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Once in a Lifetime

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You're able to maintain the ruse until you change into your pajamas at your very next sleepover.

So, like, four whole days.

You don't have a lot, okay, your pajamas are technically just an old, oversized Squawking Heads T-shirt you stole from a thrift store. The graphic is cracked and it’s riddled with tiny abrasion holes near the hem, but on your carefully cultivated hipster-emo persona, it's just …. vintage. It's retro. It’s well-worn and it's comfortable.

It's also got short sleeves.

You're shoulder to shoulder with Webby in her little bathroom, getting ready for bed. Webby pastes her toothbrush with more enthusiasm than is ever really necessary while you pin your hair back to wash your face. You use a damp cloth to wipe off your eye make-up, and in the mirror, while she pretends not to watch you with tiny, newborn stars in her eyes, you can see it happen on her face. Her eyes move from your face to your wrist, and her toothbrush slows, and her eyebrows crease, and she goes very still.

You're not wearing your friendship bracelet, which makes sense, because Aunt Magica made you throw it away. It's probably collecting algae at the bottom of the bay, or it's giving a particularly stupid fish a very bad case of indigestion.

“Uhm,” you say, caught empty-handed.

Webby leans and spits into the sink. When she comes back up, she won't look at you.

“No, it’s okay.” Her voice has that high, trembling quality you know all too well. That thin edge of nervous mania. “It was pretty dumb, huh, haha! I didn't even ask first.” She thumbs her own bracelet, already looking dingy from daily wear.

“No,” you say, suddenly, turning to face her, and not her reflection. “It's not that. I lost it.”

This is not an untruth. It is, in fact, lost, and you did, in fact, make that happen. You lost the bracelet.

Everything that follows will be a lie, of course, but what else is new?

“I don't know, it must not have been tied very well? It's under my sleeve most of the time, so, it must have come loose and I didn't notice until it was too late.” Your voice has started to take on that ‘aren't I cute?’ quality it slips into when you're trying to charm something out of her. It's disturbing how easy that's becoming, how it happens without even trying. You clear your throat and try to drop your voice back into the comfortable space between ‘kind of sincere, maybe’ and ‘deadpan cool teen.’ “I'm sorry I didn't say anything sooner, Webby, I didn't want to hurt your feelings.”

She looks up at you through her lashes, and there is a very secret, very small part of you that needs to scream into a pillow, and then burn that pillow and bury the ashes. “Really?”

“Yeah, really,” you lie, again, because that's all you do, ever.

She pauses, the gears in her head start grinding overtime, then rinses her toothbrush and slams back a glass of water with urgency. She's vibrating a little.

“I could make you a new one!” And then, catching herself, she rocks back, eye cast downward. She reaches up absently and fidgets with her hair, and you wonder if she got that cute little flip there because she's always playing with it. “I mean, if you want.”

You hesitate, but only for a second. “Yeah. Okay.” You feel soft around your prickly, sarcastic edges somehow, but you're determined not to dwell on it. “I'd like that.”

She grabs your hand and pulls you back down the hall into her bedroom. She parkours up into her loft and you follow at a slower, normal person pace, and by the time you join her, she's already got an old hat box open on her bed, overflowing with packages of pony beads and vials of glitter and spools of hemp twine and the bleached bones of something small and alarmingly avian. You show a little interest and initiative and root around in the hat box, curious to see what else she's got. One empty breath mint tin yields a collection of plastic rhinestones, another, an assortment of colorful beetle carapaces, and a third, a mismatched set of canine baby teeth.

You're pretty okay to just sit back and watch, actually.

She fishes out three skeins of embroidery floss in pale blue, purple and green, and starts measuring them by unspooling lengths of about an arms length each She cuts about fourteen strands in total, knots them all together at one end, and tapes the knotted end securely to the lid of her hat box, which she holds against her mattress with her feet.

You've walked the earth for almost fifteen years, but it is maybe not entirely accurate to say that you are actually fifteen years old. The complicated business of becoming autonomous and developing a consciousness happened slowly, in fits and starts, and began only relatively recently, but you suppose that's true of lots of people, natural- or magic-born alike. Regardless, in those fifteen years, you have never had a friend, or anyone to exchange friendship bracelets with, or any reason to wonder how they were made, before you met Webby.

It looks….complicated.

She has all these strands fanned out in an order you recognize as the color pattern of your first bracelet:  five purple, two green, five blue, two more green. She picks the first strand, loops it in a knot around the second, loops a second knot, then flips this second strand aside and repeats the process on the third, and fourth, and so on down the line. It's messy business because the strands are long and get tangled easily, but her hands are sure and the untangling process is smooth and as repetitive as the knot tying. At the end, she starts back at the beginning, taking that initial second strand and using it to loop two knots per strand, until she has two rows of tight, diagonal purple knots. It's like, not even a quarter of an inch and it's taken her ten minutes. You do some quick math.

“Holy crap. How long did it take you to make these?”

“Uhm….A couple hours?”

Each ?”

“Yeah...well, I messed up the first one, so longer if you count that. It kept curling up as I was making it, and I couldn't figure out why? It looked bad and I got halfway through it before I realized I was only doing one knot per strand.” She loops two knots and pushes them flush against the previous row. “The second knot is what anchors and flattens it.”

You watch, transfixed. Pull, loop, push, loop, push, flip. She's talking about different patterns she hasn't mastered yet, materials she'd like to substitute for embroidery floss. Pull, loop, push, loop, push, flip.

“Do you want to try?”

You jerk out of the weird hypnosis of watching her small hands at work, like you've woken from a falling nightmare three inches before hitting ground. She's finished purple and green and moved on to blue. You scoot around until you're shoulder to shoulder with her, and she hands you the next two strands. You try to tie the knot, but you pull both strands equally, like you're tying your shoes, and the knot doesn't sit right. She leans in and unpicks the knot with a pin and shows you how to do it right: hold the anchor strand tight and loop the working strand around and….there. You do it again. Then the next strand. Pull, loop, push, loop, push, flip. Pull, loop, push, loop, push, flip.

You reach the end of a successful row, immensely proud. So proud, in fact, that something hot and bright has been growing in your chest and behind your eyes. You start a second row, but pulling the strand tight feels inexplicably like pulling a thread of gold from the heart of a hot star, and you snatch your hands back, like they've been burned.

This is magic .

Webby touches your shoulder in concern, and you shake your vision clear to look at her. Her big, dark eyes search yours, and you look away, quickly, undeserving of her attention. How does she not feel it? She's building a spell, one knot at a time, like chalking runes in a circle on the floor or burning the right herbs or saying the right words under the right moon and stars….it's no different. She put hours of ritual love into these threads and it's lousy with her young, undisciplined energy. Combined with your natural proclivity, it lights up light mental fireworks.

“I'm fine,” you say, rubbing your phantom burned fingers on your ratty-- vintage --t-shirt. It's not….the worst magic has ever felt, for sure, not even a burn really, just...a surprise. A mild shock in the space between your bones. But…. It was unexpected, and you don't know what it'll do, like the last time you were here, and that stuff went down at the money bin…. A low but persistent feeling of unease creeps up your spine, as dealing with dumb magic stuff tends to do, but where it would normally feel cold and make your feathers stand up, it feels uncomfortably warm and close instead.

You'd just as soon let Webby work on the bracelet instead.

She takes back over (pull, loop, push, loop, push, flip) but you stay at her elbow, watching while she works. You thought magic had to be deliberate, intentional, that casting a spell had to be planned. She's doing it without even really trying.

“What are you thinking?” you ask, softly, maybe a half hour later, maybe five minutes, you're not really sure.

It’s Webby's turn to jerk, as though she were three inches from the ground in a falling nightmare. “Wh, what?”

“Just curious.”

She regards you nervously from the corner of her eye. Is she….blushing?

“You... I guess.”

“Why?” That's the question you really meant to ask. Why would she spend all this time doing something so tedious and boring for you ?

She falters in her work, but doesn't let it break her rhythm. (Pull, loop, push, loop, push, flip.) “I'm thinking...you're my friend, and it makes me happy to make something for you. I like to do nice things for people I care about!" She dips her head, and her hair, loose for bedtime, falls forward to hide her face. Only the tip of her bill is visible from this angle. "And... I care about you."

(Pull, loop, push, loop, push, flip.)

"Also... after what happened at the money bin, I want you to have a new bracelet because… if anything like that happens again, we can use them to keep each other safe.”

You sigh and fall back on her bed. Glow in the dark plastic stars and comets speckle her ceiling. They're arranged meticulously in real-life constellations, because of course they are.

“I didn't lose it,” you say, and she stops and looks at you, but you keep your eyes on the ceiling. You know a few constellations, being a creature of the night and all. Your eye is drawn to Andromeda and Perseus. “I mean, it's gone, I did lose it, but my aunt made me get rid of it.”

“...Why?”

“I don't know.” Well, you kind of know, but it could be any number of reasons. Because she can't let you have anything nice, or else it would give you ideas? Because the bracelet was more powerful than her and if you knew magic that wasn't hers, you might be able to fight back? Because she suspects you like Webby, even though you keep telling her it's just part of the plan, and she's right , you like her more every day, doubt what you're doing to her more every day, and want out more every day?

“She cares a lot about appearances, she said it was tacky.” Lies, again. But…maybe you can bring it a little closer to the truth. “We argue a lot, about...well, me, I guess. The person she wants me to be. We have…different ideas. Haha, family, am I right?”

“Haha, yeah, family!” Webby parrots, and blows a little raspberry, transparent in her desperation to endear herself to you, because you know she idolizes every single one of her relatives, blood, found, by proxy, or otherwise. You prop yourself up on your elbows and cock a knowing eyebrow at her, and she giggles, embarrassed. Your hands clench at the hem of your pajama shirt at the sound of it, bells in the dark.

“Well,” she says, bright and cheerful, resuming her work. (Pull, loop, push, loop, push, flip.) “I think you're great. I like you just the way you are.”

“I, that's,” you swallow hard, and blink rapidly for absolutely no reason at all. It's not fair, because you don't deserve her, you don't deserve her trust and admiration, and you definitely don't deserve her magic. You're not her friend, not really, even if it's the thing you want most in the whole world right now. “She'll just make me get rid of it again,” you say quietly, defeated, and hope she's not listening now or you'll definitely pay for it later.

Webby stops, and turns, but you dont meet her eyes. This is the closest you've ever been to asking for help. You don't talk about to Webby about your Aunt, except as an abstract character you pretend to ask for permission to stay the night. Webby's never asked about your home or your family, because she can be more than a little single minded, and that's fine, because even if she had, you'd have lied anyway. You steer conversation in directions you know will catch her interest and distract her so you don't have to bother fabricating an entire fictional life.

But right now, in this moment, if she asked, you'd tell her.

She doesn't, of course, because she doesn't know to. You don't resent her for it, not for a minute. This is beyond the scope of her experience, and you're okay with that. You like that about Webby, that she knows love and support and safety and has no reason to suspect the same isn't true for her best friend.

“Oh! I can keep it for you,” she says, and the moment passes, “and you can wear it when you come over."

"Oooh," you sit up and lean forward to get a good look at her. "A secret."

"Yeah!! A secret!" She seems thrilled at the idea, and you kind of suspect she's working up a little narrative to go along with it, like the bracelet is top secret information and you're her unscrupulous contact and she has to execute a flawless drop off or you'll both be executed.

You give her a little bump with your shoulder and she squeaks at the contact. "Can I try again?"

"Yeah!" There's not much left at this point, and the shorter the strands get, the quicker the work goes. She makes room for you and guides you through the motions again (Pull, loop, push, loop, push, flip) and when that magic feeling bubbles up around your brain and heart again, you welcome it.

It's not so bad, really. Warmer than you're used to, but not unreasonable. You could grow to actually like it, maybe, in time.

Not unlike hugs.

When you're finished, Webby ties off the end, trims the excess and presents your combined effort to you in the loving cradle of her hands. You present your wrist, and she ties the bracelet, spell band, whatever, in a tidy knot doomed to be picked loose in the morning.

Then she hesitates.

And kisses your hand.

"What," you say at the same time she yells, "SORRY," at a pitch that could break glass. She flounders to backpedal from you, but you catch her hands and hold her still.

She could subdue you easily, of course. She could flip you and get you in a headlock, or do that thing like in the movies where she pokes you just right between the shoulder blades and you go down like a bag of bricks. You don't know if that's a real thing, but if it is, Webby definitely knows how to do it.

But she just...lets you hold her hands. You adjust so your fingers are laced with hers, palms together, and the sparkling shoujo energy coming off her is as thick as cotton candy.

You kiss her forehead, and she makes a sound like a balloon losing air through a pinhole.

You're not her friend, not really. Mostly because she's an unwilling stepping stone in a terrible plot you wanted nothing to do with, but also because you have just the biggest, stupidest, gayest crush on her imaginable, against all odds. It's all going to go south very quickly, and it's going to be very bad for everyone involved, but tonight you feel safer and more untouchable than you ever have in your life, and you're going to pull Webby to her feet on her bed, and you're going to teach her all the words to Once in a Lifetime, yelling my god! what have I done! at the top of your lungs until Duckworth floats in through the floor to scold you and tell you to go to sleep.

Tomorrow's a problem for future Lena. Tonight you'll fall asleep holding Webby's hand, the protective glow of magic warming your blood like she's hugging each one of your cells individually.

And you're a hugger now, after all.