“Double dog dare you,” Rachel says.
From the ground, Cassie stares up at her, unimpressed. Rachel grins back, swinging her legs and rocking forward. Alarm flashes across Cassie’s face before Rachel rocks back, smoothly shifting to straddle the tree branch. She isn’t afraid of losing her balance.
Cassie sighs, relief and annoyance both. “You’re being stupid.”
“And you’re being a coward,” Rachel says. She sniffs. “I don’t think I can be best friends with a coward.”
Cassie just rolls her eyes, not taking her seriously at all. “Get down from there before you get hurt.”
“You need to live a little,” Rachel says. “Jeez. I’m not gonna fall.”
Cassie just crosses her arms and glares up at her, squinting in the face of the sun’s glare. It’s clear in the way that she juts her chin out that she’s trying to act twenty years older than her eleven years. Can’t look it, though, as short and chubby-faced as she is. Cassie’s always been cute like that.
“Scaredy-cat,” Rachel calls out, then repeats it, singing. “I’m gonna hold this over your head forever, Cassie. You can hug trees, but you can’t climb them?”
Cassie makes a strangled noise. “That’s not - you - ”
“I can see you shaking in your boots,” Rachel says, which is patently untrue, but annoys Cassie all the same, as intended. She pushes it further, sticking out her tongue. “Like I said. Coward.”
Cassie’s eyes flash, and Rachel knows she’s got her. She barely manages to keep herself from smiling, raising an eyebrow instead.
“You’re about to eat your words,” Cassie growls, and stomps over. She struggles to find a foothold in the bark for a moment, but once she does, she scrambles up the tree to Rachel’s spot, impressively fast. Surprisingly strong for her little body.
Not that Rachel is ignorant of her strength. She’s always known how strong Cassie is - it’s other people who make the mistake that she isn't. They think Rachel’s the leader of their duo. Those people don’t know Cassie. Don’t bother to look past first appearances, Cassie’s soft face and gentle tone. If they did, they’d realize that she and Cassie are equals. That Cassie’s even braver than Rachel, maybe.
As soon as she’s settled next to Rachel on the branch, Cassie shoves her shoulder, none too gentle.
Rachel cackles. “I thought you were worried about my safety. Now you’re trying to push me down?”
“Ugh,” Cassie replies, scrunching up her nose, but Rachel can see the smile tugging at her lips.
“Kind of funny being this high up, huh?” Rachel says, shifting her gaze from Cassie. The forest behind Cassie’s house has become their own little stomping ground. Despite the fact that it’s November, it’s warm enough that Rachel’s stripped off her windbreaker, the arms of the jacket tied around her waist. Even Cassie, sensitive to the cold, looks comfortable. Aside from their voices, the only noise to be heard is the gentle rustling of the leaves in the breeze.
It’s nice. Different from the environment of Rachel’s house. Quiet, but… nice.
Cassie doesn’t respond, not needing to. Her body is still, missing the ever-present restlessness of their peers. Her dark eyes are calm, the line of her back straight. Unlike her adult act earlier, in moments like this, she seems mature in a way that Rachel can only wish she could imitate.
Somehow, without her notice, the sun had begun to set, casting a nice golden glow over everything, including Cassie’s dark brown skin. Rachel should go home soon, or face the inevitable tongue-lashing of her mother.
Disappointment is a heavy feeling in her stomach that Rachel has become adept at ignoring. She nudges Cassie’s boot with her sneaker. “I better get going.”
“It is that time, huh?” Cassie says. If she’s feeling the same disappointment Rachel is, she doesn’t show it, placid as ever.
Cassie looks to the tree trunk, a line appearing between her brows. “I better go down first.”
“That’s the boring way.”
Cassie groans, already hearing what she isn’t saying. “Rachel - “
Years of gymnastics means that she knows to brace for the impact, but she still winces as she lands, the shock of the jump jolting through her legs. She wobbles a little as she rises to her feet.
“Rachel,” Cassie says. Somehow she’d reached the ground in the time that Rachel had been recovering from her landing. Rachel tries not to laugh at the look of disappointment on Cassie’s face, and fails.
“You should know me by now.”
“And you should be more careful,” Cassie retorts. “That hurt. I know it did. Don’t lie.”
In moments like this, Cassie sharply reminds Rachel of her cousin. Two peas in a pod. Rachel gives a heavy sigh. “Barely.”
Cassie just frowns. Always too serious in moments like these.
“Besides,” Rachel says. “I can’t get too hurt. I won’t. Not with you here.”
Cassie’s frown falters, but doesn’t disappear. “I won’t always be around.”
Rachel just laughs. “Come on, Cass. You’re always at my side.”
“I’m not your keeper,” Cassie grumbles, but her shoulders relax.
Rachel slings an arm over her shoulder, tugging her to her side and back in the direction towards the barn. “I know you aren’t,” she says.
Cassie knocks her head against her shoulder. She breathes out. “Yeah, yeah.”
Things change within two years. They grow up a little. Rachel and her friends find out about a secret alien invasion, and somehow becomes Earth’s sole defenders. Small things like that. No big deal.
It’s an unconvincing joke Rachel tells to herself sometimes as she ponders her preteens, lying on her bed, wide awake in the darkness of her room. The warm glow of the past is not enough to counter the smog of the present. It never is. Rachel can’t fall asleep, most days, until the exhaustion becomes too much in the early hours of the morning.
But that’s not the worst of it, really. Days like this are the hardest, fond memories of the past absent from her mind.
Where Rachel has always had jagged sharp edges, filled with raw honesty and passion that was too much to be contained even as a little girl, Cassie had been soft, quiet and kind and universally appealing.
Of course, Cassie could be just as sharp and uncompromising as her, in her own way.
It’s something that Rachel used to take pride in. In this moment, that pride is nowhere to be found. Her patience is dwindling away like a dying candle as Cassie meets her eyes, unbudging and resolute.
“I just don’t get it,” Rachel says. I don’t get you.
She never thought that being unable to comprehend Cassie would ever be a reality. It hadn’t even been a distant possibility.
“What’s not to get?” Cassie says. Despite the determination in her eyes, she sounds tired. “It was a chance that - I didn’t have to use violence. That maybe there was another way than just killing. And it worked.”
“But it almost didn’t!” Rachel cries out. She feels like she’s walking across a balance beam, teetering on the brink of falling over the edge. The hysteria crawls up her throat, closing it, and she shakes her head violently. “You got lucky,” Rachel continues. “But maybe you won’t next time. It’s - “ She can’t push anything else past her tongue. She’s never been known as someone short of words to say, but in this moment, she can’t find anything.
“I found another way, Rachel,” Cassie says. “That means something.”
Rachel shakes her head again, hard enough that she feels dizzy. “You almost died.”
There’s a look on Cassie’s face, as if she’s trying to be patient with her. It’s infuriating. “I didn’t almost die. I was - “
“Don’t be fucking pedantic,” Rachel says.
Something shifts at that. Cassie’s eyes glitter in the dark, as she falls silent - but Rachel knows she still has something to say, by the way her fingers tug at the fraying threads of the hem of her shirt; she always finds something to do with her fingers as she thinks.
She doesn’t want to look at her as she finds something to say. Rachel turns away, breathing in as her hands fist at her sides. It seems that she’s always turning away from Cassie these days.
When did that happen?
“Look, Rachel,” Cassie says finally. “I know that this is…” Silence, again, as she looks for the right word. Rachel can hear her shifting her feet, and she closes her eyes. “I know that this is scary. I was terrified, too, believe me. But with Aftran… we understood each other, Rachel. And if that was possible for Aftran, that means - “
Rachel turns around. Whatever look is on her face, it’s enough that Cassie falls silent when their eyes meet.
Rachel isn’t stupid. She understands what Cassie is saying, even if it would have struck her as stupidly unrealistic and naïve only days earlier. But Cassie has always been idealistic, perhaps not just wanting, but needing to believe that there is good in others. It might be a trait born out of taking care of hurt animals day after day in the warm shelter of her barn, or passed down from her parents. Maybe it’s just Cassie , in all of her essence, somehow always graceful despite the stains on her jeans, the dirt on her hands. Wherever it comes from, she has always been the kind of person willing to hold a hand out, in the hopes that one will reach back.
The kind of person to have empathy for others, even at cost to herself. At cost to others, as well. Rachel does not know whether it is the former or the latter that she cannot forgive.
“Let me ask you this,” Rachel says, her voice rough. It grates on her own ears, and she almost winces. “What if… you and Aftran didn’t understand each other. Let’s say that it didn’t all miraculously work out in the end, that you didn’t get stupidly lucky by some morphing trick we didn’t even fucking know about. Let’s say that you became a voluntary controller for nothing.”
She cuts herself off there, exhaling almost violently. Her voice is rising, and she hates it. But Rachel isn’t Cassie. She isn’t gentle. She can’t prevent her anger from twisting her mouth, from showing in the quick, jerky movements of her hands. She folds her arms instead, fingers clenching around her biceps.
“You remember the time with Jake.”
“Of course I do,” Cassie whispers. Her eyes are wide. Pleading, Rachel thinks.
“Then you should know what would happen,” Rachel says. “The yeerk - Aftran, I suppose, would know all of our names. Our families. We’d be screwed. Unless, of course, we either took Aftran hostage, and if that wasn’t possible, killed you. We might have to kill you anyway, because willingly becoming a controller - well, that’s a clear liability, right? We can’t have someone like that fighting with us.”
“Rachel,” Cassie says. The pleading quality is clear in the plaintive way Cassie says her name. But Rachel can’t stop.
“Who do you think it would come down to then?” Rachel says. “I guess Jake could do it, if he really thought he had to, but the rest of us wouldn’t let him. Tobias is a non-option. Ax - well, maybe. But I think it would probably come down to me or Marco.”
“Marco likes to pretend he’s all tough and cold. But he isn’t that ruthless. At least not yet, I think. So after all that deliberation, I’d bet that the honours would fall to yours truly.”
Cassie stares at her numbly. “You’re my best friend.”
It would be too mean to laugh. Rachel has to cover her mouth until the urge passes, but behind her palm, the ugly mockery of a grin remains. “That’s exactly why. I know you better than anyone else.”
And other reasons, besides, that she can’t acknowledge out loud. Rachel already knows what role in the group she’d somehow slipped in to at some point, without her noticing.
Tears glisten in Cassie’s eyes, threatening to spill over. At that, the smile fades, and Rachel drops her hand.
“And this is why I’m telling you this,” she says. “You can be the kindest one out of all of us. The only one to see the good in the yeerks, maybe. But you know what? That kindness doesn’t matter if it gets all of us killed - and in the scenario where that doesn’t happen, gets yourself killed. You might as well be dead if you get stuck as a controller. So what I’m saying, Cassie, is that none of your kindness means a thing if you don’t fucking think.”
She’s prepared for Cassie to fall silent. Start crying, maybe, or glare and storm off. The argument over, not that either of them would forget about it, of course. It would linger in the air between them, unresolved, making the growing chasm between them gape even wider.
Cassie slams a fist into the trunk of the tree beside her instead. It’s so unlike her that Rachel instinctively twitches forward, ready to grab Cassie’s small hand and hold it between her own. Cassie doesn’t get violent in her anger. That’s always been Rachel.
Don’t be so careless, Rachel wants to say. When did you become like this?
“So what, Rachel?!” Cassie yells. The words almost become strangled by an angry sob that Cassie manages to hold back just in time. “Should I just be willing to kill a little girl? Is that what everything’s come down to? The kind of people we are, now?”
Rachel stares back at her. Where anger had been roiling in her stomach before, now, there is nothing. She’s empty. “It wasn’t really about understanding each other, then. Or ‘finding another way’. You just…”
Cassie wipes her tears with her hand, smearing the tracks that have already begun to dry on her cheeks. The side of her hand is bleeding, but she doesn’t seem to notice. “There has to be a line somewhere,” she finally says. “I’m not you, Rachel.”
Because Rachel can kill little girls and justify it to herself, after. Because Rachel is -
She doesn’t let herself finish the thought, all the words Cassie is leaving unsaid. The anger is coming back again, making her fingers tremble, and she’s glad for it. It’s better than the emptiness.
“I’m not selfish, you mean,” Rachel says, and she lets herself smile this time, cruel. “I’m not the kind of person who will sacrifice all of us so that, just maybe, my conscious can rest a little easier. No. I guess that’s just you.”
Cassie’s eyes are glassy as they bore into her. A leaf from the tree above them falls, landing silently at Rachel’s feet. It wasn’t too long ago that this spot in the woods behind Cassie’s barn was their own secret place, just for the two of them. Some place where they couldn’t get hurt by others, where Rachel didn’t have to think about her mother and her father and the confused, lost look in her sisters’ faces that never seemed to go away.
That’s all gone. Now, it seems like this is the place where they can come to hurt each other in privacy instead.
“If that’s what you think, Rachel,” Cassie says. She sounds so sad.
The moonlight illuminates the space between them, wide and unforgiving.
Inside the locker room, Rachel can still hear the cheers coming from outside in the gymnasium, after the music ends and another girl has presumably finished her routine, bowing to the crowd and smiling. Unlike her, Rachel thinks, as she cradles the ice pack against her ankle. She hadn’t been able to stick the landing.
She can’t think about the look on her father’s face.
Someone knocks on the door. Two raps, gentle.
Not the first-aid respondent that had been on-site and attended to her ankle. Not her mother, always frowning, who had rushed into the room straight away without knocking and had been a looming presence at Rachel’s side until she’d shooed her and the respondent away, claiming that she just needed a few minutes.
The knocks are too gentle to be her father.
That only leaves one person. Rachel closes her eyes, resting her forehead against the knee she’d brought up to tend to her ankle. “You can come in, Cassie.”
Rachel only looks up when Cassie’s quiet footsteps stop in front of her. Cassie’s mouth is twisted downward as her eyes search Rachel’s face. “Are you okay?” Cassie asks when their eyes meet.
Rachel just shrugs. Cassie takes the cue to sit beside her on the bench, settling her hands in her lap primly.
“Just a swollen ankle,” Rachel says. “I’ll be fine.”
Cassie hums, noncommittally. Rachel knows what that noise means. She sighs, rubbing a hand across her head and inadvertently freeing some strands of hair from her tight bun. She’s tired of the bun, her leotard and her leggings, all of which feel far too constricting.
“I’ll be fine,” Rachel says again.
She’d just turned twelve a month ago. The air between her parents had been tense for a long time, but Rachel hadn’t fully realized how bad it truly was until she’d stumbled into an angry, whispered argument in the pantry at her birthday party when she’d just wanted to ask when the cake was going to come out. Her father had left the house a week later after the tail-end of another argument, his cheeks flushed and veins in his forehead popping as he’d closed the door behind him. Rachel had watched him leave from the window as he stormed to his car, his duffel stuffed with clothes that hadn’t properly been packed.
We just need some space, her mother had said that night, face tight. This is only temporary, she said the next morning as she fried some eggs, mouth stretched in an utterly false smile. Rachel had wanted to ask her to stop, but had only been able to nod.
And now they’d both come to her meet, only for Rachel to fuck it all up.
“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” Rachel says.
“It was a good routine,” Cassie says, turning to look at her. The earnestness that brightens her face is almost painful. “People fall all the time. You just got unlucky.”
Rachel shakes her head. “Not me. I don’t fall.” Desperate to stop the shaking in her fingers, she grips the icepack harder, until her fingers go numb.
“No one can be perfect, Rachel. You’re pretty close, though.” Cassie tucks a hand into the inside of her elbow, squeezing and leaning into her shoulder. “Your dad was worried.”
“Was he?” Rachel asks blankly. She stares at the row of blue lockers in front of her, faded and chipped, before tilting her head to look down at Cassie, still nestled against her shoulder.
“Uh-huh,” Cassie says. “He would have come to check on you, I think, but your mom told him you wanted space.”
“I guess I did tell her that.” Rachel lifts a hand to run her hand through her hair before remembering the bun. She reaches back to pull the ribbon holding it together loose. Her hair spills past her shoulders, into Cassie’s face, and Cassie leans back, sputtering. Rachel smiles, but only a little.
“And that didn’t apply to you?”
“Well,” Cassie shrugs. “He’s not your best friend, is he? I am.”
“So you have the freedom to butt in no matter what I say?”
Cassie rolls her eyes. “As if you don’t butt your nose into my business all the time.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Rachel says, somewhat reluctantly.
Cassie sucks in a breath. “And you might get mad, but that’s why I’m going to tell you this.” She lifts her knees on the bench beneath her, fully turning to face Rachel now, and takes Rachel’s hand between her own. Rachel raises an eyebrow at her. Cassie has dressed nicely for once, out of the ratty overalls and jeans; the yellow dress she’s wearing is a nice contrast against her dark skin. She looks pretty enough to seem out of place in the old, stinking locker room. Not that Cassie isn’t usually pretty. But she’d bothered to dress up for this meet of all things, and, well… that means something.
“No matter what happens between your parents…” She squeezes Rachel’s hand. “You know that both of them will always love you, right?”
Rachel snorts. “Sure.”
Cassie hits her on the shoulder, not hard enough to hurt. “I mean that.” Her expression is too somber for Cassie’s still eleven years. “Even if your dad goes away, or something - he won’t stop loving you. Even if you fall during one dumb routine. Okay?”
Unlike Rachel, Cassie’s hands aren’t sweaty, but running cold as always. The callouses on her palms scratch against Rachel’s skin as her fingers close more tightly around her hand.
“And even if he didn’t…” Cassie’s big brown eyes are filled with compassion. Looking at them is enough to make something in Rachel’s chest ache. “Even if he didn’t, you’d still have me. You’ll always have me. Got it, Rachel?”
The corner of Rachel’s mouth twitches. And then, she laughs, loud and echoing in the large space. “Got it, Cassie.” Before Cassie can potentially duck away, she moves in, hugging Cassie’s waist. “It’s mutual,” Rachel says. “Whatever happens, you’ve always got me.”
Cassie's arms wrap around her neck. “Okay,” she says, amused. Rachel can hear her smile.
“We’ll always have each other, then.”