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How to Study with Friends


by liouchan

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I ought to begin by saying that Cora had not always been a star, but, in truth, she had always been a star in my eyes.

      It hit me one day when we were out in Brightvale. On our way to Brightvale Books, I had stopped by the Scrollery to admire the display in its front window, when I noticed that Cora's reflection was not next to mine.

      Spinning on the spot, I found her on the other side of the road, where a dirt path trailed off into the countryside. She was perched atop a fence post, as if about to leap into the sky. The star-specked blue and warm red of her fur shone brightly against all the greenery. Her eyes were fixed on a point in the distance. I stared in the same direction, wondering what had her so transfixed. Those clouds that shimmered faintly on the horizon, perhaps?

      When Cora snapped out of it, I waved at her and held up my hands, pretending to view her through a telescope. She didn't respond. She had never seemed so distant, so far out of my reach.

      Cora had not been given the same options as I had when deciding on her future studies. There had been no opening for her in any of the courses she chose. After failing to interest her in anything nearer than Kreludor, her school counsellors had racked their brains to list all possible fields with even the slightest connection to astronomy. Engineering. Navigation. Cartography. Meteorology. Even divination. Cora had studied exactly none of those things and started working for a catering business instead.

      That was how I ended up finding her in a hairnet, ladling Altadorian Lentil Soup into bowls during the interval of the Annual Astronomers' Assembly of Altador.

      I had actually spotted her much earlier, during the first half of the conference. I only had a few words to say during Professor Dashwood's talk and, while I waited to switch the slides of her presentation, I had ample time to observe the audience.

      The pink Bori seated closest to the exit was staring at the ceiling, mouth half-open, making no effort to hide. In her defense, it was a gorgeous ceiling, and I would have been staring at it too had I not been assisting my professor. The ceiling, in grandiose Altadorian style, was studded with gems that faithfully depicted the positions of the brighter stars in this hemisphere's night sky.

      She was paying no attention to the conference. But she was not bored. She was fascinated. I wondered if she was looking at her favourites. It took me ten seconds to realise that Professor Dashwood was waiting for me to switch slides. The Bori discreetly left the room half an hour before lunch.

      At the end of the meal, I hung around, sampling olives from platters here and there. I had spent the entire break hovering without daring to come closer. The Bori's smile was dazzling, and there had been a constant crowd around her.

      I watched an elderly professor laugh out loud at something the Bori had said, the joy on her face making her look startlingly youthful. The others were already filing back into the auditorium for the afternoon. The Bori began to gather dirty dishes. Soon, she would probably disappear for clean-up duty.

      She paused, an empty tureen still in her hands. This time, she was admiring a passing Eventide Hissi. Specks of starlight twinkled on the Hissi's back, and a warm glow seemed to seep from beneath their scales. The Bori was transfixed.

      This was my chance. I had to speak with her, at least once. I had to find something to say to her. Anything.

      "Is this the first time you've seen an Eventide?"

      Now, she was looking at me. "No," she said.

      All my ideas for conversation starters petered out. I looked down at the carpet, pretending to be very absorbed in its threads.

      "But it is the first time I've seen that constellation on an Eventide!" she added.

      That caught me off-guard. "Oh. I hadn't noticed there were constellations on Eventides."

      "Then you will have learned at least one new thing on this fine conference day, all thanks to me!" With a flourish of her arms, she gave a little bow.

      "Are you interested in the Eventide colour?"

      "I am! But that's not what you came here to study, is it?"

      "No, I came from Brightvale University to help my professor. Since I gathered the data for one part of her paper, she had me explain my work." I gave an awkward grin.

      The Bori was nodding fervently. "I remember! I didn't understand all of it, but I loved it! You were holding your papers very nicely. It seemed cosy."

      "Really? Are you sure you didn't get it? Maybe I could explain more clearly," I offered.

      She nodded again.

      So I told her all about the readings from a certain telescope array, what could be inferred when comparing them with the other readings, and how interesting it would be to compare them to more readings if only we could get those. I spoke for so long that the lentils dried on the dishes. Cora never stopped me. She kept asking more questions, quoting words she did not understand.

      I was rather flustered when I crept back into the auditorium mid-conference, trying to make myself as small as a Miamouse. Cora watched me leave with a mischievous smile, as though she were very pleased with the effect she'd had on me.

      I prepared to treasure the memory of this encounter for years to come, and to long for the day when I would cross paths with someone like her again. Cora kept popping up everywhere I went, cutting off my longing with her convenient proximity. It was not deliberate on either of our parts. She simply happened to share my few, very specific interests.

      Of course, back then, I would never have believed that someone like Cora would seek to meet someone like me again.

      I ran into her at the library, at the archives, at the observatory. She pressed leaflets for other events into my hand. She asked for notes to be passed to the shadow Poogle in the front row, and I would unfold them to find sweet, silly poems. When she invited you, she was gentle, not the least bit pushy, but the look in her warm hazel eyes was one of utter certitude, as if she had already foreseen your coming. She left no room for doubt. How was I to chicken out and stay home, wrapped in my blanket?

      She coaxed me into planetarium viewings, exhibition opening nights, stargazing hikes, even nocturnal birdwatching events. She took me all the way to Shenkuu for the Lunar Festival. She held my hand on rickety bridges, chanted encouragement while I clambered up slopes, and hugged me when I reached the top. When I was with her, I never worried about where to go or what to eat there. I stopped panicking about deadlines. She would burst in, describing a wonderful vista she'd heard of near Kiko Lake, and I would drop everything, and off we would go.

      "I cannot believe you are still putting up with me," she said, squeezing my hands excitedly as we set off one day. I could only beam at her, too dazzled to respond.

      When all I could do was huddle at home, she was happy to help me with that, too.

      "Hey, Cora." I had spent half an hour scripting these words in my mind. She was lounging on my Bean Bag of Nova and resting her head against my Bed of Nova. "I love spending time with you, but I hope you're not missing anything interesting today. I'll be fine if you go."

      "No, this is doing me good. I've been going out so often lately, it's a bit much. It's like my medication is made from powdered Step-Out Shoes."

      "Thank you for spending all this time with me. I can't believe my luck."

      In the mirror, I saw her sidle up behind me, squishing the bean bag under her. "Thank you for noticing me, and for accepting me as I am," she said, resting her chin on top of my head, framing me in her fluffy pink braids. I hardly dared to move. "It means so much to me."

      I cannot remember at what point we had begun to see each other on a regular basis. It seemed like she had always been there, and I had simply never focused on her before.

      We never made plans, technically. Even Cora's other acquaintances could not tell me when they might see her. We all trusted that she'd pop back into our lives.

      Cora and I were not the same kind of astronomy superfans. I read through older, more knowledgeable people's work and gathered data for my older, more knowledgeable professor. My head was full of books and figures. Cora yanked me out of my books and made me lie down on the soft damp grass to observe the skies with my own two eyes. She immersed herself in what she loved. She never sought to understand how any of it worked.

      Maybe she already knew.

      She was immensely clever, in her way. I have lost count of the times when I got up from my desk to seek a reference on a specific topic, only to hear Cora, from her perch on the windowsill, summarise the information I needed. It saddened me that she made so little use of her knowledge and passion.

      The longer she stayed with me, the further I ventured to meet her. I began to reciprocate.

      "Did we really need to be here so early?" Cora clutched her sides, breathless from our run down to the Catacombs. "We still have an hour 'til nightfall."

      I was breathless too, but not from running. "I didn't tell you earlier, but I had some shopping to do before nightfall."

      Shopping? The incomprehension on Cora's face made me that much more exhilarated. I only needed to keep quiet a little longer.

      We entered the gallery. The bored art dealer looked up from her catalogue and recognised me. With a conniving glance, she withdrew a package from under the counter and set it in front of Cora, tugging the wrapping open.

      Twinkles of starlight and a familiar, warm glow bathed her face. Cora looked at the Eventide Paint Brush, at the seller, at me, and back at the Paint Brush. I watched it dawn upon her, savouring every instant. She pointed at it, at me, then at herself.

      "To... to paint me?"

      I cracked a grin and nodded.

      "Estelle, you can't! It's so... I can't pay!"

      We had never worried about Neopoints before. I quickly explained that my aunt had won the Neopian Lottery and decided to treat all her relatives. I already had my scholarship. What was I to splurge on? Gourmet food? Training school courses? Battledome weapons? Glittering Mall apparel? Cora.

      She had raised her hands to her head, clutching at her rosy hair. "I... I don't know, Estelle. Painting is such a big step."

      It was a momentous step. "I haven't signed for the purchase yet," I told her quietly. "The offer is just on the table. You have time. I would gladly buy you something else if you prefer. Like an Eventide Dress."

      Hearing this, she smiled so hard that her eyes shut tight. "Go on. If you're sure you can afford this."

      "You can just use it whenever you're ready, Cora. There is no rush."

      "I am ready. If not today, it would find its way back to me on another day."

      I walked her to the Rainbow Pool. She squeezed my hand the whole way. Once we stood in front of the Pool, Cora hugged me. She nearly knocked me down, and did not let go until she'd got at least a year's worth of hugs. I handed her the Paint Brush and we stood there for a while, smiling at each other. She took a step towards the Pool, and I turned away.

      I listened to the chirps of the crickets while Cora waded into the Pool behind me. What I had done felt perfectly right. As if I had solved one of the most important equations in the universe.

      Fiery light blazed from behind me, throwing my shadow on the ground at my feet. Reflexively, I looked back.

      The sky had split. There was no other way to see it. Beams of starlight twisted above the pool, light flashed and pulsed through huge, vaporous wisps, bounced and twinkled off particles that hung in clouds, and in the centre of it all, in the gash through which the light was pouring, something huge leaned over the Pool. I could not make sense of its shape. There was too much of it. It should not have been able to fit into the space it occupied. Its substance twisted, disconnected and reconnected in ways that my mind could not reconcile. At some point in my confusion, I decided that it looked rather like a giant Belonthiss, graceful and quite pretty despite breaking my brain.

      The unreasonably large thing was busy looking down towards Cora with its moon-like eyes - too many moons. Somewhere within their orbits, Cora's figure shone, tall and straight and open-armed. Once the magic of the Paint Brush had faded, the waters reflected the night sky once more, and Cora seemed to melt into it.

      We spent a few quiet days together to let her adjust. We made updates to her wardrobe, and she introduced me to her family. Eventide Cora was always meant to be. No one could get enough of her. She received invitations left and right, was greeted by people who had never looked twice at her before. She paraded coyly while they basked in her radiance. Looks of awe did not bother her. In fact, she barely noticed them.

      She disappeared much more often. Sometimes, on my way home at night, I would spot her from a distance, among a group of Eventides I had never met, all shimmering from a rooftop with no stairs leading to it, or past a crossroads, heading into the wilderness. They all seemed terribly intent on their destination. Cora always paused to wave at me, making starlight wink at me from her fingers.

      I had to change my Neomail address to stop the flow of people asking about Cora, wondering when she would be coming back. They were becoming distracting. Cora's pattern had always been erratic, so I was not surprised to see her disappear for weeks at a time. She always gravitated back to me.

      I made the most of the time she stayed with me. When we saw each other during the day, she allowed me to stargaze at her instead.

      I was tracing the lights that dotted her fur when she laid a hand on mine and asked, "You can see my constellation now?"

      "Parts of it. I'd need to take a step back to see the whole thing." Cora's constellation, and the other Eventides', I now understood, were not simple sparkling markings slapped onto their limbs. The light of the constellation ran through their entire body like another vital fluid, occasionally visible right beneath the surface of their skin.

      Cora was scanning me with her dazzling cyan eyes.

      "I may have looked while you were in the Rainbow Pool," I confessed. "I'm sorry. I saw light, and I turned round without thinking. I didn't look directly at you."

      "You shouldn't have." Her tone was gentle. "It's not safe for you."

      "Is any of this safe for you?" I asked, my throat tight.

      "It's dangerous, but I'm not alone." She smiled crookedly, not the least bit afraid of any danger, but said no more.

      One night, I woke up to find her in my room.

      This was not habitual.

      "Bad dream?" I asked.

      She shook her head, a silver apparition bathed in moonlight from my window - there was never that much moonlight pouring through my window.

      "I'm sorry, Estelle. There's something I want to share with you, but we have to be quick. Jump at it."

      I rolled out of bed. My backpack was ready. I was used to jumping into Cora's spur-of-the-moment ideas, but this was a bit much, even for her.

      I followed her out of town, struggling to keep up with her long strides. Her shining braid of indigo hair danced ahead of me. Once I had caught my breath at the top of a grassy hill, I was met with the stern looks of half a dozen Eventides.

      "Cora, you shouldn't have," said one.

      "But I did."

      "It's too late to send her back now," said another Eventide, "the perimeter will be more dangerous."

      "Hush. It's starting."

      Whatever was going to start had started, and the Eventides stargazed. They were stargazing with remarkable intensity, their entire bodies tense, their eyes aglow, their constellations practically sizzling beneath their fur or scales. I stifled a yawn and resigned myself to stargazing with them, my arms crossed. They gasped softly, grabbing each other's wrists. I checked the time, but had forgotten my watch in our precipitation.

      I caught Cora eyeing me. "You should watch, Estelle," she mouthed.

      "Cora, this is very sweet of you, but there's no shower, nothing special scheduled to happen tonight."

      "It's not a meteor shower."

      I turned my gaze back to the sky, just to avoid the blazing cyan of Cora's eyes. "The Protector's stars are bright tonight," I commented tentatively.

      "No! Look!"

      Cora's shout tore through the silence that blanketed the meadow. Why was she so angry? I blinked back tears, trying not to sniffle, as I strained my bleary eyes to catch a twinkle, a glimmer of what she was so intent on showing me, between the stars we knew so well.

      Cora's hand grabbed me by the chin and forced me to look back into her eyes. She clenched her teeth in concentration, and cyan filled my vision. I blinked rapidly, tearing up. Cyan sparks sizzled in the corners of my eyes wherever I looked. Then, I saw.

      Cora did not need me to look up at the stars.

      The stars were right here. In this rain-soaked meadow.

      The skies had cracked and split and space had bunched itself in between and starlight had pooled into the void, living lights swam back and forth on streams of molten vapour, and the Eventides lived within, they danced and they flew, singing in tones that my ears could not hear but that I felt reverberating through my bones, deeper than my bones, and the sky above with its huge starry pelt turned its many moon-eyes upon the smaller starry sky that was Cora's body. I saw Cora beckon to me through my streaming tears, but her hand was too far, so I reached up, dying to join them, to be among them, trying to wrench my arms out of their sockets, as rooted to the ground as if I'd been painted Woodland, too deafened to hear myself crying out loud.

      I was not crying because I was going to lose Cora. I was not even crying because I had already lost Cora. She had never been mine to lose, in the first place.

      I came to in my own bed, with drinks and medicine placed within my reach.

      To this day, I'm still not entirely convinced that she didn't hit me on the head with an Astronomy Club and that the lights I saw in the meadow were not the result of a concussion. I never told anyone about what I'd seen above the Rainbow Pool, even though my scientific mind was desperate to replicate the experiment with proper equipment.

      The months following her disappearance were rough. I had no answers for her family, her friends, or anyone searching for her.

      After some time, the questions became condolences and words of comfort, and I ran out of patience. They spoke of her as if she was gone. They were sorry for my loss.

      I lost touch with many acquaintances I'd met thanks to Cora. I slowed down my studying and continued my travels, alone. It was good to keep moving. I ended up returning to many places she'd shown me. I never really felt alone. Once, I had sat in that meadow with Cora; now, I sat with the stars overhead.

      I had to avoid going too deep into the darkness. No - I mean that literally. I still saw cracks in the edges of my vision. Places where space did not connect right, where light did not flow the way it ought to. Anomalies in the sky, between the stars, that blinked and shot away when they noticed me looking their way. Shadows around corners that were not simple unlit surfaces, but pools of void.

      Of course, I could not share those visions with anyone - that would have cost me my entire future career. I even had to decline Faerie quests. I could no longer face those creatures, now that I could see the huge, twisted entities behind them, whose tendrils controlled the dainty winged bodies like friendly puppets through which they spoke with little Neopians.

      One night on my way home, I sidestepped a pool of darkness, only to find myself in a street almost entirely blocked by void. The deepest part of the darkness was not black. It was closer to the dark grey we see in total absence of light. I tried to sidestep it once more, but the space ahead of me stretched, skewing perspective in a way that brought piercing pain to my forehead, forcing me to blink. Then all around me was dark.

      It weighed at me so heavily. Every inch of this space wanted me to stop. I had nowhere to go, after all. Cold seeped up my feet. I had been cold and lonely before, though, and I knew that the only thing to do was put one foot in front of the other. I kept walking. For how long, I could not tell. I could not see the fog of my own breath.

      Eventually, a speck of silver light reached my eyes far ahead, and I headed towards it, as we do so naturally when in the dark. The light grew, painstakingly slowly and dim at first, then vast and clear, chasing off the shadows. I reached for it. Cora's hand caught mine and pulled me out.

      She held me, stunned. Her cyan eyes scanned me rapidly from head to toe. Then, she pulled her hands off me and quickly stepped away, wrapping her arms around herself as though to leave me more space. She seemed afraid of looking at me. I went and hugged her. She was so cold.

      "You okay, Cora?"

      She started. "Am I-?" Then she let out a nervous laugh, and crumpled against me. She shivered, hard, realising how cold she'd been.

      I managed to bring her home - she kept insisting on supporting me, and we toppled over each other.

      "I'm sorry I was almost too late," she said, bundled in my blankets. "You were amazing, hanging in there for so long. I should never have let you see anything - now can be seen too..."

      "It's all good, Cora, really. Thanks for coming back for me. You're welcome any time," I mumbled.

      She gave me a sniff and a wobbly smile, twinkling with otherworldly starlight between tear-soaked tissues, and I hugged her again.

      In the morning, I woke up neatly tucked inside the blankets. A note on my bedside table read, "Thank you so much for remembering me as I was."

      I was still not alone. Whenever I needed a friend, all I had to do was look up.

      The End.

 
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