once upon a time

once upon a time, there was a little girl and a little boy.

'let's play house,' he said one afternoon. 'one day you're going to get married and you'll need to know how to cook and clean and take care of your husband. it'll be good for you.'

that was when they had their first argument.

but they did. and at night he came home and he looked so exhausted that her irritation melted away and she kissed his temple because after all, he was still her play-husband. to cheer him up, she told him a story about a princess to be saved and a witch to be defeated and a kingdom to be ruled.

'let's play save the princess,' he said the next morning. 'we can't just leave her in the tower with an evil witch. that's heartless.'

'well, maybe i don't have a heart,' she snapped. 'and maybe you should go find a pretty princess to play with.'

'who said i need one?' he asked with some surprise. 'i've already got my princess.' he put his arm around her.

she flushed.

'i guess that's okay, then.'

and they did. he saved her time and time again, not only from a witch, but from a dragon and an ogre and the things that went bump in the night. after that she always felt that he'd made a fine prince, and wondered when he'd get the chance to show a real princess. not a make-believe princess like her, with her tangled braids and smudged face. a real princess. and if the thought made her heart twinge a little, she didn't notice. that was how they were. always friends—best friends.

but it was different when the princess came.

it was different when her stomach was in knots and her fingers twisted her cardboard crown to bits as her prince and his princess spoke of love and other things, the princess straightening her gleaming circlet. and the princess wasn't just a princess—she was a queen, with shining hair and radiant eyes and the voice of a nightingale. and the prince loved her. his queen made him happier than he'd ever been. so the little girl kept her silence as the dusty autumn leaves crinkled underneath her shoes and she saw less and less of the little boy. they barely knew each other anymore. and then one day, the flighty queen ran away with the prince's knight. and the little girl smoothed the little boy's hair as he returned, alone and bereft of his queen.

'it's okay,' she said, really meaning it. 'you'll always have me, i swear. best friends, forever. i promise.'

but in the end, it's not enough for her.

'let's play pretend that we're lovers,' she says one day, when they are older, when she is aware of what exactly it is he means to her. 'you need to learn how to romance a girl. i can help you with that.'

he looks at her, oh-so-innocently. 'all right.'

and so they do. they hold hands in the streets and kiss tiny, fluttering little kisses that barely leave their mouths. and everyone around them smiles and says they knew it all along, and why did it take so long?

'how am i doing?' he asks, eyes wide.

she always gives him the shy, quick smile she has reserved only for him. 'am i complaining?'

and in time, the line between fiction and fact becomes so blurred that even they can't tell the difference. they can't tell anymore whether they really are lovers, or friends, or both. and when he touches his lips to her fingers and their eyes meet, she doesn't know what it means when his gaze lingers a fraction of a second longer than usual.

'love,' she says, head resting on his chest, 'what are we?'

'we're just us,' he says, stroking her hair. 'just us, forever.'

'oh,' she says. 'of course.'

his smile quirks up the corners of his mouth. 'i don't need a label to know that i love you.'

'me either,' she says, but inside her mind is still whirling because she still doesn't know what he means. love as in friendship? love as in family? or what she wants most—love, as in love?

'hey.'

she looks at him.

'don't ever leave me, okay?'

she wiggles up so that her head is exactly next to his. 'never,' she says, and kisses the corner of his mouth.

'hey,' he says again.

she traces her finger along his jawline affectionately. 'yes?'

'i love you,' he says again, watching her.

'i know,' she says, turning and snuggling her back into his side so he won't see the tears in her eyes. 'i love you, too.'

he sighs and kisses her hair. and she does not see the regret pass through his eyes.

'let's play house,' he says suddenly, one evening. 'husband and wife, like we used to.'

'i'm sick of playing,' she says, turning away from him. 'playtime always ends, somehow. you and i aren't something that's supposed to end.'

'and we're not going to end,' he says firmly, catching her hand.

she sighs. 'everything ends.'

and somehow he knows this is true.

of course, things can't go on like this.

it happens in the evening, when the world around them has gone to bed.

'what are we?' she asks again, her fingers tracing patterns against the starry sky.

and once again he answers, 'just us.'

she sits up. 'no, really. i really—i really don't know anymore.'

he looks at her. 'we're just us,' he repeats. 'nothing more and nothing less. best friends, remember?' he pushes her playfully.

'i know,' she says dully, and she really does. it's not his fault he can't love her. it's her fault that she does. and suddenly, it seems like it isn't worth going on anymore.

she turns and presses a kiss to his lips—a kiss filled with all the love, hope, and pain she has felt for what feels like an eternity. for the first time, the kiss deepens—and salt mingles with the taste of his mouth.

he breaks away, confused. 'what—'

and she runs away. because once and for all, she knows now that she can never go back. nothing will ever be the same again. no matter what.

the boy doesn't follow.

and once again, the little girl is reminded that everything has to end someday.

happily ever after

one day, when the little girl is not so little anymore, the boy finds her.

'hello,' he says, eyes uncertain and smile hopeful.

the girl stares at him. it still hurts, vaguely, in the back of her mind.

'hello,' she finally says.

'i miss you,' he blurts suddenly. 'and i'm sorry. come back, please come back.'

'i don't love you anymore,' the girl says firmly, biting her lip and feeling the iron taste in her mouth, and she really does believe herself when she says it. 'probably i never did.'

'we could pretend, like before,' the boy suggests.

'no.' she shakes her head. 'that never works. we can't go back to what it was.'

he watches her closely. 'what were we, exactly?'

she closes her eyes. it is too hard to meet his gaze. 'we were best friends. two children who made believe.'

'well, maybe,' he says, his voice as gentle as a summer breeze, 'we could be more, this time.'

the girl opens her eyes. 'what?'

and he kisses her.

it is an eternity later when he finally says it. 'i love you.'

it takes her a little while longer to admit it, but the boy manages to get an 'i love you, too' out of her before they are so deliriously happy that they can't see straight.

'i'm sorry,' the boy says later. 'i did everything wrong, didn't i?'

'you did,' smiles the girl. 'but i forgive you.'

'now,' he says, 'don't ever leave me again. okay?'

'i'll try,' she says. 'but—'

'no buts. we don't end,' interrupts the boy, holding her close, 'not ever. remember?'

she sighs, and gives up. 'fine,' says the little girl. 'we don't end.'

and even though she doesn't know what the future will bring, or where their lives will take them, she almost believes him.

-

2.08.06/10.01.07.

a little bit of explanation for this one--first, i have no clue where it came from. it's an odd little fairy tale, that's all i can say. second, when i originally wrote it, there was no happily ever after. if i remember correctly, it was right about at that point in my writing when i got rejected by the crush of the year, so i obviously wasn't feeling the happy ending at the time. however, i pulled it out recently and felt that i couldn't just leave her there, so i finished it. yay.