feebop

Starlit Review

May 6th, 2021 (edited)
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  1. On a warm autumn evening, in the far corner of a California public library, the secrets of the universe revealed themselves. Or, they tried to, at least.
  2.  
  3. As Marcy made a connection between the size of a star and its gravitational pull, the clicking of a mechanical pen drubbed her ear. When she grasped the brilliance of the cosmic life cycle, metal raked against paper. Before she even dared to dip her toe into the formation of nebulae, a dress shoe tapped out the rhythm of a pop song.
  4.  
  5. The noise was simply unworkable. Marcy closed her astronomy text, and turned to her “study buddy.”
  6.  
  7. “Sash, are you bored?”
  8.  
  9. Surprise lit up Sasha's eyes, and for a moment her leaned-back chair wobbled on its hind legs. She was gifted with dexterity, though, so her teetering ended as quickly as her shock. Would that everyone could be so coordinated.
  10.  
  11. Sasha popped a pink earbud from her ear, and let the tones of a pop punk ballad spill out into the world. “Did you say something, Mar-mar?” she asked, at a not-quite-library-appropriate volume.
  12.  
  13. “I just asked if you were bored. It seems like you finished, uh... studying a while ago.” Truthfully, Marcy felt generous for implying she had ever started.
  14.  
  15. She glanced down at their shared table, and sighed. Her own station was nowhere near neat, bedecked as it was in old dusty books, and covered in scattered note pages. Sasha's, though, was a bright neon disaster area. To her credit, she did have a textbook open, but it was buried under several teen magazines. She had a notebook open too, but instead of notes she had elected to fill it with heart, sword and diamond motifs. Marcy could even see a few bits of anime fanart, etched near the bottom of the page in pretty pink ink. She tried not to let her eyes linger on one particular sketch, lest she explode.
  16.  
  17. Empty soda bottles rattled, as Sasha thunked her chair onto all four legs. “Oh no,” she said “I'm fine. Just taking a little break... I've got uh,” she clicked her tongue as she nudged a few boy band almanacs out of the way, to reveal the book beneath, “uh math on lock. No need to overwork myself.”
  18.  
  19. Marcy nodded, silently. She had always admired that quality of Sasha's: the ability to lie so confidently in the face of the truth. Before she could formulate a response, though, Sasha went on.
  20.  
  21. “I'm not bothering you, am I?” Measured vulnerability leaked into her voice. “I can leave, if you want.”
  22.  
  23. Marcy's hands shot up to bat away the notion. “No, nono!” she stammered. “That's not what I was getting at, it's just-”
  24.  
  25. “Good!” Sasha declared. And, that was the end of that. Once again she leaned back, and kicked a foot up on the table for balance. “So what are you working on, anyway?” She flicked a shiny nail at Marcy's book. “That doesn't look like a school textbook.”
  26.  
  27. “Oh no, it's not,” said Marcy. She looked down at the book, titled Star Stuff, and snorted. “You could say it's extracurricular.” While the girl giggled to herself, her companion arched an eyebrow, and asked a silent question. “Astronomy's one of my weaker sciences,” the scholar explained, “and I'm trying to punch up on it. The SAT has been casting a wider net in the science department, and I want to be ready.”
  28.  
  29. Sasha's confusion only deepened, until finally her question grew audible. “Marcy, you know we don't take that for like, five years, right? Isn't that overkill?”
  30.  
  31. “Four and a half years, actually,” Marcy reported. “And, it's never too early to start preparing,” she recited. “We're expecting a top percentile result.”
  32.  
  33. Sasha digested the answer, for a moment. The bewilderment never left her eyes, but something soft crept onto her lips. “Mar-mar, I think you're going to ace that stupid thing whether you waste a night reading about stars or not.”
  34.  
  35. The faintest pink tinged Marcy's cheeks, and she scratched the back of her neck. “Well, you don't really ace-” she mumbled, before she caught herself. “I mean, thanks Sash.” Sasha nodded, and Marcy relaxed, ever so slightly. “But, I just want to be sure. And this stuff is kind of interesting to study, in its own right.”
  36.  
  37. “Pfft, could have fooled me,” snickered Sasha, as she reached for her backpack. “Reading about space crud is like the most boring thing you could be doing on a Friday night.”
  38.  
  39. “It's really not bad,” Marcy said, “the mechanics of space are fascinating, and...” She knew her words were falling on deaf ears. After a moment of silence, though, the girl thought of a new approach. “Studying stars used to be a lot cooler in the past, though. It used to be, like, the most important science there was... even if it was closer to magic back then. You know, astrology.”
  40.  
  41. Sasha nodded along politely as she searched through her things. Really, that was all Marcy could ask for.
  42.  
  43. “Back then, they thought the stars had all kinds of meanings,” with all the awe and showmanship she could muster. “Whatever stars were highest in the sky when you were born were supposed to say all these things about you: who you would be, what you would want, your fate, basically.” As hokey as the ideas were, they filled Marcy with a distant sense of wonderment as she gave them voice. “That's why Romeo and Juliet are always called 'star-crossed lovers,' you know. They were fated from birth to never be able to-”
  44.  
  45. “Yeah, yeah, I get it, Marcy,” Sasha cut in. “Stars used to be all magic and romantic and stuff,” she said, twiddling her fingers for effect. Marcy noticed, then, that her friend had produced a number of brightly colored vials of nail polish. The blonde rolled her wrist, and continued “And then some killjoy in a labcoat figured out they were just balls of gas, and they didn't mean anything.”
  46.  
  47. Marcy snortled, despite her abject failure. “Well, there were some intermediary steps... and stars are more like perpetual explosions than gas balls, but... yeah that's basically what happened.”
  48.  
  49. Sasha didn't answer. It was no shock; The girl had a habit of drifting out of conversations she found too dry. At least Marcy had given it her best shot.
  50.  
  51. Instead of talking about fateful stars, the blonde weighed the merits of three glossy finalists. Currently, her nails were an eye-catching shade of hot pink. But, apparently she was ready for a change. In her palm, she examined three vials, of emerald, and cyan, and glitter-laced gold.
  52.  
  53. She bumped off the green first, setting it down among the other rejects. It was in good company, nestled among soda bottles and printed K-Pop hunks with every other color of the acrylic rainbow.
  54.  
  55. Sasha's brow furrowed in concentration, then. She shifted the little bottles in her palm, turned them over and squinted at them. She tilted her hand as if to weight them, and finally she clutched them together, and thought. After a moment of sheer suspense, she finally muttered “Sometimes you've just got to be tacky,” and she unclenched her fist.
  56.  
  57. She set the blue vial aside, and held onto the gold. It was only after she had rooted through her backpack and produced a bottle of acetone that Marcy finally found her voice.
  58.  
  59. “Sasha, I'm pretty sure you're not allowed to paint your nails in here,” she declared. She was also pretty sure Sasha wasn't allowed to drink soda, or rock back in the chairs, or put her feet on the furniture, but the line had to be drawn at chemicals.
  60.  
  61. “Hm?” the blonde wondered, with a quirk of her eyebrow. “Oh, pfft, I'll be fine,” she assured, with a wave of her hand. “As long as I do it quietly, right?”
  62.  
  63. “I don't think that's how it works, Sash,” Marcy said, to no avail. “I really don't think you, uh...” she tried, but her concerns were waved off. Sasha shook her bottle of nail polish remover, unperturbed.
  64.  
  65. The library's favorite patron sighed. Sasha had been tempting fate all night with her raucous behavior, and so far fortune had favored her boldness. But, the sharp pervasive smell of acetone in the otherwise stale air was sure to catch someone's attention. Marcy wondered what her fate would be, if she were caught harboring a rule breaker. She could hardly fathom the indignity of being asked to leave.
  66.  
  67. She furrowed with worry, and nibbled at the inside of her cheek. Honestly, Sasha acted as if she hadn't even read the library's rules before she'd sat down. Tonight was the first night Marcy had even seen Sasha in a library, and if they stayed the same course, it could be the last... and then a thought struck.
  68.  
  69. “Hey Sasha, why did you decide to come here, anyway?” Marcy piped up. “You said you wanted to study, but you obviously have uh, math on lock.”
  70.  
  71. That was enough to get the other girl's attention. Her eyes widened for a scant second, and she set down her bottle. “Guess you caught me, huh?” She scratched at her jaw, and looked up towards the ceiling. When her eyes came back down, they fixed on Marcy's, and she quirked a little smile. “I just wanted to hang out, Mar-mar. I figured these after-school study sessions you pull must get lonely, sometimes. I thought maybe they'd be better with company.”
  72.  
  73. “Oh,” slipped out from between Marcy's lips before she could catch it. It was her only word, for a moment. The corners of her eyes pricked, and a warm feeling washed the worry from her mind. A grin wobbled onto her lips, and she remembered her words. “I... that's... you...” And then she remembered her syntax. “Thanks Sasha. That's... well, I appreciate it.”
  74.  
  75. If all her stumbling was a bother, Sasha didn't show it. She beamed a smile back at her clumsy friend, and a for a moment a warm, amicable silence hung.
  76.  
  77. Eventually, though, Marcy realized the nail supplies were still out. And, the iron was hot.
  78.  
  79. “If you just want to hang out, why don't I check these books out, so we can go to your place?” she asked. “The AC's better there, and if you want to paint your nails or carve on the tables it won't be a uh, misdemeanor.”
  80.  
  81. Sasha glanced down at the underside of the table, and blushed. Marcy could only imagine whose name she was looking at, with a possible note on where they had been. The cheerleader scooted herself closer to the edge of the table, and looked down at her notebook. She twiddled with a stray lock of hair, and said “I'm actually kind of trying to avoid home, tonight. My parents are doing something annoying.”
  82.  
  83. The edges of Marcy's smile sagged, and that warm feeling ebbed a bit. It was a foolish thing to be surprised by, in retrospect. Sasha often had more than one reason for doing something.
  84.  
  85. “Oh?” Marcy eventually inquired. “What are they doing?”
  86.  
  87. “Planning a dinner party for a few of my dad's lame business friends.” She crossed her arms in front of her, and muttered “As I learned this afternoon.”
  88.  
  89. Marcy weighed her friend's words, and asked “Is dealing with business guys that much of a pain?”
  90.  
  91. “Eh,” answered Sasha, with a few tilts of her hand. “They're just more lame dads, really. It's their kids who are a pain. There's a whole pack of babies that I'm expected to entertain.”
  92.  
  93. That earned her the quirk of a thin black eyebrow. “But Sash, don't you love babies?”
  94.  
  95. “Pffft, yeah. I love them until they learn the word 'mine.'” Her nose crinkled, as if she'd smelled something foul. “These are little rich kids I'm talking about, Marcy. From my dad's higher-ups.” Her eyes glanced up at the ceiling, and she grimaced, just imagining them. “They're too young to care about boundaries, and they've never been told 'no' in their little lives. They're the worst.”
  96.  
  97. Marcy gave a quiet, sympathetic hum.
  98.  
  99. That was all the cue Sasha needed to continue her rant. “Honestly, where do they get off, dropping that on me at the last minute?” she opined. “Do they really expect me to 'be seen and not heard,' and laugh some crusty old dad jokes, and let a bunch of spoiled muppets boss me around in my own house, when all I want to do is relax to start off the weekend?” When she had blustered out all of her breath, she refilled her lungs, and sighed them half empty again. “It's a total load,” she concluded.
  100.  
  101. “Oh, the epitome of a load,” Marcy concurred.
  102.  
  103. Things were silent, for a moment. Then, like a rainbow after a storm, a little smirk arched across Sasha's lips. “They're not the only ones who can make last minute plans, though.” she murmured. “Hope mom's having fun wrangling toddlers, right about now.”
  104.  
  105. Sasha looked quite satisfied with herself, for a moment. Eventually, though, she noticed Marcy's appraising eyes, and the absence of her wobbly smile. She choked on spit, like a gambler who'd shown her big hand. She forced a toothy grin. “Anyway that's why we can't study at my place, Mar-mar! Now what were we talking about before?”
  106.  
  107. “Probably something boring,” Marcy intoned.
  108.  
  109. Sasha frowned, and glanced away. And, that was all the grilling Marcy had the heart for. As Sasha searched for something to say, her hand inched towards the looming bottle of acetone. Marcy cut her off with a sigh.
  110.  
  111. “I'm glad you're able to relax, here,” she said. That brought Sasha's eyes back to her.
  112.  
  113. “Huh?”
  114.  
  115. “A minute ago you said you just wanted to relax to kick off the weekend.” Once again, Marcy glanced down at all of Sasha's festive trappings. “I know the library isn't the most comfortable place in the world, so I'm glad you're able to do that here.”
  116.  
  117. Sasha chuckled, and shrugged. “What can I say? There's just a nice vibe, I guess.”
  118.  
  119. A nice vibe indeed, Marcy surmised. Nice enough that SJMS' cheer captain felt like she could guzzle high carb soda, hum along to pop songs, and draw little anime people to her heart's content. Sasha didn't let just anyone see that kind of behavior. Somehow or another, a new smile found its way onto Marcy's face.
  120.  
  121. She enjoyed the comfortable silence for a few moments, as she plotted out a course of action. Remaining at the library wouldn't do either of them much good, if Sasha's daredevilry would even allow them to stay much longer. With the Waybright estate off limits, though, they only had so many places to go.
  122.  
  123. As she often did, Marcy wished life tended a little closer to fiction; Anime schools always seemed to be open long after classes let out, if students needed a place to hang out. If Saint James were some fancy academy, or boarding school, then-
  124.  
  125. An epiphany struck. Marcy glanced again at Sasha's open notebook, and quirked a devious little grin. A plan swirled to life in her mind, until the snapping of fingers brought her back to reality.
  126.  
  127. “Marcy?” Sasha asked, “what are you doing?”
  128.  
  129. “Spacing out,” she admitted. “But, I have an idea.”
  130.  
  131. The blonde raised an eyebrow. “Well, let's hear it, then.”
  132.  
  133. “Well,” Marcy said, gesturing towards herself, “I'm not getting too much done, for some reason.” She flicked a finger at Sasha. “And you're uh, far ahead of your studies. And we can't go to your place.” A curious blonde nodded along to her recap. “So,” Marcy concluded, “let's go somewhere else.”
  134.  
  135. “Your place?” Sasha guessed.
  136.  
  137. “Oh no nono,” Marcy shot. Her hand batted that idea away as fast as it had come. “I was thinking food.”
  138.  
  139. A response nearly slipped from Sasha's lips. But, just then, the natural consequences of skipping out on dinner caught up to her. As her belly rumbled, she conceded “Yeah, maybe food would be good.”
  140.  
  141. “Great,” chimed Marcy. “Let's go somewhere we can eat outside. The weather's nice, and we could use fresh air.”
  142.  
  143. “Sure,” said Sasha. “We could go to that ice cream place a few blocks away.” The girl scooted her chair out, and stood. And then, a thought entered her mind. “Is this gonna ruin your, like, study schedule?”
  144.  
  145. Marcy snorted. “Oh no, it's fine.” She stacked Star Stuff onto the pile with its musty peers, and looked up at her friend. “I think you might have been right earlier, Sash. I have four and a half years to shore up on sciences.” Her smile widened. “But how often do I get to spend a Friday night with you, just the two of us?”
  146.  
  147. Sasha found a smile of her own, then. It was small, and soft, and it dusted her cheeks a faint shade of pink. “Awww, Marcy. That was sweet.” Sasha stood there for just a moment longer, before she started packing. She grabbed that dreaded bottle of acetone, and tucked it into her bag. “Come on then,” she said. “Let's get going.”
  148.  
  149. Marcy sprang up, with an unusual pep in her step. She stole off like a un-dexterous rogue towards the return cart, hiding a smirk behind her stack of tomes. She could scarcely believe how well that had come together. It was a rare, rare day that she could get one over on Sasha, no matter how small the victory.
  150.  
  151. She hadn't been lying when she said she wanted to get dinner with her less-frequent companion. But, she was leaving out other motives. Turnabout was fair play, after all.
  152.  
  153. For one, she didn't want one of the kindly old librarians to have to throw them both out. And, she had seen something... interesting, earlier. One of Sasha's drawings simply jumped off the page: It was a familiar magical girl costume, being worn by an even more familiar girl.
  154.  
  155. Marcy had swallowed the urge to draw attention to it, in the name of getting things done. But, if they weren't going to get anything done, then they simply had to discuss it. And, if they were going to discuss it, they would have to do it in a place without noise restrictions.
  156.  
  157. She was practically giddy, just thinking about it.
  158.  
  159. “Come on, Mar-mar!” Sasha called. “Don't get cold feet.”
  160.  
  161. Marcy winced at her friend's certain-library-inappropriate volume, but she got the point. She shook off her fantasies for the moment, and spun around on her heel. And, she only stumbled a little.
  162.  
  163. She saw Sasha far ahead of her. The blonde had her backpack slung over one shoulder, and her notebook tucked under the other. She tapped a shiny black dress shoe against the carpet, but she waited all the same.
  164.  
  165. Marcy hurried to their table, and grabbed her own backpack. She even packed up the empty bottles Sasha had left, to throw away later. Someone was absolutely going to be reading the library's code of conduct, if she ever wanted to do this again.
  166.  
  167. Marcy caught up to her friend not a moment too soon. “Sorry,” she huffed. “Daydreaming again. You know me.”
  168.  
  169. “Do I?” Sasha chuckled. “The Marcy I know would have smashed into something by now.”
  170.  
  171. Marcy caught a chuckle of her own. “Don't get ahead of yourself. The night is still young.”
  172.  
  173. And with that, the two departed the library, and took to the streets.
  174.  
  175. ===
  176.  
  177. The air over Los Angeles was unseasonably warm and muggy, that night. The swampy atmosphere tormented in two ways. First it smothered, and stifled, and begged the populace to sweat. And then, when the people grew damp and miserable, it relented, and sliced them to the bone with the cold fall breeze they thought they wanted.
  178.  
  179. The city wouldn't allow itself to lose to the elements, though. Its lights twinkled just as bright as they ever did. Its streets clogged and jammed for miles beyond miles with impatient motorists. And, its sidewalks teemed.
  180.  
  181. LA's walkways were crowded on an any given day, but on that Friday night, they writhed with humanity. Giggling couples and chatting friends walked shoulder to shoulder, eager to enjoy the last gasps of warm weather with the people they cared for. Tourists fresh from the plane gawked, and oohed, and snapped pictures of everything, as if Hollywood's sidewalks were any more glamorous than their own. Weightless workers floated along, silently celebrating the end of the work-week, while bar-hopping drunks staggered along behind them.
  182.  
  183. And, through it all barged a hot pink battering ram. SJMS' cheer captain cut a path for two down the middle of the human sea. With a straight back, and a set jaw, and purpose in her stride, she informed the endless torrent of strangers that they would be staying out of her and her hapless friend's way.
  184.  
  185. When a man lost in thought, staring at his feet veered towards them, she let her shoes clack loud against the pavement. And so he stopped thinking, and started moving. When one rowdy high school boy shoved another into her path, she squared up her shoulders, and didn't budge an inch. The fools took notice, and stumbled out of her way. When a huckster approached, with an overture on his lips and fliers in hand, she cast him a glare that told him to go pound sand. So he went, and pounded sand.
  186.  
  187. Marcy, for her part, simply followed along, blissfully unaware of the service she was being provided. She stared down at her shoes, and then up at the sky, and back again, humming a familiar tune. She paid no heed to where she was going; She simply followed, on instinct, like a child shadowing their mother at the grocery store. She was awfully lucky, tonight.
  188.  
  189. Even when she didn't have her head in a book or a game, the girl struggled with foot traffic. She minced, and slid, and juked, and let the movements of others dictate her path. That meekness barely got her through middle school hallways. In the bustle of the city, it would get her lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces. Someday, she would have to break that weak, submissive habit.
  190.  
  191. But, not tonight. Tonight, she bubbled with adorable excitement at the thought of spending time with her bestie. That was a much better look for her than the deflation she had worn when she caught that same bestie lying, earlier. So, Sasha decided to enable her, just this once.
  192.  
  193. Sasha brought their two-girl train to a halt at the end of the ice cream shop's line. And, just as she'd expected, the caboose crashed into her.
  194.  
  195. Marcy yelped, and sputtered, and scrubbed a stray blonde hair off of her lips. “Sorry, Sash,” she squeaked. “Looks like I-” she halted, as she took in her surroundings. “Oh hey, we're here.”
  196.  
  197. “Yep,” Sasha agreed, “we sure are.” A small smile tugged at the corner of her lip. “You didn't even notice the walk over, did you?”
  198.  
  199. “Nope!” said a proud little space cadet. “From my perspective, we basically fast-travelled.”
  200.  
  201. “Hmm,” was all Sasha gave in response, for a moment. “What exactly were you dreaming about, on the way here? Something with a song, it sounded like.”
  202.  
  203. The question caught Marcy by surprise, for a fleeting second. Then, for another brief moment, she drummed her fingers together, and chuckled a dark little chuckle to herself, like some cartoon supervillain. And then, she looked up, and she was a sparkling ray of sunshine. “Nothing!” she declared. “Nothing at all.”
  204.  
  205. Sasha's smile grew warmer, if a bit more tired. She rolled her eyes, and said “Forget stars, Mar-mar. You need to learn a thing or two about lying.” But, when her eyes returned to Earth, Mar-mar wasn't where she expected. She had zipped a few paces ahead, and gasped at something.
  206.  
  207. “Oh my gosh, Sasha, look!” she squealed. “They've got seven scoops of orange sherbet called The Wyvern Orbs! Get it? Oh, and frozen cookie dough topped with pink frosting and sprinkles that they're calling D'ohnut Bites! Is the whole menu like this?”
  208.  
  209. As Marcy rattled off items chalked onto a big blackboard, Sasha gave their destination a look. The little parlor, one Epic Scoop Drop, had come with rave reviews from its small, dedicated audience. It had the highest quality, the fans claimed, at reasonable prices, with no filler. And its whole menu was, in fact, like that... for better or worse.
  210.  
  211. But despite the cult cred and the warm weather, the ice cream shop had only a modest line. It was buried between several chain restaurants, a popular farm-to-table family joint, and a trendy new gay bar. The little thing simply struggled to stand out.
  212.  
  213. The cloying pop culture references name probably had something to do with it, too. Sasha couldn't imagine that “nerdy ice cream place” was the first place on most people's list if they were trying to impress a date. Unless, of course, their date was a particular sort of person.
  214.  
  215. “This is the coolest place ever!” Marcy chirped. “Great call, Sash.”
  216.  
  217. Sasha smiled down at her beaming companion. “Glad you think so, Marcy.”
  218.  
  219. “Do you know what you want?” Marcy asked. “I definitely know what I'm getting.”
  220.  
  221. “I don't, actually,” admitted Sasha. In truth, she found most of the menu too esoteric to picture, but she knew better than to ask Marcy about the references. As she tried to imagine what an Absolute Toffee Field looked like, though, the sound of jingling change caught her ear. She turned back to Marcy, and frowned.
  222.  
  223. The girl had produced her... change purse, and begun scrambling coins. Sasha often grimaced at the sight of it, even though its appearance usually meant she was about to have something purchased for her. In truth it was more of a toy than coin purse: the stuffed green butterfly, with its googly eyes and wagging tongue and hollow chest for storing trinkets looked like something a small child would carry.
  224.  
  225. Someday Marcy would be embarrassed to recall that she used to pull that thing out in public. Someday soon, hopefully. While her friend furrowed and counted, Sasha turned back to the ice cream shop, and confirmed a fear. As the line ahead of them dwindled, Sasha saw that most of the eatery's staff were members of the Saint James High School cheer team.
  226.  
  227. “Did you decide yet?” Marcy chirped, from behind. “Whatever you order, I bet I can get exact change for it!” But, Sasha didn't respond. For the moment, she was spacing out.
  228.  
  229. Behind their customer service faces, Sasha could see her elder counterparts seethe. They tugged at the collars and sleeves of their gaudy cosplay uniforms, and winced every time they said the canned greeting. It must have been a shock, to them, to have to do any amount of work at an ice cream shop in the middle of September.
  230.  
  231. They were the school system's apex predators, and that night they were being poked by proverbial sticks. And, Sasha would rather she and Marcy not become their chew toy. Ordering nerd ice cream like it was the coolest thing ever might go un-mocked. But, paying in change pulled from a baby toy was tempting fate.
  232.  
  233. “I'll pay,” declared Sasha.
  234.  
  235. The sudden pronouncement put a pause on Marcy's jangling. Soon, though, she gathered her wits, and waved off the idea. “Don't be silly, Sash. I'm the one who suggested we get food. And, tutoring's been paying off, lately, so-”
  236.  
  237. “I'll pay,” Sasha declared again. She let just enough edge into her voice to be understood.
  238.  
  239. Once again Marcy paused, longer this time. Sasha saw that odd look for a few moments, like she was being appraised. But, it passed quickly. “Alright, Sasha,” Marcy answered. She finally stowed that dreaded butterfly in her backpack. When she looked back up, she remembered to add “Uh, thanks.”
  240.  
  241. Sasha smiled, and nodded. Marcy never did need much reminding. “No problem, Mar-mar,” she said. The girl spun her father's debit card between her fingers, and looked up to see that she had been just in time.
  242.  
  243. “Welcome to Epic Scoop Drop,” recited a weary cheerleader, “where everything's... twenty percent cooler. What are you rolling need on?”
  244.  
  245. After they had received their orders, the girls had no trouble finding a place to eat. The parlor had ample outdoor seating, and they had their pick of arrangements. Marcy made the final call, when she plopped down on a semi-circular bench wrapped around a large table. It was likely intended to seat a whole party, but there weren't any whole parties around to protest while the pair hogged it.
  246.  
  247. Sasha set her notebook down a safe distance from her ice cream. She had decided on something she was supposed to call a Banana Splinter. In the world of non-nerds, it was a hunched over banana, surrounded by four scoops of vanilla, each topped by a caramel turtle. She didn't know or care what the reference was supposed to be, she just knew the abundance of carbs would keep her stomach quiet, for a while.
  248.  
  249. Marcy, meanwhile, had opted for something called the Tri-Froze. If nothing else, it was elegant in its simplicity: On top of a novelty sword-hilt waffle cone sat a scoop of mint ice cream, topped by a scoop of blue raspberry, topped by a scoop of strawberry. Taken as a whole, the dish actually looked quite appealing. But, it was a calamity in the making. Marcy could scarcely handle a popsicle without losing it, let alone a tower of scoops. And even beyond that, Sasha could see cracks in the cone.
  250.  
  251. As she studied Marcy's ice cream, though, Sasha felt the sensation of being watched. She looked up, and sure enough her companion stared back at her.
  252.  
  253. “Sooo,” Marcy intoned. Her voice was calm and steady, and Sasha saw an odd glint in her eye. But, after a few moments, it became clear that she didn't have a whole sentence lined up behind that lead-in.
  254.  
  255. “So?” asked Sasha, as she decapitated a turtle. “What's up, Marcy?”
  256.  
  257. “Oh, I was just wondering, Sash,” she began, “if you've seen anything interesting, lately.” She kept her mask up abnormally well. “You know, any TV shows, or movies, or cartoons...” And then, it slipped. “Any anime!?”
  258.  
  259. Sasha chuckled over a bite of banana. Finally, it clicked together. She knew she had recognized that song Marcy was humming.
  260.  
  261. “As a matter of fact, yes,” Sasha replied. “I saw a pretty good anime, recently.”
  262.  
  263. Marcy's eyes lit up. Sasha could see excitement threatening to boil over already, but for the moment the other girl kept a lid on it. “What- uh, which- uh...” she stopped, and started, and minced words until a coherent sentence formed. “Would I happen to know it?”
  264.  
  265. Sasha grinned, more to herself than Marcy. She wondered how talking about a certain anime had become her friend's evil master plan. But, it wasn't worth asking. Instead, she decided to play along. “I would think so, yeah. You did recommend it to me, after all.”
  266.  
  267. Marcy was practically vibrating in anticipation. Technically, Sasha hadn't narrowed the field much, since Marcy recommended her so many series. Many, many lines of questioning crossed her furrowed brow, and Sasha spoke up again before she could start stammering them out.
  268.  
  269. “It was a cool little show,” she meandered, “about a bunch of girls in school...” She drew each word out, and watched as Mt. Marcy grew closer and closer to exploding. “And they were all friends, but also some of them were rivals...”
  270.  
  271. Part of Sasha's vagueness extended beyond a desire to tease her friend. The series she described had a name she found too embarrassing to say out loud.
  272.  
  273. “And they had swords,” she added,“and they fought each ot-”
  274.  
  275. “Was it Starlit Girls' Musical Theater Academy!?” Marcy squealed at the top of her lungs.
  276.  
  277. Warm laughter poured out of Sasha to such an extent that she had to stab her spoon into a scoop to keep from dropping it. Marcy joined in, too, after a bit of her nerd stupor ebbed away.
  278.  
  279. When all of her giggles were out, Sasha looked up, and met her friend's gaze. She could feel her tired smile return. “Yes, Marcy. It was that one.”
  280.  
  281. “Well,” Marcy began, calmly enough, “what did you think? Did you love it? Who was your favorite character?” Her excitement grew with each syllable. “What was your favorite episode? And how good was the music, right? Who-”
  282.  
  283. “Pause,” Sasha said, with a wave of her hand.
  284.  
  285. And, to her credit, Marcy paused, mostly. She sat, there, frozen mid-gush. Sasha could tell from the twitching of Marcy's fingers, and the sparkle in her eyes that the dam wouldn't hold for long. But, she only needed a moment to get a thought in edgewise.
  286.  
  287. The anime Marcy so adored, one... Starlit Girls' Musical Theater Academy, had shocked Sasha with its quality. Her otaku friend had recommended it to her in the strongest terms, calling it “vital viewing” and “important.” Normally, from Marcy, those terms secretly meant “sad,” “boring,” and “low on fights,” but this series was an exception.
  288.  
  289. The story followed a troupe of girls attending a prestigious theater academy. By day, they practiced song and dance, and studied theatrical styles from across the world. And by night, they put on magical girl costumes and swordfought each other in the school basement to determine who got the lead role in the big school play. If Sasha could say nothing else about it, it was...
  290.  
  291. “High concept,”she said aloud. “But really interesting. I was surprised there was so much fighting.” Marcy hung on her every word, threatening to boil over at any minute. “I loved the costumes,” Sasha said, earning herself a little giggle from her companion. “And most of the characters were super cool.”
  292.  
  293. Sasha clicked her tongue, and thought of how to phrase her next though. “I also liked how... like, they fought each other, and learned lesson about... themselves.” Sasha scratched the back of her neck, and tried to ignore how stupid that sounded out loud. “You know, in these types of shows they usually fight a new monster every week, and learn to eat their vegetables, or whatever.”
  294.  
  295. “It's a very mature series, compared to its peers,” Marcy offered.
  296.  
  297. Sasha nodded. Marcy always did have a way with words, when it came to her interests. “Yeah,” the cheerleader agreed, “super mature.” Before Marcy could interject any further, though, she pushed out another thought. “There was something kind of weird, though,” she said. Marcy quirked an eye-brow. “I know they're in theater school and all, but it was like, a bit much that they sang and danced while they fought...”
  298.  
  299. And just like that, the dam burst.
  300. “Well you see,” Marcy explained, and explained, “the surreality of the theatrical fight segments in one of the show's key charms. It's an obvious iteration, some, like me, would say an evolution, of the iconic impressionistic duels from the 1997 classic Re-”
  301.  
  302. Sasha had a rule with Marcy rants: check out as soon as a date dropped. That rule had proven its use over the years, and saved Sasha from learning mountains upon mountains of mind-numbing trivia. And, when she was at the names-and-dates stage of gushing, Marcy never noticed, anyway.
  303.  
  304. As her friend babbled on, Sasha saw that she had been right: the girl's ice cream stack wobbled with every new gesticulation, and the cracks in its foundation grew ever deeper. Sasha sighed, and fiddled with the bottom of her own ice cream order.
  305.  
  306. She shouldn't make a habit of this, she knew. She was going to turn into Anne, at this rate. Some day, Marcy was going to need to learn the hard way to look out for herself, and stop living in la-la land.
  307.  
  308. But, until then, she had friends. Sasha slid the extra sundae tray she had ordered across the table, and waited.
  309.  
  310. “And the way that Tokyo Tower is like the representation of the protagonists' dreams? That's like such a cool visual reference to another genre landmark from 1998 called-”
  311.  
  312. “Oh, Mar-mar,” Sasha crooned, to no avail.
  313.  
  314. “And the sequences where the industrial machinery manufactures their costumes in front of the audience's eye is like, obviously a visual metaphor for the-”
  315.  
  316. “Earth to Marcy.”
  317.  
  318. “And really the ending is just the perfect rebuttal to the postmodern angst that's been swirling around every magical girl series since Ma-”
  319.  
  320. “Marcy!” Sasha called. She jabbed her friend square in the chest with an extra spoon, just for good measure.
  321.  
  322. Finally, Marcy came to. She looked around, as if she had just woken from a dream. First her eyes examined the crumbled cone in her hand. Then, they glanced over the pink, blue, and green glops of ice cream now scattered in a magically-manifested tray. And finally, they traced the path of the spoon between her ribs, all the way up her friend's arm.
  323.  
  324. “Whoa, thanks Sash,” she said, as she finally took the offered utensil. “Good thinking, with all that,” she said. “Boy am I lucky you're around.”
  325.  
  326. Sasha grinned, and something warm tickled at her cheeks. “Yeah,” she murmured, “I guess you could say that.”
  327.  
  328. Just then, another light clicked on in Marcy's head. She jabbed awkwardly at the mint scoop of her newly-made sundae. “I've been doing all the talking, haven't I?”
  329.  
  330. “Oh yeah,” Sasha confirmed. “More than enough for the two of us.”
  331.  
  332. Marcy chuckled, and looked back up at her friend. “Sorry about that,” she said. “Starlit really spoke to me, and... well you know how I get.”
  333.  
  334. Sasha nodded.
  335.  
  336. “But I don't want to hog the whole conversation,” Marcy continued. “I want to hear your review.” The girl clicked her tongue, and looked up at the sky. “Now where did we leave off?” Sasha shrugged, and after a few moments of pondering, so did Marcy. “Well, I guess we can just wing it. So uh, who was your favorite character?”
  337.  
  338. “Oh, Myla, easily,” answered Sasha, without a second's pause. “She was basically the highlight of the show.”
  339.  
  340. The blonde expected agreement, and maybe another wave of gushing, but instead she received confusion. Marcy's brow furrowed, and Sasha watched her search her mental archives for far too long.
  341.  
  342. If the girl were better at lying, Sasha would have thought Marcy was pulling her leg.
  343.  
  344. “You really don't remember the best character?” Sasha asked. “You know, the one who's pretty, tough, super elegant? Kicks everyone else's butt? Has two swords?”
  345.  
  346. Finally, Marcy fit the puzzle together. “Ohhhhh,” she exhaled. “So Myla's what they call that character in the English dub.”
  347.  
  348. Sasha sucked in a breath, and mentally dusted off her Marcy impression. “Yes, Marcy, it is. I know everything's soooo much more meaningful 'in the original Japanese' but-”
  349.  
  350. “Hey, hey, hey,” Marcy called from behind a pair of pleading hands, “we don't have to get into it again.”
  351.  
  352. “Good.”
  353.  
  354. Marcy chuckled away some of the tension. “Anyway, I thought, uh, Myla would be one of your faves. What do you like about her?”
  355.  
  356. Sasha clicked her tongue, and looked up at the sky. Some people called Los Angeles the city of stars, but on that night there were none to be seen. Light pollution left the sky a swampy, miserable shade of pink, and drowned out any starlight. Sasha searched for a focal point to stare at, but she came up empty-handed. She would just have to think without one.
  357.  
  358. Myla was a great character. She was tall, well-spoken, and effortlessly beautiful. Her statuesque composure, confidence, and refined mannerisms made her seem more like a grown woman than a teenage girl. She was the queen bee of her school, and, barring a few basement sword duels, her reign went unchallenged. No one dared question her, because she was just so... commanding. No one besides the protagonists, of course, because that was how stories worked.
  359.  
  360. “Everything,” the girl finally said. “Everything about her was cool.” Sasha didn't peel her eyes from the vast pink void, but she knew Marcy was listening. “She was so tough, and so far ahead, and so... I don't know.” Sitting there, trying to crystallize a thought into words gave Sasha an appreciation for her friend's ability to bluster. “I know her fights were great, though. I can't believe she actually beat the protagonists, at first.”
  361.  
  362. “Oh I know!” Marcy finally cut in. “Best setup to a final boss fight in recent memory.”
  363.  
  364. That was enough to give shape to an idea. “That's the thing, though,” Sasha said, “the heroes fought with her, but she wasn't like... a bad guy.” Her eyes searched, and searched, and still found nothing, but the thoughts kept flowing. “It would have been so easy to make her character the villain. Like, she's clearly everyone's boss, but she never has to throw her weight around or... remind them.” Sasha stabbed her spoon into some poor turtle, so she could gesture. “She has like, an aura around her. All the other girls turn their heads when she enters the room, and they always ask her opinion on theater stuff. But, like, even when she says something harsh, or tells someone to do something different, they just... accept it. They don't act like she's wrong, or that she hurt them, or forced them to do something they didn't want to do.”
  365.  
  366. Sasha realized she had run out of breath at some point, and inhaled. Marcy, mercifully, waited for her to finish. “I guess that's what happens when you go down to the magic basement and beat everyone at swordfights. They just... know not to be difficult.” Sasha sighed. Her eyes still couldn't find anything to focus on up in the sky, but she had managed after all. “It was just a little unrealistic, though. How they kept treating her that way, even after she lost.”
  367.  
  368. Marcy digested Sasha's words, for a few long moments. Sasha supposed she wasn't used to being on the receiving end of an anime rant. Eventually, though, she spoke up.
  369.  
  370. “I think you-” Marcy began, and halted. “I think I have a different interpretation of that character. If you'd like to hear it.”
  371.  
  372. “I'm all ears,” said Sasha, still gazing skyward.
  373.  
  374. “Well, for one thing,” Marcy said, “I don't think Myla was really... the boss of the other girls. She was more like... an inspiration to them.” Sasha pursed her lips, as Marcy went on. “She always worked the hardest at practice. She projected all this confidence, but she wasn't smug. She stood up for the others when things weren't fair. Even when she criticized or challenged the others, they knew she was trying to help them improve, not put them down.”
  375.  
  376. Marcy drummed her fingers on the table, as she finished out. “She never had to force the others to treat her the way they did. And it definitely had nothing to do with the swordfights. That aura she had wasn't fear, or dominance, or power. It was the other girls' respect.”
  377.  
  378. Sasha chewed over Marcy's words, and smiled. “That's a really good way to put it,” she said. 'A lot better than mine,' she didn't say. As she gazed up at the sky, Sasha finally caught something she had missed before: far off in the distance, in defiance of the pink muck, twinkled a bright little star. The teen smiled a little wider, and murmured “Inspiration, huh?”
  379.  
  380. “Also she was totally secretly dating her understudy.”
  381.  
  382. Sasha choked on her own spit. “What!? That's crazy!” The absurdity of the notion finally pulled Sasha's eyes back to Earth. “Not everyone in anime is gay, Marcy. Sometimes people are just... like, really close rivals!”
  383.  
  384. Marcy looked back at her with a smirk befitting the least convinced girl in the world. “Rivals who show up together before everyone else, and leave together after everyone's gone? Rivals who dance aggressively towards each other every day? Rivals who stare intensely at each other the whole time they eat lunch?”
  385.  
  386. Sasha could feel her cheeks heating up. “Y-yeah,” she finally replied. Not even in the safety of her own coping mind did she sound sure of her answer.
  387.  
  388. Her efforts earned her a snort of laughter from Marcy. “Well, maybe you're right Sash,” she not-really conceded, “but I thought it was subtext.”
  389.  
  390. Sasha crossed her arms, and pouted, and wondered why exactly Marcy's shipping had chuffed her so much. “Well, it wasn't,” said the stubborn teen. After a moment, thought, she managed to give form to her grievance. “If Myla was going to be gay, she wouldn't have let it be just subtext. End of discussion.”
  391.  
  392. There was no force behind the proclamation, but Marcy honored it anyway. She sat for a few moments, thinking in silence. And then, her eyes met Sasha's.
  393.  
  394. “Say, Sasha,” she wondered, “what did you think of... oh, what would her dub name be? The uh, pink one?”
  395.  
  396. “Oh, Katherine?” Sasha said. Her nose wrinkled. “She was the worst.”
  397.  
  398. “Really?” Marcy asked, as if she was genuinely surprised that Sasha didn't like such an awful character.
  399.  
  400. “Yeah, really. She might have been the worst part of the whole show.”
  401.  
  402. A silence fell over them. Marcy didn't need to vocalize a request for elaboration; her eyes wondered loudly enough. So, Sasha looked down at her shiny black dress shoes, and thought.
  403.  
  404. Katherine was a spoiled girl from a wealthy family. She had pretty pink hair, and an excellent wardrobe, and a keen touch for... cheerleading. But that was the extent of her charm. Every word out of the girl's mouth was a lie, or a half-truth, or a manipulation of some kind. She suckered and connived the other girls at every opportunity, and foisted as much responsibility on them as she could. She was a wimp of the highest order, but she eked out several wins in the underground swordfighting tournament through dirty fighting and trickery. In the early episodes, Sasha was worried she may actually win. Thankfully, though, in a group of strong personalities, her tricks always seemed to fail in the end.
  405.  
  406. Sasha still relished the memory of Myla clocking her in her smug little face.
  407.  
  408. “She was just awful,” Sasha said. “She just took, and took, and took, and never gave anything back. Why does a rich girl need to con her friends into buying her tea?” Sasha kicked at the ground. “All she did was tear the others down, and make them doubt themselves, just so she could get one over on them in magic fighting.” The girl frowned. “I don't know how the others put up with her.”
  409.  
  410. “She wasn't that bad, Sasha,” Marcy returned. “I mean, she was kind of bad but... Well she was mostly harmless. The other girls could stand up for themselves, so she usually just ended up making a clown of herself when she tried to mess with them.” She thought for a moment, and added, “Plus, she did a great job helping... ah what would her name be? The blue one. Katherine was instrumental to her growth.”
  411.  
  412. Sasha laughed. “Oh, you mean Fran? Boy, she sure had a funny way of helping her.”
  413.  
  414. Sasha's eyes all but bored a hole through her shoes, while her mind parsed through that particular relationship.
  415.  
  416. Fran was tough, and sporty, and tomboyish. She was an odd fit for a high-class ladies' theater school, but she performed surprisingly well. She had to fight tooth and nail just to be there... so she could be with her childhood friend Katherine, who had breezed through admissions based on name and wealth alone. Despite their longstanding friendship, Fran was the foremost target of Katherine's manipulation. It was...
  417.  
  418. “Ridiculous that those two were even friends,” Sasha said. “That little pink geek was clearly holding Fran back. I was so excited when they had their big breakup fight,” she went on, smiling at the thought of it. “And then Fran actually started winning battles, like she always should have.” Soon enough, her smile became a grimace. “I can't believe she actually forgave Katherine, at the end. I wouldn't have.”
  419.  
  420. Marcy let her friend's rant settle, before she offered a careful response. “I think there were some layers to their relationship that you- that I might have caught, which-”
  421.  
  422. “You mean subtext, again?” Sasha shot.
  423.  
  424. Despite her friend's tone, Marcy snortled. “Well... yeah, but more than that.” The girl gathered her thoughts, and continued. “Their relationship was an outlet to, uh, Katherine. Her family held her to incredibly exacting standards, and-”
  425.  
  426. “Oh boo hoo,” Sasha cut in. “That's her problem, not everybody else's.”
  427.  
  428. As she frowned down at her shoes, the sensation of being watched at bored into her cheek. She looked up and saw that, sure enough, Marcy stared straight at her. She gave Sasha that same appraising look that she had before.
  429.  
  430. “What?” Sasha asked, to cut the sudden tension. “Is something on my face?”
  431.  
  432. Marcy realized what she had been doing, then, and forced a chuckle. “No, no,” she said. “Nothing like that.”
  433.  
  434. With that oddness done, Sasha turned back to her melting banana split. She swallowed a whole turtle with a soupy bite of vanilla. Marcy simply poked at hers, though. Sasha could almost swear her eye glinted.
  435.  
  436. “So you're firmly anti-Katherine then?” She asked. “Myla is more your sort of character?”
  437.  
  438. Sasha nodded through another bite.
  439.  
  440. “The sort of character whose costume you'd draw yourself wearing?”
  441.  
  442. Sasha choked again, and narrowly managed to avoid spitting ice cream everywhere.
  443.  
  444. “What!?” she squawked. “No! I haven't done that since I was like, five!”
  445.  
  446. Once again, Marcy wore that mortally unconvinced smirk. Her eyes traced a path to the notebook on the table.
  447.  
  448. “You sure about that, Sash?”
  449.  
  450. Sasha slammed a hand onto her notebook, definitely not because she had anything to hide. Then, she drew it closer, for no reason. While Marcy's eye glinted, and glimmered, and little snickers spilled from her lips, Sasha finally took the book, and crammed it into her overfull backpack. For... safekeeping.
  451.  
  452. Her cheeks were burning, and the knuckles of her balled fists were white. She was seconds away from having to remind a certain someone who was allowed to tease who in this friendship...
  453.  
  454. But, in the nick of time,a submissive pair of hands shot up. “Hey, hey,” Marcy pleaded “it's nothing to be embarrassed about.” Sasha heard something genuine in the tone of her voice. “I do it too, you know.”
  455.  
  456. Sasha took a deep breath, and then another. And, when she blew them out, all the steam behind her cheeks went with them. Sasha didn't bear indignity lightly. But, this was the first time Marcy had dealt her this kind of treatment. And, if there was ever a night to enable that behavior, it was tonight. She made a mental note, though, not to let this become a habit.
  457.  
  458. She could see relief in Marcy's eyes, when the last of her fury faded off into the night.
  459.  
  460. “Oh really now,” Sasha crooned, “you do it too?” Marcy nodded, so the blonde went on. “Well, now I'm curious. Who's your favorite? Whose costume are you wearing?”
  461.  
  462. Marcy smiled, and turned her own gaze skyward. “I thought Nanna was the most compelling,” she murmured. “She really elevated the whole thing.”
  463.  
  464. There was a dreamy sort of quality to the girl's voice, and her grin stretched all the way to her eyes. Sasha almost felt bad for the response she had to deliver.
  465.  
  466. “Who?” she asked.
  467.  
  468. Marcy snapped out of her spell, and looked back at her friend. “Oh right, the names. She was the uh...” Marcy thought for a moment, but she couldn't conjure up a description. Instead, she held her hands up, and mimicked the shaped of distinctive, ridiculous anime hair.
  469.  
  470. “Oh, duh,” Sasha realized. “You mean Nancy!”
  471.  
  472. “Yeah,” Marcy chuckled. “Nancy.” She went back to stargazing into the mostly-starless void.
  473.  
  474. “She was cool,” Sasha had to admit. “Definitely a great villain.”
  475.  
  476. “Yeah,” Marcy chirped, “Wasn't she just- wait, a villain?”
  477.  
  478. Once again Marcy's head left the clouds. She fixed her friend with an incredulous look. “Sasha, she was super sympathetic, and like, definitely the most tragic character on the show.”
  479.  
  480. “Yeah,” Sasha said, in a more firm tone. “And, like, crazy. And evil.”
  481.  
  482. Marcy didn't have the smirk this time, but once again she looked wholly unconvinced. “None of the girls were villains, Sasha. That was kinda one of the themes of the show.” She turned away, again, while the corner of Sasha's eye twitched.
  483.  
  484. Sasha often bowed to Marcy's anime knowledge. The girl had a knack for reading into series, and putting into words things Sasha had never considered. But, Sasha couldn't abide by that cold, dismissive tone. Not when she knew she was right.
  485.  
  486. On the surface, Nancy was a sweet character, the kind that no one would have a reason to dislike. She always had a smile on her face, an answer to a question, and seemingly endless energy. She had a dorky sort of earnestness to her that won over all of her classmates. She adored every aspect of their surreal magical swordfighting school year, and she lived it to the fullest. When a new problem manifested, she always seemed to have an answer. When someone needed a friend to confide in, she was always conveniently around the corner. In retrospect, it was terrifying.
  487.  
  488. “Marcy, she trapped her friends in... freakin' anime time loops, just so she didn't have to grow up!”
  489.  
  490. “And?” answered an unfazed Marcy. “They didn't know.”
  491.  
  492. Sasha's mouth gaped. “And that makes it okay?”
  493.  
  494. “Yeah, actually,” Marcy said to the empty sky. “They never experienced the loop part. No harm, no foul. From their perspective, the other girls are just living the best year of their lives.”
  495.  
  496. Sasha could barely believe her ears. Marcy said goofy things all the time, but never something so...off. The strangeness of the situation, and the nagging wrongness spurred something in the back of Sasha's mind. For once, that night, the words came easy.
  497.  
  498. “And then they stop existing,” Sasha said. “All their growth, all their progress, all their hopes and dreams just... vanish.” With every word, Sasha's confidence grew. “And they have to start again. All because their so-called friend thought her little world would end if everyone grew up and moved on.”
  499.  
  500. Her words earned her a wince from the anime expert. Her eyes were still skybound, and locked onto something. Sasha looked up, but she couldn't see any stars. Instead, Marcy's eyes seemed to trace the path of a departing airplane.
  501.  
  502. “She just loved them all so much,” Marcy finally replied. “All the adventures they had together, that year. All the fun stuff they did. Even the death-defying sword battles...” Her cold tone was gone, along with her certainty. Still, she continued. “Their lives were never going to be like that again... She couldn't imagine saying goodbye to them.”
  503.  
  504. Sasha felt herself cooling off. She sucked in a deep breath, and replied. “If she loved them, she should have wanted them to grow.” The air had chilled to the point that she could see her words float out in front of her. “Things can't stay the same forever. People have to grow up, some time.”
  505.  
  506. Marcy's plane must have disappeared from view. She looked over at her friend, and sighed. “Yeah,” she conceded. “Maybe you're right.” She looked down at her ice cream. “And maybe Nanna was kind of... bad... but I guess I just felt sorry for her.”
  507.  
  508. Sasha never would have imagined that getting a win over Marcy in the anime knowledge department would feel so hollow. She had intended to make up for deflating Marcy's excitement with the nerd ice cream trip, but somehow she'd managed to do it again. It just wasn't right.
  509.  
  510. “Hey, she got better, you know,” Sasha offered. “After the protagonists beat her up.”
  511.  
  512. Somehow, that didn't raise Marcy's spirits.
  513.  
  514. And, it wasn't really the whole truth, Sasha realized after a moment. The show's heroes weren't the ones who got Nancy to stop being... crazy. Sasha smiled to herself, as a whole train of thought lined up. There was one thing above all else that seemed to make Marcy happy, when it came to anime. And, it was staring her in the face.
  515.  
  516. “Hey Mar-mar,” Sasha intoned, “there's another character I want to hear your opinion on.”
  517.  
  518. That was enough to break Marcy's gloomy trance. She looked up at Sasha, and tilted her head in a silent question.
  519.  
  520. “What did you think of June?” Sasha asked. Before the name barrier could become an issue, she added, “You know, the student government representative.”
  521.  
  522. Marcy failed to stifle a snort of laughter. Already, Sasha was off to a good start. “Gah,” she said, “I can't believe that's what they call class reps in English...” She trailed off, and began to ponder Sasha's question. Once again her gaze turned up, as she considered the character in question.
  523.  
  524. “What is there to say about her?” Marcy began. “She often produced comically specific factoids about obscure plays, and she quoted Shakespeare at the most random times.” The girl sighed, and dug deeper. “She was laughably physically weak, to the point that she passed out the first time she trained with Myla.” Something tinged her voice, as she went on. “She was the first obstacle the protagonists beat. And she was the first one eliminated from the tournament, because she lost all her matches... even though she got to bring a bow to a bunch of sword fights. Basically, she was a complete nerd.”
  525.  
  526. When it appeared her friend was all finished, Sasha interjected. “You're selling her way short, Marcy. She was way more than a nerd.” Marcy pursed her lips. She didn't look over, but Sasha could tell she was listening.
  527.  
  528. “Even more than the protagonists,” Sasha explained, “June was the one who wanted to grow the most. She dropped all those facts because she was already studying for a future in theater college.” Sasha picked at the remains of her meal, as she went on. “And she may have passed out that one time, but that's because she was trying to work harder than her body could handle. By the end of the series, she was able to keep up just fine.”
  529.  
  530. Marcy weighed Sasha's character reading as she went. Eventually, she ended up nodding along.
  531.  
  532. “And she may have gotten bumped off the tournament early, but that doesn't mean she was just a loser. Even after she lost, she still kept grinding. Even if she couldn't win the lead role, she still wanted to get better.” Sasha smiled, as she neared the important part. “And, she did actually win one, remember?”
  533.  
  534. Marcy's brow furrowed, as she scanned the sky. “Wait, she did?”
  535.  
  536. “Yeah,” Sasha replied. “It was after the credits one episode, but it counts. You know, she beat Nancy in the loser's bracket.”
  537.  
  538. Marcy cupped a hand to her cheek. “Oh jeez, I almost forgot that happened.”
  539.  
  540. “I don't know how you could,” Sasha countered. “It was probably the coolest moment in the show... that Myla wasn't involved in.” The girl watched her friend carefully, as she began to paint the picture. “You remember how it went. Nancy hadn't really learned her lesson. She wanted to slink her way back into the tournament, so she could reset time again.” Marcy's mouth was a tight little line, and her eyes searched the sky.
  541.  
  542. “And June was just fighting to prove that she was better than she was yesterday. And even though Nancy was crazy strong, and she could overpower all the others for all those loops, June managed to hang in with her.” Marcy followed along with her friend, and the corners of her mouth began to tug upwards. “And then June outsmarted her, at the end. She changed the song she was singing, in the middle of the fight, and picked a prettier one. And Nancy wasn't used to change, so it caught her off guard, and she lost.”
  543.  
  544. “And then she gave her that little speech,” Marcy cut in. “About how they would have even better adventures in the future, because they'd be better people.” Something wistful crept into her voice. But, her eyes stopped searching. They fixed on something, off in the vastness of the sky. Something with a fixed location. “That was a good scene, wasn't it?”
  545.  
  546. “I thought so,” Sasha replied. She hadn't even gotten to her punchline, but her little speech already seemed to have worked. “And then they held hands and walked off together, “ she added, just for fun. “How's that for subtext?”
  547.  
  548. A deep chuckle from Marcy melted into a peal of laughter. Soon Sasha found herself swept up in it, and the two laughed any lingering funk away.
  549.  
  550. Marcy peeled her eyes from the sky, and met Sasha's. “You know, it's pretty blatant, when you spell it out like that.”
  551.  
  552. “I thought so,” Sasha said. “Can't believe you of all people missed it.” After a few moments of calm silence, though, Sasha noticed something else Marcy had missed. “Don't forget to eat your ice cream, by the way. I didn't grab that extra tray so you could just watch it melt.”
  553.  
  554. Marcy's eyes flitted downward, to the fading scoops in her bowl. “Oh, crud,” she muttered, “I've really been daydreaming, haven't I? Or, nightdreaming, at this point.”
  555.  
  556. Sasha frowned at her own miserable, half eaten dessert. “So have I,” she said. She felt around in her pocket, and grabbed her father's debit card. “I can go get more. It's no big deal.”
  557.  
  558. “No,” Marcy piped up, “it's fine.” She swiped her spoon across the peaks of all three scoops, and tasted them all at once. “I'll take the L this time, and try not space out, going forward.” A lopsided grin pulled at one side of her lips. “At least not when I'm doing time-sensitive eating. So, just stay and chat.”
  559.  
  560. Sasha thought on it, for a moment, and stowed away the card. Somehow, Marcy's suggestion sounded better than fresh ice cream.
  561.  
  562. And so Sasha stayed, and they chatted. They ran up and down every thread of Starlit. And when they had worn it out, they moved to other shows, then to games, and then to rumors and myths and hopes and dreams. But, eventually, as all good things did, their night drew to an end.
  563.  
  564. Long after their sweet treats were depleted, and the air had grown cold, and their conversation topic had somehow become school, Sasha's phone began to buzz, with annoying frequency. She clicked on her screen, and saw message after message imploring her to return. She also saw that it was far too late for a pair of thirteen-year-olds to be lingering on the streets of LA.
  565.  
  566. “I think we should call it, Mar-mar. It's getting late.”
  567.  
  568. “Yeah it is,” Marcy concurred. “Even if I were actually studying right now, I'd be pushing my curfew.”
  569.  
  570. A chill wind blew, and Sasha shivered as she rose. The crowded sidewalks had dwindled in the wake of the sudden cold. They were less of a hassle, at this hour, and more of a danger. “Do you need me to walk you home?”
  571.  
  572. “Oh, I'm going to take a taxi,” Marcy told her. The girl reached into her backpack, and Sasha heard a familiar jangle. “Cabbies don't mind if you pay in change, you know.”
  573.  
  574. For some reason, Sasha found it hard to meet Marcy's eyes. At least, until the other girl laid a hand on her shoulder. “I'm glad we got to spend time like this, Sash. It was really fun.”
  575.  
  576. Marcy's smile was small, and warm, and it reached all the way to her eyes. And, it was contagious.
  577.  
  578. “I'm glad, too,” Sasha told her. “We'll definitely have to do this again sometime.” After a moment, she added “On a day I'm not trying to avoid home.”
  579.  
  580. Marcy's smile brightened, and her eyes slipped closed. “That sounds great, Sasha.” And then, one eye peeked open. “Because you need to read the library's code of conduct before you try chilling there again.”
  581.  
  582. One single cackle escaped Sasha's throat. “Well, I'm definitely not doing that, so my place it is.”
  583.  
  584. “It's a date then,” Marcy said. “A vague, unspecified date set some time in the future.” She giggled. “I'll be looking forward to it.”
  585.  
  586. When she opened her eyes, she saw Sasha standing there, with both of their garbage stacked in her hands. She wasn't tapping her foot, or anything. But, she was waiting.
  587.  
  588. “Goodnight, Sash,” Marcy told her.
  589.  
  590. “Goodnight, Mar-mar.”
  591.  
  592. And with that, Sasha turned on her heel, and didn't stumble at all. Marcy thought she was lucky.
  593.  
  594. As both girls went their separate ways, neither could resist the urge to look upwards. That night, under the vast Hollywood sky, they both followed paths lit by a twinkling star.
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