✨ Chapter 5 ✨

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Marian slung her ladybug backpack over her shoulder. The bug's spots resembled the polka dots on her tights and offset the rosiness of her tutu. Her nails matched too, despite the soot's best efforts at ruining the lacquer. "We're still on for tonight's sleepover, right?"

"Are you kidding?" Sal all but bounced. "We have to meet tonight—only, instead of staying up all night eating popcorn and nectar ices while catching up on Glisten Match, we'll be planning this stupid project."

Endrik smiled. "That's what girls watch during a sleepover? Glisten Match—the dating show?"

"Hush, you," Sal said, shooing Endrik with a flap of her hands. She blew a stream of air upward, creating a wave of purple bangs. "Now that our plans are ruined, you might as well come over too."

He held up his hands. "I wouldn't want to intrude."

"Nonsense. Maz will be glad to see you—but not for long. We have work to do."

"It's okay," said Marian. "I'm not sure I can stay up late tonight. Yeah, we can talk about school stuff."

A flicker of concern passed over Endrik's face. "Are you all right, Mari?"

"Yes, I—I'm feeling kind of tired. I'm sure I'm fine, really."

"You seem—I don't know—wobbly." He caught her arm in his. "I'll walk you to Sal's house." Marian flinched, though his grip was warm and steady.

Sal skipped in place. "It's settled, then." She pulled a phone from her bag and dialed.

"You have a human phone?" Endrik stared at the lights on the rectangular device. The pale sapphires of his eyes twinkled.

"Obviously. Shh! This way's...easier." Sal paused to chew on her bottom lip as they walked away from the schoolhouse. The building was glamoured—hidden by Professor Caustica—so that humans saw nothing more than a dilapidated barn surrounded by trees. "Oh, hey, Maz! Endrik and Mari are coming over for dinner."

Marian held tightly to Endrik's arm, giving him a small smile while waiting to hear more from Sal's end of the conversation. They walked along sidewalks that bordered lawns from the residents' front yards.

"Yes, Mari's staying the night." Sal frowned. "No, you can have the den. Plans have changed; we're going to be studying all night. We'll hang out in the family room." Sal twisted at her braid while listening. After a shrug, she said, "Not sure, let me check." Her dark eyes flickered to Endrik. "Maz is making stew." She covered the phone speaker with a hand and added in a hushed voice, "You don't have to eat it if you don't want to. We have snacks for later."

Endrik chuckled. "Stew's fine. I'm sure it's better than the slop they serve in the cafeteria."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Seriously, Sal, we're going to be there before you end the call. Maz's cooking is more than good enough for me."

"Stew for everyone," Sal sang to the phone. "Yeah, no worries. Mari will eat anything that doesn't eat her first; although, I'm not sure about rabbits."

Marian plucked a dandelion from the grass and flicked it at her friend.

"Hey!" said Sal, ending the call.

"You're lucky that didn't change into a flame lily before it got there."

"Trust me, Mari, I wasn't worried." Sal laughed and reached up to throw an arm around her friend. "But if it had, I would have been sadder for you than for me."

"How come?"

"Because that would mean you could do it; but now it's too late. You're stuck with us."

Marian crinkled her nose. "I don't know. I have a feeling Caustica would have found a way to criticize the flame lily and force me to do the Last Chance project anyway."

"Yeah, maybe."

"Besides," Marian added, "we have a chance to help someone. Not an imaginary character from one of Caustica's assignments, but a real, live person."

Sal shook her head and opened a gate set at the edge of the sidewalk. Holding it open for her friends to pass through, she smiled up at Endrik. "Maz is going to be so happy to see you!"

"You've mentioned," said Marian, reluctantly letting go of Endrik's arm once they crossed the porch and reached the Minikins' front door. "Why would your older brother be excited about another guy in the house when you have so many younger brothers?"

Sal slipped a key into the lock. Keeping her eyes down, she said, "I think he enjoys chatting with male-types nearer his age. Especially since Dad's disappearance."

Marian covered her face with her hands. "I'm sorry—how stupid of me." Of course Maz would miss the company of his father; everyone did.

"We've had a miserable, stressful day." Sal sighed. "Don't worry about it."

The Minikins' front doorway opened into a rounded room that resembled the inside of a cave. Mouthwatering smells of carrots, peas, and onions permeated the air. Marian inhaled deeply as she closed the door behind her. To passersby, the home, like the Glistens' schoolhouse, was glamoured to resemble the human houses that lined the street. But the inside reflected their own kind's preferences and comforts.

Endrik went straight to a corner of the large, open room and flopped down on the Gamboc, a chair shaped like a leaf used to scoop up water. Marian smiled; it was her favorite seat in the house, too.

"Maa-aaz," called out Sal. "We're home!"

A tiny Glisten, much smaller than Sal, toddled into the room while sucking his thumb. Three more little boys followed, each slightly taller than the one before him. All the boys had bright purple hair. Their eyes ranged from ice gray to the deep, black pools that bugged out on Sal's face. She tugged at her braid. "Uh, where's Maz?"

Gat, short for a ten-year-old, replied by making kissy faces. "Prillene stopped by. She's helping him cook."

Sal gaped. "He didn't mention her when we talked on the phone."

Endrik laughed as he kicked out his legs to swing the Gamboc back and forth. "So much for me being tonight's honored guest. I've seen pictures. Prillene is gorg—" He caught the pillow thrown by Sal before it smacked him in the face, causing the troop of boys to hiccup with laughter.

"And a chef." Marian smiled widely, and then pointedly sniffed the air. "Smells good, too."

"I thought I heard voices out here. Endrik, how are you?" A man with a long face and deep gray eyes stood in the doorway. As he entered the room, he fussed with the Minikin-purple hair tied in a loose tail behind him.

"Maz!" Endrik jumped from his seat and strode across the room to meet him halfway. He towered over the eldest of the Minikins, who was no taller than Marian. "Good to see you too. Are you going to introduce us to your, um...friend?"

Maz's smile widened. He held out his arm to catch a female hand in his. "This is the lovely Prillene. She's a Glisten from abroad, here to study at the university this summer."

A flush of pink spread across Prillene's cheeks. "It is a pleasure to meet you and your friends, Endrik." Her accent was sweet and slightly nasal. Through her lips, Endrik's name sounded something like "Awn-dreek." She passed a hand through long, blue-black hair that emphasized her violet-blue eyes.

Sal sucked in a breath and gave Endrik a sly smile before turning back to Prillene. "You and my friend, Marian, could be twins. I've never seen anything like it."

"I hadn't thought of that, but now that you say so—" Maz winked at Sal before rubbing his chin. "How strange."

The girls blinked at each other. A tinge ofgiddiness sparkled through Marian's eyes. Too surprised to bother hiding it,she smiled. From Marian's objective viewpoint, Prillene was gorgeous but also familiar. Their likeness was not unlike herreflection in a looking glass. Maybe it'sthe accent, she reflected, staring at Prillene in awe and wondering why shedidn't acknowledge the same sense of beauty when she saw herself.

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