Castles were lonely.
Countess Mircalla Von Karnstein knew this better than most. Their hallways, though ornate and covered with the knowledge and wealth that most in her lands could only dream of seeing, were empty. The people, though they bustle through the kitchens and gardens and everywhere she was not allowed, did not speak to her.
They were not allowed to speak to a Countess. Even when she tried to engage them in conversation, they simply smiled, bowed, and asked her what she needed.
But she couldn’t tell them that. She tried once, when she was younger she’d asked for a friend and Mama had obtained people to come visit. Children who she saw once a year as their parents spoke of politics and growth rates while she sat with her hands clenched in her skirts. Forced to spend time together,they spoke of things that they had no interest in and tried to keep their clothes clean as their parents watched.
Forced acquaintanceship did not a friendship make.
Most days Mircalla turned to her books. Barricading herself in her Papa’s library, she found companions amidst the pages of texts. People who would take her to exotic worlds, slay dragons together, and fall in love.
But when she closed the book, they were always gone.
She’d slowly close the last page, dreading the end. Then Mircalla would shimmy off the large chair, climb the step ladder her father had made, and slide the book back on its shelf.
And she would be alone again.
Her favourites she would come back to. Reading and rereading as though this time the characters might do something different, as though they might linger. She even had her Papa read them aloud to her sometimes, when he could spare the evenings. Under his warm voice they all took on a whole new tone, springing to life in her head in a way she never imagined.
It was when she voiced this thought that her father stopped, book half-back on the shelf, and looked down at her. Eyes sweeping over her. Mircalla bit her lip and twisted the fabric of her skirt, squirming under his gaze.
“Why do they have to go away when you put the book back?” her Papa asked.
Mircalla’s mouth opened and closed. Her Papa was smart. He wouldn’t ask silly questions like that, “Because they’re not real,” she said at last, “they’re only real in the book.”
He smiled and said, “they’re not real because they’re in the book. They’re real because they’re in here.” He poked her gently on the nose and she giggled, “You make them come to life, sweetheart, all inside that brilliant head of yours. The book just helps put them there.”
“Really?” she asked, “but i thought they were just in my imagination?”
“And why does that mean they’re not real?” her Papa said, “they’re as real as you want them to be.”
Then, in a rare moment, he scooped her into his arms and brought her to bed. She let the maids put her under the covers but she didn’t sleep a wink. Buzzing with excitement.
Mircalla nodded her head and scrambled out from under the covers the instant the sun broke over the horizon. She crossed her legs, sat in the middle of her bed, and closed her eyes.
Time to make her book friends real.
She’d thought about it all night, what kind of friend she wanted. She wanted someone who was brave and smart and kind and would hug her when she was sad and would play all kinds of games with her. They’d be her best friend for forever. For as long as the sun kept rising.
Mircalla folded her hands, sending up an extra prayer that it would work. She’d spent all night wishing on stars. Every single one.
It had to work.
So she started imagining her new friend. She didn’t want them to be a person. People were all servants and counts and they’d never made for very good friends. She wanted someone better than a person, someone as good as the sun itself. After spending all night thinking, Mircalla had remembered a big book in her Papa’s library that was all about far away animals.
Animals were nice. She’d almost had a cat once. It was tiny and black but Mama had said she couldn’t keep it.
So something like a cat. But not a black one. She’d be the black cat in her imagination. Her best friend would be something else. A cat too. But one of the ones from Papa’s book. A big one. With soft fur that she could pet.
But the cat would be able to talk.
Mircalla scrunched her eyes shut tighter, imagining. It wasn’t logical but Papa had said that anything in her imagination could happen. Plus, she’d wished on all the stars.
So she closed her eyes as tightly as she could and clenched her fists tight, trying to make her new friend real.
She stayed that way until the maids came to get her. Tutting that she was already out of bed, they forced her to open her eyes and unclench her fists. Mircalla’s head whirled around the room, searching. Hoping. Wishing.
Her heart sunk when she saw nothing. Just the same old room with the same old maids. As empty as it had ever been. With her chin to her chest, she let the maids wrestle her into a dress and towards the door.
Just as they made it to the doorway, she saw it.
A flicker of gold, dark chocolate eyes staring up at her. A fully-grown lion stepping from seemingly empty space itself to gaze out at her.
The hint of smile curling at it’s lips.
The matching smile broke across Mircalla’s face.
She called her Laura.
Mircalla tried to hold in the giggle.She crouched in the corner of the grand ballroom, hiding behind one of the suits of armour. It was the perfect spot. The big shield blocking her and the whole room so large that her smell would probably be diluted.
She stayed perfectly still, fighting the impulse to look around the armour.
Then there was a yowl and she was crushed under a couple hundred pounds of lion. The giggle was free to escape. Running straight into a mess of soft yellow fur. She swatted at the lion who was now happily crushing her.
“Laura, get off,” she said around the giggle.
The lioness ignored her, choosing to lick her face instead. Mircalla’s giggles only grew as she tried to push the big head away. Finally Laura stepped back, sitting up on her haunches to practically grin at Mircalla.
Mircalla didn’t bother hiding her own smile, ignoring all of her Mama’s etiquette lessons. Then she spun around and put her hands over her eyes, “Your turn!” She started counting as soon as she heard the skitter of paws running across the ballroom.
Hide and seek was still a game they played when Mircalla turned nine, but they’d added to their repertoire. Tag being one of her favourites. She’d sneak out to the gardens and find Laura waiting amidst the hedges. With nothing but the stars to stop her, she was finally free to run. Shrieking quietly as she dodged through the flowers, lioness at her heels.
Her parents would be appalled at the hour and the danger and the lioness herself.
But Mircalla never felt so free as when she was running with her furry friend beside her. Even when she inevitably got them trapped in a corner of the hedge maze, uncertain as to how to find her way out. They’d wander until she was tired, fighting the yawns pulling at her mouth and kneading her fists in her eyes.
She’d slowly start drooping under her hands buried in warm fur, slumping until she was fully across Laura’s back.
Sometimes, in the middle of her lessons reading logic and philosophy, she’d wonder how she always ended up back in her bed each night.
When she was ten, she soon found it didn’t matter. Her favourite activity was now sitting in the library reading aloud while Laura rested at her side, large head in her lap. Ears twitching as though she was really taking in every word.
At eleven it didn’t matter that the other children were mean, laughing at her for having an imaginary friend. It didn’t matter because when she burst into her room, fighting the tears welling at the corners of her eyes, a rough tongue was there to lick them away.
Twelve brought new lessons for the now grown-up Countess. She walked back into her bedroom, waiting the necessary moment it took for her brain to conjure up her best friend. As soon as the lioness stepped from the nothingness, the words burst from her mouth.
“I hate this,” she said, angrily ripping off the heavy skirts that she had to wear and trading them for a lighter fabric.
Laura quirked her head at Mircalla, the question obvious.
“Dance lessons,” Mircalla said. She kept her shoulders ramrod straight, exactly as a Countess should, even though everything in her wanted to crumple, “The dance master says that I have no rhythm what-so-ever and I’ll never learn to waltz.”
A small roar burst from the lioness, the closest she could get to a laugh.
Mircalla scowled at her and grabbed a book, dropping onto her bed. She got maybe half a page before something slightly cool was pushing at her hand. Ignoring the nose, Mircalla flipped on her side.
Then a heavy paw dropped on her stomach, dragging an oompth from her mouth. Then, oh so gently, teeth scraped the back of her neck, pulling her by her dress. Mircalla bumped to the ground. Glaring up at the lioness leaning down over her.
“What?” she snapped, getting to her feet.
Laura took her hand in her mouth and slowly tugged her to the center of the room. Before Mircalla could realize what was going on, Laura’s paws had dropped onto her shoulders. Back paws scrambling to bear most of the weight and move in an odd pattern.
When Mircalla realized that the lioness was trying to waltz with her, she couldn’t stop the giggle.
She finally mastered the waltz at thirteen. This time it was Mircalla who dragged Laura into their unconventional waltz, pulling her around the room. When they were finished and when the hour hit when Laura would usually leave back into the depths of Mircalla’s imagination, Mircalla refused to let her go. Instead, she tugged her only friend alongside her and into bed.
Thoughts whirling in her head that couldn’t be shared with anyone else.
Too afraid to tell anyone else.
So with an imaginary lion tucked against her side and using the softest voice she could muster, Mircalla spoke of how she thought she might prefer ladies to men. Knowing there was fear in her own eyes at the words, she locked eyes with Laura. The deep chocolate eyes reflecting stars back at her. A cold nose burrowing itself into her neck.
She nearly sobbed relief, falling asleep to the gentle rumble of a purr.
At sixteen, she realized that she really was too old for imaginary friends. With her sweeping skirts and fancy balls, she had become the gem of the kingdom. Every gentleman begging for her hand and every woman trying to be her friend.
Perhaps, she didn’t need imaginary lions any longer.
She wanted to believe it.
So Mircalla planned a goodbye, pulling her friend from the corners of her mind one last time. Laura stepped from the air and Mircalla couldn’t help but throw herself forward, nuzzling her face against the furry neck. They started in the gardens, running through the hedges as Mircalla hadn’t run in years. Shoes kicked aside and long skirts hiked up far higher than was proper.
It was hard to care when Laura was grinning at her, golden fur glimmering in the sun.
When Mircalla was panting for air, they retired to the library. The lioness curled up beside her as Mircalla read a chapter of her favourite book, more interesting in preserving the memory of how her fingers ran through the golden fur. Lips stuttering over the words as something in her heart broke a little at the thought that this was the last time. Laura’s head came up, expression curious.
Mircalla kissed her on the tip of her nose.
Then they moved to the ballroom. She couldn’t fit behind the armoured knights any longer but the long tapestry did the job just fine. And when Laura found her for the last time, Mircalla took her paws and placed them on her shoulders. Finally big enough to properly hold the weight of a lioness on her shoulders.
The room was empty but it felt full with the golden fur between her fingers and her nose full of the smell of sunshine and outdoors and nearly a decade of friendship.
Slowly she broke the embrace, drawing her shoulders up and crossing her arms, “I can’t see you anymore.” She said at last.
Laura looked up at her, eyes big.
“I’m getting too old,” Mircalla said, “People my age don’t have imaginary friends anymore. I,” she stuttered out the words, “I love you. I’ll never forget you but you have to go now. I won’t call you again.”
Laura sprang forward, grabbing Mircalla’s hand in her mouth and shaking her head. Intention clear.
“Let go,” Mircalla said, trying to drag her hand free.
The teeth refused. Never breaking the skin but holding fast.
“Let go,” Mircalla snapped, hating the quiver in her voice.
Laura froze, then let go. Backing up slowly but her eyes never leaving Mircalla’s face.
“Don’t.” Mircalla looked away, “Just don’t. Okay? You have to go. It’s been fun. But I don’t need you anymore. Disappear now.”
When she looked back over, Laura was still there. Chocolate eyes made of stars still staring at her.
Her Papa had said that friends are as real as you make them.
She could un-make this.
“Go away!” Mircalla’s eyes were heavy, “I made you up and I can un-make you. I’ve got friends now and a life and I’m too old and I don’t need you. You hear that? I don’t need you anymore. I don’t want you. I’m too old to run and play. I can read on my own. I’ll be fine. I don’t need you. I never want to see you again.”
Laura took a step forward and Mircalla practically leapt back, “Just go.” she whispered.
And Laura went. Eyes never leaving Mircalla’s face, nose trembling slightly, and a single tiny mew escaping from her mouth as a golden swirl of light seemed to poof her away.
A matching, tiny sob escaped from Mircalla.
The castle was lonely.
She didn’t see Laura again for two years.
There were days that her heart yearned to call for her friend. Evenings when boys took her out onto balconies and were only interested in one things. Days when girls gossiped around her and rejected even her clumsiest subtle advance. Afternoons when the castle simply ringed with emptiness and her muscles ached to run. Nights when the bed seemed cold and empty.
But she restrained. She was Countess Karnstein. She was grown-up. She didn’t need imaginary friends.
Until she did.
Until she was at a ball and suddenly the world went cold. There was red covering her fingers as a dark figure receded into the shadows and Mircalla was left lying on the floor of her castle. Alone. Listening the screams of those around her.
Her eyes closed from fear and pain as her fingers scrabbled against the flow coming from her chest. Pulling and begging and wishing. Wishing on every star she’d ever seen that she didn’t have to go alone.
The cold turned warm. Something large and furry looming over her. Mircalla looked up through bleary eyes to see golden fur above her, deep chocolate eyes.
And she sobbed. One single sob to match the one she’d left hanging in the ballroom years before.
A rough tongue softly sliding down her cheek. Laura setting down beside her, never leaving her gaze. Mircalla didn’t bother to look away, almost sighing as her red fingers buried themselves into the fur once again. There was familiarity in those eyes.
A look that could only be described as love. But today, tinged with something. Perhaps Mircalla had forgotten in the years but today, through her bleary eyes, Laura’s eyes seemed sad. Resigned. Still loving, but something in them breaking as she pressed herself again Mircalla and nuzzled her face.
She bled out slowly. Fingers tangled in golden fur as the world got colder despite the warmth pressed against her. Trying not to think if those around her were already gone or dying slowly as well.
The longer they sat, the more agitated Laura seemed to get. The lioness never moved but her eyes would swivel. Nostrils flaring. As if she was waiting for something.
The world kept getting colder but Mircalla felt warm, fingers still in the fur of her best friend. Breath heavy in her chest as her eyes fought to stay open. There were far worse things to have imprinted as the last image on your eyes than that of your best friend.
Even an imaginary one.
But as her eyes slipped shut, her friend seemed to change. Chocolate eyes never leaving her own but in a swirl of golden light, Mircalla could have almost sworn that the lion was gone. Replaced with a girl.
A girl with teeth poking from her lips and golden hair.
When she woke, days later, she chalked it up to an illusion. Fingers pressed against the slowly disappearing bite mark on her neck as she listened to her new Mother’s first lessons. Even though the scar never faded entirely, her eyes focused on the woman who had brought her back.
After all, what use did vampires have for imaginary friends?
Not that vampires had many friends themselves. Those she made seemed fleeting, girls that she’d befriend for a year, a day, an hour, only to see them plucked away for whatever Mother’s purposes were. Best friends for but an instant.
Leaving her with nothing but an empty castle with the sounds of murder pouring from the stones. The curse of Castle Karnstein keeping it more lonely than it ever had been.
When she woke one morning to find she could turn into a panther, she nearly laughed.
But her sound would have only echoed off the walls with no ears to gather the melodies.
And when she ran in the garden, legs stretching and jumping as she’d once seen Laura do, there was no-one to lick her face when she got lost in the corner of the maze. No shadow but her own running at her side. No warm body to carry her home when she got tired. Slipping back into human form with no understanding of how to switch back.
Leaving her taking the long walk alone.
Mattie came closest to a best friend. More of a sister than anything else. Fondness and annoyance all wrapped up in the same bundle. Forced together by proximity and finding they had more in common than expected.
Indulging Mircalla’s chatter about her books.
Taking her around the world when Mother would let them go.
Smiling when Mircalla proclaimed her new name to be Carmilla, determined to shed her old life.
But not quite able to when her shadow reminded her of what had once been running at her side.
She’d mentioned it to Mattie but once. Her sister had laughed, not cruelly but with a glint of something like sadness in her eye, asking if Carmilla was old enough yet to leave imaginary friends behind.
Eyes bouncing to Carmilla’s neck where the faded pinpricks of a bite stood. Never mentioning that perhaps they were a touch smaller than the marks left on Mattie’s.
She thought she’d found a real best friend when she met Ell. A shy girl who looked at Carmilla as though she put the stars in the sky and held her hand while dragging her through gardens. She didn’t skip and she had no idea how to waltz. She didn’t know how to comfort Carmilla when she fell away and she had no interest in books.
But Ell’s hand was soft and her smile wide. Smiling when Carmilla stayed by her side as the days went on, sitting beside the river and taking her on horseback rides.
She fooled herself into believing. Forcing herself to forget that it was all a game. She fell in love, tumbling head over heels for a girl she believed to be her real best friend.
Her Papa always said that friends are as real as you make them.
With her purpose hidden and darkness hiding in her veins, Carmilla shouldn’t have been surprised that this friend too was imaginary. Horror in Ell’s eyes at the moment of reveal.
Backing away and banishing her to darkness.
Mother forcing her back to reality.
In the coffin there was nothing but imagination. The only thing pulling her through darkness that was a more constant companion than anything else had been.
She cast her mind away.
When her muscles twitched from misuse, she imagined running through the gardens.
When the darkness become overwhelming she imagined it was just a really good spot during hide and seek.
When tears poked at her eyes she imagined a lion trying to waltz.
After all, it had all been imaginary the first time. What harm could a second do?
When she finally burst from the ground, sunshine and trees greeted her eyes. Reminding her that there was a world outside of darkness, a world that she didn’t need to imagine. She swore two things.
No more best friends.
No more imagining.
So the girls that mother desired were no longer called friends. They were study buddies or one night stands or acquaintances or anything that kept everything casual.
Carmilla found that the disaffected attitude worked, drew them in just enough for Mother’s needs but kept them far away. Locked outside.
Staying firmly in a reality where this was all she got. All she needed.
Believing she deserved anything more would have been fantasy.
Between her Mother’s mandatory calls for Carmilla to attend Silas every twenty years, she was primarily left to her own devices. Carmilla took to travelling. After all, you could not dream of far off places if you’d already been there. Nothing but memories.
This time, she found herself in Canada. Slightly curious as to the nature of the loup-garou but passing through Ontario before making her way onto Quebec.
She stopped when she got tired, ran when she was not. Moving through the night where her own shadow blended in with the landscape, banishing thoughts of anything moving at her side.
There was nothing particularly interesting about this town. Carmilla had simply gotten tired and decided to take a nap under a large tree in the park. Still curled up in panther form. People usually left her alone more if they saw a giant black panther sitting around. If she was a girl they tried to help, asking if she was alright.
The panther they wrote off as imaginary. Or if they didn’t, at least they kept their distance.
So it was a bit of a surprise to wake up with a tiny human inches from her face.
As Carmilla’s eyes flicked open, the tiny hand pulled back. A little gasp escaping from the little girl as she froze. They stared at each other and Carmilla couldn’t help when her ears flicked in shock.
The girl was tiny, maybe five. With a tiny black dress on and tights that already had a hole in the knee to match the mud scuffed across her shoes. Her hair seemed to glow gold in the noon light but it was pulled into a lopsided excuse for a ponytail.
It was her eyes that caught Carmilla’s attention. Far too big for her tiny head, a chocolate brown that was almost aching in its familiarity, and red. Burning red. Betraying the still wet tear tracks scooting down her chubby cheeks.
The girl moved first, lifting a hand to wipe at the end of her nose and then wiping it against her dress. She paused, then the hand came out again. Clearly aiming for Carmilla’s nose.
This girl had no self-preservation instinct.
Carmilla let out a small growl and the hand pulled back again. Tight against the black dress.
Still the girl didn’t run.
She just kept staring as though Carmilla wasn’t a giant panther who would most likely eat her. If Carmilla ever met her parents, she’d have a discussion with them about teaching basic child safety. She could have been a real panther, the little girl didn’t know she was something a little more advanced.
Still ate people. But not little girls.
She growled again.
The girl looked at her, nose scrunched and brow furrowed, then asked, “Are you my special friend?”
The growl cut out in surprise, Carmilla’s head rising off the ground to get a better look at the child. It seemed as though this opened the floor gates because words came pouring out, “Cause I ran away from my Daddy because I didn’t want to go with him because everything is wrong. And then I tripped and fell and it hurt. But not as much as the hurt on the inside and I want that hurt to stop hurting.”
Fat tears bubbled at the edge of the girl’s eyes even as she scrunched up her face and kept talking, “So I closed my eyes and wished really hard because Mommy said that wishes are important and even though I already made so many wishes that didn’t come true. But I thought maybe that if I told Mommy to ask the wish people for me it might come true and maybe I could just have a friend because that’s a smaller wish than the others and then I got lost. But then I saw you.”
Her fists went into her eyes, rubbing at the tears.
Carmilla watched her. Not entirely sure what she was supposed to do. It wasn’t as though this crying child was her problem. She was special, perhaps more than the child had intended, but she certainly wasn’t a friend.
The girl stared at her as only children can do. Eyes full and wise. She nodded, a sniffle sneaking out, as her shoulders slumped. Then she said, “‘Kay. Sorry to bug you. Bye.”
Then she turned and walked away.
She was maybe fifteen tiny child paces away when Carmilla’s ears picked up a tiny broken whisper to the sky, “It’s okay, Mommy. You’re still my bestest friend. I don’t need a new one.”
There was something so broken in that whisper. Something so familiar and aching lonely in the way it bounced through the air to no-one, that Carmilla was on her feet before she could think otherwise. Catching the sound with her ears so it wouldn’t be left to wandering the wind.
Bouncing off lonely castle walls.
She trotted over to the girl, catching her easily. The girl pulled up short, eyes wide as Carmilla sighed and rubbed the top of her head against the girl’s stomach. For a moment the girl was frozen, then her fingers buried in Carmilla’s fur. They scratched softly at her ears, as though the girl was trying to wrap her head around the concept.
Then suddenly there was a tiny weight clinging to her neck and broken sobs pushed into her fur.
Small hiccups of sound that caused the girl’s whole body to shake each time one erupted. Carmilla knew she shouldn’t but turned her head anyway, tongue poking up to whisk up the tears.
Salty and soft all at once.
She nudged the little girl back towards the tree, letting her curl up into her side. Fingers softly rubbing her fur until the girl drifted off to sleep, exhausted from crying.
Carmilla didn’t move until she heard the frantic tone that could only belong to a father, “Laura!”
Of course that was her name.
The girl stirred, eyes bleary and one hand immediately clinging to Carmilla’s neck, “Daddy?”
Carmilla waited until just before the father appeared to poof away in a black cloud. Reappearing just close enough to see a tiny gaping Laura gathered up in her father’s arms.
His eyes full of tears. Fear in his voice but no anger.
When she heard the word funeral, she couldn’t blame Laura for running away either. She’d run away from her own too. For a little girl, imagination is perfectly acceptable.
But her own reality was calling. Mother waited for no-one. Even if she was slightly off schedule.
It was only curiosity that had Carmilla tracking down Laura after her latest stint in Styria. After more digging than could really be called casual interest, she found the girl five towns over. A new house with fresh paint on the walls and empty picture frames in the dressers.
She simply watched. Watched the broken smile and methodical eyes of Laura’s father as he poured cereal into her bowl before disappearing into his study. Watched Laura sit by herself on the playground as kids ran circles around ‘the new kid’. Watched Laura sit quietly in her room each night, reading the same set of books over and over again.
Watched how every night she went to the window and wished on stars. Begging her mother for a friend.
Carmilla should have known better.
Papa always said that friends were as real as you made them.
She twisted, dropping to all fours and scaling the tree to Laura’s window before she could think it through. Nearly breaking the branch as she batted at the glass with her paw.
She heard a thump and then the tiny girl appeared at the window. For a moment, her eyes went wide then she squealed and rushed to throw the window open. Reaching out far more than was safe to try and drag Carmilla inside.
The only reason she went was because she didn’t want Laura to fall out.
But she had to admit it wasn’t the worst feeling in the world when Laura pushed Carmilla into her tiny bed and snuggled up against her side. Fingers locked in her fur.
Smile flitting across her face even in sleep when Carmilla started to purr.
She knew she was real but perhaps. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to let Laura think she was imaginary. After all, Carmilla wouldn’t be fooling herself. She knew the truth.
And the house felt so lonely.
Little girls who wished on stars shouldn’t be lonely.
Laura named her Bagheera. Quickly shortening the name to Baggy.
She told herself she didn’t like it.
For a while Laura was content to just sit in her room with Carmilla, waiting for the big cat to scurry up the tree and settle on her bed before launching into a story. Always different. Never from a book.
That was something Carmilla hadn’t expected, Laura didn’t read stories, she told them. Pulling them from the back of her mind and weaving imaginary tales solely for Carmilla’s enjoyment. It seemed all the little human had been missing was a captive audience.
And so Laura took her mind on adventures, sending her to fight dragons and search for treasure and conquer evil. Sometimes pulling out puppets or dolls to better animate her tales. Talking to near the point of exhaustion before climbing back into Carmilla’s side and snuggling away. Fingers always locked tight in her fur.
But when Laura turned seven, the stories weren’t enough. Carmilla’s passive participation wasn’t enough.
She began herding them to the park. To a secluded corner in the woods where no-one would see Laura and her imaginary friend waste the daylight hours away. Carmilla hesitated. Listening was one thing but acting another. Nearly actively imagination required.
Carmilla held out for nearly a week, watching as Laura tried to pull her into the imaginary world. Begging and literally pulling on her tail and once even trying to bribe Carmilla with a cupcake and then eating it herself when Carmilla didn’t cave.
Face covered in icing. A hurt frown crossing her eyes.
“Please Baggy,” Laura said, “Please?”
Carmilla flicked her ear and Laura looked down. Somehow always seeming to understand even without words, “My mommy used to pretend with me,” Laura said softly, “she said that sometimes imagination is the most real thing in the whole wide world and that if we closed our eyes and believed in something it might come true.”
The icing tasted sweet under Carmilla’s tongue as she licked it off the tiny face. Then knelt to let Laura clamber onto her back, the noble steed as they faced down the terrible dragon together.
The dragon didn’t stand a chance.
They graduated to hide and seek when the snow fell. Carmilla jumping through the snowflakes and pretending she couldn’t see Laura bundled up and hiding behind a tree. The girl glowed like a neon sign in a bright coat and a hundred different layers.
But she giggled when Carmilla pretended to be confused as to her location and when Laura threw a snowball at the back of her head, she didn’t even feel the cold. Bright red cheeks grinning back at her.
She got Laura back by shaking off her fur in the bedroom.
It was months later in that same bedroom, Laura snuffled into her side, when she found out that Laura had nightmares. Usually Carmilla poofed away once Laura was asleep, cautious about the father who sometimes decided to stick his head in the door and just watch his daughter sleep.
But that night Laura’s father had been out on a business trip, leaving the girl with a babysitter who Carmilla knew wouldn’t bother to check. So she’d allowed herself the luxury of staying the night, rather than retreating to the tiny flat that she’d rented.
She woke to tears and fists clutched tighter to her fur than ever before. Laura’s face buried in her neck and small words whispered against her skin, “You’re here. You’re here. You’re here.”
Carmilla snuffled at her cheek, practically draping her entire body over Laura and letting the girl wrap her arms around Carmilla’s large torso.
But Carmilla couldn’t always be there. She knew that. So the next time she slipped away, Carmilla searched for something that she could leave with the girl at night.
Hours later, she climbed into Laura’s bedroom with a bright yellow pillowcase tucked between her teeth. She winced slightly when she noticed the two teeth holes in the fabric but Laura didn’t seem to care, face lighting up as she immediately swapped her plain white case for the new offering.
It quickly became ‘their’ pillow. The two curling up atop it after hours of play as Laura regaled her with more stories. The ‘Laura Hollis originals’ stories meant only for her ears and stored in the contents of a pillowcase for nights when darkness came to call.
When Laura knocked a pile of cat hair off the pillowcase and joked how of course she had the only imaginary friend who had realistic shedding patterns. Carmilla didn’t correct the girl.
They weren’t friends.
It just wouldn’t make sense for a cat to be correcting her. Imaginary or otherwise, cats couldn’t talk. No matter what tiny Mircalla had wished once upon a time.
Each year when they hit the anniversary of Laura’s mother’s death and her father dragged her to the cemetery, Carmilla was there.
Waiting for the moment when Laura’s father went back to the car and left his little girl sitting alone at a tombstone.
She’d trot over and curl around Laura, dropping a yellow pillow in her lap for added benefit.
Laura was nine the first time they went running. Really running. Their imaginary games had lead to plenty of running as they fought dragons or acted as cowboys or crossed the ocean as explorers. But this was different.
This was familiar.
She should have known something was up, the twinkle in Laura’s chocolate eyes just a little too pronounced. The next thing Carmilla knew, there was a steady stream of water pummeling her in the face.
Blinking as water dripped off her snout, Carmilla narrowed her eyes at the girl with the water gun. Laura squealed and took off, pounding through the trees. With a flick of her tail, Carmilla gave chase, dodging trees.
She leaped her way along the path, taking a winding trail to match Laura’s slower pace. Jumping up and swatting at branches, as she chased the girl through the woods. Soon she pulled up parallel to Laura, ready to swat at her for the water when Laura looked over. Face blinding in it’s happiness as she looked over at Carmilla, little arms pumping as she picked up speed.
And Carmilla couldn’t bear to stop, running beside her until they reached the limits of the forest and Laura stopped. Hands on her knees and chest panting. Smile broad across her face.
They walked back together, Laura’s hand in her fur. The weight on her back getting heavier and heavier until Carmilla was the one carrying her back, slipping into her human form to put Laura over her shoulder, climb the tree, and tuck her into bed.
Head safe on the yellow pillow.
At ten, Laura discovered a deep love of television and all things pop culture. So the stories changed, told by a television as Laura stared. Riveted. Carmilla’s head in her lap as Laura rested against the panther’s large body.
It couldn’t hold a candle to a Laura Hollis original but there was something soothing about the hours spent with the girl pressed against her side, fingers drawing patterns in her fur and glossing over her ears. Something in the way Laura’s eyes would light up when she was excited and she’d bounce, hitting Carmilla’s shoulder. And when the episode was over, Laura simply integrated the tale into whatever they were doing.
Still slaying dragons as they time traveled through space itself to get where they needed to be. Always together.
At eleven, Carmilla began to wonder how much longer she could stay. Laura was growing up, the children’s books replaced with novels and a father who was slowly putting himself back to together. Becoming more attentive. They still slayed dragons but the stories grew more intricate, complicated tales of love and passion and motivation that went beyond what the child could give.
Carmilla’s own experiences at eleven ringing in her ears. Of children who laughed at her for having imaginary friends.
So she tried to stay away. She barely lasted a week. Technically gone but watching every night as Laura clutched the yellow pillow tighter and tighter to her chest, as though she could convince herself it hadn’t been a dream.
Papa always said that friends were as real as you made them.
And when Laura burst into tears, Carmilla streaked to the window. Batting against the glass until Laura let her in. Tongue licking the salt from her cheeks.
Perhaps eleven still wasn’t old enough.
At twelve it was hard to keep making the case. But that was the year that brought the first dance into the picture, a stumbling boy having asked Laura to go. A clear indication that she had her own friends now.
But still Laura spent her nights pacing her room, ranting to Carmilla about dances and how were you supposed to know what to do and how did dancing even work anyway?
She doubted the dance would involve a waltz but she couldn’t quite help herself, propping herself up on her back legs to rest her feet on Laura’s shoulders. Laura’s giggle at their clumsy steps following her as she moved around the room before Carmilla snuck out, leaving Laura asleep to snuggle the yellow pillow.
Weeks after the dance was over, Laura tentatively ventured that maybe she didn’t like boys all that much. Carmilla gave her a headbutt of affection and grabbed the yellow pillow between her teeth, dropping it in Laura’s arms.
Thirteen was the year Carmilla decided to actually say goodbye. She’d been careful. Watching. Laura’s father had finally returned to himself, a term of therapy bought by an anonymous donor doing wonders for his health. With the start of highschool, she’d watched as Laura befriended a couple of gingers. Tentatively striking up conversations.
Coming home with stories that Carmilla wasn’t a part of.
And that was okay. Carmilla kept telling herself that it was okay. Laura wasn’t her friend, she’d only stayed because Laura had no-one and now she had people. It was time to go. Besides, Carmilla could think of her own parting with her imaginary friend. She’d never ask Laura to do that.
A part of her wasn’t sure she could stand watching Laura drive her away.
Better to do the leaving.
So she waited until they had a Saturday to themselves. Listening to Laura chatter away with all her stories, taking her firmly by the hand and out the window, first to romp around the clearing and fight dragons one last time. Then running. Just running through the woods.
Her heart pounding with every step as she took in the smile of the girl beside her.
Finishing the day curled up on the yellow pillow, Laura warm against her side as some episode they’d seen a hundred times playing in the background.
Normally, Carmilla stayed until Laura was asleep but today she stood. Slightly dislodging the girl from her perch. She couldn’t just disappear. Laura had to know she wasn’t coming back. There was no need to make the girl wait. She’d be fine.
So she stood and went to the window. One paw on the ledge as she turned to look back at Laura.
Laura frowned, rising from the bed. Pillow still clenched in her hand, “where are you going Baggy? There’s still half an episode left.”
Carmilla shook her head and nudged at the glass, popping it open with familiar ease.
Laura’s arms were around her neck before she could finish the motion, “No. Please,” Laura said, “Don’t go. Please. I still need you.”
Carmilla closed her eyes and almost smiled. Laura had always been so good at reading her.
Backing away slowly, Carmilla dislodged herself from Laura. Ears flicking.
Laura’s eyes filled with tears, “You can’t go. Please. There are still more dragons and I know that I’m supposed to be grown-up now but maybe I don’t want to be grown up if it means that I have to lose you.”
The tears spilled from her eyes and onto her cheeks.
Carmilla fought the impulse to lick them up. Instead, she trotted forward and nuzzled against the yellow pillow, pushing it towards Laura.
“I will not be fine without you,” Laura said, clutching the pillow to her chest, “You’re my best friend.”
A high pitched keening threatened to drag itself from her throat, splinters of her heart shredding further. She’d promised herself. Promised no more imagination. And yet she’d spend hours, days, years, playing imagination with Laura. Promised no friends.
Her papa always said that friends were as real as you made them.
Laura’s hand came out, fingers running through the fur on her head. Carmilla gave herself a second to savour the feeling then she bounced forward, pressing her nose against Laura’s, before whirling around and running off into the night.
She’d made a fatal miscalculation.
She may have been imaginary to Laura.
But Laura was real to her.
There was but one constant in her long life. Mother would always bring her back to Styria and Carmilla would always come when called. She knew better than to avoid her mother’s call. So she did as instructed, hefting her bag over her shoulder and making her way to the dorms to meet her new roommate.
Some journalism student that Mother said was raising a fuss.
She nearly swallowed her tongue when Laura Hollis stared back at her.
She found it just soon enough to collect a healthy dose of sarcasm, safe in the knowledge that Laura had no way to connect the imaginary panther of her childhood with the girl before her. Laura Hollis was not her friend and Carmilla was determined to prove it. Words whipped their way out of her mouth in a way she knew would get under Laura’s skin.
The cupcake gave back as good as she got and for the first time in years, Carmilla found herself nose to nose with Laura Hollis. Now grown into the kind woman that had her blood pounding and stomach curling.
But it was Laura.
So she didn’t touch. Hoping sarcasm and slobiness would drive mother’s next target from campus, if not, well, she tried. After all, they weren’t friends. Carmilla didn’t owe her anything. So she brought girls around that didn’t use words like friendship and stole whatever food she could get and gritted her teeth when ginger-giants invaded their space.
Laura didn’t owe her anything. After all, they weren’t friends.
She couldn’t help but notice that the pillowcase was still yellow, two teeth marks still embedded in the fabric.
It meant nothing.
But when Laura was out with the giant trotting at her heels, Carmilla stole the pillow. Hugging it to her chest and inhaling a scent that she hadn’t found in years, something like sunshine and chocolate that her brain immediately labeled Laura.
She fell asleep, cradling it in her arms.
Laura yelling at her for stealing it gave her the perfect excuse to do so again. Nothing to do with the fact that she wanted it. Picturing a tiny Laura curled up by her side.
Laura told her that even she’s worth it. Even she’s worth fighting dragons for and believing in imaginary things for.
Carmilla had no idea what to do with this information.
But the campus, which had always rattled with the emptiness of a castle she hadn’t been back to in decades, felt a little less lonely.
Her name poured off Laura’s tongue, her roommate eventually shortening it to just Carm.
She told herself she didn’t like it.
Laura’s nightmares came back and Carmilla couldn’t decide if she was relieved that they no longer featured the girl’s mother dying a hundred horrible deaths or if they made her heart run colder than ever before. Instead, they just marked the girl herself for death. For three nights Carmilla told herself it didn’t matter, she was trying to drive Laura off as best she could.
If Laura wouldn’t go, wouldn’t stop investigating, it wasn’t worth risking another trip to the coffin.
On every one of those three nights, as she twisted with nightmares that she couldn’t wake from, Laura gripped the yellow pillow to her chest and burrowed her nose in the fabric. As though she was searching for some kind of scent.
Finally Carmilla caved when she saw the circles under Laura’s eyes, offering to bring her something to ward off the dreams. Barely managing to keep the offer of curling up together off her tongue, her panther form hiding under her skin and just begging to be let out.
And just when she’d given up on wishing on stars all together, staring out of their dorm room window and into the night sky, Laura asked her to go to a party with her.
Before Carmilla could think it through the yes was falling off her tongue.
Her Papa always said that friends were as real as you made them.
The party was a trap.
Laura tying Carmilla to a chair and gagging her with duct-tape.
All offers of friendship clearly imaginary.
But the butterflies that had lived in Carmilla stomach when she got ready for their date and the twists in her stomach as she’d stared at Laura had felt real enough. She should damn Laura Hollis for bringing her imagination back to life with her years of stories.
Because something, during their ‘date’, she’d made Carmilla believe that maybe Laura had butterflies too.
Even tied to chair and held captive on a starvation diet, Laura managed to keep the walls of the dorm room from feeling lonely. Ever the same Laura, still slaying her dragons and telling stories.
Only this time, the dragon was Carmilla.
Carmilla stayed silent for nine days, letting Laura babble in her ear about heroics and the rest. Getting her silence only when her body finally gave into the lack of blood and started seizing. Even then, Laura wouldn’t let her world fade to silence. Forcing blood between her lips and bringing her back before she could truly hear the familiar embrace.
She asked Carmilla to trust her, not knowing that she already did.
Still, she couldn’t begrudge Laura her story after years of receiving tales spun by Laura’s lips. Carmilla summarized, sticking to the parts relevant to Laura’s current dragon-slaying tale and glossing over all mention of imaginary friends and days spent in castles or Canadian bedrooms.
What she hadn’t expected was to get a story back.
Carmilla’s chin was to her chest, story hanging in the air as Laura watched her.
Then came the words, spinning out into the air for her ears alone, “That must have been lonely.”
Carmilla’s head jerked up, meeting the chocolate brown eyes for the first time since the night of their ill-fated date. The eyes ever tugging at something in her stomach and bringing with them a feeling of anything but loneliness.
“My mom died when I was little,” Laura said, “And my Dad, well, he didn’t take it well. So I was alone a lot. Except, well, not really. I mean, I had an imaginary friend,” Laura laughed a little at the words, glancing up as though she expected Carmilla to laugh at her.
How could Carmilla laugh when Laura’s tiny broken laugh was pounding the pieces of her heart to dust?
Laura took her silence for what it was, a plea to continue, “She was a big black panther,” Laura said, “I brought her to life in a park the day we were supposed to go to my mom’s funeral. I’d run away from Dad because I just didn’t want to go, you know? As though imagining that she wasn’t dead meant that she wasn’t. So I wished on a bunch of stars for a new friend and ran away to find them.”
And so the story went, something in Carmilla’s chest binding back together as her ears were graced with one more ‘Laura Hollis original’. Tales of a little girl and her panther as they slayed dragons and ran through forests and how Laura could still feel the fur of her coat even though she wasn’t real.
When Laura finished, there were tears in her eyes and the yellow pillow was gathered to her chest, “Sometimes,” Laura said, “I can’t even force myself to pretend she wasn’t real. I mean, I know it’s dumb but, in my imagination, she gave me this pillow case. See?” Laura poked her fingers through the holes where Carmilla’s teeth had been, “and I don’t know if I really want to let her go.”
There was silence in the room but it wasn’t empty. It was fat and full and everything.
“I had an imaginary friend too,” the words ripped from Carmilla’s throat as only Laura could make them.
Laura’s head came up.
“She was a lion,” Carmilla supplied, “castles. Castles are lonely for little girls.”
“Was she your best friend?” Laura asked.
Carmilla paused. Afternoons running with a lion at her heels and dancing through a ballroom and soft fur under her fingers as she read books on one side of her head. Afternoons spent running at Laura’s heels and dancing through a bedroom and soft fingers stroking through her fur as stories poured off a little girl’s lips on the other side.
And they didn’t push against each other. They bled, seamlessly into each other as though they’d always been meant to be the matching pieces of a puzzle. A pair of chocolate eyes.
“I’ve been alive a long time,” Carmilla said at last, “but I’ve only had two best friends. She was one.”
Laura nodded, “She was my best friend too.”
Then Laura sighed, “she doesn’t feel imaginary.”
“Maybe she’s not,” Carmilla whispered.
But there were dragons to be slayed and ginger giants to burst through the door, imaginary friends aren’t needed here.
Until they are.
Because Carmilla had forgotten that slaying imaginary dragons requires imaginary friends and so then must slaying real dragons require real friends.
And when the first dragon came for Laura and released her from the ropes bound across her torso, Carmilla watched as Laura hit Will straight in the throat. He coughed and Laura fled but it wasn’t enough. Soon she was back in his arms, his teeth hovering just over her neck.
Carmilla punched him.
Laura dove behind her.
Fighting dragons. Together. As always.
The first week Laura somehow convinced her to stay, spouting logical reasons why Carmilla couldn’t just run off again as she pressed her hand to her neck to cover the bloody spot where Carmilla had taken what she needed. They yelled and shouted and Carmilla had whirled off to the bathroom in a huff.
But she’d ended of staying.
Slipping into her panther form when night fell and Laura was restlessly clutching the yellow pillow. She made sure the girl couldn’t see her tongue poke up, gently gathering up the blood scarring Laura’s fragile neck and helping the wound close faster. Regret painted across Carmilla’s face.
But from the first touch of her tongue, Laura’s uneasy sleep had softened. Hand releasing it’s death grip on the pillow.
The second week Carmilla looked over and saw just how stressed Laura was. Somehow accidently making too much hot chocolate and figuring that she might as pass it off to the tiny girl. Snagging the yellow pillow for herself and settling onto her bed nearby, just in case she was needed. Laura worked until she falling asleep at the computer.
Carmilla couldn’t help but scoop her up and gently place her back in her own bed.
She’d get a crick in her neck if she slept there.
The third week, Laura lost the ginger giant. Breaking up with a girl that Carmilla didn’t even know if she’d ever really had. But watching the exchange made one thing very clear.
She never would have survived Laura telling her to leave.
So once Laura’s tears had faded, absorbed into yellow fabric, Carmilla badgered her until Laura followed her outside. Walking together through the least hostile part of the forest with a foot of space between them that kept getting smaller with every step.
And when they were just close enough that their hands were brushing with every movement, Laura turned, shouted “You’re it!” and took off running. Leaving Carmilla to give chase.
The fourth week was full of shy smiles and long held stares that held the promise of reality but felt like they were only her imagination.
Laura fell asleep at her computer again and when Carmilla lifted her up to bring her to bed, Laura’s fingers scrambled forward to lock themselves in the fabric of her shirt. She pulled Carmilla down with her as Carmilla placed her on the bed. A “stay” whispered through sleep filled lips, “Stay. Please.”
So for the first time in years, Carmilla slept with Laura’s warmth covering her side. Hoping the girl wouldn’t notice the purr ripping itself through her frame as Laura’s fingers tangled in her hair, softly scratching her scalp.
Days later they danced and as dearly as she treasured the memory of her paws on Laura’s shoulders while they whisked through a bedroom, nothing would ever match the memory of Laura’s hand soft in her own. Pressed together like they belonged there. Face to face. Chest to chest. Warm.
The fifth week Carmilla wished on every star in the night sky that her mother hadn’t body-jumped inside Laura. Hadn’t forced her to make a terrible deal to save the life of the girl she could no longer deny was her best friend.
So she couldn’t help herself, when Laura spoke of swords that would slay all her dragons Carmilla couldn’t help but volunteer to retrieve the blade.
Getting a kiss from her maiden fair that had her reaching for the yellow pillow when no-one could see. Burrowing her face in the smell of a tinier Laura who was nowhere near finding out that they were nearing the end of their friendship. That Carmilla had made a deal with the dragon instead of slaying it.
The sixth week proved that stars didn’t hold wishes, as everything she’d tried to avoid came rushing forward. Laura looking at her with nothing but hurt in her eyes as the terms of Carmilla’s deal to save her became clear. A life for a life.
Saying everything that imaginary friends dread, “Go away Carmilla. Go run and hide. We’re done.”
So she ran.
And she hid.
Curling up into a big ball of black fur alone in the forest because panther’s couldn’t cry.
The loneliness that she thought she’d finally escaped rushing back to fill her ears like broken castles and broken homes and broken hearts.
Carmilla was right. She couldn’t survive Laura telling her to leave.
So she didn’t. The easiest choice she ever had to make as watched an image of Laura rush off to her death to try and slay dragons that were far too big to be faced alone. Carmilla plunged into the ocean, retrieving a sword that could slay any beast, and running back to campus. Running as fast as her legs would take her, streaking well beyond anything the girl with the lion at her heels or the panther at the heels of a girl had ever run.
She found them at the edge of the pit, Laura’s chocolate eyes blank and empty proving that even she, for all her good intentions, couldn’t resist the power of monsters. Not alone.
Carmilla got right in front of her, hauling her back by the arm and for a moment, something like recognition fluttered in Laura’s eyes before it whisked away.
But a few months in a dorm room wasn’t as good as they got.
So Carmilla dropped the sword, twisting into her four-legged form and not bothering to stop as she grabbed Laura by the scruff of her shirt. Teeth yanking her best friend backwards and dragging her far away from the pit where all good things went to die.
When they were far enough away, Carmilla let go. Springing around to the other side of the girl, trying to ensure that she wouldn’t go running back towards the light.
Laura’s eyes were no longer blank and they stared at Carmilla with something close to wonder. Tracing over every muscle and hair as she couldn’t believe that imaginary friends were real. Eyes wide, her hand came out, reaching towards Carmilla. She met Laura in the middle, nuzzling her face into Laura’s palm and almost sighing as soft fingers once again danced through her fur.
Tears dripped down Laura’s face as her eyes never left Carmilla’s, so Carmilla stepped forward once last time. Tongue scraping across Laura’s face as salt and softness coated her tongue.
Laura giggled, “You’re real.”
It was with that giggle in her ears that Carmilla turned back towards the light and the monster that lay inside. There were certain responsibilities that fell to imaginary friends.
Dragon-slaying was one.
Laura had always been remarkably good at reading her. The scream of a ‘Wait. NO!” greeting her ears as she ran. For the first time, Carmilla ran ahead as Laura followed at her heels. Dodging mindless victims towards a pit instead of trees through a sun-drenched forest.
Carmilla only faltered as she approached the sword, knowing that panthers couldn’t get the job done. And Laura, just behind her, would undoubtedly see. Carmilla would have to steal all of those imagination from her, weaving them into reality.
But maybe, she didn’t want to only be the imaginary friend. Maybe, she wanted to be the best friend. Just for a second. Before she had to go.
So she turned as she ran, two feet scrambling over the dirt instead of four and grabbing the sword in hand as she ran. Carmilla only paused when she reached the edge of the pit, taking a moment to turn back and look at what she was leaving behind.
That turn seemed to last a lifetime. Several lifetimes. Scores of memories blazing across her vision.
A little girl trapped all alone in a castle with no-one to talk to making wishes on a hundred different stars and a lioness stepping from space itself to meet her. Hours spent hiding in nooks and crannies of a castle that didn’t seem so empty anymore. Not when there was always someone to find her. Seeking to hiding. Covering her in warm fur and big paws and soft tongues. Running carelessly through gardens with a golden shadow at her side. Always at her side. Whenever she called. Born in her mind and always showing up. Hours spent lazily reading aloud in a library to an audience of one. Ears perked to always listen. A best friend.
Heart breaking as she drove that friend away in an effort to grow up. Leaving imagination behind as though that somehow made the whole world better when for so long it had been her everything. An imagination so potent that she’d spent years believing it was full. So strong that when she thought back to the night of her murder, there wasn’t pain ringing in her chest. Her most poignant memory from the even the warmth at her side, eyes that never left her face.
An imagination so strong that it carried her through centuries alone. Centuries of friends who were truly imaginary and blackness that seemed never-ending. The reality of imagination the realest thing she ever encounters.
Papa always said that friends were as real as you made them.
So the images fluttered, trading a golden lion for a black panther. Carmilla believing in the imagination so strongly, even when she tried to ignore it, that she became the imaginary friend herself. Falling for another little girl who wished on stars with all her might and knew what it meant for a world to be full but so empty at the same time. Recapturing everything she’d tried to leave behind of the Countess who read fiction and ran through gardens and dreamt of a friend to slay dragons with.
But little Laura Hollis was determined to be that friend, telling Carmilla stories that she’d always refused to let herself hear and then dragging the panther into her worlds. Make believe never seeming more real than when it fell off Laura’s lips. Dragons truly dying as they fought the imaginary beasts together. A little girl curled in her side, accepting the substitute of a yellow pillow only when black fur wasn’t available. Fingers softly running through her side. Smiles given freely as they ran through woods.
Carmilla convincing herself it was nothing more than imagination.
Finding the little girl all over again, grown up but still slaying dragons. Something in Carmilla’s chest leaping when she found that imaginary friends were still required. Yellow pillows still providing a facsimile of comfort.
Her turn finally completed, gaze landing on the girl in question. Laura was still streaking towards the pit, towards her, arms pumping and chest heaving as tears ran down red cheeks. But her eyes were locked on Carmilla. First flickering through something like shock at the imaginary friend who wasn’t so imaginary. At the panther who was also a girl. Annoying roommate and best friend and maybe could have been something a little bit more.
Because Laura’s gaze flicked from shock to something else. Something that barrelled into Carmilla’s chest and hit her right in the shredded pieces of her heart. Tying them back to together so even the dead organ could give a fragile beat. Something Carmilla had always thought was imaginary because she’d only ever seen it in the eyes of a lion that didn’t exist.
But there it was. Painted across the face of a girl still running after her and drawn in the stars that filled chocolate eyes.
Something that looked a lot like love.
Imagination not required.
Papa always said that friends were as real as you made them.
She’d wished on stars once. For a real friend to slay dragons with.
So Carmilla turned and leapt, driving the sword into the heart of the monster.
And this time, as she fell into darkness, she didn’t need to rely on imagination to keep it at bay. She had reality.
The world flickered back into focus and for a moment, Carmilla thought it was nothing more than imagination. But there was a yellow pillow under her head and as she sat up, hand clenching at the old fabric, a familiar warmth slammed into her side. Smelling like sunshine and chocolate and just Laura.
And no imagination could capture that smell. That feeling.
Laura’s incessant need to never stop talking.
And Carmilla found herself tired of imagining. So she took a simple step forward, filling Laura’s space. Laura didn’t step back. And when Carmilla kissed her, she melted into her lips in a way no imagination could ever capture.
Laura’s giggle filling the room as she fingers stroked through Carmilla’s hair and scratched at her scalp, Carmilla kissing her cheeks to whisk away the tears. Loneliness so far away as to not even be a thought.
“So,” Laura said, “You’re my imaginary friend.”
Carmilla could only lift her hand and bow her head to try and cover the smile breaking across her face. Laura just laughed and kissed her again.
She stopped trying to hide the smile when that night Laura bounced into her bed, snuggling into her side and putting the yellow pillow under both of their heads.
“No more imagining,” Laura whispered.
Carmilla wrapped an arm around her waist, smiling into the golden hair. She didn’t need to anymore.
There were always more dragons to slay, whether real or imaginary, but at the end of it all regardless of whatever had happened. They ended up together. Always together. Slaying dragons and wishing on stars and listening to Laura weave intricate stories or Carmilla reading aloud from novels, Laura’s head on her chest.
She still didn’t believe in wishing on stars.
But Carmilla had never wished harder than the night she turned Laura, watching her bleed out and then swooping in with her mouth on her love’s neck. Best friend’s neck. Laura’s eyes had never wavered, locked on Carmilla’s for every second of the process.
When she finally had a living vampire back in her arms, pressing kisses to her neck and running her nose along Carmilla’s own bite scar, Carmilla took the time to thank them.
She threw them a look of pure irony when Laura changed for the first time. A tiny fluffball of a baby lion sitting at her feet. She picked up the cub and kissed Laura on the top of her head. Fur soft under her lips. Laura’s voice chittering her head as the vampires looked at each other.
A talking best friend of a lion.
Then she looked up at the stars, “A little late, don’t you think?”
One day, Carmilla found herself wishing again, once more turning her gaze to the heavens with panic in her eyes. In one moment Laura had been running by her side, sprinting together through an seemingly endless wood. The panther and the lion matching each other’s pace, bumping shoulders and nuzzling necks as the trees blurred fast.
Then Laura was gone. As though space itself had swallowed her up.
Carmilla spent all night with her eyes on the stars, wishing, hoping. Even as she tore through the forest, trying to figure out what had happened. Thoughts that she’d spent years living in her imagination rearing their head.
But then the lioness had simply popped back out in front of her, stepping from the air to collide into Carmilla’s chest. Both girls changing back into their human forms as they rolled into each other, Carmilla’s hand gripping at any inch of Laura she could get, pulling her as close as possible.
But Laura was laughing, arms bringing Carmilla in as she giggled.
Carmilla’s pounding heart finally calming as her ears took in the giggle, world seeming full again.
“Carm,” Laura finally got the words out, “You were so tiny! And that dress? And holy crap were you a cute kid.” Laura’s eyes were sparkling as she stared down at Carmilla, pressed chest to chest. Chocolate eyes, “Tell me, still think your imaginary friend was actually imaginary?”
Carmilla never asked the stars for anything again, they’d already more than fulfilled their end of the pleas. Bending time and space for a plea that had seemed so simple but required something straight out of Laura’s stories.
Still they shone on, ever watching as two best friends held each other into the night. World full instead of lonely and imaginary held tight against their chests.
For as long as the sun kept rising.
Just like a pair of little girls had wished.