|"Frontier's whatever you want it to be."|
Okay, I'll admit slamming the door in their faces was a bit of an overreaction.
“.” I make the words come out calm and easy, but I can feel my palms go sweaty in the oven mitts I'm still wearing. Can’t forget about dinner. I keep my white-knuckle grip on the front door handle. Lulu stops her absent-minded twirl in the hallway, coming up to stand next to me. I take one more breath in and out before turning towards her. “Do you know why teammates are standing on the porch?”
“Yep,” she says, nodding her head. She draws herself up a little taller, “You said, ‘This is a man-da-tory Star Guardian council meeting.’”
Just my luck. I instinctively release the door handle, as I hear Lulu do an extra bubbly—but very stern— impression enunciating each of those syllables.
I definitely said that.
Who still isn’t here yet.
Lulu makes for the handle, the smile on her face positively beaming. “They’re Star Guardians, right?”
I nod dumbly.
“Super,” she says as she opens the door wide.
The three of them are still standing on the porch where I left them, although in decidedly different positions. looks like he was mid-sentence trying to calm down a much more annoyed .
No, not ‘Sarah’, I remind myself. Sarah’s for friends. I learned that all too well from last summer's outdoor adventure.
Miss Fortune's usual smirk is now an angry grimace as she furiously texts something on her phone. Behind her, the quiet girl with mint green hair——is carrying a bakery box from Pastries. They look at me intently, probably wondering if I'm going to slam the door again. I can actually hear crickets in the bushes.
Lulu reaches out into the uncomfortable silence and takes Ezreal and Fortune by the wrists, pulling them inside. Fortune's so surprised, she goes along with it, nearly dropping her phone. I can feel the pink climb up my cheeks as Ezreal flashes his trademark grin in my direction as he passes by. I wave meekly with one oven mitt.
Soraka leans in close and whispers “Cinnamon rolls” in my ear, like a spy password. She smiles, hands the heavy bakery box to me, and walks quickly to catch up with the others.“Welcome,” I hear Lulu announce from the living room, “to our Star Guardian sleepover party!”
This is awkward.
I can hear the second hand of the clock in the kitchen tick off another minute that we’ve been uncomfortably quiet. Ezreal is wedged on the small couch between Fortune—still texting on her phone—and Soraka, who's quietly watching Lulu while nibbling on a cinnamon roll. Janna and Poppy are sitting on the stiff dining chairs Lulu dragged in from the other room. Lulu is bent over the coffee table, folding a piece of paper into some complicated shape. I have no idea what she's making, but her soft humming is the only other sound besides the clock.
And me, well, I'm pacing a well-worn path in the carpet.
The first to break the silence is Fortune. She stops texting, lets out a disgusted sigh, and finally puts her phone face down on her lap, the small pistol charms on the end jingling loudly. She looks around, taking in everything in the room from the faded pattern on the curtains to the beige-colored couch for the first time. Her disappointment is evident. As she sinks back into the cushion behind her, Ez leans forward.
“You all do this regularly?” he says. “Get together like this?”
and stare at him. Poppy still doesn't understand why Ez was chosen as a Guardian. I keep telling her the First Star chooses each of us for a reason. She crosses her arms and watches him, clearly still not convinced.
“Yes, doesn’t your team?” Janna asks. She's calm, at least on the outside, but there's a slight breeze circling the room even though the ceiling fan isn't on. I can tell she's just as on edge about them being here as I am.
“Ahri…” Ez starts and then looks at Fortune. Fortune rolls her eyes, her perfectly feathered bangs rippling as she shakes her head. “Well,” Ez continues. “Ahri prefers to be out and about where there are people. She’s not much of a homebody herself, and she figures most trouble wouldn’t be either.”
Great. They think we’re homebodies. Could this get any worse?
“Is that why she and didn’t come? They have something better to do?” Poppy asks, her foot tapping out an impatient rhythm against the foot of her chair. Janna stiffens at the mention of Syndra.
Soraka jumps in and tries to change the subject. “Your friend, the one with the long red pigtails—”
“The loud one,” Fortune interrupts. “The one with a rocket launcher.”
“Yes, the one with the glitter bombs,” Soraka finishes. “Is she coming tonight?”
“Jinx? She’s always fashionably late.” I look at my watch. ”She just loves to make an entrance.” The words are barely out of my mouth when the front door opens and slams loudly. I hear the familiar sound of a tote bag full of Shiro, Kuro, and a handful of fireworks hitting the ground in the hallway.
“Luxy-Poo! Windchimes! Shortstop!” Jinx calls out in a sing-song voice. “I’m home!”
Jinx saunters into the living room just as Lulu triumphantly finishes the last fold in her project. Jinx lowers her sunglasses to the end of her nose. It's dark outside. It has been dark outside for more than an hour. “Looks like you got the party started without me.” Jinx smiles, obviously enjoying all eyes on her, until her gaze finds Ez stuffed in the middle of the couch.
“Oh, he’s here too,” she says, the enthusiasm sucked out of her like a fast-leaking balloon. She tugs on the bow in Lulu's hair and focuses on what looks like an oversized paper pincher in the young Guardian's hands. “Whatcha got there, Loops?”
Lulu takes her hands out of the folds of paper and hugs Jinx around the waist. “I need another number.”
I stop my pacing to take a better look at the star-shaped object Lulu's made. It's a paper fortune teller. I haven't seen one since primary school. The numbers on the flap show how many times the fortune teller should open and close it, with the last number chosen revealing some kind of mysterious destiny. My fortunes always ended in doom. Maybe because I always played with Jinx.
“Four,” I say. Maybe Lulu's paper project can be over quickly.
“Twelve,” Jinx says.
“Two hundred forty-six,” Fortune says. Her satisfied smirk is back.
“Two hundred and forty-six it is.” Lulu smiles at Fortune and grabs a pen off the coffee table, scribbling the number onto one of the flaps. Lulu sits down at Soraka's feet, offering up the paper oracle, encouraging her to pick a number to start the game.
“Do you braid each other’s hair too?” Fortune asks watching Lulu and Soraka, her words dripping with sarcasm.
“No—” I begin.
“Sometimes,” Poppy says at the same time, rushing to defend the unaware Lulu. Janna nods enthusiastically.
Ugh. Can neither of them play it cool?
“What I mean is, no, not all the time. We don’t braid each other’s hair all the time,” I stammer. “I mean, we discuss team stuff. Important Star Guardian matters.” I cough. “You know, saving the universe.”
“And braid each other’s hair,” Poppy adds truthfully.
Fortune rolls her eyes and goes back to her phone.
“How about we skip the usual slumber party stuff and talk serious Star Guardian matters?” I offer.
“Bor-ing,” Jinx says. She eyes Lulu as she slowly opens and closes the paper fortune teller for Soraka. “How about we play a faster game with more consequences?” I hear the trigger click of Shiro and Kuro waking up.
Ezreal claps his hands and rubs them together excitedly. “Sounds dangerous, I’m in.”
“Great. Let’s start.” Jinx smiles, but then quickly turns on Ez. “Truth. Or. Dare. Is it true that you have romantic intentions towards our Luxanna?”
“Jinx!” I shout.
Ez opens his mouth like a beached fish, definitely not having prepared for this particular game.
“Truth,” Janna says loudly, diffusing the rising energy in the room as if blowing out a candle. All heads snap towards her.
“Ez has to answer,” Jinx says watching the color rise in Ez's face.
“First person to volunteer goes first,” Poppy says. “That’s the rule.”
“Fine,” Jinx says, obviously dissatisfied. “Is it true that you are older than Poppy’s hammer?”
I watch Janna's look from Jinx to Poppy. Jinx is thrilled to see Janna momentarily flustered, while Poppy absently touches the handle of the hammer where she's set it against her chair. Janna's gaze settles on Soraka for a moment and then moves on. “False.”
Poppy eyes her hammer with a newfound awe and respect.
“Really?” Jinx raises an eyebrow. “But, it’s true that Short Stack’s hammer has more personality, right?”
“You can’t ask her another question, Jinx.” Poppy points out. “It’s Janna’s turn to ask a question. That’s the rule. Janna, go on, who are you going to pick?”
“Soraka,” Janna says gently. “Truth or Dare?”
Soraka is halfway through a cinnamon roll, staring attentively at Lulu opening and closing the paper fortune teller while counting under her breath. Shisa sits on Soraka's shoulder monitoring the whole operation with a focused frown, at once completely confused at what Lulu is doing, but intent on making sure it happens with the utmost efficiency. Without missing a number—and to Shisa's satisfied approval—Lulu nudges her elbow into Soraka's knee, letting her know she's been tapped into the group game.
“Yes,” Soraka smiles, a bit absent-minded. “That’s me.”
“Truth or dare?” Poppy repeats, taking her self-appointed position of game referee very seriously.
“Uh, truth,” Soraka says.
Janna thinks for a minute. “What do you remember—”
“Well,” Soraka jumps in, excited to be included in the game. “Ezreal and I went to Pantheon’s earlier. I had a cinnamon roll. He had an iced coffee, no milk because his tummy doesn’t like dairy—”
Poppy clucks her tongue. “Janna, it has to be an ‘Is it true’ question.”
Soraka sits up straight on the couch, tucking her legs beneath her, and waits. Zephyr floats in from the dining room and curls up in Janna’s lap. Janna rests a hand on her companion, a slight breeze rustling its fur.
“Soraka.” Janna's voice is low and calm, barely above a whisper. “Is it true you can remember a time when the First Light was whole?”
“Oh, yes.” Soraka nods with her whole body. “I mean, true.”
The room goes eerily silent. She looks around. All of us are staring at her. Jinx can't remember what she had for lunch today. Even Poppy and Lulu can only say what it was like when they were called. I’ve asked Janna about the First Light and especially its guidance, but the memories, even for her, are murky and broken.
“Wait, you all can’t remember?” Soraka's voice wavers a bit. “But—”
“You have to pick one person to ask a question, Soraka,” Poppy says cutting her off with the rules of the game. “And they have to pick truth, and—”
“We get it, Smalls,” Jinx jumps in, changing the subject before Janna or I can ask more questions about Soraka's memories. I'll have to find a quiet moment later to talk to her.
“My turn to pick. Okay, mmm…” Soraka bites her bottom lip and then turns in her seat to face Ezreal. “Ez. I pick Ez!”
“No fair. I wanted to pick Ez,” Jinx pouts.
Poppy shakes her head. “You already went.”
“Ladies, please. There’s enough adventure to go around.” Ez tucks both hands behind his head and settles back on the couch. Fortune pulls out one the small throw pillows from behind her, fluffs it, and slams it back into the sofa and Ezreal, conveniently knocking the literal wind out his gallant sails in the process. I stifle a giggle into one of the oven mitts I'm still wearing.
Ez blushes and tries to recover his normal breathing gracefully.
“Dare,” he chokes on the words. “I choose dare.”
“I… dare… you…” Soraka pauses between each word, watching Poppy to make sure she's getting it right. Poppy nods. Ez waits expectantly. “I dare you to do that thing you do,” she says finally.
Ez shrugs, totally not following whatever Soraka is talking about.
“You know, that thing you do. With Yuuto,” Soraka continues, clapping excitedly for him. “And the portal thing.”
“Oh, yeah. Cool. I can totally do that.” Ez reaches into his backpack and taps on the bright blue of his Guardian emblem. “Hey, bud—wake up. It’s showtime.”
“Portals? Portals sound dangerous.” Poppy asks as a white-winged familiar pounces into the room. It leaps into the air, wings spread, its bright blue eyes the same color as Ezreal's.
“Portals are dangerous. Very dangerous. But lucky for you, you’ve got me. And this isn’t quite a portal. Technically it’s a shortcut through another dimension.” Ez flashes a lopsided grin at Poppy and starts looking around the room, eyeing a black ceramic bookend and a small potted plant. “Alright, Soraka, do you think that bookend is good enough for a demonstration of a little arcane magic?”
Soraka shakes her head, wrinkling her nose. Between Yuuto's chirping loops, I can hear Lulu deep in concentration.
“Two hundred and forty-four. Two hundred and forty-five,” she counts. “Two hundred and forty-six!” she announces triumphantly. “It’s done, Soraka.” Lulu waves the paper oracle around in her hand.
“The fortune maker!” Soraka lets out a giggle. “I almost forgot.”
“Fortune maker it is!” Ez says, “Yuuto, let’s go. Time for a true display of skill.”
Yuuto arcs in the air, turning towards Ez. It looks like Yuuto is going to crash right into Ez, but at the last minute, Ez and Yuuto combine, granting Ez a brilliant set of white feathered wings that fill the room. Less than a second later, Ez disappears through a wavering portal to reappear hovering over Lulu. He plucks the paper fortune maker out of her hands.
“Just going to borrow this for a second,” he says and then a moment later he blinks back to the sofa, leaning comfortably back against the couch cushions with no wings and a happily purring Yuuto. He unfolds the flap and reads the fortune aloud. “‘Opportunity can’t knock if you don’t build a door.’ Huh. I like it, Lulu.”
Poppy groans. “She copied that from our takeout cookies last night.”
“That’s not her fortune,” Lulu says. She gestures to the flap to the right. “It’s the next one.”
Ez unfolds the second flap and reads it to the group. “Only in darkness can the light shine brightly.”
“The First Star told me that,” Lulu says.
“The First Star talks to you?” Fortune cocks her head in disbelief. “Still?”
“Yes,” Lulu's face is a serene smile. “Ezreal, when you open a portal like that, where did you say you go?”
“Uh-oh,” Ezreal whispers.
“What’s ‘uh-oh’, champ?” Jinx leans over Ez as he struggles to keep a grip on the folded paper.
“We may need to get rid of this.” Ez gives a weak smile. “Like right now.”
Before anyone can make good on that suggestion, the paper oracle rips itself out of Ez's hands. It tumbles around the room like a possessed autumn leaf. A high-pitched whine begins to grow. It seems like it's coming from the fortune teller itself.
The paper folds and unfolds a dozen times, finally dumping out a small but squat, black and green, glowing creature. Everyone is on their feet.
“Did you just bring an annoying, interdimensional hitchhiking demon into Lux’s living room using your not-a-portal portal power?” says Jinx, watching the unruly little monster jump from the arm of the sofa to the carpet.
“I might have,” Ez whispers. “Arcane magic doesn’t come with an instruction manual.”
“Cool,” Jinx says.
Ez looks at me, mouthing the word Sorry.
“This has only happened once before,” he says.
Fortune elbows Ez in the side.
“Okay,” Ez corrects himself, “This may have happened more than once. Possibly six or seven times, but it’s totally not a big deal.”
The little creature jumps on the coffee table. All I can see is Poppy's hammer rear back and take a wide swing. There's a crack of wood and the coffee table splinters. That is definitely not going back together ever again. The dark shape darts away unscathed.
Janna stands up, her arms lifting in the direction of the creature. A breeze starts to build, shifting the debris of the coffee table and fluttering the pages of one of the books that had been sitting on it just a moment ago.
“I got this, Janna.” Jinx is returning from the hall, Shiro and Kuro nipping at her heels.
“No,” Fortune says. I snap my head around to see one of Fortune's shiny white pistols leveled at my face.
“Woah, Sarah. Not so fast. That’s a little close quarters, don’t you think?” Ez tries to step closer to her to push her guns off their mark. I feel my stomach drop as adrenaline coats my insides. This was her plan all along. My luck’s run out. She is going to end me.
The words barely leave my lips before I hear the pull of a trigger.
“Time to say goodbye,” she says. There's a sharp pop like a balloon. My hands go up to my nose and eyes, quickly checking them out that they're all intact and where they belong. A second later, there is no demon, and fine bits of paper start to rain down on everyone as the fortune teller explodes into confetti. It looks like it is snowing in my living room. Lulu is dancing in it, of course.
“Look, now it’s a party,” she exclaims. Shiro and Kuro tumble each other in the remains of the coffee table, while Shisa looks very disturbed at their delight in wanton destruction.
Unfortunately, my relief at being whole is short-lived. An angry, beeping alarm begins to wail as a smoky haze creeps throughout the house, originating from the kitchen.
“Smells like burning,” Jinx says.Oh, no. Dinner.
The air is thicker in the kitchen. What was dinner for the team is now charred ruins stuck to a metal baking sheet. I cough and wave the oven mitts I'm still wearing, trying to move the smoke haze around. I open the window, letting the cool fall air in. The alarm finally shuts itself off.
My eyes are starting to water. I tell myself it's from the smoke and the mess in the oven, but I'm pretty sure it's from the mess of things going on in the living room.
“Everything’s ruined.” My voice is small and pathetic even to my own ears.
Then I hear a shuffle of footsteps on the tile floor. Janna or Ez must have braved the smoke to offer some comfort. I wipe my eyes quickly, surprised as I turn around.
“Well that’s definitely not edible,” she says.
I nod my head in agreement. “Definitely not.”
Fortune's phone vibrates with a text message. Ahri, I’m sure, telling her what all the cool kids are doing.
“This is probably not the way you wanted to spend your Friday night,” I offer.
I pick at the burned bits of what was dinner on the aluminum foil. “Sorry Lulu dragged you into all this. Dinner’s ruined. The party’s ruined. I totally understand if you want to go. We’ll figure things out by ourselves.”
Ugh. Too many words. Why can I not stop talking around her? I take a deep breath and try to start more clearly.
“Sarah,” she interrupts. “You can call me Sarah.”
“I thought Sarah was for friends,” I say.
Fortune's phone vibrates again. Instead of looking at it, she puts it in her back pocket. “I came in here to apologize. You looked pretty freaked out back there.”
“Have you ever been on the other side of one of your pistols?”
“No, I guess not,” she chuckles. Her voice takes a serious turn. “You need to understand I would never hurt another Guardian. Not ever.”
I nod. There's something more behind her declaration, a pain she hasn't quite put away.
“I know Ez kinda made a mess of things, he does that sometimes, but would you mind if we stayed? Soraka would be fine if dinner was nothing but cinnamon rolls, but Ez ordered some pizzas to say sorry for the little portal mishap. But I totally get it if you want us to go—”
I hold up an oven mitt-clad hand. It's Sarah who seems to have too many words now.
“Wait, you want to stay?”
Sarah opens her mouth, but is interrupted by an ecstatic Lulu skipping into the kitchen, a bouquet of pastel fabric and ribbons spilling out onto the floor around her. She shoves an armful of trimmed white flannel into both Sarah and my hands.
“These are for you,” she chirps before skipping back out of the kitchen.
“Lulu, dear,” I call after her. “What are these?”
Sarah holds hers up by its shoulders, inspecting Lulu's handiwork.
“You’re right,” she says, smiling. “This is not how I usually spend my Friday nights, but I think this whole pajama party thing might actually be a little fun.”
“Really?”“Well, yeah.” Her grin takes on a particularly mischievous bend. “And, I’ve always wanted to see what Ezreal looks like with braided hair.”