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Once Upon a Time

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"Are we friends?"

Illusen looked up in surprise at the quiet question. She knew that she wasn't imagining the uncertainty in it, which made no sense. How was it even a question? "What?"

Jhudora bit her lip, her gaze not quite meeting Illusen's as she looked down at her hands. They were clenched in fists at her side, as if she was trying to keep them out of the way. Or maybe she was trying to keep them from doing something she didn't want them to do. Illusen had that same problem sometimes, after all.

Shaking her head, Illusen smiled as she reached out to wrap her own hand around Jhudora's fist and gave it a firm squeeze. "Of course we are," she said matter-of-factly, as if it was the most obvious thing in all of Faerieland. She'd thought that it was, but maybe Jhudora didn't see things quite as clearly as she did. "We'll always be the best of friends."

The tentative smile that Jhudora gave her back made Illusen's stomach tickle again, just like it had every time since they'd first met a few months earlier. She wasn't entirely certain what it was that caused it, but she very much enjoyed the feeling.

"Always?" Jhudora repeated slowly, with more than a hint of hesitance in her voice. "Do you promise?"

Illusen gave her a firm nod. "Always and always."

*

"Do you really think it fits me?" Jhudora asked, staring at her reflection in the pool. The green streaks in it stood out brightly against the dark purple of the rest of her hair. It was very eye-catching, and Illusen personally thought that it made her friend look even more gorgeous than she usually was.

Illusen let out a peal of laughter as she joined Jhudora's side, wrapping her arm around her shoulder in a loose embrace. She leaned forward, looking at their side-by-side reflections, streaks of green mixed in with the natural hair color on both their heads. "It looks amazing on you," she said. "What about me? Do you think the green fits me?"

Jhudora gave her one of those small half-smiles that she was so good at. "Everything fits you."

Illusen let out a please huff of laughter at the compliment. "Flatterer," she said teasingly. "But really, do you think it fits?"

"It matches your wings," Jhudora said. "It's the same shade."

Before Illusen realized what was happening, Jhudora had reached out to gently brush the green wings on her back. She closed her eyes at the touch, enjoying the pleasant feel of someone else running their hands over them.

Jhudora let out a quiet sigh. "The exact same shade," she whispered so quietly that Illusen might not have even heard her if she hadn't been paying such close attention.

"Is that why you picked the color?" Illusen asked, reluctantly opening her eyes and glancing to the side. As expected, Jhudora immediately pulled her hand away when Illusen's attention focused on her.

"Of course," Jhudora replied. "I knew it would look lovely in your hair."

Illusen reached out to playfully take a few strands of Jhudora's dyed hair and pull at them. "I'm not talking about the streaks in my hair."

Jhudora went absolutely still at the touch, her face reddening slightly.

Illusen pulled her hair lightly again before letting go, her eyebrows raising as she waited for an answer. She'd learned a long time ago that sometimes it was better to simply wait and listen. Eventually Jhudora would give in. She always did.

"I liked the idea of us matching," Jhudora said finally, a hint of something in her voice that Illusen couldn't quite make out. "Is that such a bad thing?"

"Of course it isn't," Illusen said, slipping her hand out to take Jhudora's. "I like the idea of us matching too. Friends, for always and always."

She thought for a moment that she saw disappointment flicker across Jhudora's face, there and gone so quickly that she almost didn't even see it. But that didn't make any sense. Maybe she imagined it.

"Friends," Jhudora agreed. "Always and forever."

*

"Why?"

The single word seemed to hang in the air between them as Jhudora froze, the anger on her face fading away in an instant. Just like that, she went from being a stranger who had almost... almost... who had almost done that, for no reason whatsoever that Illusen could tell, to being the familiar friend that Illusen had grown up beside. It was as if the years had faded away, and they were back to being children again.

It almost made it worse, in a way.

"Why?" Illusen repeated, her voice cracking just a bit.

Her entire body ached from the fall and the lightning that had rushed through her earlier, and she wanted more than anything to close her eyes, open them, and find out that this was nothing but a bad dream. It wasn't. She knew that it wasn't. She wasn't a naïve little girl, not any longer, but a part of her couldn't help but still wish with all her might that this wasn't happening.

Jhudora looked away. "I had to do it," she said. "It was the only way."

"I don't understand," Illusen said, not even trying to hide the fact that her voice was breaking. "We're supposed to be friends. Always and always. Forever. Why would you—"

"Because Neopia's bigger than the two of us," Jhudora snapped, cutting her off as she turned her gaze back towards Illusen. It was growing hard again, more like that of a stranger rather than a familiar friend. "I grew up. I stopped holding onto pipe dreams that will never actually come true. It's time that you did too."

Illusen stared at her, something that felt as cold and unyielding as ice making its way through her chest. "I don't understand."

A flicker of emotion ran across Jhudora's face. "I know," she said. "Believe me, I know. That's part of the problem."

Jhudora sighed and raised her hand. Before Illusen could even blink, there was a bright flash of light. The world went dark.

When she woke up, she was alone.

*

It surprised Illusen sometimes how much she didn't miss Faerieland.

She supposed that, in a way, it made sense. She'd always had a stronger connection to the earth than most of the other faeries, and Meridell fit her tastes more than the clouds and rainbows of their floating city ever did. Illusen felt stronger there, more like herself than she ever had in the sky.

The fact that Jhudora was as far away from her as she could be also played a role in that.

Illusen wasn't a fool. She knew that at least some of the others knew what Jhudora had tried to do, what she'd done. There had been others there, who'd seen the signs and understood just what had almost happened. It hadn't been just her who had gone to the queen to tell her about Jhudora's betrayal.

But Fyora was far from being naïve. And when it came to threats, a dark faerie – even one as powerful as Jhudora – was far from being her first priority. Not without absolute proof, and even then Illusen suspected it still might not have been the most important thing on the queen's mind. Not with the other shadows that everyone saw on the horizon.

Life had been simple once. It hadn't felt like it at the time, but Neopia had been so much more uncomplicated back when they'd been younger. When she'd been younger. Illusen grimaced at the slip of the tongue, even a mental one.

It didn't matter. Things had happened the way they had happened, and nothing would change it. She couldn't go back in time, no matter how much she might have wished to sometimes, so there was no point in thinking about what used to be and what could have been.

A strand of green hair slipped down in her face. Illusen reached up to tuck it back behind her ear with a sigh. Then, without a word, she pushed herself to her feet and started in the direction of a small meadow that she knew was nearby.

She felt the urge for a distraction. Perhaps a dance would cheer her up.

And if she thought that she saw a flash of purple and green out of the corner of her eye as she danced, just like she had so many times before, well... her imagination was a strong thing sometimes. That's what she told herself, at least.

*

Illusen thought that hallucinations were probably a bad sign.

The Jhudora her mind had cooked up sighed, reaching up to rub her temples. "For the last time, you're not hallucinating," she said dryly. "You may be sick, but you're not that ill."

It was just the type of thing a hallucination would say. How else would not!Jhudora have known what she was thinking? Only something that was in her head would be able to read her mind.

A flicker of something that looked suspiciously like concern flashed across Jhudora's visage, and she reached over to press her hand against Illusen's forehead. It felt blessedly cool, like ice or the cold water that pooled in the clouds of Faerieland. Or, at least, it had back before Faerieland had fallen from the sky, joining her on the ground of Neopia.

"Get some rest," Jhudora said quietly. "And next time, be more careful about what you eat. The world's getting darker."

Illusen frowned at that, part of her wanting to ask what that mean. Figment of her imagination or not, Jhudora sounded much more concerned than she was used to hearing. Not that they spoke very often, not anymore. It was hard to find the words, though, the cool touch of Jhudora's hand against her burning skin like a balm.

Instead, what came out was: "Will you be here when I wake up?"

Jhudora hesitated before leaning down to press a kiss against Illusen's forehead. Unlike her hand, her lips burned like flame instead of ice.

"No," Jhudora said quietly, more of a sigh than a word. "No, my dear, I won't."

Illusen closed her eyes and tried not to focus on the sense of regret that filled her at that single syllable. "You were supposed to be there always."

There was a long pause. "I am," Jhudora whispered. "In my own way."

*

"I knew there was more to the story."

Jhudora snorted at that, a completely inappropriate sound for a faerie to make. Illusen couldn't help but let out a soft laugh.

It wouldn't last. The peace never did. But for just a moment, she felt as if they were girls again. As if they were friends again. As if...

... well, that was something that she wouldn't put into words, not even in the safety of her own mind. Not now. Perhaps not ever.

"No, you didn't," Jhudora said after a long pause, and her voice was more than a bit bittersweet.

Illusen's hand slipped into hers almost of its own accord, more out of a long-forgotten habit than anything else. "I wanted there to be more to the story. That counts."

Jhudora let out another snort, this one quieter than the first, but she didn't argue. She also didn't let go of Illusen's hand.

Both of them sat there, at the edge of a cliff in Meridell, watching dark clouds and smoke rise in the distance. Something was coming. That much was clear.

"The others will be expecting us," Jhudora said, reluctance in her voice. "I'm sure that everyone on the council has had time to arrive by now."

Illusen tightened her grip on Jhudora's hand. "Let them wait."

Beside her, Jhudora went still.

Illusen glanced over at her. They'd both gotten older. Faeries didn't age as quickly or as noticeably as Neopets and others who called Neopia home, but they weren't immutable. The passage of time still affected them, albeit more slowly and subtly.

They weren't the young girls who had promised to be friends forever and ever, not anymore. But those children were still inside them somewhere. Illusen could see them in the streaks of green that Jhudora still wore in her hair, the exact same shade as the wings on her own back.

Darkness was coming. That much both of them knew. For just a moment, though, Illusen wanted to cling to the light.

Illusen leaned in and kissed Jhudora, as gently as she possibly could. She didn't know how to put it into words, years of anger and misunderstandings and aching and regrets and love and hate all merging together into something that transcended speaking. She just hoped it was enough.

After only a moment's hesitation, Jhudora kissed back. Illusen could almost hear the apology in the action.

Always and always.