When you were very little, and your mom kept dragging you to Civil War battle reenactments, forcing you to wear accurate period clothing (truly fucking heinous, she made you wear a bonnet) and lecturing you on the importance of history when you tried to protest, and you had to spend eight hours at a stretch in blistering heat bored out of your skull, you first came up with Orphaner. Orphaner was a badass lady who used modern weapons and waged battle on the high seas and kicked ass in a cool costume, and when your mom's friends' kids called you ugly, you made her Orphaner Dualscar. Your alter-ego, your imaginary heroine. You never told a soul about her; she was your dearest secret.
She had two jagged scars across her face, but no one ever called Orphaner ugly.
The first time you ever met Fef you were still a gangly kid, and it was a mixer for the adults (you knew why they brought their children along, you were supposed to mingle and be nice and not throw punch in the faces of the punks that made fun of your thick, coke-bottle glasses or your weird way of talking (your mother's German w's and v's) or your thick volume of US naval history, clutched tightly to your chest.)
He was just as gangly and, going by his goggles, just as myopic as you, and he was staring in an exasperated way at the table of food that no self-respecting ten year old would ever want to eat. You sympathized, quietly, to yourself, and joined him in scowling at the revolting assortment of sandwiches.
"What are you reeeading?"
You jumped, braids whipping through the air as you spun to stare at him. You hadn't heard him sidling closer, and no one talked to you at these things, they just threw rocks and interrupted your reading, and oh, up close, he was really cute, your heart beat faster, you blushed.
"History a the naval battles a the Revolutionary War," you blurted out without thinking.
"You like the ocean?" he asked, beaming at you, eyes lighting up even behind his goggles, and you found yourself smiling back out of sheer unfamiliar warmth.
"I love the ocean," you said, and his smile went wider, oh, that was the right thing to say, someone was paying attention to you and liked the things you liked, and you felt special, you felt like the other outcast at the bottom of the ladder had looked you in the eyes and accepted you as comrade.
He talked to you easily, vivaciously, a non-stop stream of questions and anecdotes and jokes that actually made you laugh, and it was so easy to talk to him, you told him how to file off the speed supressor inside his Nerf guns so the bullets would fly faster and he told you about scuba diving in the Keys and you told him about the whaling museum on the coast and he told you about spear-fishing in Vietnam and before you realized what you were doing - you had wandered off together outside and sat in the garden on a bench, discussing animatedly the things you loved in common - you told him.
You told him about Orphaner Dualscar, pirate queen of the sea, and the most beautiful thing about this boy was that he didn't laugh at you, not once. "Cool," he breathed, and then blinked prettily at you through long lashes. "I'm Fef, by the way. Sorry, I forgot to introduce myself."
"Eridan," you said, trying to bob your head in a polite curtsy as you'd been taught, even though you were sitting down and it was stupid of you. "They always tell me it's a boy's name."
"They tell me Feferi sounds like I should be a girl," he told you, laughing, and your heart leapt into your throat out your eyes and vanished somewhere in his smile, where it was lost forever.
When your mother and his father found you both, your mother seemed awkwardly short with you. "Eri, there you are, I didn't realize you knew Mr. Peixes's son," she said in a warning way, which meant do you realize who you're sitting next to, young woman? And the blood rushed out of you as you paled.
You knew who the Peixes family was. They owned the largest international arms trading company in the world. You were an avid, vocal fan of their R&D department; on your obligatory hunting trips with your mother you would pretend to fire Ahab's Crosshairs at the pheasants, your mind coloring in the burst of blue flames, the shriek of the blast, the imaginary recoil.
The look on your mother's face said tell me you didn't embarrass us, tell me you were a well-mannered girl for once. You were pink, dizzy with your windfall of sudden, entirely undeserved fortune. What were the odds that your new (and first, and only) friend would be the most amazing person on the face of the planet?
"I - I love the Crosshairs," you whispered, staring up at Fef's father, stomach twisted with excitement. You were meeting your hero, and to think you had screamed and cried and pleaded with your mother not to make you come! To think you'd wanted to stay home! "It's the best rifle in the world."
The CEO of Strife Specibus smiled at you, and in retrospect it was indulgent of him and patient, a glossy PR photo moment, a practiced face, but to you at ten years old it was fire from Prometheus, it was the best thing, and you should have noticed the way Fef's eyes went sad at the corners then, but you didn't. You only extrapolated that they must have, and added it to your memories years later when it became familiar: a look of soft and terrible disappointment.
That night you were almost deliriously happy. You skipped around your room, shivery with excitement; Feferi was no fairy-tale, he was a real prince, he was perfect, he was the most amazing boy in the world and he was your best friend and your mother let you stay up an hour and a half later than your curfew hesitantly tapping out instant messages and staring, like a man in a gallery at a surgery, at the screen until Feferi's responses arrived.
You couldn't sleep that night, twisting in your sheets and staring up at the ceiling.
You thought you loved him so much you would burst, or die, and of course you would marry him someday, you loved him completely and fully and you knew you would, for the rest of your life, because it was destiny, it was everything you had always been too cynical and angry to wish for or imagine existing - and then as your thoughts stopped their frantic spinning and began to wind down, a chill set in your gut. You shivered.
You cared very much, suddenly, about being ugly.
A moment you snatched from the lives of your parents and the crushing weight of his duties: you were twelve and a half and he texted you, suddenly, saying he was only six miles from your school that very minute at the city library, he'd taken the bus by himself, running away from his older brother's supervision and his mathematics tutor at mid-day to see you with only his wallet and his beaming, easy grin.
"What the shell were you thinking?" you gasped at him, face flushed from running the whole way there from the train station, which had terrified you with its noises and strange people and awful smells but which you braved because the prospect of seeing Fef made you brave enough to do anything. Your hair was a mess (you had tried, you had locked yourself in the teacher's bathroom and hoped and prayed and ripped yourself away from the mirror because you couldn't wait, you had to see him now!) and you had plucked your eyebrows too thin the day before, trying to shape them, and the girls in your class had mocked you, but he didn't seem to notice or care how you looked.
(You used to be glad, that he didn't notice these things. It would wear you so thin you'd snap under it, the absence of his attention.)
"I wanted to sea you, Eri," Fef said, excitedly tugging on his goggles, and he was getting taller than you, you had to look up, and he beamed down on you like sunlight through water. "And the aquarium is open today, and no one else wanted to go with me, and I knew -"
"- let's go," you were saying, interrupting, every measured ounce of you overflowing with warmth, with light, with a joy so simple it hurt. His nose was straight and aquiline and dotted with pale freckles and you got to count them, he held your hand this time, and the train wasn't bad if he was there to stand beside you.
You hated the dirt, the stench of sweat, the shrieking of the cars along the tracks, the feeling of being trapped underground in a metal box - being around lots of people always made you inexplicably nervous, as though it was something your heart wasn't built for, and you avoided it whenever you could.
" - You eeling okay, Eri?" he whispered, hot against your ear, and you blushed, and the car swayed, bumping your knees against his.
"Shore, Fef," you whispered back, rolling onto the tips of your toes to press your mouth close to his ear. "It's just - all these fuckin' landdwellers."
He tilted his head back and laughed, infectiously, and you couldn't help laughing with him, his laughter rose up and floated you like a boat on the tide, and you thought he would always be there to ask if you were eeling okay, you thought he would always be there to notice your anxiety and fear and gently banish them with his smile.
You don't go to the same high school as Fef because you live so far apart and your mother wants you to attend the school she chairs, keep an eye on you, but you promise to go to the same college, you study your ass off: bringing your textbooks to the exercise room in the basement and propping them up on the treadmill, listening to recordings in the shower and in the car your mother buys you once you pass your license test, taking AP classes online, doing anything and everything you can. You even hire an SAT tutor, privately, out of fear.
Once or twice a month, one of you takes a plane out to see the other and you do things that you feel like they might, possibly, count as going on dates, but you don't know and you're too scared to ask and besides, the way he looks at you, the way his face lights up to see you, surely it's all a given. Surely you were meant to be.
You play laser tag and you go on whale watches and he takes you out in his brother's tiny boat at four in the morning to look at the bioluminescent fish, one weekend at his father's coast house. You go to the shooting range together with his father, and you drag him into war museums, and he laughs at your eccentricities in an gentle way, you think; gentle or mocking, you can't be sure, but you don't let him know how insecure and frightened you are, frightened of something you can't name and can't place.
There's a six-week break during which neither of you can spare any time at all, and you're miserable, and you text him ten times a day and Fef responds only once in a while to say he misses you too, and you wonder if it hurts just as much for him? Probably not, no one has ever hurt this much, just being apart from someone, you are thirteen and you have broken a world record with how much you hurt. You can't take it, you have to do something stupid and exciting, and so the next time he's in town you text him: pack your glubbin swim trunks and shoal up at ten.
You save up your allowance and use it to bribe the swimming instructor (who works at the gym and who's known you since you were born) into staying late, to act as your private lifeguard, and you sneak in when the gym closes for the night. The only light flickers in the bottom of the Olympic pool, and Fef practically glows, whoops loudly, praises your genius for setting up something so cool, gosh, Eri, this is fin-tastic. And, because he's the most wonderful buoy in the ocean, your sole-mate, he brings water guns.
You spend hours exhausting yourselves, laughing and shrieking and shooting each other and he dunks you and you dunk him in revenge, and finally you are catching up, running down on gossip, and you are so hungry to touch him, tactile and needy, holding his hand tight in yours as you dive together and sit for a full minute holding your collective breath at the bottom of the pool. You know you'll have to surface soon, you'll have to leave and head home, it's almost one in the morning.
Fef watches you, inscrutably, behind his googles; you don't need them to open your eyes, the chlorine doesn't bother you, but everything's a soft electric blue blur, and you can hear only your heartbeat.
That night you fall asleep curled up next to him on the couch in your rec room, hair still wet from the shower, The Little Mermaid playing quietly on your flatscreen. There's an unused fork from the reheated dinner you ate; softly, thinking you're asleep, he picks it up and runs it through your hair, humming quietly to himself, chin tilted up as he watches the rest of the movie without you.
It's raining outside, a gentle murmur; you are exhausted, and you don't want to fall asleep slumped in his lap, you want to sit up and ask him if he loves you, you want to try to kiss him because you think this has to be the time, this has to be the right moment. You struggle, but you drift off, helpless against your heavy eyelids and the soporific melodies of rain, The Little Mermaid, Fef's slow and steady breathing; anchorless but for his arms.
The whole process of getting ready for school takes about an hour, so you have to wake up early for it. Shower. Deodorant. Body powder. A little bit of cologne - it smells like sea salt. Brushing and flossing your teeth, scrubbing your face a little cleaner, carefully patting the moisturizer on with your fingertips. Then primer; then foundation, then sponging off the excess. Then the primer for your eyeshadow, painted on carefully; the faintly pale purple you dab on is barely visible, but shimmers in the light as you blink, and even if you have to pluck your eyebrows every other day, even if your jaw is a square brick and your nose is beakishly masculine, hideously prominent, at least when you are zeroed in on the soft shimmer coating your eyelids you can look at your face and see something pretty.
Liquid liner, mascara. It took you so long to learn how to ignore the chemical sting in the air, took you so many hours staring at the bathroom mirror, applying and reapplying your face, before you could do it right.
Your mother made you get laser surgery, but you keep the frames of your glasses for sentimental reasons. Studies and magazines have told you that glasses make you look ten IQ points smarter and you want the fucking landdwellers to know you're fucking better than they are, want them to keep the fuck away from you, want to fend off those who would dare approach you. You don't want to associate with your stupid, inane, trashy classmates and you don't want them to think they have any business chumming up to you. The boys revolt you - none of them are Fef. The girls, well. The girls are boring and dull and stupid, unfashionable, unadventurous, unkind. They titter behind their hands and laugh and gossip about you when they know you'll hear them, they call you a gun freak, a psycho, a crazy stuck-up rich bitch, no ass and no tits and too full of yourself to join the swim team.
You consider yourself a poisonous mermaid princess, and your flashy appearance a bitter warning.
You put in circle lenses, they make your eyes look a little bigger against the vast expanse of your nose and forehead. The false eyelashes aren't really necessary, but you feel like you have to wear them to stand next to Fef, since his are so lovely and yours simply average, you have to look pretty next to him even in comparison even if he's a thousand miles away, right? You hear in your head, echoing: too ugly for him, and you stare into your own eyes like a basilisk unblinking as you wait for the glue to dry.
Very, very carefully, you spray on the fixative, and then you put on your lipstick. Hilariously, it is called nude. There is nothing nude about this face you have constructed so carefully.
Your hair is last, curled and gelled and sprayed into a careful, flawless set of waves. Your mother screamed at you for cutting it all off, and screamed even harder when you bleached a streak to dye it purple, a purple that matches the contacts in your eyes. When you hit puberty you started wearing push-up bras, tight jeans, following fashion blogs and refusing to eat dinner with her.
(Before the first awful shock, you were actually looking forward to getting your period, you thought you'd grow breasts overnight, you thought Fef will think of me as a girl and Fef will think I'm pretty and spent altogether way too much time preparing yourself for him ever, ever possibly wanting to go out with you, even though you go out together all the time, it'll be different, he will look at you and you will finally, finally take his breath away, the same way he takes yours, every moment every day of your life.
(You honestly believed that the blood in your underwear would be the key to all that. Instead it meant gaining weight, bloating, feeling awful for no reason at all, being in pain, and you were so disappointed and crushed, you sobbed all day.)
Your outfit is decided meticulously the night before, carefully accessorized, and laid out across your study table. Sometimes you panic and have to wear something else; sometimes you realize with horror that you are too fat to wear that skirt today, your knees are too ugly to wear those shoes, your taste abandoned you the night before and you put together all the wrong shades of blue and grey and purple, what the fuck were you thinking?
Once you have swallowed your anxiety pills and finished drinking your protein shake, you are ready to drive to school. Every single inch of you has been depilated, scrubbed, moisturized, pinched, screamed at, until you can exit the bathroom with your head held high, and know you are ready to face shit.
You are ready to sit alone in homeroom, ready to be polite and sweet to the teachers who hate you because your mother owns this fucking school and wants to cut their vacation days. You are ready to watch out for girls trying to trip you on the way to your locker, ready for your locker itself to be dripping with wet paint and all your books ruined again, ready for your Economics professor to leer at your breasts (your mother won't let you drop the class) and ready for the only subject you love with a passion to be taught by a senile old bitch who thinks group projects are a great fucking idea, because god knows historians are team players. You're ready to be wary of the boys who think it's a game, who think it's funny, to try to mess up your hair or snap your bra straps; you will smile and be demure and you will endure these people you loathe and barely tolerate and wade through every day like a sea of filth, hating them and wishing with every fiber of your body that Fef were there to walk beside you.
Every day before classes start you play this little game with yourself: today, you think, practicing the prettiest smile you have in the mirror, texting him between classes and idly picking at a lunch you will end up throwing away, skipping across the street for celery and another protein shake, today I am pretty enough for him to fall in love with me.