Chapter Eight
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     During school, I didn't finish any classwork. I tried not to fall asleep, but I at least rested my head in my arms for as long as I could. Ever since my all nighter at Mildred’s Castle, I'd been sleeping during the day. I wasn't usually sleep deprived, but for some reason it felt incredibly nostalgic. 

     Towards the end of my lunch break, Lily approached me. "Iris?" she said, poking me on the shoulder. I probably looked pretty out of it to her. "I was wondering if you were going to celebrate Pride Night?”

     I lifted my head and yawned. “Pride Night? Is that a holiday or something?”

     “Oh, right. Well, allow me to give you a history lesson young lady.” Lily cleared her throat. “Back in… uhhh, 1766 was it? The Crimson family took leadership of Oculus. So it's partially to celebrate that, but also to celebrate the legend of the Blood Knight.”

     I tilted my head. “That’s a creepy name… so who's the Blood Knight?”

     “Pride,” Lily said. “As in the god of red. We also use Pride Night to honor the dead and ahem… get lots of candy from strangers and wear cute costumes.”

     I became disappointed. “Is that the real reason you celebrate it?”

     Lily awkwardly laughed and scratched the back of her head. “Well, you know… it was also an excuse to hang out with uh… Carmen.” Lily’s facial expression became serious. “You know, we used to spend it with her and her sisters.”

     I clenched my hand into a fist and looked down. “I don't know.” I shook my head. “I don't have anyone to celebrate with.”

     Lily smiled like she had something planned. “Oh well.” She shrugged. “Hey, wanna join me and Ilya after school? We're going to Sunrise Café. It's a cute little place not too far from school.”

     I thought to myself for a moment, wondering why she even wanted to talk to me. “Alright,” I said. “If Ilya is okay with it.”

     "Don't worry about her." Lily waved her hand as if to dismiss my worries. "She was the one who wanted you to come, anyway.”

     My eyes widened. “Um… you guys aren't planning on beating me up, are you?”

     Lily broke into laughter. “What? No, don't be silly. Ilya has noodle arms.”

     “Nice deflection,” I sighed. “Well, I'll see you after school then. I'll be by the front gate.”

     With that, Lily and I went on with our days. Each class became more of a chore to get through, as I grew closer and closer to falling asleep. Eventually, the school day came to an end and I was yawning by the school gate. Lily spotted me, jogging up to me with Ilya in tow. 

     During the walk to the café, I didn't join in on their conversation. I was kind of just tagging along. Even though I felt distant and awkward, it was still comforting to walk alongside someone else.

     Upon entering the cafe, we sat at a table, and it was only then that I realized I didn't have much money. All I had was the money Dawn provided to me for lunch. Either way, I probably wouldn't order more than a drink.

     In the midst of one of their conversations, Lily suddenly pinched Ilya on the cheek. "What was that for?" Ilya said, leaning away. 

     "Go on, apologize," Lily said.

     Ilya looked away from her guiltily. "If this is about ruining your notes for the test, I already apologized.”

     "Not to me, to her," Lily replied.

     Ilya turned to me, putting me on the spot. Her expression said that she didn't want to apologize. "Sorry for yelling at you… I guess," she said. Lily didn't seem convinced. "Back during the field trip, I mean."

     "It's fine," I said, looking away. "I kind of forgot that happened anyway."

     "I'm not patient with people, so I can be a bit of an ass.”

     I nodded, not having much else to say. Lily looked pleased. "There you go, no more hard feelings.” She patted Ilya on the back condescendingly.

     I didn't have any hard feelings towards her to begin with, but it looked like she felt bad about what happened anyway. Perhaps she even assumed she was the whole reason I was acting so down in the dumps to begin with. I would've preferred that to be the case, but the truth was much less trivial.

     The conversation ended once a waitress arrived at our table, who I recognized immediately. "Looks like you've made some new friends, huh?" Dawn said.

     My eyes widened. “You work here? Since when?”

     "You two know each other?" Lily asked.

     "I'm Iris' roommate, I guess you could say," Dawn explained. "Now, what will you be ordering?"

     Lily looked back down at her menu, still being indecisive. She clearly had her eyes glued to the dessert options.

     "I think I'll just have a pumpkin spice latte," Ilya decided.

     "Same for me, I guess, though it's a little weird that I'm paying you with your own money," I said, looking through my wallet.

     "I'll have… Everything here!" Lily pointed at every single dessert option on the menu, doing her best not to drool all over it.

     Ilya quickly butted in. "No you will not! Just get the cheesecake like you always do."

     "But I'll get fat if I eat too much of it, so I need to change things up!" Lily argued.

     "I don't think you quite understand what you're saying…" Ilya placed her hand on her forehead, then looked back at Dawn. "She'll have the cheesecake."

     Lily pouted. I couldn't help but smile even if it pained me. I was glad that I decided to join them, even if I could've spent my time sleeping in the same dark room again. Something about spending time with other students after school felt good. Dawn took our menus from us and left to get back to business.

     "So, Iris," Lily began. "Do you want to make this a regular thing? You know, hanging out after school, but we might not always hang out here."

     I recoiled in my seat, unsure of what she was offering. "Hang out? You mean like what friends do?"

     Ilya sighed. "What else? We need someone to replace Carmen, after all, so you're our candidate."

     "Don't say it like that!" Lily whacked her on the head. "Believe it or not, Ilya here doesn't have any friends, so I'm hoping you'll make her life a little less pointless." Ilya grumbled at her insult.

     I looked at the two of them one at a time. "Are you sure? I'm not really cool or anything."

     "You'll fit in with us then," Lily reassured me.

     I contemplated my options for a second, more out of nervousness than anything else. "If it's okay, then… I'd like to hang out again."

     "Sweet! Get ready then, because you'll fall victim to all of my shenanigans," Lily said as she fist pumped the air.

     Dawn also arrived with an equally sweet cheesecake, as well as our beverages, before walking away again. Normally seeing her walk away would make me feel lonely, but suddenly I didn't feel too bad. My appetite returned to me, and for a brief moment, despair's appetite went away.

     “Oh also, about Pride Night,” Lily began. “Would you want to celebrate it with us? We’ll probably just hang out at Crimson Manor.”

     “Crimson Manor?” I gulped. “This sounds like some high society stuff…”

     Lily waved her hand. “Not really. Anyone can attend the party at the manor. It's just an annual gathering thing.”

     I rubbed my arm. “I guess I could go, if that's fine with you two.”

     Lily gave a thumbs up. “Right! You'll need a costume then.”

     I put my hand to my chin, thinking. “Huh… that's oddly nostalgic. Maybe I did celebrate it a little bit as a kid.”

     “So what are you gonna dress up as?” Lily said.

     I scratched the back of my head. “I’m not sure. I guess you'll have to wait and see.”

     That night, I had Dawn go with me to the costume store to pick something out. Surprisingly, the kid's section had a lot to choose from. I ended up going with a witch costume because it was the closest thing to a wizard. It came with a black pointy hat and a cute dress. I ended up getting a little wand to go with it, hoping that maybe it would give me magical powers. It didn't.

     After an extremely long sleep and an uneventful day, it was finally time for Pride Night. As Dawn was away, Lily and Ilya came to pick me up in a fancy black car. I'd almost forgotten their parents were loaded. As I got in, I took notice of their costumes. Lily was dressed as… well, aside from the obvious cat ears and tail, a succubus. Perhaps I'd been wrong all along and Ilya wasn't the temptress I should fear.

     I sighed. “Do you know how cold it is tonight? Why are you wearing something so… revealing…”

     Lily gave a smug look. “So you're the prudish type, huh? Pride Night is all about the sexy costumes, you know!”

     I rolled my eyes. Ilya on the other hand was covering much more skin, wearing black robes with a skirt. It had red accents and some small green details. She also had a single rose in her hair.

     “So… what are you supposed to be?” I asked her.

     She made a frustrated face, as if this wasn't the first time she was asked. “Have neither of you read Diligent Vanity? Honestly, pick up a book!” She exhaled.

     I tilted my head. “Is it good?”

     “The book? Yeah, one of my favorites. I'm dressed as the main character.”

     “Huh, I might give it a read then,” I said. Reading was one of the activities I'd grown to enjoy during my recovery.

     “Really? I could lend you my copy if you want-”

     “Nerds!” Lily interrupted. “Isn't that book written by a scumbag anyway?”

     Ilya sighed. “Separate the art from the artist. Anyway, I'll try to remember to give you my copy, Iris.”

     “Okay,” I said, gazing out the window and watching various cars go by. 

     The subject quickly changed as Lily started to make plans about stealing candy from children, which Ilya was surprisingly okay with. Come to think of it…

     “Oh my gods! I have an idea,” Lily shouted. “Why don't we get Iris to get candy for us? She's practically a baby!”

     I sighed, shaking my head. They kept on talking about silly things, which helped to keep my mind off things. As we arrived at Crimson Manor, I felt my heartbeat spike. For some reason I was nervous, going to the household of the Crimson family.

     The manor itself was massive, easily ten times the size of the Roseate Manor. In fact, in terms of livable space, it was bigger than Mildred’s Castle. Though, that was to be expected of the Crimson family. As we stepped out of the car and entered through the front gate, I noticed most of the party was being held in the front courtyard. To the right of the path, children were running around with their parents wearing masks. To the left appeared to be where all the alcohol was, hence the lack of children on that side.

     “If only I could have a taste,” Lily whined.

     I looked back at her. “Where are we going and uh… what are we doing?”

     Ilya started to lead the way. “We were thinking of meeting up with Christina and Lucy while we're here.” She made her way towards the front doors of the manor.

     “Are they more of your friends?” I said.

     Ilya tilted her head in thought. “Well… not exactly. They're Carmen’s sisters, so somewhere in-between friends and acquaintances.”

     As we made it to the front entrance, we were stopped by security. Ilya explained who she was and that she was of a high class family. Same with Lily. I got in as a guest. This was the high society gathering I was somewhat dreading. A large number of adults and their children either dressed in costumes or fancy dresses and suits, all standing around and chatting in groups. Although, none of them were dressed as… uniquely as Lily.

     I slouched over and hid behind Ilya. “So uh… where are they then?”

     Ilya looked around for a moment, before spotting the two girls and going up to them. Lily and I followed. Both had striking red hair, with piercing blue eyes.

     “Hey, Ilya,” the girl with her hair down said. She was also dressed in rather unusual attire. A hoodie and some jeans. She quickly looked Lily up and down. “Wow, and I thought I stood out.” She smirked.

     “Well aren't we all just a bunch of misfits?” the girl wearing her hair in a ponytail said. She wore a suit rather than a dress and was slightly shorter than the other girl. “And who's this? Your little sister?” She leaned in front of me and smiled. “What grade are you in?”

     Ilya burst out laughing, slapping me on the back. “This is Iris, my classmate. Iris, meet Christina and Lucy.” As she introduced them, she pointed to the hoodie wearing girl as Christina and the suit wearing girl as Lucy.

     I stood there bewildered with eyes wide, taking extreme offense. “N-Nice to meet you…” I rubbed my arm.

     “Oh, my bad. Don't worry, my mom is just as small as you so I get the struggle,” Lucy said.

     “Your mom… that would be Cecilia Crimson?” I remembered vaguely from current politics. 

     Lucy nodded. “Intimidating, right?” She correctly guessed my feelings, before huffing. “I guess I'm next in line even though I'm the youngest.” She looked off to the side, away from Christina.

     The conversation went quiet before Lily spoke. “So! How's your business going, Lucy?”

     Lucy put up two fingers. “Businesses!”

     “Already?” Ilya sighed. “You've really taken off.”

     As Lucy went on about her career paths, I noticed Christina was looking off to the side and not taking part in the conversation. I waddled next to her and tugged on her sleeve before she took notice of me.

     “So… how are you enjoying Pride Night?” I started.

     Christina shrugged and smirked. “I'd rather be spending it somewhere else, but you know how it is.”

     I nodded, looking at the ground. “Were you close to Carmen?” Immediately after saying that, I felt as if I had crossed the line.

     Christina’s eyes widened momentarily, before smiling again. “That's certainly a question. I guess I was. She let me be me after all.”

     I tilted my head. “What does that mean?” I gave up on being polite now that she didn't seem to mind.

     “I'm the oldest you know, but running the country isn’t really up my alley,” she said. “Of course, Carmen was the one born with red eyes. That took me out of the running.”

     I clenched my fists tight, feeling insurmountable guilt. “And now that she's dead…” I held back the urge to shed any tears. 

     As I glanced up at Christina, her eyes were wide. I'd wondered if it was something I said. I was for sure being rude, but that wasn't why she was in shock.

     “Dead?” She stared at me with sorrow in her eyes, mixed with confusion. “You mean missing?”

     My heart dropped. I'd forgotten no one else knew. No one knew about what happened that night. “Ah! I mean- missing… yeah.” I nodded vigorously.

     Christina stared at me with a raised eyebrow, until someone called out her name. “Christina Crimson!” a lady in a red dress yelled from the stairwell. “What on Vega are you wearing!”

     “Shit… gotta go,” Christina said before running off and disappearing into the crowds.

     “Christina! Get back here now!” She quickly walked up to us, glaring at Lucy with daggers for eyes.

     Lucy put her hands up defensively. “Don't look at me, I'm well dressed.”

     The woman clicked her tongue. “In a suit? Just because you're successful doesn't mean you can go around doing what you want!”

     Quite a few people were staring now, some laughing and others continuing to talk. I once again went to hide behind Ilya. “Who is that?” I whispered.

     “Carla Crimson, Lucy and Christina’s aunt,” Ilya explained.

     Lucy put on a smug face and put a hand on her own chest. “I most certainly can! Just look at me defy your expectations. I'm doing it now!” She laughed defiantly.

     Carla groaned and held the skirt of her dress as she walked off in the direction Christina went. I breathed a sigh of relief now that that was over.

     Lily exhaled deeply. “Thank the gods… she let me off the hook.”

     Lucy laughed, putting a hand on her head. “Well, I better go now. I have a meeting.” She walked out the front entrance, waving with her back to us.

     For the remainder of Pride Night, the three of us played some carnival games that were set up, got some face paint and ate lots of food. In the moment it actually felt like I had friends. As Ilya and Lily dropped me off at Dawn’s apartment, I waved goodbye, feeling warmth in my chest. Despair might've been gone for good.

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