Tomorrow, let’s slay a dragon.”
  361. “Why do we have to slay one?”
  362. >”I… I don’t know, I actually. That’s kinda just what heroes do. Huh.”
  363. “Seems like the dragon might just want to be left alone. Or, maybe it’s lonely.”
  364. >”It *can* get pretty lonely out here…”
  365. >Starlight bumped her elbow against Trixie’s side
  366. “Well, it doesn’t have to be. Maybe we could find one and befriend it. Don’t think many adventurers have done that, yet.”
  367. >Trixie’s eyes shone in the pale light
  368. >”That is the BEST IDEA TRIXIE’S EVER HEARD!”
  369. >She threw her arms around Starlight, squeezing the other girl so hard her back cracked
  370. >”Next to Trixie’s own ideas, of course.”
  371. “Hah. Naturally…” Starlight managed to eek out
  372. >Trixie let go of her, and sat with her head resting on her knees
  373. >Her hand lingered just a few inches from Starlight’s
  374. >Starlight took it in hers, finding it was a bit like holding a particularly excitable baby bird
  375.  
  376. >The rest of the morning and through the afternoon, they explored
  377. >Hands clasped, Trixie lead Starlight to a small rock formation near the stream, where they pretended to fight off an ambush of enemy troops, and then to a glade where they rested, pretending to doctor their battle-wounds
  378. >Gradually, the sweep of adventure closed in around Starlight
  379. >The world seemed to collapse, until it was nothing but her, Trixie, and the rustling of leaves around them
  380. >She swore she could almost see the imaginary soldiers, picturing them in her mind as some sort of undead Wehrmacht, eyes aglow with bloodlust until imaginary gunfire took them down
  381. >When eventually it came time for her to leave, Starlight was physically exhausted but mentally bristling, her body awash in vibrancy
  382. >She helped support an exhausted Trixie as the two hobbled back home, their legs and arms aching from climbing and crawling and their clothes splattered with mud and grass-stains
  383. >When they bid goodbye, she and Trixie shared an extra long hug, during which the other girl nuzzled her head against Starlight’s chin
  384. >The smell of her made that strange puzzle-piece gap in Starlight’s chest widen just a little
  385. >And as her mom, coldly furious about the mess Starlight had made of her clothes, drove her home, Starlight couldn’t help but feel a little dazed, left in that languid state of contented exhaustion
  386. >She felt that she knew what would fill her, but wondered if she was crazy all the while
  387.  
  388. >When her mom pulled up front of Trixie’s house the next day, Starlight sprinted the distance between the vehicle and the front door, holding her jacket over her head as a makeshift umbrella
  389. >A steady, dreary rain had been falling since she woke up, and it was predicted to last throughout the entire day
  390. >Puddles splashed beneath her feet, and her rubber rain boots squeaked against the wet concrete as she stutter-stepped to a halt in front of the Lulamoon residence
  391. >Trixie’s mom ushered Starlight in, even going so far as to take her jacket and toss it in the drier
  392. >From the kitchen, she could smell the warm, cinnamon scent of baking, and was somewhat surprised when she realized just much like home this random house felt to her after just two days
  393. >Trixie herself was sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by markers and sheets of music
  394. >She was focused so intently on her drawing that she didn’t even notice Starlight until she sat down
  395. >Trixie looked up, looking momentarily bewildered, but a giant grin spread across her round little face when she saw her friend
  396. >”Starlight! Look what Trixie drew!”
  397. >She proudly held up the piece of notebook paper in front of her for Starlight to examine
  398. >Her art was surprisingly good; not quite child-prodigy level, but way better than Starlight would have expected, given what she saw on the homemade Yugioh cards
  399. >Trixie must practice a lot, Starlight thought, then she realized that the poor girl probably didn’t have much else to do…
  400. >The picture depicted a unicorn dressed in a magician’s cape and matching hat, posing proudly in front of a collection of circles and connective lines that vaguely suggested the shape of a second unicorn watching her
  401. >”That’s gonna be you,” Trixie said, pointing out the unicorn in progress
  402. “Oh, really? Am I a unicorn too?”
  403. >”Yep! The most powerful unicorn around! Even more powerful than Trixie…”
  404. >Trixie tapped the completed unicorn drawing which, now that Starlight looked a little closer, definitely had the same hairstyle in addition to an unmistakably boisterous Trixie-ness
  405. “More powerful than you, huh?”
  406. >Trixie nodded
  407. >”Yep. Unicorn Trixie isn’t as good at magic as she wishes.”
  408. “Why not?”
  409. >”She never had anybody to teach her. That’s why she’s best friends with you!”
  410. >Trixie plopped the drawing back down, and hastily began scribbling in details to Starlight’s counterpart
  411. >It was kinda mesmerizing how quickly she filled in the swooping mane and the stocky horse-body
  412. >Starlight wondered how many times Trixie had drawn her already
  413. >The thought made the hole in her chest tremble
  414. >”Do you wanna draw something?”
  415. “Uh…”
  416. >Starlight bit her lip
  417. “I’m not really much of artist.”
  418. >”Nah, I bet you’re really good! Trixie wants to see what you’ll make!”
  419. >Trixie practically forced art supplies into Starlight’s hands
  420. “Okay, okay.”
  421. >Starlight accepted a pencil and a few sheets of notebook paper, and started scribbling
  422. >What was she supposed to draw?
  423. >Trixie’s picture of her was already turning out great
  424. >Anything she did would look pretty lame in comparison
  425. >Starlight was so intensely focused on the paper in front of her that she didn’t notice Trixie staring at her
  426. “What?”
  427. >”I just wanna see what you make.”
  428. “Eh, it’s really not gonna be anything great…”
  429. >”I wanna see!”
  430. “Okay, okay. Bleh…”
  431. >Starlight clamped her tongue between her teeth, and started desperately trying to figure out how anatomy worked
  432.  
  433. >Her end results weren’t exactly amazing
  434. >She tried to sketch her and Trixie marching through the woods in their uniforms, with spooky figures peaking out from between the bridges
  435. >But instead, it kinda just ended up looking like two kids wearing trash-bags, surrounded by a bunch of crummy, disproportioned Darth Vader’s
  436. >Starlight could feel Trixie peeking over her shoulder, and hastily tried to cover her drawing
  437. >”Whoa!”
  438. >Too late
  439. >Starlight held her head in her hands
  440. >”That’s awesome!”
  441. “No, it’s pretty bad.”
  442. >”Well, it’s nowhere near as good as mine, as expected.”
  443. >Starlight frowned
  444. “You don’t have to rub it in.”
  445. >”Trixie isn’t trying to rub it in! I love it!”
  446. >Trixie bent in closer
  447. >”You just need a good teacher, and you could be—”
  448. >Suddenly, Trixie froze, a sparkling smile spreading across her face
  449. >”Trixie could teach you!”
  450. “Oh, really? I mean, you don’t have to…”
  451. >”No, this is perfect! Gimme your hand!”
  452. >Trixie wrapped the slender fingers of her right hand around Starlight’s
  453. >”Now, just let Trixie guide you.”
  454. >Trixie rested her head on Starlight’s shoulder, so close that both girl’s cheeks pressed together
  455. >Up close, the radiant warmth of Trixie’s body flooded into Starlight
  456. >The hole in her chest buzzed in response, sending millivolts of excitement crackling across her skin
  457. >Trixie swept Starlight’s hand in a confident arc, sketching out a few circles
  458. >”See? It’s easy! Just make the circles like this…”
  459. >Her fingers tightened around the back of Starlight’s hand, manipulating it in quicker, more precise strokes
  460. >Starlight bit her tongue
  461. >She hadn’t realized before just how *strong* this girl was
  462. >A childhood spent out in the woods instead of reading must do that to her
  463. >There was a definitely roughness to Trixie’s fingers, a layer of callous unusual for a girl her age
  464. >She was surprisingly tough
  465. >Yet her grip around Starlight was so gentle, so precise
  466. >”You okay?”
  467. >Starlight crashed back into awareness
  468. “Huh?”
  469. >”You’ve been staring at the wall like this,” Trixie said, making a bug-eyed face and comically clamping her tongue between her teeth
  470. “I-I’m fine.”
  471. >”You don’t sound fine. You’re breathing *really* hard.”
  472. “Huh? No way,” Starlight said, panting
  473. >”Yes way.”
  474. >Trixie flashed Starlight a smug grin
  475. >”I think I know what’s happening.”
  476. >The gap in Starlight’s chest suddenly seemed to deepen into a dark, icy pit
  477. “Y-you… you do?”
  478. >”Yep! You’re thinking…”
  479. >Trixie posed, pointing dramatically at Starlight’s face
  480. >”…that Trixie is the best art teacher ever! Just look at the awesome drawing we made together!”
  481.  
  482. >Starlight shrugged
  483. “I mean, you did all the work. You pretty much just drew while holding my hand.”
  484. >”Nope!”
  485. >Trixie held up her left hand
  486. >”Remember which hand I was drawing with when you walked in?”
  487. “Huh?”
  488. >”Trixie is left-handed!”
  489. “Wait, then how does that work?”
  490. >”It means you have super-secret [H I D D E N P O T E N T I A L]! You just need the help of an experienced artist. Like me!” Trixie said, thumping her chest
  491. >Starlight scrambled to find words
  492. “Are… are you serious? I did that?”
  493. >”With Trixie’s help, you sure did!”
  494. “Huh.”
  495. >Starlight flexed her right hand, staring at it as if it were a stranger’s
  496. >”Trixie’s gonna make you a master artist. It’ll be great! We can make a giant mural all over the wall’s of Trixie’s room, with dragons and the two of us on a rocket and—”
  497. >”Yeah, that’s not happenin’, sweetie,” Trixie’s mother cut in
  498. >She bustled over to the table and set down a steaming platter of cinnamon rolls for the two girls
  499. >”Fine, fine. We’ll just draw a *super cool* comic instead,” Trixie said with a wink to Starlight
  500. “R-right.”
  501. >As was usual with Trixie, something about talking to her made Starlight’s head whirl
  502. >The girl’s torrent of excitement was something completely alien to a passive bookworm like S. Glimmer; she loved being caught up in it, as absolutely whiplash-inducing as it was
  503. >Together, both girls dug into breakfast with gusto, scarfing down way too many cinnamon rolls and washing them down with instant orange juice
  504. >Starlight had grown up in a strictly organic-only household; she had never imagined the evil “from concentrate” stuff could be so delicious
  505.  
  506. >After breakfast, there was a lingering feeling of “what now?”
  507. >The rain continued to splatter against the window outside, not strong enough to feel intimidating but not weak enough to be bearable
  508. >It just sort of droned on, and Starlight felt as if her energy was spilling out into the gutter along with the streams of runoff water
  509. >Of course, that was Starlight
  510. >Trixie didn’t even seem to care
  511. >”So…” she said, tipping her chair back on two legs and contentedly patting her belly, “what do you wanna do next?”
  512. “I dunno.”
  513. >”No ideas?”
  514. “Not really. Sorry,” Starlight said with a self-effacing chuckle, “I’m feeling kinda boring today.”
  515. >Trixie gasped
  516. >”How can you call yourself boring? You’re like, the coolest girl Trixie knows!”
  517. “Do you know what many people?”
  518. >Starlight really wasn’t sure why she said that
  519. >Trixie’s face fell slightly
  520. >”Not really. But… even if Trixie did, she’s still sure you’d be her favorite!”
  521. >Something inside Starlight melted
  522. >She was acutely aware of how little she deserved to be told something like that
  523. “Right.”
  524. >She felt Trixie’s little hand take ahold of hers
  525. >”Wanna go up to my room?”
  526.  
  527. >In Trixie’s bedroom, the rain drummed against the thin ceiling overheard, underscoring the two girls’ conversation with a thin slush of white noise
  528. “I’m sorry.”
  529. >”What for?”
  530. >Trixie looked genuinely taken aback by that
  531. “For… for thinking you didn’t have a lot of friends.”
  532. >”I mean, you were right. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
  533. “I guess. Kinda.”
  534. >Both girls were seated on opposite ends of Trixie’s bed, and the battered mattress creaked under Starlight as she turned away
  535. >Trixie shrugged
  536. >”But I still like having you around, even if you won’t be around forever. You make me happy.”
  537. “I’m… I’m glad. You deserve to be happy, Trixie.”
  538. >Trixie sprawled out across the bed and nudged Starlight with her foot
  539. >”You too! Trixie thinks you deserve to be *super* happy. So… you wanna play something now? Trixie has a lot of really good ideas to cheer you up.”
  540. “Sure.”
  541. >Starlight rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand
  542. “What did you have in mind?”
  543. >”Just wait right there!”
  544. >Trixie dug into the whicker basket full of plush toys that lay next to her bed
  545. >Starlight hadn’t gotten a good luck at most of the stuffed critters; now that she looked closer, she realized how battered each one was
  546. >The vast majority of the toys were dragons, their brightly-colored sequin scales graying with edge and many floppy wings and limbs tattered
  547. >But there were other fantastical creatures mixed in, and from the pile Trixie pulled out two unicorns, passing one to Starlight
  548. >Hers was a faded shade of purple, with a horn that had probably once been glittery, but not only looked threadbare and gray
  549. >Trixie’s own plush had a paper wizard’s hat and a matching cap, clearly homemade
  550. >”You like her?” Trixie asked
  551. “They’re both adorable. How long have you had these?”
  552. >”I… I don’t really remember. I don’t really play with them as much as I used to, so I’m glad they can keep each other company.”
  553. >Trixie made her pony bebop up next to Starlight’s and nuzzle against it affectionately
  554. “Ah, so these two are friends?”
  555. >”Yep! Best friends! They’re learning magic together. Yours reads a lot and is super smart, but mine can do a bunch of cool tricks!”
  556. “Do they have names?”
  557. >”Um…”
  558. >Trixie frowned
  559. >”Not really. Trixie could never think of a name that sounded good enough.”
  560. “Well, how about we name them after ourselves? That’s Unicorn Trixie, and this is Unicorn Starlight.”
  561. >Trixie beamed
  562. >”That’s a great idea! We can adventure together even when we’re stuck in here! You’re really pretty smart, Starlight.”
  563. “Heh, I mean… it wasn’t *that* clever, but…”
  564. >Starlight coughed into her hand, trying to hide her dopey smile
  565. >Something about the wide-eyed innocence of Trixie’s compliments made them stick pretty hard, and Starlight felt as if she could curl up inside each one like a fuzzy sweater
  566. >Pony-Trixie bopped Pony-Starlight’s snout
  567. >”You should watch me do some tricks!”
  568. “Sure thing!”
  569. >Starlight made her pony-self do an excited shimmy at the prospect
  570. >Trixie made her pony gallop excitedly around the bed
  571. >”And now, watch as Trixie turns this, uh…”
  572. >Trixie grabbed the nearest item
  573. >”…completely ordinary empty can of Dr. Thunder into…”
  574. >She grabbed the second-nearest this time
  575. >”A giant robot! Ta-dah! Pretty cool, eh?”
  576. “Sure it!”
  577. >Starlight made her pony do a happy little stompy-dance
  578. >Trixie lit up, grinning
  579. >”But sometimes, even Trixie makes mistakes! The robot’s been possessed by the evil ghost of, uh… Osama bin Laden!”
  580. “Well that got dark.”
  581. >”There’s no time to chat! We need to take the robo-spook down! Lend Trixie your strength!”
  582.  
  583. >So, that about set the tone for the afternoon
  584. >The ponies’ adventures become increasingly impractical: rocket-trips to the moon, battles against flying saucers represented by paper plates from the kitchen, and a magic-duel atop the planes of Trixie’s bed
  585. >The two unicorns saw it all
  586. >Starlight lost herself in the creativity of it; something about Trixie’s grinning abandon made it so easy to forget she was a thirteen-year-old girl still playing with dolls
  587. >It felt like a real adventure
  588. >Eventually, though, it all had to end
  589. >”Starlight!” Trixie’s mom shouted from downstairs. “Your mom’s here! Time t’ go!”
  590. >Trixie looked quite obviously crestfallen that things had been cut short; the unicorn versions of her and Starlight were just about to challenge the Ancient Wizard God Chumbo, represented by an old Gandalf action-figure that Trixie had in one of her drawers
  591. “Sorry… guess I’d better head out.”
  592. >”Yeah…”
  593. >Trixie perked up, though Starlight noticed that it took her considerably longer than usual to do so
  594. >”That’s okay! Trixie will still get to see you tomorrow!”
  595. “Sure will. I’m really, really looking forward to it.”
  596. >For a moment, both girls just stared at each other, the room lit by pale gray light and silent aside from the steady pattering of rain
  597. >Starlight, feeling somewhat clunky, handed her plush back to Trixie and headed towards the door
  598. >Just as she reached it, though, she heard Trixie’s voice behind her
  599. >”Starlight?”
  600. “Yeah?”
  601. >”Trixie… I mean, I still get my goodbye hug, right?”
  602.  
  603. >Trixie held out her arms, the sleeves of her hoodie drooping somewhat comically over her hands
  604. “Ah… right, yeah.”
  605. >Starlight circled her arms around Trixie’s waist and pulled the other girl against her
  606. >Trixie’s hug was tight as ever, but there was a measured gentleness to it
  607. >Her head came to rest against Starlight’s shoulder, and Starlight allowed her face to brush against Trixie’s hair
  608. >It smelled like a muted, sweeter version of the way the whole house did: of cinnamon, of dollar-store soap, and of aged wood
  609. >Starlight was acutely aware of Trixie’s soft chest pressing up against hers
  610. >It made her feel warm, and strangely whole
  611. >The two held each other like that until Starlight heard the creaking of floorboards from down the hall
  612. >She lifted her head to see Trixie’s mom standing at the end of the hall
  613. >Immediately, Starlight let go of Trixie
  614. >She stood there, facing the girl’s mom, with her arms dangling at her side and a sheepish, guilty look on her face
  615. >But Trixie’s mom just smiled
  616. >”C’mon, Starlight. Let’s go get your coat, sweetie.”
  617.  
  618. >Starlight followed Trixie’s mom down the stairs, her eyes on the floor
  619. >She wasn’t entirely sure why she felt so guilty
  620. >There was nothing weird about two friends hugging, right?
  621. >But she was all too aware that what happened back there wasn’t a “friend” hug
  622. >She wasn’t sure what kind of other hugs there were, but…
  623. >Well, there was *that* kind
  624. >And maybe Starlight kid sort of feel *that* way about Trixie
  625. >Whatever *that* way was, really, she wasn’t entirely sure
  626. >It wasn’t like Starlight hadn’t had these little crushes before
  627. >But she’d never actually gotten this far with one of them, and at this point she couldn’t even imagine what to do next
  628. >Granted, Trixie probably didn’t feel anywhere near the same way
  629. >Starlight mentally blocked the thoughts of Trixie reciprocating affection out of her mind, feeling weirdly paranoid that Mrs. Lulamoon would somehow pick up on her feelings for her if Starlight thought about them too hard
  630. >”Starlight?”
  631. “G-gah! Yeah?”
  632. >They had reached the laundry room; Starlight gave Mrs. Lulamoon a nervous smile, stuffing her sweaty hands into her pockets
  633. >”You okay? You look a lil’ nervous, sweetheart.”
  634. “No, I’m fine.”
  635. >”Okay. Here ya go.”
  636. >She passed Starlight her warm, now-dry jacket
  637. >The moment it was in her hands, Starlight whirled around with every intent to dash out of the room
  638. >But she felt Mrs. Lulamoon’s hand on her shoulder
  639. >”Listen, uh… can I talk to ya for a moment?”
  640. “S-sure.”
  641. >”Thanks. Now, ya been real good with Trix, an’ I appreciate that a whole lot.”
  642. “I’m g-glad to hear it.”
  643. >Starlight stared up into the older woman’s sunny smile, seeing nothing but terror in it
  644. >”But, uh… I saw that you were huggin’ her back there, and I just wanted to tell ya—“
  645. “I’m sorry! It won’t happen again, I promise!”
  646. >”Huh?”
  647. >Trixie’s mom looked genuinely confused
  648. “Oh… are you not mad?”
  649. >”Mad?”
  650. >Mrs. Lulamoon chuckled; somehow, even her laughter still had that thick Fargo accent
  651. >”Course I’m not mad atcha! It’s just… Trix gets real attached to folk that are nice to her, y’know?”
  652. “Hah. Yeah, I can kinda tell.”
  653. >”It’s one of the reasons I love the little thing so much. But… it can be hard for her. She gets so attached to these nice kids that TEACUP sends here and then, well… she doesn’t see ‘em again.”
  654. “Oh.”
  655. >”And I understand. You guys are doing a good thing, volunteering your time for kids like her who don’t have a lotta people to rely on. But you have lives you gotta get back to, once your week here ends. So I guess, what I’m askin’ is…”
  656. >Trixie’s mom patted Starlight’s shoulder
  657. >”Try not to get her hopes up too high, okay?”
  658.  
  659. >Those words stuck with Starlight the entire way home
  660. >The rain had fizzled out, leaving a misty haze that hung in the air and blotted out the afternoon sun
  661. >Streetlights were on already, and brief bars of yellow light flashed across the car’s interior as they sped home
  662. >’Don’t get her hopes up…’
  663. >Was that all that Starlight was doing?
  664. >She hadn’t really considered what she would do after her TEACUP session with Trixie ended
  665. >Starlight saw no reason that the two couldn’t stay being friends, but…
  666. >Well, it’s not like she was still friends with any of the other kids she’d met through the organization
  667. >The program was pretty much just an endlessly cycling rent-a-friend for kids who couldn’t find them normally
  668. >That thought made Starlight feel a little sad
  669. >She curled up in the back seat, feeling a little less like a kid and a bit more world-weary
  670. >Was it even right, to make Trixie feel like all of this was real?
  671. >Was it real?
  672. >It felt real, but Starlight couldn’t help but doubt her own authenticity
  673.  
  674.  
  675. >She lay in bed a long time that night before she slept
  676. >A fierce Midwestern wind was rocking the house, howling where it buffeted against the windows and causing tree branches to scrape against the roof
  677. >Starlight rolled herself in a cocoon of blankets, feeling particularly lonely
  678. >No matter how she tried to keep her mind off it, the hug she shared with Trixie kept surfacing in her thoughts
  679. >It had been so different than the others, lacking the bone-crushing enthusiasm of Trixie’s previous hugs
  680. >There was a tenderness to it; definitely not a friend-hug
  681. >Or was Starlight imagining things?
  682. >In that moment, the smell of Trixie’s hair, the soft thump of the girl’s heart, the feeling of her skinny body beneath an oversized sweater…
  683. >Did Trixie feel something for her?
  684. >And if she did, what did that change?
  685. >TEACUP’s program would still end
  686. >And what would stop them from drifting apart?
  687. >Love?
  688. >That hadn’t kept her parents together, and she didn’t see why it would work for her
  689. >Starlight rolled onto her stomach, then onto her back, then onto her stomach again
  690. >Her alarm clock read 11:35; she’d be lucky to get even seven hours of sleep at this point
  691. >Eventually, Starlight practically gave up on sleeping, and resigned herself to staring at the ceiling, imagining increasingly bizarre, embarrassing, and ultimately painful scenarios of what could happen between her and Trixie
  692. >When she finally did fall asleep, she dreamed she was sprinting through dense, spidery treebranches, chasing desperately after a figure in a blue hoodie while gaping holes opened in the earth around her feet and threatened to swallow her whole
  693. >It wasn’t a pleasant night
  694.  
  695. >Starlight woke up fifteen minutes before her alarm, finding her bedroom awash in pale, gray light filtering through the window
  696. >She promptly leaned over the bed and threw up violently into a trashcan
  697. >When she finished heaving, she fell back onto the bed, her body soaked in clammy sweat
  698. >The world pinwheeled sickeningly around her
  699. “Mom…” she croaked out, disgusting by the foul taste in her mouth
  700. >Starlight’s mom entered, still in her bathrobe with her hair tied up in a knot at the back of her head
  701. >”Yes?”
  702. “Sick.”
  703. >”Hmm.”
  704. >Starlight’s mother placed a hand to her daughter’s forehead
  705. >”You’re not faking this to avoid visiting Trixie, are you?”
  706. “N-no.”
  707. >”You feel hot. I suppose I’ll phone Mrs. Lulamoon and tell her you’re not coming. Poor Trixie…”
  708. >Starlight sank into the covers, lifting them up to cover her face
  709. >She wasn’t faking this, right?
  710. >It definitely *felt* real
  711. >Her entire body felt like it was lit with sewage-green flame, smoldering just beneath the surface of her skin
  712. “T-tell her I’m sorry…”
  713. >”Of course.”
  714. >Starlight’s mom disappeared from the room, leaving the sick girl to mope
  715.  
  716.  
  717. >What felt like hours later (but was probably closer to minutes, given the unchanged lighting from outside), she returned with the phone in her hands
  718. >”Trixie is very concerned about you.”
  719. “Oh.”
  720. >”You promise me you aren’t faking this?”
  721. “I’m not!” Starlight tried to shout, but only ended up letting out a gurgling squawk
  722. >For a long time, Starlight’s mom just regarded her with the same expression she used while reading
  723. >”Good. Because the poor girl practically begged me to let her come and take care of you.”
  724. “S-she did? What did you say?”
  725. >”Yes, naturally.”
  726. >Starlight’s mother turned to leave
  727. >”She’ll be here in half an hour or so.”
  728. >Starlight’s mother grabbed up the puked-in trashcan and carried it out of the room
  729. “Mom?”
  730. >She paused in the doorway
  731. “T-thanks.”
  732. >”Mm. Of course.”
  733. >And with that, she was gone
  734.  
  735. >Starlight, however, continued to lie in bed
  736. >She was getting quite tired of looking at the same ceiling
  737. >Somewhere out in the hallway, she heard boots squeaking against the floorboards in an erratic, excited pitter-patter that could only have belonged to Trixie
  738. >Twenty seconds later, her bedroom door was thrown open and Trixie sprinted inside
  739. >”Starlight!”
  740. “Hey…”
  741. >Trixie ran towards her
  742. >Her arms were wide, clearly intending to wrap Starlight in a get-better hug, but Trixie thought better of it as she got closer
  743. >”Are you okay?”
  744. “I’ll live.”
  745. >Starlight rolled onto her side, facing the other girl
  746. >She noticed Trixie was carrying a backpack, but didn’t have the energy to ask about it
  747. >She didn’t have the energy for much of anything
  748. >Trixie clearly picked up on this and sat on the floor next to Starlight’s bed, resting her head in her hands and watching the sick girl
  749. >Every once in a while, she’d glance around the room and take in the overflowing bookshelves that filled its walls
  750. >”You read a lot, huh?”
  751. “Yep,” Starlight croaked
  752. >”Trixie does too…”
  753. >Trixie lay back on the floor, staring at the ceiling along with Starlight
  754. >”Is there anything Trixie can do to make you feel better?”
  755. “I don’t know…”
  756. >”If you think of something, lemme know.”
  757. “Okay.”
  758. >A few minutes of silence passed, in which Starlight zoned in and then back out of lucidity
  759. >She was actually kinda impressed at just how awful she felt
  760. >Starlight’s gaze drifted around the room, occasionally lingering on random details: drops of water that collected on the blue rubber of Trixie’s rainboots, the mirror on her wall that was permanently askew, the way Trixie’s hair shone a pale, smoky blue in the room’s dim light…
  761. >”Starlight? Starlight?”
  762. “Huh?”
  763. >Starlight snapped back to reality to find Trixie poking her shoulder
  764. >”You weren’t paying attention to Trixie.”
  765. “Sorry,” Starlight croaked
  766. >”Trixie was asking if you wanted her to read to you.”
  767. “Uh…”
  768. >Starlight’s head was swimming so hard that it took a moment for her to process the question
  769. “I guess.”
  770. >”Cool! Trixie is gonna read you a story she wrote herself. It’s not finished it, but you’re gonna love it.”
  771. >Starlight couldn’t manage a response
  772. >Trixie hopped up onto the edge of her bed, kicked her boots off, and removed a folded piece of paper from her pocket
  773. >”Ahem. Once, in the very distant land of Equestria, there lived a young unicorn who wanted to be a famous magician more than anything…”
  774. >Starlight could feel herself sinking into the pillow already, her fever-addled brain drifting further away
  775. >”…she didn’t have many friends…”
  776. >It was beginning to feel more and more as if the room were spinning about its axis
  777. >”She didn’t have any, really. The poor unicorn lived in a wagon, all by herself, hoping someday she could impress enough ponies that one would want to stick with her…”
  778. >Starlight tried to fix her eyes on something, as if doing so could steady the vortex inside her head
  779. >Her eyes, blearily, anchored on Trixie
  780. >The base of her neck, to be specific; her oversized sweatshirt hung just loose enough to reveal the sloped, slender bit of skin where her neck ended and her chest began
  781. >A little of her left shoulder was visible too
  782. >It looked soft
  783. >”But one day, she finally met someone who would stay with her! And the little unicorn was so happy she finally had a friend…”
  784. >Starlight held her gaze on that shoulder
  785.  
  786. >She must have fallen asleep at some point, because suddenly Trixie was gone and Starlight found herself alone, shivering, and slick with sweat
  787. >Her room was dark, aside from shafts of moonlight that stretched the books atop her desk into black, oblong shadows on the floor
  788. >Starlight pulled the blankets tighter around herself, shuddering horribly
  789. >When she closed her eyes, she was that same stuffed toy she and Trixie had played with earlier, trying desperately to perform some kind of magic as her blue, caped companion applauded
  790. >But each attempt she made just made her feel a little sicker, until Starlight was sure that she’d simply dissolve into something liquid and foul
  791. “Get away from me…” her dream-self pleaded, but the blue one wouldn’t listen. “Can’t you see I’m not good?”
  792. >Starlight curled up beneath the blankets, afraid to move
  793. >Why couldn’t she see it?
  794. >Her friend just kept cheering for her, oblivious as Starlight began to fade away
  795. >Maybe it was for the best this way…
  796.  
  797. >Sometime that night, Starlight’s fever finally broke
  798. >She woke up still exhausted, but feeling far more alive than she had
  799. >For a while, she lay in bed and stared blankly above her, counting globs in the popcorn ceiling
  800. >Eventually, her mom knocked on her door
  801. >”Starlight.”
  802. “Yeah,” she croaked
  803. >Her mother entered and stood with her arms folded near the door
  804. >”Today’s Friday. Your last TEACUP day.”
  805. “I know.”
  806. >”Still not up to going?”
  807. “Don’t think so.”
  808. >”I see. Should I invite your friend?”
  809. “I don’t want her to get sick.”
  810. >”Hmm.”
  811. >Starlight’s mom clicked her tongue, then turned to leave
  812. >”She’ll be disappointed.”
  813.  
  814. >Even though she couldn’t sleep, Starlight continued to lie in bed, her eyes glassy and loosely focused on a spiderwebbing network of cracks in the corner of her bedroom
  815. >What else was she supposed to do?
  816. >She wouldn’t be any fun today anyway
  817. >Every time Starlight’s eyes closed, images of Trixie swam through her mind
  818. >Sometimes they were of the other girl’s beaming face, sometimes of the way her hands fidgeted with the hem of her hoodie while she talked, and sometimes they weren’t images at all, just flashes of sensation reminiscent of how Trixie’s warm breath had flowed over Starlight’s face when they held each other during the storm
  819. >Starlight’s fingers dug into the sheets, balling them inside her fists
  820. >A part of her wondered if she could stay like this forever, and maybe these feelings would just go away
  821. >Yeah, right
  822.  
  823. >It took about another hour or two before Starlight realized just how terribly hungry she was
  824. >She’d been unable to eat a thing yesterday, and her appetite rushed back to her with a striking, painful sensation
  825. >Groggily, she sat up in bed
  826. >Her body was weak from so much lying around, leaving her legs shaky as she headed for her bedroom door
  827. >To her surprise, though, her right foot caught on something small and soft lying next to her bed, and she stumbled as she tried to avoid squishing it
  828. >There, at the foot of her bed, was one of the unicorn dolls her and Trixie had played with the night before
  829. >It was the blue one, decked out in a small cape made of construction paper
  830. >For a moment, Starlight could only stare at the little pony and wonder how she got there
  831. >Trixie must have left the unicorn behind, she figured
  832. >Starlight picked the toy up, and the plushie’s soft little body seemed to relax against her palm
  833. >A tiny piece of paper was taped to its leg, which Starlight pulled away and unfolded
  834. >She revealed a pencil drawing of herself and Trixie, both of them clad in armor and sleeping back-to-back beneath a cramped tent
  835. >Starlight stared at the drawing, once again taken aback by the sheer talent on display
  836. >She slumped onto the bed, holding the unicorn toy in her lap
  837. >Why?
  838. >Why was Trixie so nice to her?
  839. >Didn’t she know Starlight was just going to disappear, like she had with the others?
  840. >And besides, the nicer Trixie was to her, the more it would increase these things that Starlight felt about her…
  841. >Starlight shook her head, cursing the other girl’s stupidity under her breath
  842. >Things were just going to get messed up, like they always did
  843. >So what was the point in trying to fix any of it?
  844. >What was the point in liking anyone at all, if it all just fell apart in the end?
  845. >These questions and others chased themselves in circles through Starlight’s head
  846. >Before long, she felt like she’d go crazy
  847. >And maybe she did, just a little bit
  848. >Because, seized by a sudden surge of restlessness, Starlight jumped up from her bed and sprinted downstairs
  849.  
  850. >Her mom was sitting in the living room, placidly sipping at her tea
  851. >She raised an eyebrow as Starlight sprinted past
  852. >”You’re looking better.”
  853. “I sure hope so.”
  854. >”And what’s that supposed to mean?”
  855. “Nothing. I’ll be back later!”
  856. >Starlight scarfed down a handful of crackers for a quick breakfast, then jumped onto her bike and pedaled furiously towards Trixie’s house
  857.  
  858. >It seemed that the sun had finally broken through the week’s spring storms
  859. >The day was muggy and damp, and it wrapped around Starlight in a warm, soggy mantle
  860. >Sunlight beat down on her brow, and sweat flowed freely down her face as she rounded the corners of narrow suburban streets, flying beneath rain-soaked oak trees and past people’s muddy gardens
  861. >She remembered the way to Trixie’s house well enough, and soon found herself in front of the shabby place
  862. >Its white stucco walls glistened with rain-water, and the moisture had stained the wooden porch a dark gray
  863. >Starlight stepped up to knock, but paused halfway
  864. >She had to be making a mistake, she was almost sure of it
  865. >But…
  866. >Starlight’s hand hovered inches from the door
  867. >What was so wrong with making mistakes anyway?
  868. >In this moment, for today, her and Trixie would be happy
  869. >She closed her eyes, focusing every part of herself on the image of that girl’s smiling face, framed in her silver-blue hair
  870. >Nobody could force her to give up on that
  871. >She’d make mistakes and, knowing her, she would probably ruin things eventually
  872. >But for now, the two of them could share a spring afternoon
  873. >Starlight knocked on Trixie’s door; the sound was sharp and clear, and was answered almost immediately by the pitter-patter of Trixie’s footsteps
  874. >Really, what else could she have done?
  875.  
  876. >Almost immediately, Starlight found herself wrapped in the other girl’s arms
  877. >”Starlight! Your mom said you weren’t coming!”
  878. “Yeah, I, uh… I feel a lot better now.”
  879. >”That’s great!”
  880. >For a brief second, the two stayed silhouetted in sunlight underneath the doorway, with Trixie holding Starlight at arm’s length
  881. >The other girl stared at her quizzically
  882. >”So… it’s our last day, huh.”
  883. “Yeah…”
  884. >Starlight dropped her gaze, but Trixie grabbed ahold of her hand
  885. >”Then let’s make it a good one! We’ve finally got some sun, let’s go for an adventure!”
  886. “Yeah?”
  887. >A tiny glimmer of light had begun to eat through the gunk inside Starlight
  888. “What kind of adventure?”
  889. >”Let’s go find that dragon! He needs a friend, remember?”
  890. >Starlight answered with a nod, and the two ran off with their hands still clasped together
  891.  
  892. Closing song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nzv7oiKqOvU
  893.  
  894. >Sunlight settled through the tree leaves above as they entered the forest, fresh mud squishing beneath the girls’ shoes
  895. >Starlight’s chest ached; she did’t think she’d ever run this much
  896. >After having biked all the way here, it was exhausting
  897. >But each breath of warm spring air gave her just enough energy for a few more steps, and she followed close behind Trixie
  898. >”Careful,” Trixie whispered back to her
  899. >They ducked amidst a patch of frilly green bushes
  900. >”They’re everywhere.”
  901. “What are?”
  902. >”Ghosts! They wanna take us away!”
  903. “Hmm..”
  904. >Starlight picked two makeshift swords out of the wood lying underfoot, passing one to Trixie
  905. “We’ll need to keep ourselves safe.”
  906. >”Yeah! You lead this time!”
  907.  
  908. >Starlight pressed forward this time, her sword held aloft
  909. >She could almost see the creatures lurking in the shadows, and drew reflexively closer to Trixie
  910. >The other girl pressed back up against her, keeping a watchful eye over Starlight’s shoulder
  911. >”The dragon must be close.”
  912. “How can you tell?”
  913. >”Trixie just knows these things.”
  914. “Well?”
  915. >”Forward. But stay quiet.”
  916. >Trixie gestured to a gap in the trees, and both girls crept beneath an archway of intertwined ivy and emerged into a wide clearing, the floor of which was bare, wet earth
  917. >A collapsed tree trunk lay flat in the center of it, halfway sunken into the mud
  918. >Trixie took a few steps forward and stopped, her stick-sword dropping to her side
  919. >”It’s dead.”
  920. “Trixie…”
  921. >Starlight tried to take her friend’s hand again, but Trixie walked forward and placed her hand against the trunk
  922. >”We didn’t make it in time.”
  923. >There was a flatness in Trixie’s voice that Starlight hadn’t heard before
  924. >”He must have been lonely.”
  925. “Guess so.”
  926. >Starlight followed her friend and rested her hand on Trixie’s shoulder
  927. “But it’ll be okay. He’ll be a part of these woods forever, now. Look.”
  928. >Starlight gestured with her stick-sword towards a protruding branch, where a robin was already shaping twigs into a nest
  929. “See?”
  930. >A little smile touched Trixie’s face
  931. >”Yeah. He’ll be here forever now. And we can come and visit!”
  932. >Trixie turned around, facing Starlight
  933. >Here eyes were downcast, unable to meet Starlight’s face
  934. >”You… you will come and visit me, right?”
  935. “I…”
  936. >Starlight’s voice caught in her throat for a moment
  937. >The answer was “yes,” of course
  938. >She wanted to see Trixie again, probably more than she really should…
  939. >But she couldn’t help but doubt her reasons
  940. >And, well… how long would she even be around?
  941. >”Starlight?”
  942. “I… I will.”
  943. >”Awesome!”
  944. >Trixie grabbed ahold of Starlight’s hand, squeezing it
  945. >”So? What now? We still got a few hours!”
  946. “Do you, uh… do you want to play something new?”
  947. >Plans started forming in Starlight’s head, so far-flung that they were almost hard to envision
  948. >”Sure! Like what?”
  949. >Starlight gulped
  950. >”I’m gonna be a princess. And you come rescue me.”
  951. >”Oooh, classic! A noble task for Trixie, no doubt!”
  952. >Trixie stepped back, bowing deep
  953. >”Fear not! The Great and Powerful Sir Trixie will bow before no calamity!”
  954. >Starlight couldn’t help but smile, despite the fluttering anxiety that seemed to perch right on her shoulder
  955. “H-heh, cool! I’ll be, uh… right up there!”
  956. >Starlight pointed to the top of a nearby tree, one with plenty of close-together branches which would hopefully make it easy to climb
  957. >”Trixie will stop at nothing until she rescues her! Just wait a little more!”
  958. >Trixie ran off, swinging her sword at imaginary foes, and Starlight hauled her skinny body up into the tree
  959. >She rested in the crook of a branch, curling into a ball and closing her eyes
  960. >Was she really going to do this?
  961. >It was so stupidly risky, not to mention incredibly lame
  962. >But if she didn’t now, she’d never get up the nerve
  963. >And if she didn’t get up the nerve, she’d regret it
  964. >Would Trixie hate her?
  965. >Maybe…
  966. >”Hark! Your savior is come!”
  967. >Starlight opened her eyes, seeing Trixie at the base of the cliff
  968. >She was splattered in significantly more mud than before, and beamed as she held her stick-sword aloft
  969. >”Trixie is here to rescue you!”
  970. >Starlight waved her up
  971. “My hero!” was all she could think to say, as her brain was currently about to implode in on itself
  972. >Trixie scaled the branches with surprising ease, hopping from one to the other as she scrambled up to towards Starlight’s perch
  973. >Starlight scooted to the side so that Trixie could join her
  974. >”Trixie has come to rescue you, fair Princess Glimmer. Would you come with me, now?”
  975. >She extended her hand, and Starlight took it again
  976. >Even after holding it nearly all day, the delicate warmth of Trixie’s palm still made Starlight’s chest tremble
  977. >Starlight smiled at her friend
  978. “I would.”
  979. >She let Trixie lead her down to the ground
  980. >And as her feet touched the earth, her mind was made up
  981. >She turned to Trixie
  982. “You’ve proven your valor, sir knight.”
  983. >Trixie beamed puffing out her chest
  984. >”All in a day’s work, my lady.”
  985. “You’ve earned yourself a kiss.”
  986. >Trixie blinked
  987. >”A… kiss?”
  988. “It’s only fair.”
  989. >Starlight’s heartbeat was so strong she could feel it echoing in her ears
  990. >Was she seriously doing this?
  991. >She held out her hands
  992. “Will you accept my gift?”
  993. >Trixie hesitated for a single terrifying moment, in which Starlight’s brain managed to convince her that she’d just irrevocably ruined their friendship
  994. >”Trixie shall!”
  995. >She delicately took hold of Starlight, pulling the other girl close until their faces were only an inch apart
  996. >The warmth of Trixie’s breath washed over Starlight, and she realized in a haze that she actually had no idea how to kiss someone
  997. >But she wouldn’t allow herself to back out now
  998. >She closed her eyes and awkwardly bumped her mouth against Trixie’s with a soft, wet *smooch*
  999. >Both girls looked at each other, not really sure what to do next
  1000. >”…so that’s what a kiss is like! Trixie has earned a just reward!”
  1001. >Starlight smiled, blushing furiously
  1002. “Maybe you could earn another, if you really want one…”
  1003. >”Trixie accepts!”
  1004. “Could you, um… help me get back to your house?” Starlight asked, right as her exhausted legs were about to give out from under her
  1005.  
  1006. >They made it back, barely
  1007. >By the end, Trixie was practically carrying an exhausted Starlight
  1008. >They hobbled in, past Trixie’s mom, and up the stairs to Trixie’s room
  1009. >Inside, they collapsed to the floor together, sitting propped and panting with their backs against Trixie’s bead
  1010. >”That was the best adventure Trixie’s ever been on.”
  1011. “Yeah…”
  1012. >”Trixie can’t believe she got a real kiss…”
  1013. “No?”
  1014. >Starlight scooted a little closer to her friend, just close enough for both girls’ shoulders to touch
  1015. “Well, maybe you’d believe it a little more if you got another?”
  1016. >Trixie nodded furiously
  1017. >”Trixie thinks she would!”
  1018. >The two embrace, letting their kiss last just a little longer this time
  1019. >It was clumsy, of course, not to mention a bit messy on account of the splotches of mud on Trixie’s cheeks
  1020. >But, much like the bond the two had formed over the week, it was warm and safe and absolutely radiant despite its messiness
  1021.  
  1022. >Starlight, of course, eventually had to go home
  1023. >Long after it got dark, after a few more rounds of games, a nap while sharing Trixie’s bed, and a few more quick, nervous kisses, Starlight pedaled home
  1024. >She’d actually done it
  1025. >There was no way of telling what would become of her and Trixie now
  1026. >Starlight couldn’t help but be a little afraid that she’d gone and ruined everything
  1027. >But she supposed that, at this point, there wasn’t much of a reason to continue worrying about that
  1028. >She wanted Trixie
  1029. >And she wanted to make her happy
  1030. >In that moment, she’d acted out of the purest intentions she had
  1031. >So, even if she’d made a mistake, it had been a mistake that was true to her
  1032. >The thought was comforting, in a way
  1033. >That night, as Starlight lay in the bath with eyes lazily focused on the ceiling, she thought back to the dead “dragon” they’d found in the woods
  1034. >And to a young Starlight, it seemed almost as if nothing ever really ended
  1035. >Everything just persisted in chaotic cycles, drawn endlessly towards what it was needed for
  1036. >If Trixie needed a friend, that’s what Starlight would be
  1037. >And she’d be quite happy to be more than a friend
  1038. >She wanted to be with that girl somehow, she knew that much
  1039. >And it wouldn’t be easy
  1040. >But thunderstorms always end in peace, and Starlight was ready for whatever her and Trixie’s beautiful, terrible storm would bring
  1041.  
  1042. End
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