Lilac wasn’t getting better.
Actually, she seemed to be getting worse.
No amount of help or encouragement appeared to be doing much for her. When she was addressed, she took to the comfort of her bed sheets. She spoke only when spoken to, and even then her responses were short and strenuously pieced together. When the doctor spoke about advancing her rehabilitation, she froze up near completely.
She didn’t show any interest or enthusiasm for getting better. Not when the doctor brought it up, not when Milla prompted her about it. From Carol’s point of view, she could hardly be blamed for it; the girl could barely even hold a pencil properly.
Days of attempts led to zero progress in the reading and writing category, and they seemed to have tried everything. And oh how Milla in particular tried everything. She tried having Lilac repeat sentences back to her. She tried reading one page at a time. She tried drawing letters and having Lilac trace over them. She tried holding Lilac’s hand while she traced over them.
But nothing changed.
No matter the effort made, nothing changed. For whatever reason, Lilac simply refused to give that effort back. To Milla, it was tiring to see the person who had once been such an inspiration have completely given up. To Carol, it was tiring to see the both of them in such states of frustration.
Nevertheless, Carol stayed in her chair in the corner, not wanting to take part. If Milla couldn’t change anything, what could Carol possibly do to help?
But Milla wished that Carol would try. If only she would, then maybe things could be different. She had known Lilac so much longer than Milla had. She probably knew her a lot better than Milla did. Carol could have made a breakthrough, if only she would try. But she wouldn’t, and Milla knew it was because of how much she was hurting, and because of that did not suggest anything to her.
The frustration growing inside of Milla wasn’t directed at Lilac, but Carol. She didn’t like to admit it to herself, but she was starting to become downright annoyed. Lilac was Carol’s friend just as much as she was Milla’s. It wasn’t fair for Milla to be doing all the work. And what if Carol really could make something change? They would never know if she didn’t try. Milla hated to see Carol hurting like this, and she didn’t want to continue being mad at her. If only there was something she could do to make Carol try.
Lilac and Carol had always been strong for her. But if Milla had to be the strong one, she would do everything in her power to be just that.
When time was up for the day, Carol and Milla retreated to the hall outside to sleep. Of course they were offered a room, but given Carol’s ferocious attitude, it was mostly just for keeping their belongings. They sat down beside each other in silence, staring at the ceiling or floor or what have you until the exhaustion finally took them. Milla was often the first to crash, and Carol would awake in the morning to find the pup curled up against her.
Except for one morning, several days in, when she didn’t.
Red flags instantly raised, Carol looked around urgently. “Milla?!” she called, and stood up, panic beginning to rise in her chest… before she spotted Milla on the other end of the hall, in front of the vending machine. Carol felt herself ease, panic replaced with confusion. “Milla?”
The pup froze, fingers coiling, caught like a deer in the headlights. Carol approached skeptically, and Milla hurriedly finished what she was doing. She had changed into fresh clothes and grabbed her backpack, which she was now stuffing chip bags into.
“What are you doing?” Carol questioned.
“I’m…” Milla held her breath, back turned. When she answered, she made it brief. “I’m leaving.”
Immediately, Carol’s expression contorted into one of horror. “What?!” she shrieked. “You, you can’t— Where are you going?!”
“To the palace,” Milla explained, “for training.” She turned slightly so to catch Carol’s eye, and was unsurprised by the shock and anger she was met with.
“You can’t leave!” said Carol. “What about Lilac?!”
Milla lowered her gaze to the floor. Then she picked it up again, giving a soft smile, and Carol faltered.
“Lilac will still be here when I get back,” said Milla. “She wouldn’t want me to fall behind on my lessons anyway.”
“I know the way. I’ll be fine, don’t worry. I’ll be back before the sun goes down.”
Milla nodded brightly, and Carol could only stare dumbfounded at her. Before she could protest again, Milla was already gone.
Carol stood by herself in front of the vending machine for several minutes longer, consumed by her thoughts, until somebody with money in their hands came up and gave her a weird look. She shook herself, retreating back to her own area.
She stared down the door to Lilac’s room. The blind was pulled over the window. Her eyes scanned her shoes, since they were more comfortable to look at. Once she had collected herself, she flexed her hand and began to reach for the door handle.
Carol stumbled backward, then swung around to find Doctor Quack addressing her with a stern expression. “I don’t recommend disturbing her until she’s awake.”
Carol’s ears flattened against her head. “Oh. Right, sorry.”
Doctor Quack shook his head. “You’re fine.” He looked solemnly to the door, and Carol followed his gaze. “She had difficulty falling asleep last night. It was very late when she finally did…”
“So she’s not gonna be awake for a while, huh?” Carol asked.
The doctor shook his head. “No, likely not.”
Carol’s eyes remained fixed on the door. She took a deep breath, placing her hands in her pockets. After a moment, she started down the hallway, and the doctor blinked, looking after her curiously.
“Where are you going?”
The hospital didn’t see her again for several hours.
Several hours later, Lilac was awake. She had already been checked on, and the doctor had decided against rehabilitation today, so she simply laid down, clutching the sheets, eyes glued to the boring white ceiling above her. The sun shining in through the window to the left was separated from her by the thin white curtain on the side of her bed. Her head ached, and she was horribly tired, but not the kind of tired that could bring her back to sleep. She was hurt and tired and bored and couldn’t move, and all she could do was stare at the ceiling, without even memories to visit.
Until suddenly, on the other side of the room, there was a knocking on the door.
Lilac’s eyes shot open at once. She sat herself up, backing against her pillow, eyeing the door with suspicion. Then the knocking came again, and she tensed up. She opened her mouth, choking on her own breath, before clumsily letting out the words that she was supposed to say when somebody knocked on the door.
“Ch, c-come in…”
The door clicked open, and Lilac’s expression flattened uncertainly when she saw who stepped inside. It was Carol, cautious in her approach, one hand held behind her back. She looked up at Lilac, who seemed just as cautious as she did, before frowning and averting her gaze. But she caught herself, lifting her head back up. For the first time Lilac had seen since she woke up, Carol smiled at her.
“Hey,” she greeted.
Lilac’s eyes met Carol’s, and Carol held her there. It took a little while, but Lilac eventually responded.
Carol kicked the door closed behind her and walked to Lilac’s bedside, keeping her back turned away as she did. Lilac shied away from her.
“So, uh… how are you doing?” Carol asked.
Lilac refused eye contact, but answered regardless. “Uhm, I’m, fine.”
Carol nodded. “That’s good to hear.” She looked around awkwardly, tapping her foot a couple times. It made small claps against the ground. “Uh, the doctors haven’t been doing anything weird to you, have they?”
Lilac looked up at her, eyes glossy with confusion. “W-What?”
Carol clenched her teeth. “Never mind.” Lilac, though apparently still trying to process the question, didn’t ask anything else. Carol bit her lip hesitantly before proceeding, “So… I went out this morning, and, I got you something… Y’know, to maybe make you feel better…”
At the words “got you something,” Lilac sparked with interest. She didn’t say anything, but Carol seemed to have her full attention now. Carol chuckled lightly, then coughed once. “Um… here.”
Carol removed the hand that she had been holding behind her back, revealing the object that she was holding. It was a small, blue plushy of indeterminate species, with black button eyes and floppy limbs. It was very soft and cute, and the appearance of it caused Lilac to light up entirely. Shakily, she reached for it, and Carol extended it to her, gently lowering it into her grasp. Lilac leaned back, staring into the plushy’s expressionless face.
“What’s his name?” she asked.
“I dunno,” said Carol. “Why don’t you give him a name?”
Lilac lowered her head thoughtfully. “His name, is…” She smiled to herself, holding the plushy up proudly. “His name is ‘Blue.’”
Carol smiled too. “That’s a good name.”
After pulling up a chair, Carol sat down at Lilac’s bedside. To her surprise, but not her displeasure, the gift seemed to have been enough to make Lilac comfortable with her. Perhaps it was just because nobody else was there, but she was even okay with talking to her. Though Carol could have done without the first question she asked.
“What, um… What, is your name…?”
“Oh.” Carol held on that word for a moment too long. “Uh, it’s Carol.”
“Carol…” Lilac repeated. If nothing else, at least her speech was improving. She fiddled with Blue in her hands, making him wave at her. She had found entertainment, even If it was only in something small. “So… you’re my, um… ‘friend?’”
Carol nodded. “Yeah. We’ve been friends for a long time.”
Carol blinked. She scratched her head, thinking the question over. “Well… It’s kind of hard to explain. We met a long time ago… I mean, not a super long time ago, just, like, a few years… I was pretty little. We, uh, didn’t really like each other at first. But after a while… we became friends.” Her gaze became cloudy, fixed to the floor. “Best friends.”
“What about the other one?” Lilac asked, and Carol lifted her head. “Um, Milla.”
“Oh. Uh, she came later.”
Lilac hummed in understanding and went back to playing with her new companion. Carol gave a barely audible sigh. She glanced around the room, twiddling her thumbs, before landing on the nightstand beside her. More specifically, what was on top of it.
“Hey. Are these the books that Milla has been reading to you?”
Lilac nodded, and Carol took the stack of thin hardcovers into her hands, looking them over. These were for kindergartners. Honeybear and the Three Goblins. Little Airship Finds His Wings. The Big Bad Wolf Goes to the Moon. Carol had to physically restrain herself from throwing up in her mouth.
She looked back to Lilac, who was now staring at her expectantly. Carol smacked her lips. “So, are there, like, any you want to hear again?”
Lilac tilted her head thoughtfully, then quickly indicated one of the books Carol was holding. Bucky Blue and the Great Canine Caper.
Carol couldn’t decide if that made the name more or less original.
“Alright.” Carol set the rest of the books back down, then repositioned herself in the chair with her legs crossed. Lilac repositioned herself as well, holding Blue tight to her chest. She looked to Carol with a ready, childlike grin. Carol chuckled. “Alright.” She flipped open to the first page, skimmed it over, and cringed. Still, she quickly collected herself and cleared her throat, Lilac leaning in attentively as she began to read.
“Once upon a time…”
When Milla returned that night, drowning in sweat and as exhausted as exhausted could be, she saw Carol sitting with Lilac instead of in her corner, and smiled to her approvingly.