Carol and Milla were starting to run out of ideas. In this state, when Lilac was this upset, there wasn’t anything they could do about it. They could comfort her all they wanted, assure her that this would get better, that it wasn’t the end of the world if she couldn’t write yet, but it didn’t matter. All she heard was that she was wrong, and all she could do was cry over it. The only thing left to do was let her sleep it off, and hope that she was in a better mood in the morning.
It was dreadful to be stuck like this, to just leave Lilac under the covers with her tear-stained cheeks and Blue held tight against her. To just watch the rhythmic rising and falling of her chest from afar. Neither Carol nor Milla knew what to do. They both knew that the other didn’t know what to do.
There was nothing they could do.
Carol wasn’t satisfied with that. She refused to be content with sitting around and watching what was left of her best friend suffer. If there wasn’t anything they could do, then they weren’t being creative enough. If there was one thing Carol had learned from Lilac in all their years together, it was that you never solve anything without acting on it, and Carol wasn’t about to forget that.
All she had to do was find some way to make Lilac happy. That couldn’t have been too difficult, right? Lilac was a pretty happy person, generally. Or at least, she used to be. This Lilac and the Lilac from before were so terribly distinct from each other. How could Carol know if Lilac would still take joy in the same things when everything else about her had changed so much? Well, it had to be worth trying, at least. They’d never know if they never tried.
So Carol tried to think about what Lilac had found happiness in, before all of this. If anybody should know this, it would be Carol, right? Carol knew Lilac better than anyone. So what made her happy? Sushi? There wasn’t an immediate way to acquire food from beyond the hospital cafeteria, and the stuff there wasn’t exactly five star, so that was out. Ninja Hurk? It would take too much time to retrieve their DVD box set from the treehouse (and assuming it was still there was assuming nobody had robbed the place in their absence), so that was out too. Dresses? Even setting aside Lilac’s current physical condition and the improbability of a shopping trip, Carol would personally really rather not, so that was definitely out.
It was kind of unsettling how much difficulty Carol was having with this. She hoped that it was just because of how late it was getting, but her memories from before they had landed in this place were blurring. How long had they been here now? A month? Had it even been a month? Had it been more than a month? She had lost track as soon as Lilac woke up, and quickly forgot how much time had passed before that. It was like they were being contained. It felt as though everything from before they were trapped here was so far in the past that Carol could barely distinguish the details. Was this how Lilac felt now? Was Carol even in any position to compare herself to what Lilac was going through? Could she possibly comprehend that feeling of emptiness and confusion?
After splashing her face in the bathroom sink, Carol collected her thoughts and composed herself as much as she was able to at this hour. She stepped back into the room and looked to Lilac, stiff under the covers of her bed. The bed that had been assigned to her by the people of this hospital. The same bed that she awoke in, and had spent nearly every moment in since.
If Carol was feeling trapped, she could only imagine how Lilac was feeling. This building, this air, these walls were suffocating, and they were all that this Lilac had ever known. It wasn’t fair to her. Lilac didn’t belong in a place like this, especially not for this long, with no escape from it. If she were still herself, and she was capable of it, Carol was certain Lilac would have fled this awful place at one point or another. She wouldn’t have been able to stand it.
And that was it. If Lilac didn’t belong here, then there was no reason for her to stay. If she couldn’t escape by herself, Carol would just have to help her.
At the crack of dawn, or perhaps even earlier knowing Carol’s track record with patience, Carol shook Milla awake. “Milla,” she whispered. “Milla, get up.”
Milla, clinging to the chair she had fallen asleep in, muttered something that came out garbled through her drool, then reiterated more clearly, “Five more minutes…”
Carol grumbled, “Why can’t you ever act like me when I want you to?” She shook the chair more aggressively. “Come on, get up get up get up!”
Losing her grip, Milla stumbled out of position with a yelp, but scrambled to take hold of the chair before she was completely on the ground. That probably would have ended louder than it did if Carol weren’t holding the chair down. Milla, now most certainly awake, looked around in bafflement until her gaze landed on the feline responsible for her rude awakening. “Carol…?” Milla sighed tiredly and pulled herself up. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, just get up.”
Milla looked down at herself, herself definitely being up, then looked back to Carol questioningly.
“I need your help,” Carol explained, “getting her out of bed.”
“Huh?” Milla glanced at Lilac, still snug tight under the covers. “Why, are we going somewhere?”
“Uh… yeah,” Carol responded, nearly tripping over another chair as she moved the one she was holding aside. “Somewhere. That’s where we’re going, alright. Somewhere.”
“Carol, did you sleep at all last night?”
“That’s not important,” Carol hissed, the slur of the words answering Milla’s question on her behalf. “Just come with me.”
Milla may not have been completely on board for whatever Carol was planning, but she didn’t particularly want to exist in the timeline she would conjure by arguing. They managed to pull the sullenly protesting Lilac out of bed and into the wheelchair, and after making sure that Blue was secure in Lilac’s grasp and that she definitely understood the importance of being quiet right now, they were off. The halls were thankfully pretty barren, but they tried their best to look inconspicuous whenever they passed anybody. Perhaps a little difficult, considering that they were a bunch of little girls without adult supervision, but aside from a couple questioning looks, nobody paid them much mind.
“Are you at least going to tell me where we’re going?” Milla asked at a whisper while struggling to keep up with Carol’s brisk pace.
“Out,” Carol answered, eyes fixed straight ahead.
“You know, out,” Carol grunted. “Like, out out.”
“Wait, like, leaving out?”
“Yes, we’re leaving out.”
“Wh— What?!” Milla exclaimed, before quickly lowering her volume under Carol’s warning glare. “Carol, we can’t leave! Lilac isn’t better yet!”
“Well, we’ll come back!” Carol replied testily. “We just gotta get out of this dump for a couple hours. I can’t think straight in here.”
“Does the doctor know we’re leaving?”
“Uh… well, he’ll probably figure it out in a couple minutes…”
By some miracle, they managed to get an elevator to themselves, and Carol spoke quickly while she maneuvered the wheelchair in and punched the button for the ground floor. “Look, it’s not that big a deal. We’ll just, I dunno, walk around the city a little, get some fresh air, and come back. Easy. It’ll be like we never left.”
“We can’t just walk out the door,” Milla growled. “We’ll get in trouble!”
“Who cares? It’s not like it’ll be the first time.”
“But these people have been really nice to us!”
Carol rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah, and a whole lot of good they’ve done. I could’ve helped her walk myself, and everything else has just been freaking her out!”
“They’re trying their best! And they’re letting us stay here! They don’t have to do that.”
“Sure they do, it’s what the Magister is paying them for.”
“No it’s—” Milla caught herself before her volume could escalate. She cast a glance to Lilac, tense in her chair, painfully but obediently silent, staring at her lap. Carol, having followed the glance, quickly diverted her attention to the floor. The rattling of the elevator filled the void between them until Milla spoke back up. “I just don’t think we should be doing this.”
“Well,” Carol scoffed, “I don’t see you coming up with any better ideas.”
Milla scowled, working her brain to come up with a response. The chime of the elevator’s bell was in perfect sync with the conclusion she came to.
“Actually…” she said, taking the wheelchair’s handles in her grasp as the doors opened, and Carol cocked an eyebrow at her. “I think you do.”
The sharpness in Milla’s action was dulled by her struggle to get the wheelchair moving. It may have been partially because of the awkward way she was holding it, but it took significantly more effort for her to push it through the elevator’s entrance than it had taken Carol moments earlier. Lilac looked back at her in confusion and Carol folded her arms. “You, uh…” Carol queried, “You need some help there?”
“Yeah,” Milla sighed, defeatedly allowing Carol to take the handles back. “Just— just follow me.” So Carol unlocked the wheels and followed.
Carol didn’t know where Milla was leading them, but it couldn’t possibly have been any worse than what Carol herself was planning. Though they had to carefully sneak around a janitor and a receptionist, it wasn’t long before Milla’s excellent direction brought them to the destination; a set of doors which, though she hadn’t been through in some time, Milla remembered very well what was on the other side of. She pushed the nearby blue button and, slowly but surely, the doors pulled open to allow them through. Carol’s ears perked and she looked to Milla, who smiled and beckoned her through.
Upon passing through the doors, the girls were met with a blinding light, a stark contrast to the environment they had only just been in. But once their eyes adjusted, they could clearly see the lush greens underfoot, the bright blue overhead, and feel the warmth of the new day’s sun.
It was a charming place, its winding stone paths lined with gardens painted with colorful flowers. There were tall trees and luscious green grasses, a trickling fountain at the center, and a perfect shot of the sun just starting to peek over the other side of the building. Suddenly, Carol felt as though it had been ages since she’d last stepped outside. It was almost as though she had forgotten what this was like, to be among natural sights and sounds and taste fresh air, rather than sitting under dim electric lighting, hearing the ambient whir of air conditioning, and tasting manufactured potato chips.
In a moment, she remembered that there was somebody here who had actually forgotten this.
Carol and Milla looked to Lilac, who, after relaxing from the initial shock of the change in scenery, was now upright on the edge of her seat, taking in this cascade of bright, real, new sensations. Her empty eyes were filled by the sparkle of wonderment. Carol led her down the paved paths, Milla keeping up and bouncing around with enthusiasm from the fresh air. Lilac got to feel the texture of a flower petal against her fingertips, and hear birdsong from the treetops. Carol got to see Lilac re-experience these little things, and feel how much it must have meant to her. Milla got to tell Lilac what a butterfly was, and how you should definitely never look directly at the sun.
It was a beautiful, wonderful morning, and to Lilac, it was the best she’d ever seen.
While Milla scampered off to chase a particularly eye-catching butterfly, Carol pulled Lilac up to the rail surrounding the fountain at the courtyard’s center. The methodical sound of pouring water was perhaps the most relaxing sound to have graced their ears in some time, and the way that the new daylight sparkled against the pool was just gorgeous. Carol’s weary self felt as though she could stare at the scene for days, and judging by Lilac’s fixated eyes and slightly gaping mouth, she wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“‘S pretty,” Lilac remarked.
“Yeah,” Carol concurred, “it’s nice.”
“Nice,” Lilac echoed. “Yeah. I like it.”
Carol smiled and nodded. “I knew you would.”
Lilac smiled a little back. It was a shaky sort of smile, but a smile nonetheless. It was small, but it proved that this meant something to her, and maybe, just maybe, that made all of this worth it. Still, Carol couldn’t help but wish for more, just a little more of a reaction. Just a little more progress. Something like this would have meant so, so much to Old Lilac, so there must have been some way to make it mean more to New Lilac.
The scene here, in combination with Lilac’s presence, did spark some of Carol’s more fond memories. Memories weren’t something that New Lilac had for herself, so maybe they were worth sharing. After all, these memories were meant to be hers, too. They had forged them together, all that time ago.
“When we were little,” Carol said, and Lilac turned to her, bright with curiosity, “we lived underground. You know, like in the sewers. So it was all dark and wet all the time, and it smelled funny and it made us smell funny.”
“Yuck,” said Lilac.
Carol chuckled. “Oh yeah, it totally sucked! We could wash our clothes with like seven different kinds of soap but the stink would never come out.” Tugging at her scarf, she added, “You can still smell it on this thing if you sniff hard enough. Here, smell for yourself!”
“No, no!” Lilac laughed, swatting defensively until Carol pulled the scarf away.
“Heheh, alright, I’m just kidding.” After briefly double-checking whether or not she was right about the scarf stink and scrunching up her nose, Carol resumed, “Anyway, yeah, it was the worst. But you know, I didn’t really care back then. I was really little, and we had food, and a roof over our head, and after you got used to it the stink wasn’t that bad. Besides, I guess… I figured it was better than what I was stuck with before that. But you, uh… well, you hated it. You told me all the time how sick you were of the dark and the wet and the cheap food and the bad smell and the bad people and how you were just dying to get out of there someday.”
“Definitely wouldn’t wanna stay there,” Lilac muttered, stumbling only slightly over “definitely,” and Carol nodded.
“Definitely,” she agreed. “I think… the only times you were really happy back then… when you really smiled, was when we got to go out here, outside. The sunlight and the fresh air, it was like… like it made you a totally different person. And of course I thought that was dumb, like, who cares that much about the stupid sun and stuff? But… I never thought about it then, but you grew up down there. I didn’t. That dark and wet and stuff, you were stuck with that. You didn’t choose it like I did. So, even though the sun and stuff might have been stupid to me… it was special to you.”
There was a break in the story, during which Carol refused Lilac’s intense effort at making eye contact. She only stared at the water for an uncomfortably long time, until she apparently remembered where she was going with this.
“So… when we left… when we finally left, you were pretty firm about this, you didn’t want us living in the city or anything. You wanted us to live in the great outdoors. And at the time, I was all, ‘but we can make more money and a better living in the city!’ And you were like, ‘something something wonders of nature,’ snoozefest. But you were stronger and smarter and older, so you won. And you dragged me allllll the way out to this crazy remote jungle on Shuigang’s turf, and we built our treehouse, and… we made it a home. Together, out there in the middle of nowhere, with all those trees, and… the water, the fresh air… the sunlight… that was our home. And, it still is our home. It’s still waiting there for us when we get out of here. And… and, maybe… I just, I should have told you sooner, but… I’m glad you dragged me there. I’m really glad you did. Because our home, out in Dragon Valley… it’s so much better than any city or smelly sewer could ever be. And it wouldn’t be special if it weren’t for you.”
Carol wiped her eyes, wiped the resulting wet onto her pants, and gazed onto Lilac. She returned the gaze steadily, perhaps wondering if there were more to be told. But for now, there wasn’t, so Lilac stared out at the fountain. “Um…” she started, uncomfortable in the silence, “it sounds… nice, there. Nice. At home.”
Carol smiled fondly. “Yeah,” she confirmed. “Yeah, it is nice. You’re gonna love it.” She brushed a hand on Lilac’s shoulder, and Lilac brightened at the touch. “I know, ’cause you chose it yourself.”
As Carol removed her hand and went to step aside, Lilac called to her, “Um…” Carol looked back, and Lilac asked, “Why’d we live down there, ‘fore we left?”
After blinking a couple times, Carol responded. “Uh, how about you ask me that one later, alright? That can be another story.”
Lilac nodded, content with the answer, and went back to staring at the water. Carol, content with Lilac’s contentedness, went to approach the nearest bench so she could finally sit down after what felt like forever, but came nose-to-nose with Milla and was startled back. Milla, who had managed to catch that butterfly and now had it perched on her hand, had a look on her face that was somewhere between cheerful and smug. Carol sighed.
“Okay, you were right… This was a better idea.”
“You’re welcome!” Milla chimed.
After flopping down and giving a big stretch, it took about five seconds for Carol to conk out on that bench, and not long after that for Milla to drift off beside her. Among the sounds of falling water, chirping birds and a soft breeze, the garden was peaceful, and so were the girls.
Lilac, however, wasn’t tired, and even if she were, she certainly wouldn’t have been keen on sleeping while sat up. The sight of the fountain from the distance where her chair was parked was certainly very nice, but the angle was starting to grow boring. She tried to call to Carol and Milla, but stopped as soon as she noticed they were asleep. She tried to move the chair herself, but Carol had left the wheels locked, and Lilac wasn’t sure how to undo that. For a time, she sat with Blue hugged to her chest, scowling in frustration at nothing in particular. Then she was struck with an idea.
She carefully set Blue down on the ground beside the chair and gave him a pat, then managed to flip up the chair’s folding foot rest with her toes. She scooted to the edge of the seat, trying her darnedest not to make too much noise (her success rate at which was debatable), until her feet were flat on the ground. It was a strange sensation, the feel of the warm pavement underfoot as opposed to the cold, soft matting in the physical therapy room. It was a welcome change nonetheless. Now was the hard part. Gripping the sides of the chair with all her might, she tried to push herself up. On the first attempt, she fell back down. Though her eyes watered, she didn’t let it deter her. On the second attempt, she nearly lost her grip, and in the resulting panic, fell back down again. Third time’s the charm. Slowly and carefully, keeping her grip on the chair as best as she could, with all the strength she could muster, she pushed up her body weight, until finally she caught her balance.
When Milla awoke, it was to a sight that at first didn’t seem out of the ordinary to her, at least until the memories of the past month or so came rushing back to her all at once. She jolted upright, eyes wide, made sure that what she was seeing wasn’t some sort of delusion, and immediately shook Carol awake so that she could witness it as well. Though Carol greatly resented being woken up, it was worth it to see this, which she realized just as soon as she had opened her eyes.
Lilac was standing. Not just in front of the chair, but a few feet ahead of it, looking out over the courtyard. She was gripping the railing for support, and there was no doubt that every inch of her rickety body was fighting this from head to toe. But she had done it. She was standing, all by herself, without help from anybody or anything. When she looked to Carol and Milla, it was a look that both could recognize anywhere, and it was enough to drive them to sobs.
That was Lilac’s smile.