Middle school is unkind to everyone, but it’s especially unkind to Barbara Minerva.
Barbara, who’s too skinny, and reads too much, and fidgets with her glasses too much, and sticks out too much, and too much, too much.
The other students don’t understand and wouldn’t be caught dead trying to, so they push Barbara to the backs of their minds and keep her there like a discarded childhood belonging. This isn’t caused by Barbara’s lack of trying to pull focus - she does try to form connections, to use her academic skills to help others, even to appeal to teachers - but all attempts fall flat, leaving Barbara to her own lonely devices.
In 6th grade, she discovers the Warrior Cats books and her life changes forever.
Suddenly, she’s no longer alone. She finds solace in the adventures of Firestar and Bramblestar, and becomes attached to the characters and their overarching stories. She devotes her time to each series and re-reads them after particularly bad days where someone accidentally runs into her and spills milk down her front at lunch. For the third time. Erin Hunter is the only one who could understand her, she decides one afternoon in study hall after finishing a chapter wherein she shares a certain kinship with Firestar. She needs no one else.
Other kids don’t see what Barbara does in her beloved Warrior Cats. In fact, all they see is an odd children’s book series cradled in the arms of an awkward pre-teen and hone in on it like the ruthless vultures that middle schoolers are. She’s only acknowledged if she’s being teased relentlessly or if prepubescent boys need someone’s hair to pull. With watery eyes and a knuckle-white grasp on her books, Barbara takes the only attention she’s ever received.
By 7th grade, her obsession has yet to fade. She’d decided that if she were a Warrior cat, she’d be a medicine cat for the Thunderclan and doodles in her notebook about the escapades she’d go on in her fantasy world. Her mom says that if it makes her happy, no one else can take it from her, and she repeats that mantra to herself when the crippling self-hatred that arises circa middle school starts to creep in.
One day, her dad forces her to get out and do something non-Warrior Cats related, with his solution being the school soccer game happening that night.
“I would rather betray the Clans for Tigerstar,” she huffs, hoping that that would show her father the severity of her situation. Instead, he blinks at her before sliding open the door of their minivan, which Barbara begrudgingly climbs into.
The school’s soccer field is nothing impressive, and the soccer team even less so. By the time Barbara gets there, it’s a 2:10 score with the opposing school winning. On the winning team is a slew of sweaty boys and one gorgeous, agile female player who kicks a scoring goal for her team just as Barbara plops down onto the bleachers, her book thudding to the ground next her as she stares. The girl is strong and her hair is shiny and Barbara’s asthma kicks in for a second as she takes in the sight before her. I’ve never seen anyone like that before, she thinks, awestruck and mouth agape. She shakes her head free of that confusing train of thought and sneaks off to hide under the bleachers where her father can’t reprimand her for reading during the game.
Buried in the third installment in the second series and surrounded by cool rocks she’d dug up from the dirt under her, Barbara startles at a voice behind her.
“What are you doing down here?”
Barbara turns to see the soccer player goddess gleaming, illuminated by the fluorescent lights shining above the field. She immediately chokes on nothing.
“Are you alright?” The girl rushes to kneel by her side, and Barbara can feel her goalie gloves on her arm as she comforts her.
Barbara gasps out a, “Inhaler, in the cat bag,” as she points to her discarded backpack. The girl rummages through her embarrassing Warrior drawings and grins an adorable, triumphant smile when she pulls out the inhaler. Barbara thinks she’s perfect once she stops thinking she’s going to die at a middle school sports event.
As the blonde girl sucks on her new-found oxygen, the girl never leaves her side. “I liked your drawings. Warrior Cats, right? I read that in elementary. I’m Diana,” the soccer player says, extending a hand to the very frazzled Barbara looking up at her through her crooked glasses.
“Barbara, hi. Why, uh, are you down here? Not that you owe me an explanation, I mean this is your domain as a sports person so, uh,” Barbara finishes lamely, wiping her sweaty hands on her khakis.
The girl looks almost sheepish for a second, which makes Barbara’s stomach fall, before recovering. “I like to be by myself after games, somewhere where the boys aren’t. Peace is easier to find on your own, at least to me. Also, there’s some interesting things down here, like that stone,” she points at a rock in the center of Barbara’s configuration that looks like a heart, “Can I see that?”
Barbara trips over herself picking it up and handing it to Diana, and she does not feel anything when their hands brush against each other.
“Take it, it’s yours,” the blonde blurts. Diana’s head whips up from the rock and her eyebrows knit together.
“Are you sure? I wouldn’t want to steal it from you.”
“N-no, you’re not, really. It’s cool, no worries, no biggie,” she rambles on, throwing up finger guns at the brunette then regretting it instantly. Diana just grins at her, finding her endearing and delightful.
“Thank you, that’s very nice of you. Do you go to South?”
And the conversation continued gloriously, winding on until the lights have turned off and Barbara’s dad yells her name over and over but she pays him no mind, too enamored with the girl scribbling down her email address on her notebook in front of Barbara. Her new funny, smart friend.
By 8th grade she’d been to all the soccer games Diana’s ever played in. She always whooped when Diana scored and hung around after with a gatorade for the brunette. After one win, Diana looped her arms around Barbara and swung her around victoriously and as though she weighed nothing. Barbara almost passed out. Concluding every game, they’d go get celebratory milkshakes at the diner and talk for hours. Diana’s laugh sounded like whatever happiness is made of and never failed to make pink rise on Barbara’s cheeks. And when the season ended, they switched to study sessions and hangouts at each other’s houses, lounging on beds and not doing much studying at all.
It was difficult and heartbreaking going to different schools.
One time in the halls of her school, a boy sneered at Barbara, “What’s it like not having any friends, Babs?”
Fed up with the harassment, Barbara uncharacteristically turned and shouted, “I actually have a best friend, she just goes to a different school!” which sounded a lot more believable in her head. The rest of the hallway laughed at her pathetic response and she ran to the bathroom, tears hot on her face. When she told Diana about this later, the girl vowed that they’d go to the same high school where she’d punch him if he tried that again, mimicking it by beating up the air. Barbara smiled genuinely for the first time in a long time.
High school made things better. Barbara got her first laptop and discovered online forums for Warrior Cats fans that wrote their own works based on the universe. This enticed Barbara, tempting her until she started writing her own. One girl sitting behind her in Latin class saw Barbara typing away in her free time and quickly spread the word that there was a furry among their ranks. But no one really knew who Barbara was, so it posed no real threat and simply floated around as common knowledge.
The one thing no one could understand was why Diana was so attached to nobody Barbara.
Diana was popular, a star soccer player that everyone wanted to know and who never wanted to know them in return. She only had eyes for Barbara, who no one wanted to know except for the only person no one but Barbara could have.
“She gets me,” Diana shrugged in reply to some fellow soccer player who’d asked once, and walked away effectively ending the conversation.
Diana had almost every class with Barbara, Barbara came to every game, and Diana in turn went to all of Barbara’s geology club meetings and participated wholeheartedly. They even co-captained the school’s academic decathlon together. The two were inseparable, and everyone around them knew that they were a package deal.
11th grade found the two in Diana’s backyard as she practiced her drills and Barbara worked on a particularly egregious physics assignment that Diana herself had already completed (“I like math!” she’d defended, pouting). The question had been drilled into Barbara’s skull since freshman year and never once receded, so she finally broke and asked, “Why are you friends with me?”
Diana stopped dribbling on the spot, confusion etched into her every feature. “What?”
“I-I just mean you’re so cool, you’ve always been and I’m, well, me,” Barbara stammered, looking down and straightening her glasses.
The tall athlete walked over, pulling up a chair right in front of Barbara’s and taking her hands as she sat.
“What you are is caring, and funny, and insanely intelligent. You are so nuanced, so incredible as a person. You have this warm light that is a gift to bask in and I’m lucky you’ve let me into its beam. Somehow you can’t see it, but I can and I love you for it. I’m grateful to be your friend,” Diana finished with gusto, stating it like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Her easy smile morphed into alarm as Barbara burst into tears before her. The blonde swatted at Diana’s concerned hands approaching her face, smiling apologetically at the other girl.
“I’m so sorry, it’s just no one’s been so nice to me before,” Barbara says when she can speak without her mouth filling with tears. She’s embarrassed to be making a scene in front of her best friend, but she can’t help it.
Barbara stills and turns beet red when Diana cups her face in her hands and presses her lips to her forehead.
“You deserve all the kindness in the world,” Diana whispers against her skin, and Barbara realizes for the first time in her life that she’s in love.
When prom rolls around, Diana and Barbara go together. Barbara feels like Diana’s pitying her because she couldn’t get a date and like she’s prying her away from a good time, but Diana quickly soothes her worries by insisting there’s no one else she’d rather go spend the night with. “Anyway, nobody’s as interesting or as accomplished a Warrior Cats fanfiction writer as you are so what’s the point?” Diana teases.
The big night rolls around after weeks of antsy anticipation waving through the student body.
Diana’s dress is a deep crimson and shows off all the muscles she’s developed after years of soccer, curves in the right places where the other girl has none. Barbara sees her in it when she comes over to get ready and hyperventilates, just like she did when they first met. She hadn’t had an asthma attack since then.
Once she’s no longer at risk of death - “Warn me next time you try to bail on me via asphyxiation!” Diana mock chides, a hand rubbing circles on Barbara’s hunched back - she slips on her own pale pink, poofy monstrosity in the confines of Diana’s bathroom and does a mediocrely satisfied twirl in the mirror. Diana playfully wolf whistles when she exits and Barbara strikes a ridiculous pose that makes the brunette cackle.
“You look good,” Diana sighs appreciatively once her fit is over, raking her eyes up Barbara’s ensemble. Under the scrutiny, Barbara flushes but maintains her composure enough to thank Diana. “Come here, let’s do your makeup!” Diana excitedly pats on the stool in front of her.
During the makeover process, Diana gets close. Very close. Like, Barbara can count her eyelashes and feel her perfect-smelling breath on her face close. When Diana grips her jaw lightly with one hand and applies her lipstick, a familiar panic rises up in Barbara’s chest. The panic that comes with the feelings she’s been trying to repress for years that she just can’t shake. She wonders how it would feel if Diana applied her lipstick using her own mouth on Barbara’s awaiting lips. She jolts at the thought and smears some of the lipstick Diana still holds onto her face.
“We can fix that,” Diana chuckles and uses her thumb to wipe away the remnants, eyes so warm and attentive on Barbara’s face and she’s never felt so seen, so vulnerable. She likes it.
The dance starts off fine. They take corny pictures in front of a sky blue backdrop and eat terrible finger foods while avoiding the punch that senior football players have undoubtedly spiked. Then Diana asks her to dance and everything goes to shit.
The song that plays is Unchained Melody and Barbara internally screams at the DJ’s choice of slow dance. Diana’s hand on her back feels steady and strong like a roaring fire and when she hooks her own arm around Diana’s shoulder, she can’t feel eyes on them anymore. All she feels is Diana’s silky hair under hand and her warm, saccharine smirk that reaches her twinkling eyes and a pit of butterflies exploding in her stomach. They sway, and she trips like neither of them doubted she would and it’s perfect. It’s them. And it scares the shit out of Barbara because she loves them, loves her, and wants to do this for eternity, or at least until it ends. She wants more, and there’s no way Diana can want that too, not with her. She deserves better. Emotions swell up inside the blonde and everything feels like a sick joke as she jerkily pulls away. Diana looks crushed for reasons she can’t place and can’t process right now.
“I-I have to, give me a second, I, I’ll, I’m so sorry,” and with that, Barbara turns and flees to the restroom, letting the door slam behind her.
It’s the same bathroom she’s cried in before, the same one she saw a 10th grader snort a line of coke in, so it’s nothing new to stand here sobbing now. She’s going to ruin everything and destroy her only friendship with the only person she cares about, the only one who listens to her Warrior Cats fan theories and who laughs at her jokes and who makes her feel seen for once in her life.
Diana bursts in seconds behind her and scoops her into her arms when she sees the blonde crying, her glasses fogging up from her labored breathing.
“D-Diana I’m so sorry,” she sobs, clinging to the taller girl for dear life and probably staining her dress with mascara.
“For what? What’s going on? Please talk to me, let me help,” Diana coos, stroking the blonde’s arms and glancing down at her like she’s the most valuable thing imaginable.
“I just,” Barbara takes in a few gasping breaths, “I like you so much.”
Diana laughs lightly. “I like you too, what’s the problem?”
Barbara hysterically shakes her head. “No, no, not like that. I want, I want to hold your hand and take you to museums and,” she takes a second to shed a tear, gather herself before continuing, “I want to be more than your friend.”
Diana doesn’t look as surprised or disgusted by this news as Barbara thought she’d be. Instead of backing away in horror, she pulls Barbara closer.
“Why would that upset you, let alone me?” She replies sweetly, far too calm for the state Barbara’s in.
“B-because! It’d ruin our friendship and you could have anyone, why would you want me?”
Diana takes Barbara’s face in her palms and forces her to look into her eyes, brown and full of adoration. “For someone so smart, you are so blind.”
Before Barbara can respond dejectedly, Diana swoops down and connects their lips, Barbara’s still salty. The initial shock dissipates quickly and the blonde is spurred into action, reciprocating with intensity and letting herself get pinned between a filthy bathroom sink and a goddess. It feels like coming home, like everything Barbara’s ever felt but couldn’t name.
They part, and Barbara laughs at ever feeling like Diana would hate her, and Diana laughs because it’s joyful for her to see Barbara happy, and they kiss again, still smiling. Their teeth clack and their noses smush against one another’s and it’s perfect. It’s them.
Diana pulls away to fish around in her clutch, pulling out a heart shaped rock from years ago. “I kept this with me in middle school so it would be like you were there with me. And I keep it with me now so you’ll never leave.” She says, grinning and beautiful and Barbara’s.
Barbara laughs - she’s so happy, she’s been doing that a lot lately - and holds Diana’s hand, the one still clutching the rock.
“I never will.”