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Content warning: Sexual harassment

Willow and Rowan had textile class the next morning, and were nearly finished their term project.

“And…done!” Willow exclaimed triumphantly as she finished sewing the final pieces together.

Rowan sighed in relief. “I can’t wait to show this to Dad!”

“Me too,” Willow concurred.

Their teacher, Mr. Garcia, looked impressed by their creation.

“That’s an intriguing pattern you got there,” he said.

“It’s based on the story of Raven stealing the sun,” Rowan explained, pointing to the shining yellow jewel in Raven’s beak.

Mr. Garcia’s eyes lit up in amazement. “Glad to see you two being so ambitious,” he told them.

Willow smiled. “I’d like to do this for a living someday.”

“Well, you’re already off to a good start,” Mr. Garcia said. “Keep it up.”

The bell then rang as class was dismissed and they waved goodbye. The siblings folded their quilt to put in Willow’s bag as they walked down the hallway.

“Say, bro,” Willow said. “I’ve got another project in mind, and I’m scouting for supplies this weekend. Interested in coming?”

“Sorry, I can’t,” Rowan answered. “Wisteria’s taking us hiking this weekend.”

Willow frowned. “That’s too bad.”

“What are you planning to make, anyway?” Rowan inquired.

“Um, it’s an idea I got from a friend…” Willow replied.

Before she could finish, they saw Lydia walking briskly out of the IB Physics classroom. Holding the door for her was a light-skinned boy with brown hair and narrow glasses, who then proceeded to follow her, leering at her miniskirt.

“Oh dear,” Willow whispered to Rowan, who nodded as they both groaned and stepped out of his view. “That guy.”

“So, Lily,” the boy said. “Wanna hang out at my place tonight? I’ve got Mario Party!”

“No,” Lydia flatly declared.

“Aw, c’mon, I thought you loved video games,” the boy coaxed.

“I already said I’m not interested, Tom,” Lydia reaffirmed.

Tom sighed. “Why do you have to treat me like this, my dear? I held the door open for you, didn’t I?”

“Yes, what a heroic effort on your part,” Lydia remarked coldly. “And please don’t call me dear.”

He gasped dreamily. “Oh, Lily, I love it when you play hard to get.”

“Actually, I think you’re annoying, and I wish to be left alone, thank you very much.”

“Then why are you wearing that tiny skirt?”

He grinned, and Lydia instinctively sidestepped away from him. “Because I don’t care what you think.”

His eyes widened in pity. “I’m just trying to protect you, my princess! You shouldn’t dress like that if you want to be left alone, you know.”

Lydia said nothing, but continued walking. Willow, having had enough of this scene, interjected.

“Why don’t you go annoy someone else, Tom?”

Tom looked at Willow and Rowan, sneering. “Oh look, someone’s jealous of the attention Lily’s getting. Too bad! She’s far much more pretty and talented than you’ll ever be.”

Willow froze. Was that really why she was trying to talk to Lydia? Because she was everything she could never be? She worried then about how genuine her desire for friendship was. Rowan, noticing how upset she was, scowled at Tom, but Lydia gestured at him to stop, as she had arrived at her next class. She promptly walked inside, and the Morningstar siblings, feeling powerless, decided to leave as well. Though they tried to walk away quickly, they still had to hear Tom call out to Lydia in his sickeningly sweet tone of voice.

“See you later, my sweet China doll!”

—-

During lunch hour, Willow was in the library reading Nausicaa. She smiled as she finished the second volume, and as she put the book down, she also noticed Lydia tucked away in a corner of the room, intensely focused on her laptop. Curious, she decided to walk up to her.

“Hi, Dia,” she greeted.

“Hello, Willow,” Lydia replied, noticing she had the Nausicaa manga in hand. “Are you enjoying the manga?”

“Yes,” Willow said. “It’s quite different from the movie.”

“Of course. That’s what makes it so interesting.”

Willow paused. “Um, about this morning…”

“Don’t listen to that idiot,” Lydia interjected. “You’re cute.”

Willow sighed. “I’ll never be as pretty as you.”

“Anyone can be pretty,” Lydia told her. “You just need to be true to yourself and find the outfit that suits you best.”

Willow suddenly became more conscious of her wider body. “Um, Lydia, I know you’re trying to help, but, well, that’s easy for you to say. I don’t have the money to buy clothes like yours.”

“I can try to help you find something,” Lydia offered. “I’ll even pay for everything.”

“Thanks, but you don’t have to do this for me,” Willow replied. “I’ll find something eventually.”

She had a worried expression on her face as her mind returned to what she originally wanted to say. “How long did you have to put up with Tom?”

“He’s been annoying me since the start of the year,” Lydia replied. “I tried telling our professor, and he said he’d deal with him, but, nothing.”

“Somehow, I’m not surprised,” Willow retorted.

Lydia raised her eyebrow. “You’ve met him before?”

“Yeah, he’s the leader of our anime club, and many of us had to quit because of their skeevy antics. But teachers love bragging about he’s a model student, always engaged in class and being a great leader to the kids.”

“I know. The other guys keep telling me I’m just overreacting, that he’s really a nice guy, and I should just give him a chance.”

Lydia cackled softly. “And then they call me a slut when they think I’m not listening.”

Willow was concerned at how casually she seemed to be talking about it. “Have you told anyone else about him?”

Lydia’s smile seemed to crack. “Tried telling Ms. Khorrami. She spent a lot of time arguing with the administration to do something about him, but to no avail. I didn’t want her to be more stressed, especially since she has many other students to take care of, so I decided I would deal with him myself from then on.”

Willow frowned. “You shouldn’t have to,” she protested. “There’s got to be something I can do to help.”

“I appreciate your concern,” she told her. “And thank you for standing up for me this morning. But I don’t see what else you can do right now.”

Willow sighed. “Well, if you ever feel like venting about him some more, just let me know. I’m always here if you need an ear.”

Lydia smiled. “Thank you.”

She returned to her laptop, and Willow was intrigued by the sight of a village drawing. “What are you working on, anyway?”

Lydia’s eyes lit up. “It’s an adventure game I’m working on.”

She then turned towards Willow, giving her usual serene smile. “Imagine you could live in a place without suffering or pain. A sanctuary, where you would be forever safe from the evils and horrors of the world. However, there is one caveat: You can never leave, and you would know nothing of the outside world. Would you be happy with such an existence?”

Willow pondered that question. “It depends on who else is living there. I might be, if I were surrounded by nice and interesting people. It might get boring after a while, though.”

Lydia was carefully listening Willow’s response. “Well, in the game, you are an outsider to the village, trying to learn its secrets, such as how it came to be. Your actions influence the villagers and their opinion of you, and you can ultimately decide in the end whether to stay or leave. Would you like to try?”

Willow smiled. “I’d love to!”

Lydia took out a USB and gave it to Willow. “Let me know how your experience goes.”

“Will do, Dia.”

Lydia, content, returned to her laptop. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a glint of amber.

“Say,” she began. “That’s a nice quilt you got there.”

Willow beamed. “Yeah, my brother and I made it.”

“You two are quite talented. Got any other projects in mind?”

Willow thought about her question. “Um, I’m heading to the fabric store this Saturday afternoon to fetch more supplies. Project’s a secret.”

“That’s interesting.”

Suddenly, the bell rang. Lydia folded up her laptop, and walked out the door.

“See you around, Willow.”

Willow was stunned that she referred to her by name. “See you, Dia.”

—-

Willow was overjoyed to finally find the deep blue cloth she was looking for after much searching. Pleased, she put it in her cart and headed for the counter to pay. It was too bad; there were so many other interesting fabrics in the store, but she needed to control herself. To her surprise, when she did get to the line, she saw a cart stocked with a wide variety of fabric patterns, ribbons, thread, and more, all belonging to a familiar face.

“Um, hi Dia,” she greeted.

“Hello,” she replied.

“What brings you here?”

“Getting material to make some dresses with.”

Willow gazed at the near overflowing cart. “Isn’t that a bit much?”

“It’s always good to have more options in case something doesn’t work out.”

Willow sighed. It must be nice to be rich, she thought as Lydia talked with the cashier.

“By the way,” Lydia asked. “Could you also add the next cart to the bill?

“Sure!” the cashier responded, while Willow stared at Lydia, with mouth agape.

“You don’t have to, Lydia,” she protested.

“I know,” she replied. “Think of it as an opportunity to get something nice for yourself or your family.”

Willow reluctantly handed her stuff over to Lydia, who, as promised, pulled out a few hundred dollar bills to pay for the lot. She placed Willow’s supplies in one of her personal bags, separate from her own supplies, for Willow to pick up. They walked together to the bus stop, and suddenly, Lydia also prepared to handed her own supplies to Willow, who was shocked.

“It’s all yours,” she said.

Willow gasped. “No, I can’t accept this.”

“Why not?” Lydia asked.

“You should keep it, for your own projects,” Willow told her. “You’ve already done me a huge favour.

“It’s not a problem,” Lydia explained. “I have plenty of material at home already, and you look like you could make better use of it. Have fun!”

Willow paused, catching her breath. “But why are you doing this for me?”

Lydia continued to smile. “It’s the least I could do for a friend.”

Willow stared at her. “But I thought you said…”

“Yes,” she interjected. “I said I didn’t need friends.”

Her bus then arrived to take her home to the West Side. “Til we meet again,” she told Willow.

Still shocked at Lydia’s gift, Willow gave her a small wave back. “See you, Dia. And thanks for everything.”

—-

A partially cut lavender cloth lay on part of Willow’s table at home as she played through Lydia’s game. She was currently wandering aimlessly around the village, having already talked to everyone and with no clue what to do next. Getting increasingly frustrated, she got up and started pacing. Just then, Rowan barged into her room with a bundle of black feathers.

“Hey sis,” he said. “Thought I’d give you a little something for that dress you’re making.”

Willow gasped. “You didn’t pluck those feathers, did you?”

Rowan shook his head. “Nope. Been collecting stray feathers for a while, but now it’s time to put them to good use.”

Willow smiled. “Thanks, bro. I’ll take good care of them.”

Rowan gazed at Willow’s computer screen. “Whatcha playing?”

“Just play-testing a game Lydia made.”

“Wow, she’s really interested in you, isn’t she?”

“I suppose,” she said, gesturing towards the mounds of fabric and sewing material. “This was all from her.”

Rowan was shocked. “She gave you all this?”

“Yep.”

Rowan stood silently, stunned. “Can’t believe she did that for you,” he said. “Guess I was wrong about her.”

“We all were,” Willow replied. “She’s actually really nice once you get to know her.”

“But why does she act so cold to everyone, then? I don’t get it.”

Willow paused. “She’s a really private person who prefers to keep things to herself.”

“But that’s not really a good excuse,” Rowan retorted.

Willow was worried, hoping she wouldn’t end up revealing too much. “I guess she just doesn’t want certain things leaking out, ya know?”

“I guess.”

Rowan was still confused, but decided to drop the subject and return his attention to the game. “So, how far are you?”

“Not very,” Willow admitted. “Can’t figure out where to go next.”

“Have you looked everywhere? Clicked everything?” Rowan inquired.

“Yes, everything!” Willow stressed, before realizing something. “Wait, there was this one room with this secret staircase, which I was told was off-limits to everyone outside the village.”

Rowan smiled excitedly. “Do it!”

“But the game said not to!”

“All the more reason to try!”

“Okay.”

Willow moved to the hidden staircase, clicking to go down. She was in an abandoned basement. Intrigued, she decided to investigate the bookcase, when suddenly, large text saying “Hey, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” showed up. Willow was startled as it faded to the Game Over screen.

“So much for that idea,” Willow sighed. “I give up.”

Rowan shook his head. “You sure there’s no other way?”

“Well, after I’ve been stuck at the freaking beginning for hours, I’m not really eager to find out.”

Rowan smiled. “How about you take a break? A good Elk burger might give you some ideas.”

Willow’s face lit up. “Sure thing. Let’s go!”

—-

A few weeks later, Willow met up with Lydia again for peer tutoring, seeming a lot happier and more confident with her math problems.

“And…done!” Willow exclaimed as she put down her pen. “Wow, that didn’t take long at all.”

“You’ve come a long way,” Lydia replied. “Good luck on the exam, all of you.”

“Thanks, Dia.”

Lydia looked down at her laptop. “By the way,” she began. “What do you think of my game so far?”

Willow paused, staring at Lydia nervously. “Um, I quit playing a couple of weeks ago,” she admitted.

Lydia looked puzzled. “Oh? Why?”

“I couldn’t figure out where to even go! I tried searching everywhere, but the game wouldn’t let me continue.”

“Have you tried the forbidden room?”

“Yes, but I just got an instant Game Over.”

Lydia smiled. “Ah. To get around that, you had to go there at night, but only after you talked to the guard’s wife to learn the lullaby that would put him to sleep. And you had to do it during the New Moon where he would be the most drowsy.”

Willow merely stared blankly at Lydia, her mouth agape. “How the hell was I supposed to know all that?”

“By talking to the villagers,” Lydia replied nonchalantly.

“I did!” Willow protested. “They only said the same line over and over.”

“Well, you have to talk to them in a certain order to make them trust you,” Lydia explained. “Then they would say different things.”

Willow sighed. “I don’t understand why you had to make things so complicated.”

“Well, I never intended it to be finished quickly. It was supposed to test your patience as much as your logic and creative thinking.”

“It certainly did a good job of that,” Willow remarked sardonically. She quickly noticed Lydia looking disappointed and softened her tone. “Look, Dia, I really wanted to like your game, but getting stuck for days isn’t fun for me. I know you’re smart and probably like really hard games, but not everyone is like that. I hope you don’t think I’m an idiot for saying this, but, could you maybe tone it down a little? Make things more intuitive?”

Lydia was silent, thinking over Willow’s words.

“You’re not an idiot,” Lydia said quietly. “And I apologize for making you feel that way. I’m actually glad you were honest, because now I know what to work on.”

“Need any help?” Willow asked.

“No, I’m fine,” Lydia responded.

“I just thought, maybe you could use some extra advice,” Willow said. “Not to imply that you’re a bad designer or anything, but it couldn’t help to have a second opinion, right?”

“Thank you, but I think I know what to do with my own game.”

Willow was taken aback at her remark, and sighed. “What, you think I’m not smart enough for you? That I’ll just taint your grand artistic vision?”

Lydia, realizing the implications of her words, replied, “My apologies. I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Then what did you mean?” Willow demanded.

Lydia was silent, thinking about what to say next. Eventually, she said, “Why do you want to help me?”

“Because we’re friends,” Willow asked. “Who always look out for each other, right? I don’t understand, why call me a friend if you’re just going to keep everything to yourself?”

Lydia said nothing, but merely listened, sensing there was something else she wanted to say.

“And, maybe I am jealous of you,” Willow continued. “I guess I thought, if I could help someone as pretty and smart as you, maybe I could actually feel special.”

Lydia paused, waiting for her to finish. After a moment of silence, she spoke.

“You are special,” Lydia replied. “I haven’t met anyone who was so eager to be my friend since Ms. Khorrami, and it’s nice to have someone like you who truly cares about me. I’m sorry that I was rude to you, and I’ll gladly let you help with my game. In fact, would you like to learn some programming?”

Willow’s head perked upwards. “I’d love to, but I’m not good at time.”

“Everyone has to start somewhere,” Lydia told her. “Once you understand the logical mentality behind programming, it becomes a lot easier. But we can try a few sessions first. Still interested?”

Willow’s eyes widened as she flashed a huge smile. “Yes, I’d love to!”

“Excellent,” Lydia told her. “We’ll start next week then.”

Willow breathed a contented sigh. She didn’t know if she could really do it, but she was overjoyed that Lydia was giving her this opportunity. She outstretched her arms, and Lydia, smiling, embraced her in a hug.

“Thank you so much, Dia. I’ll do what I can to help make your game a success.”

“And I’ll do the best to make you a programming expert.”

They finished hugging, and bid each other farewell as they left for their next class, excited for their eventual first meeting, and each of them glad that they had each other to fall back on from then on out. For Willow, she could only wonder what adventure lay ahead for both of them.

(next)

(table of contents)

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