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Sudden Thoughts

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It’s too late to set out after Orlando leaves, so they agree to spend the night in the hidden cabin. The cold moonlight lights up the ragtag group—three girls and a cat strung together with threadbare nerves. Nikki’s heart pounds in her throat, and all she can think is how brave Kimi is. Brave and bold and determined and beautiful and—

Cold. Kimi’s still in her bloodstained dress, hugging her bare arms together, shivering lightly. She’s staring off out the window again, her eyes unfocused, distant.

All their friends out there, in danger. Nikki can’t protect any of them tonight, but she can take care of these three, and she can keep Kimi warm.

“Kimi,” she says. “Let me get you something else to wear.”

Kimi jumps at her name, then schools her face into her usual determined scowl. She looks like she’s going to refuse until she actually looks down at herself and seems to remember the blood. She touches her chest, then pulls her hand away, her fingers dark and wet.

“I’d appreciate that,” she says. “Something simple and lively that we can move in—we should head back into the city to gather more supplies before morning.”

Bobo leans on the table. “Don’t worry about that, Lady Kimi. Momo and I can pick up supplies while you and Nikki stay here.”

“What? I never agreed to that! I’m a cat, not a pack mule!”

He jumps, and as innocent as Bobo’s smile looks, Nikki’s pretty sure she just nudged him hard.

“Nikki and Lady Kimi are too recognizable right now,” Bobo says. “It’s best they stay here. Together. Just them.”

Nikki turns away to grab her bag, hoping her blush isn’t showing in the dark. “Bobo’s right. I’m sorry, Kimi—it’s too dangerous if you’re seen here.”

See, it’s about being practical. Nothing like Bobo’s implying.

“Don’t apologize,” Kimi says fiercely. Her temper is fragile. She sighs. “All right. Let me write down a list.”

Nikki kneels down to start sorting through the impossible bag while Kimi and Bobo talk. It’s made more difficult by the noisy ball of white fluff at her elbow.

“I’m cold too,” Momo whines. “Dress me up too!”

Nikki tosses him the first coat she can find, a lumpy baby pink sweatshirt, and then, thankfully, Bobo half-drags him away. The door swings shut behind them, and Nikki goes over to slide the latch into place. The lock clunks. She turns and leans back against the solid wood, like it’s the only thing that’s keeping her from falling.

Kimi stands in the middle of the room, silver-bright, her eyes wide and wondering. The same as when she was looking out the window, but now, she’s only looking at Nikki.

They’ve never been alone like this before.

Nikki swallows hard and asks, “How should I style you?”

Kimi’s gaze skitters away. “Pick something… pick whatever you think is best.”

“Cute and warm, then,” Nikki says, and reaches again for her bag.

***

Bobo and Momo creep quietly back towards the city. Only the prudence of staying quiet in the woods keeps Bobo from humming in glee—her plan worked!

“Why couldn’t Nikki go shopping?” Momo grumbles. “It’s late! I’m tired.”

He looks more ridiculous than usual in the lumpy sweatshirt. Bobo resolves not to tell him, in case he takes it off. Besides, she has more important matters on her mind. “Come on, isn’t it obvious?”

“It’s obvious you’re a big meanie.” He shuffles closer in the bushes, though, clearing sensing a secret in the air, strong as the scent of grilled fish.

She grins and leans down. “We’ve left Nikki and Kimi alone. Just the two of them. All by themselves, in a cozy remote cabin…”

“I don’t get… oh. Oh.” Momo stops dead in a rustle of fallen leaves, then snickers. “You’re so much smarter than you look, Bobo!”

“So they—Hey! You dumb cat!”

***

Impossibly, the cabin feels even smaller now that it’s just the two of them in it.

She sorts through the magical wardrobe bag methodically. She’s acquired so many clothing items, it’s hard to browse through quickly. And the longer she takes, the longer Kimi’s standing there shivering, so—best make this quick. She pulls a coat and stockings from the same outfit—a bit lazy, but she thinks Kimi won’t mind. Then a fluffy white dress from the Lilith section.

Kimi holds the dress up in front of her, brows furrowing skeptically. “This is...cuter than I would usually wear.”

Nikki ducks her head to cover her laugh. “Just trust me, okay?”

“You haven’t disappointed me yet.”

Nikki keeps her head bowed as Kimi steps back, and the rustling of cloth must signal Kimi slipping out of her blood-stained dress. Logically, there would be no harm in looking—stylists often dress their models from the skin out, and Nikki has found Miraland society to have a refreshing shamelessness about changing clothes in front of each other.

But logic has nothing to do with the pounding of Nikki’s pulse, and the heat in her face. She sorts through her wardrobe bag quickly, striving to concentrate on grabbing the last few items, and not Kimi stripping and redressing behind her.

By the time she stands up and turns, Kimi is tugging the second fluffy stocking up over her knee. The ribbed wool clings to her thin legs, and the fluff at the top balances out the fluffy hems of her dress. The skirt swings around her thighs—she’s so short that it hangs a little long, and only the thinnest sliver of skin is visible between hem and stockings.

Nikki would be the first to agree that the little bunny pattern around the hem is not Kimi’s usual style, but that’s kind of the point. She wants Kimi to feel warm and comfortable and cared-for. The cute clothes will help with that.

Kimi steps into the boots—white snow boots from North Kingdom. Much cozier than the insane high heels that come with the coat and stockings.

Speaking of—Nikki holds up the coat. “Here, hold out your arms.”

Kimi lets her ease the coat over her shoulders. It’s like enveloping her in a cloud, if clouds came in pastel pink and blue plaid. Her silver hair gleams against the fluffy hood—slightly mussed. Nikki can’t help but gently push it back from her temple.

Kimi stills at her touch, and breathes, “How do you do that?”

Nikki adjusts the coat collar around her neck, and tries not to think how soft she is. “Do what?”

“That.” Kimi reaches up and touches her slim fingers beneath Nikki’s chin. Her face is pink. “Like you’re using charm all the time, just by standing there. I’ve never…” She drops her hand as if burned, and takes a step back. “I’ve never felt anything like it.”

Nikki can feel her face flushing again too. “I could say the same to you.” She’s tempted to duck her head and hide again, but she’s powerless to pull away from Kimi’s piercing stare. Instead, she steps forward and reaches out her hands in invitation. “Well? Tell me what you think.”

Kimi looks down at herself, clad neck to toe in softness and warmth, and then back at Nikki. She moves closer and takes Nikki’s hands. Her grip is soft, fragile, strong as steel, and her voice just as fierce as she says, “It’s perfect. Just like you.”

And she leans up on her tiptoes as Nikki leans down.