Hat Kid snuggled deep into her pillow fortress and sighed, shutting her tired eyes. It’d been a long day…of nothing. Appropriate, considering the long week of nothing preceding it, and the month of nothing before that. Ever since she’d managed to escape that pesky planet, her journey back home had grown…dull.
Traveling alone had never bothered her before. She’d originally left her home to get away from others. To be her own captain. And after so much time spent away among the stars, she’d set coordinates for home and called it good—when a certain lunkhead Mafia had decided to mess everything up and get her stranded.
But finally, after playing hopscotch with death like a dozen times, she was on her way again.
It wouldn’t be long now. Soon, she’d glimpse the purple-indigo swirls of her native atmosphere, answer the hails from ground control and dazzle her neighbors with a flawless landing of an entire ship all by herself. Soon, she’d be running across glistening Time Dunes and kicking up ridiculous amounts of chromium just for the heck of it. Soon, she’d somersault her way back to a familiar palace, knock on the door, and say hi to…
But as she imagined it, imagined them, something curdled in her stomach. Something strange.
In fact, no matter how she tossed or curled up or flopped over, the pillows didn’t fit right around her and her thoughts were too prickly and she just couldn’t sleep.
It felt like hours of this when Hat Kid vaulted upright, yelled, “Fine, I give up!” and with a swan dive, burrowed down through layers of pillows to get through to her private fort underneath.
It was warmer there—almost comfortable. The candle automatically flared to life with a hiss, and she plucked her diary off the little shelf on the side. Maybe she could distract herself to sleep.
Hat Kid hummed softly to fill the too-quiet air, thumbing through pages with her small hands. All her crazy adventures and daring misdeeds from not so long ago, at her fingertips. She never liked writing much, but she’d heard that Grown-Up captains kept logs so that’s what she’d done. Even stranded captains were still captains.
A smile touched her face as she re-read entries.
Day 1.…Why couldn’t I have gotten stranded near a normal planet?
She snorted. “You have no idea, me from the past. Things are gonna get so much weirder…” She flipped forward a few pages.
Day 8. …One is a big disco penguin, and the other is a…uh…bird-ish thing? Is he even a bird? I have no idea. Birds don’t usually have teeth, but this guy does. It’s creepy…
She giggled her way through reading that entry. Even though Grooves had ended up being a dirty double-crosser, she couldn’t deny how much she’d enjoyed hanging around the drawling diva. The dumb way he’d spontaneously break into dancing, or set his paw on her shoulder and gush about the star he saw in her.
Then he’d tried to kill her, but eh, it seemed to be a planet-wide trait.
Day 17. I’m so excited! There’s going to be a big fancy awards show and I get to go! I mean, I think I’m excited! I mean…I wonder if I helped the right bird win?…
Her smile faded a bit. At first, she hadn’t liked the Conductor at all. He was mean, he was pushy, he was loud.
But then, well. After the awards ceremony, he showed up and stopped that bomb from blowing her to pieces. He’d almost sounded desperate, too, like he cared about her or something. Though at the time, she’d assumed it was him busting out his acting chops.
Day 11. Uhhhh what is this place??? There’s spiders and ghosts and a big creepy creepy grinning…person? Thing?? They said they were gonna kill me but then made me sign some paper instead? And I think he took my soul or something? Say whaaaaaat.
Hat Kid rolled her eyes. Dealing with the Snatcher had been a hoot and a half.
Day 14. …Why is there a smelly dumb gross toilet in the Forest, and why do I have to deal with something so smelly and dumb and gross!?! That Snatcher is such a jerk! Why do I have to do this? I DON’T WANT TO TOUCH A TOILET!
She gagged and quickly flipped the page. For a guy supposedly bent on killing her, he’d done a real good job of stalling an actual fight by coming up with the most ridiculous jobs for her to do. Did she look like a plumber?
Of course, outsmarting him had been fun. The ghost needed an ego check.
Eventually, she reached the last entry in her diary.
Day 26. I got all the Time Pieces back yesterday! Finally, I’m GONE!!!
…P.S. It was so weird. Mafia, Snatcher, D.J. Grooves, other birds, even the Conductor all showed up when I was leaving. I smacked them off with a broom.
Below, she’d drawn a crayon picture of the moment, since the event had made her giggle so much. Noodle shadow. Foofy penguin. Train grandpa. Meaty mobster. All of them, clinging to the edge of her spaceship as though it were a matter of life and death. Hilarious!
Tonight, though, as she stared at it, she didn’t feel like giggling.
She felt empty inside. Almost like…
The realization of what she was feeling came as such a shock to her, she actually dropped the diary on her lap. She felt her own forehead to make sure she wasn’t under the influence of a fever of some kind. What the peck did she have to cry about? She’d had some good adventures. She’d outsmarted every last one of those goons. She’d gotten back all the Time Pieces and fixed her ship.
She was going home. She was gonna backflip off her deck right into city square and whip out the log entries she'd written, the hats she'd invented, the Time Pieces she'd protected, and she'd show them what an incredible captain she would make. She’d knock on that door and they’d see that she wasn’t useless after all. Worth noticing, even. They had to. She’d earned it.
She was going home.
Hat Kid sniffed and furiously rubbed the tears out of her eyes before they could start to fall. There was literally no reason for her to feel this way, and if she was still a mopey mess by the time she reached her destination, they’d laugh her right back out into space.
She was about to close the book and slide it back into place when the memory of that night flitted across her mind, carrying echoes of things they’d said, clinging to the satin metal of her ship.
Don’t you dare leave, lass!
The words had come in a harsh, keening burr. It had almost sounded like a plea.
What had the Conductor meant by that?
Why would he want her to stay?
It couldn’t have been just so she could star in more movies. She broke more props than the movies were even worth. She’d helped his number one rival win against him (though Grooves had cheated for that). He peppered her with knife-related threats. The Conductor didn’t care about her one whit.
He had come to her rescue at the battle of the birds. He’d risked his life to do that. He’d trusted her with his grandkids, and that had to mean something.
Well, he did say he wanted to sign another contract. A pretty stark change in tone to when he’d screamed at her and begged her to leave his forest. He’d joined in with the others to defend her at the last battle against that rude Mustache Girl.
Details like that began to filter through, not just about the Conductor and Snatcher but about all of those meanies, each one tugging at a little more of her heart until she felt certain it was no longer in her chest.
An idea occurred to her, starting whisper-small but flickering to life so fast she couldn’t ignore it. Couldn’t escape it.
Was this the reason for that hollow feeling?
Did she…miss them?
The diary slipped from her fingers and hit the floor wrong, crumpling pages, but she didn’t notice. Her head was spinning, thoughts hurtling like meteors, and if that idea wasn’t enough to knock the wind out of her, an even more insane realization took its place.
All this time, had she even really missed her own home planet?
More importantly—had anyone missed her?
No one had begged her to stay when she’d announced she’d commandeer a spaceship and hike the galaxy. They probably hadn’t even believed she was capable of doing it in the first place—but even now, if they knew—would they care?
The answer was there. It had been there all along.
In a flash of yellow cape, Hat Kid burst through pillows and sprinted down halls until she reached the main chamber of the spaceship. Scowling, she jerked the controls around, punched in a flurry of numbers, and fixed her eyes on the viewport. Instinct welded her hands to the levers, keeping her balanced even as the spaceship careened dizzyingly and began shooting back in the direction from which it came.
“They’d better not steal any Time Pieces this time,” she snapped aloud as she raced alone through space.
It was time to go home.