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Ex-Best Valentines


by vlogical

--------

When Parlax blew up (everyone says "disappeared" or "went missing"; Gorix says "blew up") in the explosion of Sloth's ship, he left a lot behind. Mass destruction, a trail of lies, unfathomable treachery; what Xarthab and Zorlix are most concerned with are his lockers.

      "The address he wrote down on both his resumes was real," Xarthab says, voice buzzing over the Virtupets Brand Interplanetary CommPhone. "But all we found in his apartment was a cot and six boxes of Asteroid Crunch."

      Parlax always loved Asteroid Crunch Cereal, even when they were kids. He ate it dry. That should've been Gorix's first clue that there was something wrong with him.

      Gorix cringes at Xarthab's hacking cough, like nails on a chalkboard through the CommPhone static. "He had a locker at both the mines, though," Xarthab says when he catches his breath. "We pried 'em open and they're full of stuff."

      "Personally," Zorlix chimes in--Gorix actually hadn't known he was there; they must be on speaker. "I wanted to burn it all in a public bonfire. Improve moral, you know? 'Immolate the spy! Immolate the spy!'"

      Xarthab coughs again, this time with more ahem.

      "But, uh," Zorlix says. "My brother and I talked it over--we're talking all the time now, it's, uh, great--And anyway, we decided, uh..."

      A moment of silence. Gorix spins around in his spinny chair, frowning.

      "Well, you knew him, didn't you?" Xarthab finally blurts out. "We figure we owe you a favor. For the, you know, telling us Parlax was playing us both for fools. Do you want his stuff or no?"

      Something you might not know about Gorix: he wasn't always this famous intergalactic hero guy. Actually, being famous was probably the worst thing ever to happen to him, career-wise: he was a secret agent for the Virtupets Resistance, and face recognition isn't that great a quality to have in that job. Since the return, and subsequent un-return, of Dr. Sloth and all the unfortunate NeoVision interviews Gorix got caught in with Cylara in the aftermath, his job's been a little different. Commander Valka has him enrolled in all these diplomacy classes. He could eat at Kelp and know what every one of the thirty silverware pieces are for.

      He has A+ manners now.

      You should know this, because now when you read that Gorix told the Esteemed Co-Leaders of Kreludor that they could take a long walk off a short meteor and slingshot themselves to Moltara, you understand that what he would've said before the diplomacy classes would have been much less classy.

      Cylara finds him twenty minutes later, furiously playing Frumball on his handheld.

      Knock, knock.

      "No one's here!"

      Knock knock knock knock!

      Gorix huffs and presses the green "Open Airlock" button on his dashboard.

      The sidedoor whooshes and Cylara steps in, the hum of the Virtupets hangar entering behind her. "You always hide in your space cruiser when you're angry," she says. "I think the whole station knows that. My mother knows that. Why do you still do it?"

      "I'm not hiding." Gorix slouches further into his pilot's chair and swivels his back to her. "And I'm not angry. Can I play a game of Frumball in the privacy of my own cruiser, or do I have to make a press release for that, too?"

      "You sound angry." Cylara twitches her ear--Gorix thinks this is a Cybunny thing, since both of her parents and Scout do it, too: the "you-are-testing-me" Cybunny ear-twitch. "Xarthab and Zorlix CommPhoned Commander Valka. What did they say that cheesed you off so much, Gorix?"

      Gorix shrugs and slumps and fiddles with his game controller. "Nothing."

      Cylara's ear twitches.

      Gorix tells her. She takes a seat in the co-pilot's chair and grasps one of his hands in both of hers. Her grip is as strong, painful and generally overbearing as her spirit--honestly, Gorix doesn't know why he still hangs out with her.

      She looks him in the eye, empathetically. "Gorix, that's literally a really nice gesture on Xarthab and Zorlix's part. I am completely unable to empathize with you right now. You are being silly."

      Gorix sneers at her. "They're suggesting that I still care about that slimy, no-good turncoat. They're questioning my loyalty, Cylara--" He tries to yank his hand away. "I don't want to be associated with him." He yanks harder. "I hate him--" Gorix yanks. "And his stuff! Let go of me!"

      Cylara smiles at him and tightens her grip; Gorix thinks he hears a crunch. "Gorix, my friend. You are my friend, right? Friend, I know that you know that the relationship between Virtupets Space Station and Kreludor has been rocky for some years now. I know you know that you've been presented with an amazing opportunity to build a diplomatic relationship with the Esteemed Co-Leaders of Kreludor. I know that you know that I know that you know better than to throw this away, like so many Galaxy Energy Drink cans."

      Gorix's jaw drops. "Oh my Space Faerie."

      Cylara smiles wider. "Now, tell me, Gorix: what would the truly loyal little Grundo boy do?"

     +++

     So that's why Gorix is here, sitting on the bare cot in Parlax's Kreludan ex-apartment with two cardboard boxes, labeled "Bad Guy Things" in Zorlix's blocky handwriting, in front of him. He's been here thirty-five minutes and hasn't opened either of them.

      He's making them wait. It's an intimidation technique, a favorite in space warfare (check out Will He Ever Return?: Frank Sloth's Eight-Year-Long Game of Space Chicken by Krelox Ulkar), and he doesn't want the boxes to think he's eager to open them. No, he won't give them the satisfaction of opening them for a long time, days maybe, weeks, he's got an open calendar day for the Month of Storing, so maybe--

      They're boxes, Gorix. You're intimidating boxes.

      He brushes his antennae back, takes a breath, and tears the tape off the left box.

      Ri-i-i-ip.

      He takes a good, long look, not touching anything. There's a spare half-helmet, a bulky Kreludite inventory book, a couple empty drink pouches, a roll of bandages and a plastic bag with lip balm and some NeoCola tokens inside. A look inside the second box reveals much of the same. Gorix assumes that the lack of personal items is due to Parlax being unable to face his inner self for fear of confronting the turmoil within, caused by his treacherous treasonous back-stabbing betrayal of Grundo and country.

      But that's just a theory.

      Gorix slides to the back of the cot, props himself up with the wall and lets out a sigh.

      He tries to stare at the wall, but there's nothing to stare at--not even a crack, or a piece of tape where a poster might've been, or a little note scratched into the paint like, wow Gorix, I'm so sorry for what I did, prolonging the Kreludor Cold War, working for Sloth, faking my death and all that, or something. Actually, there's not even any paint. It's sheer metal.

      Gorix kicks the left box so hard it shoots off the bed and hits the blank wall, its contents spilling all over the blank floor. Gorix's eye catches on a green shoebox: it tumbles out, its lid jostling almost-off in the process.

      It must've been hidden under the half-helmet.

      Gorix scurries off the cot and gets down on his knees beside the shoebox, hands shaking as he picks it up. It's labeled whatever in the same spydery scrawl Gorix would read on the notes Parlax would pass him in class when they were kids. He yanks the lid off and tosses it aside.

      This is what he finds:

      Parlax's favorite Gruundo album, GruunDON'T Break My Heart; the Grundonoil plushie Parlax has had since before Gorix even met him, with the mane all matted-up and all the fuzz worn off the antennae; cool space rocks; and a blue envelope that takes Gorix's breath away.

      Gorix puts down the shoebox. He picks up the envelope.

      TO MY BEST FRIEND PARLAX. That's Gorix's handwriting. It hasn't gotten much better since he was six.

      He slides out the card: a folded piece of construction paper with two crudely drawn Grundos, one blue and smiling, one half-orange-half-purple and scowling, drawn on in crayon.

      BEST VALENTINES FOREVER, it says.

      The Grundos are holding hands. Gorix feels like he's taken a can of NeoCola to the gut.

      He says to the empty apartment, "Everything's so simple when you're in kindergarten."

     +++

     Gorix was really, really young when Sloth started absorbing Grundos into his army. At first the abductions happened slowly, subtly; someone would go into the mines one morning and never come back up, or someone would wander into the Kreludan low-gravity Wastes for a bounce and--it would seem--forget to tether themselves to the ground and float away.

      No one suspected a big green man was taking them up to his spaceship.

      While Virtupets hovered ominously just out of sight, life went on normally in the Kreludan moonbase: Gorix was attending the Kreludan Mining Corp. Company Kindergarten, where he played Kauboys and outlaws with a split Grundo named Parlax every day at recess.

      That's what made them friends.

      This might be ironic, but Parlax was always the Kauboy.

      Near the beginning of the Month of Awakening, after their meteoritics lesson ("Now class, what do we call the green meteors? Radioactive! That's right!"), their teacher gave everyone in the class a letter to take home to their parents and told them they'd be having a Valentime's Party that Friday.

      Gorix had raised his hand. "What's a valentimes?"

      Parlax, cross-legged on the learning rug beside him, snorted.

      "It's a holiday for people you love, class," the teacher had said, smiling sympathetically at the poor little blue boy who didn't know what a valentimes was. "You give presents to people you love on Valentime's Day."

      "Valentine's," Parlax whispered.

      The teacher didn't hear. "And since we all love each other in this class, we're going to give everyone valentimes at our Valentime's party!"

      "Valentine's!" Parlax whispered again, this time in earnest.

      "Don't forget! Valentime's, this Friday!"

      "Valentine's!" Parlax and Gorix said together. Parlax turned and squinted at him; Gorix pretended not to notice.

      At recess on Friday, after they'd done the class party and had cake and everything, Gorix met Parlax at the really big playground rock and handed him the blue envelope.

      Parlax looked at the envelope, then looked at Gorix. "What is this?"

      "It's your valentine."

      "You already gave me a valentine." Parlax swung his backpack around on his shoulder, dug inside, and pulled out the storebought "You really MOONROCK my world!" card Gorix had given him during class. "See?"

      Gorix rolled his eyes and told him, "Yeah, but I gave those to everyone." He snatched the envelope out of Parlax's hand and pointed: "Look, it says best friend. I had to give you an extra valentine because I love you more than our other friends."

      "Why?" Parlax said.

      Gorix blinked. "...Because..." He pointed at the card again. "Best friends?"

      "No, you dummie, why best friends?" Parlax dropped his bag to the ground, with a puff of moondust, and pointed across the playground at a rainbow Grundo girl on the hovering swingset. "You play rockstars with Saven." He wheeled around and pointed out an orange boy drawing pictures in the dirt. "You play chefs with Zatex." Parlax spun around again and pointed to a purple Grundo. "And you play daycare with Wyzat. All we do is play Kauboys and outlaws, so that's the same, so it's not the best."

      Gorix rubbed his eyes, trying to process it all. This is how most of his conversations with Parlax would go, from then on: Gorix makes a simple proposal, Parlax submits a perfectly-argued rebuttal, Gorix gets a headache because he didn't know he was starting a debate and Parlax fills with contempt.

      "You're nice," Gorix tried.

      "No I'm not," Parlax said, and it was true.

      Gorix grimaced, worrying the edge of the unopened valentine still in his hands, and tried again. "You're smart. That's why I love you best."

      Parlax pointed to Saven. "Saven's smart."

      "What?"

      "Saven is smart, too. Why isn't she your best friend?"

      By this point Saven and a few other kids on the playground were noticing that they were being pointed at and looking up, spectators in this tête-à-tête turned melee of intellects; one six-year-old turned to the other and said, "I think you're a dumb lying fibber, and I don't want your gross valentine."

      Gorix may not have known much about Valentine's Day, but he'd seen enough holiday NeoVision programming that past week to know that a public Valentines rejection was the most humiliating thing a pet could experience.

      It ruined lives. He'd have to move. He'd have to change his name and beg the Fountain Faerie for a new color, and he didn't want to change colors because blue was the color of his favorite jelly and how would he explain it to his mother?

      Gorix grabbed Parlax by the sweater sleeve and yanked him behind the big rock. Parlax said "Hey!" and shoved him; Gorix shoved the envelope into Parlax's hands and said, "You don't need a reason for loving someone best, it just happens. It's like magic--magic doesn't need a reason, right?"

      Parlax frowned. "The reason for magic is faeries."

      Gorix chewed on his fingernail for a minute and thought. "...But what's the reason for faeries?

      Parlax opened his mouth, closed it, opened it, and closed it again. He opened the envelope and took out the card.

      "Okay," he said. "I'll be your best friend. But only if I can quit whenever I want."

      They came out from behind the rock, Gorix holding Parlax's hand and Parlax holding the picture of them holding hands, and Gorix smiled so hard it hurt his teeth because the whole playground knew that he wasn't a rejected valentine, and he had the best best friend this side of Kreludor

     +++

     It became, like, a tradition for them. Every year they'd exchange cards: Gorix would draw something crummy with his non-dominant hand and cut it out in the shape of a heart; Parlax would buy a card that said "Happy Day of Giving!" and cross out "Giving", write in "Valentine's" instead. They'd laugh about it and toss the cards in the trash on their way to a movie, or to the slingshot range, or whatever they had planned for the day. And they always planned something--even during the bad days, Sloth's occupation and half of everyone they knew in kindergarten mutating, they'd find a way to find each other and play a game of Cheat! on Valentine's Day.

      They never, like, talked about it. It was just what they did. It was their thing.

      Gorix never knew Parlax kept the first card.

     +++

     The first wave of attacks hit hard and fast, not long after Valentine's. A squadron of Grundos ten times bigger than any Gorix had ever seen (and he was pretty sure he'd seen some of them before; one had the same slightly-wobbly walk of his neighbor, Jozy, who'd disappeared a few months before), led by strange alien pets with large snouts and mohawks, all of them armoured and armed to the teeth, made everyone in the Company Kindergarten line up in the hall. Parlax had grabbed Gorix's hand, fingers like vices, and said, "You're my best friend, right?"

      "Yes, yes!"

      Parlax nodded; Gorix can still see his small face, twisted up to keep from crying, and determined. "We'll keep each other safe."

      But the thing is, keeping safe wasn't so easy under Sloth. Both of their mothers were mutated, their teacher was mutated, and both Sevan and Wyzat were mutated; Gorix and Parlax were only spared because Sloth needed a number of small Grundos to crawl through the maintenance tunnels of Virtupets Station, and while the Moehog Commander went down the line asking people questions, Parlax watched his response to each answer and figured out the right ones--"My one and only master, who I will obey for all eternity," "Bow at his feet," "Destroy the Space Faerie," and "Dr. Frank Sloth, supreme overlord."

      They made it through three years in the maintenance tunnels, watching each other's backs and pulling each other out of the way when one of the X-shaped energy ports was about to spark.

      This might be ironic, but Parlax was only scarred after they were rescued by the Resistance. They had to sneak back into the tunnels to make their way to an armory on the lower deck; Gorix was out of practice and forgot to keep his eye on the energy ports.

      They got into all these fights after that--worse than the normal debates, because these had screaming and throwing things.

      One night, after the dust had settled and the cleaning Millipods had crawled in to collect the shards of the lamp Gorix threw, Parlax asked him why he even wanted to be his best friend.

      Gorix was too mad to have an answer for him until the next morning. "You didn't say valentime," Gorix told him. "And you argued with me over the card, and you cheated on the mind control test. You never quit, Parlax, and that's why I want to be your best friend."

      Gorix can still see his face, not so small anymore and with scars slashing over each eye, twisted up and scowling; he could've been holding back tears, but he could also have been holding back something completely different--Gorix couldn't tell anymore.

      The next week was Valentine's Day, but before they could exchange cards, they went on a mission and Gorix lost him.

      The week after that, the Space Faerie destroyed Sloth's mutation ray and banished him, so. That was a good thing.

     +++

     He was Gorix's best friend. The best friend. The best friend to end all best friends. He thought, when the war was over, that they'd raise Mibblies together. When Gorix saw that Parlax was alive, he thought he'd cry for joy.

      Inside the card, written under the scribbled HAPPY VALENTINES DAY FROM GORIX is a block of spydery red writing:

      Gorix-

      get out of my stuff. don't you have a job to do or something? i sure as jhudora didn't leave any of sloth's secret codes with my grundonoil plushie.

      -Parlax

      The worst injury here is that there aren't even any tissues in this barren apartment, so when Gorix finishes crying his eyes out he has to go down to the corner store and buy a box.

     +++

     Gorix cries more, changes into his nice shirt and has dinner with Xarthab and Zorlix. They serve roasted sentient tentacle stew and argue over the serving ladle; it's very diplomatic.

      During his flight back to the Space Station, Cylara CommPhones him.

      "Well?" she says, smiling in the corner of his screen. "Did you find any answers, Gorix? Any closure?"

      "So many answers. All the closure."

     +++

     Gorix has been thinking a lot about what six-year-old Gorix said. Maybe you don't need a reason to do something, or love someone, or want a best friend; maybe that's just something that happens, like NeoVision interviews and faeries just happen, and you can't control it no matter how much you try. The Month of Awakening rolls around; Gorix has a knot in his stomach but he feels awoken. He stays up all night on his Virtupets Brand Illustrator Tablet, using up all the ink in his Virtupets Brand Inked Paper Machine and crumpling all the inked paper it churns out.

      Like, he isn't six anymore. That crayon stuff just doesn't fly in the professional valentimes making world.

      On Valentine's Day he finds Cylara at the Resistance Headquarters, tapping at a keyboard, helping a Lutari programmer--she's always working, she just doesn't quit.

      He waits until she takes a lunch break. She's sitting in a computer chair by the mini fridge, digging into a tube of Blueberry Gateaux; he clears his throat and hands her a blue envelope. She wipes the gateaux goo off her face with her sleeve and opens it.

      Her face lights up. "Aw, Gorix! Did you draw this?"

      He shrugs. (He is a barely-contained supernova of joy.)

      Cylara grins and squints at the picture. "Why are the Snowbunny and the Wain... driving a Chia clown car?"

      "Um." Gorix clears his throat again. "That's us." He shuffles behind her and points out the details in the picture. "See the jets? That's a space cruiser. We're, uh. Fighting bad guys." He points at the bad guys.

      Cylara squints. "Oh."

      (He is a barely-contained blackhole of despair.)

      "I, uh." Gorix snatches the drawing out of her hands and stuffs it in his pocket; Cylara harumph!'s and crosses her arms. "I was wondering if you wanted to hang out later? We could, like, go test out the new blasters at the target range? Or, um--" He smooths down his antennae. "Go to the petpet store and play with the Mibblies? Or whatever." He shrugs.

      Cylara holds up a finger and... winces? "Actually, Gorix, I already kind of promised Scout I'd watch The Romantic Notebook with her tonight."

      Gorix takes a step back, aghast. "Scout?"

      Cylara laughs. Awkwardly. "Yeah, well..." She swivels her computer chair. "Ever since you thought I was her, we've had this inside joke where I'd call her Cylara, and she'd call me Scout, and we'd say things about each other but they were really about ourselves? Like, I'd say, 'Oh, Cylara loves Garthraxian Goo,' and Scout would be like, oh, I do? Because she didn't know that I like Garthraxian Goo. And last week, Scout was like, 'Scout, I think I'm your best friend.' And I was like..." Cylara holds her open hands up next to her face, wow! "That's so great, because Cylara is my best friend!"

      Gorix rubs his eyes and shakes his head. Cylara translates: "Scout's my best friend." She smiles and shrugs.

      Gorix says, "Oh." And, "Uh." And, "Wow." An alarm beeps behind him, awkwardly, and the Lutari programmer runs over to deactivate it, awkwardly.

      He can see tomorrow's Neopian Times headline: Gorix, Neopian hero and Space Diplomat, DEAD from Valentine's Embarrassment.

      He thinks, Diplomacy training! Remember the etiquette classes! Gorix pulls on a smile and nods, mumbles something like, "Okay, have a nice day, goodbye," and turns to hightail it out of there, but Cylara grabs him by the back of his jacket; her grip is like a vice and he can't yank away.

      "Wait a second!" She tugs him back; he stumbles but catches himself and smooths his antennae back to regain composure.

      "Hmm?" he says.

      "Gorix," Cylara says, grabbing one of his hands in both of hers with that bone-crushing strength. "You know, you're my best friend, too."

      "You're lying," he says. "You're lying to my face. You literally just said that Scout is your best friend, and you have inside jokes with her and like her better in every way."

      Cylara wrinkles her nose. "Gorix, you are such a drama queen."

      Gorix gasps.

      "I can have two best friends," she says.

      "That's not how it works."

      "Says who?"

      Gorix opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again, and closes it again.

      Cylara smiles and squeezes his hand; he's pretty sure he hears a crunch, but he's also pretty sure he doesn't care. "Do you want to watch The Romantic Notebook with me and Scout tonight? We're going to order in and wear our PJs and everything, it's gonna be a blast."

      Maybe Gorix is the only one who sees it, but she really is a lot like Parlax. He realizes, now, that's not really a bad thing.

      And Gorix thinks, There it is: closure.

The End

 
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