Absence makes the Heart Grow Fonder

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"Alright, everyone! Great week as usual!" David beamed, "And, to wrap it up, we're gonna be doing things a little differently today."
"Different how?" Mal asked.
"I'm glad you asked, kiddo! Because you and Max are the two we're gonna be focusing on today!"
Everyone shared a knowing look as the twins twisted their identical faces in confusion.
"What? Why?" Max asked.
"Well, you two may not have an activity but that's no reason to cut you out of the fun! It's high time you two get your day."
"That and there's something we need to talk about..." Gwen added gentilly.
The twins looked at her in a confused manner. Clearing her throat, the woman continued.
"You guys spend an awful lot of time around each other... some might say too much and... we think it's best if you take a break from one another."
The two ten year olds leaned back a bit as a sickening feeling washed over them. They didn't like where this was going.
"What are you trying to say?" Max asked.
Gwen sighed.
"We're splitting you up."
And, just like that, the world around them seemed to crumble.
"WHAT!?!?!?"
Before anyone could explain further, the twins were in front of David and Gwen, talking way too fast for anyone to hear anything as Max fell to his knees in front of them and Mal began clinging to David's leg like it would make all of this go away.
"For one day!" Gwen told them.
The world started to piece itself back together with only a little bit of scarring.
"Oh." The said in unison.
That wasn't so bad. But still... a whole day without each other? Mal started hugging David's leg again, though not as hard, and Max even jumped up and began tugging on Gwen's shirt with pure sincerity in his eyes.
"Please, please, PLEASE, don't do this."
"What did we do to deserve this...?" Max stopped, "...What did Mal do to deserve this?"
"Whatever we did wrong, we'll make it right, I promise!"
"I swear to god, I will give up being a troublemaker if you let us stay together!"
David sighed as he pushed the two of them back so he could look at them.
"I'm sorry, you two, but me and Gwen have talked it over and we really think this'll be good for you." He told them.
Max and Mal turned to look at eachother and saw that there was no way out of this. They sighed.
"Okay..." Mal mumbled while Max just shoved his hands in his pockets and glared at the ground, "But... the entire camp usually does things as a group."
"Yeah, how do you two plan on keeping us separated exactly?" Max asked.
"I'm glad you asked!"
"Already used that line today, David."
David chose to ignore that comment.
"Me, Preston, Dolph, Nurf, Harrison, Jermy and Neil are gonna take Max out on a nature hike while Gwen and the girls hang out with Mal for some 'round the camp fun!"
Max rolled his eyes but the two of them stayed silent. Everyone shared a worried look as the twins started, solemnly, at the floor.
...
"This is fucking ridiculous!" Max yelled at no one as he paced around the open area.
Gwen and David had allowed them 10 minutes alone with each other to prepare themselves but that time quickly turned into Mal listening to her brother cuss out anyone and everyone he could think of.
"Max, I feel like we're blowing this out of proportion a little bit." Mal said, testing the waters, "I mean, it might not be as bad as we think."
""Might not be as bad as we think"!?" Max echoed, spinning around to face his sister, "What if you have a panic attack and I'm not there!? How am I supposed to trust that those idiots will know what to do!??"
"Gwen has had panic attacks before." Mal reminded him,"She'll know what to do. Beside, I only ever get those in dangerous or unfamiliar situations and even then I'm getting better at keeping it under control."
"I know." Max sighed, "... I know..."
The boy sat down next to Mal on the grass with his head bowed.
"I just... I miss you when I have to leave you to go to bed." He admitted with a red face, "I know it's stupid but I get... scared whenever you're not right next to me."
"Hey..." Mal whispered, gently rubbing her brother's back, "It's okay. I do too... but that's kind of why we have to do this." She paused for a moment, "We aren't two halves of a whole. We're our own people. We should WANT each other not NEED each other. And, if I decide I want to go do something, you should be able to decide that you'd rather do something else and... vice versa."
Max nodded.
"... Yeah."
Mal nodded too.
"This'll be good for us." She continued, "Just one day where we take a break from each other. We'll be okay."
Another nod.
"... We'll be okay." He repeated.
"So no trying to weasel our way back to each other in the middle of it, capche?" Mal joked, poking Max in the shoulder.
"Alright, alright!" Max laughed, pushing away her offending finger.
The two of them laughed for a moment before they heard the door to the mess hall open.
"Aaaaalright!" David sing-songed, though it was obvious he was a little nervous as he stepped out with a backpack strapped to his body, "We're about to get going, Max! Are ya ready!?"
Max pushed himself to his feet and shoved his hands in his pockets with a sigh.
"Yeah." He breathed as Mal stood up as well.
"Alright then! Let's get going, guys!" David called, as the boys of Camp Campbell began pouring out of the mess hall with hiking supplies.
Neil handed Max his backpack and the boy strapped it on. He walked a few paces away towards the receding males before stopping for a moment. His entire frame seemed to shake for a moment before he spun around and gave Mal a big hug. The girl stumbled backward a bit but quickly returned the tight hug with just as much meaning.
"See you in ten hours." He said, sounding like he was on the verge of tears.
"Yeah." Mal all but whispered.
They allowed themselves to enjoy this for a moment.
"Aaaaaawww!" A chorus of female voices cooed.
Max's eyes flew open to see all the girls waiting at the entrance of the mess hall and watching the hug he was sharing with his sister.
"God damnit!" Max shouted before breaking away and running off to meet the other boys.
Mal laughed and waved as her brother slowly disappeared from sight behind the layers upon layers of trees he was being led into. Her smile and hand dropped and the girl let out a sad sigh. Nikki noticed and walked over to place a hand on her friend's shoulder.
"He'll be okay." She told her.
Mal stayed silent for a moment.
"... Yeah."
Max kept glancing behind him as he and the guys continued forward. Eventually Neil noticed and patted him on the back.
"She'll be okay." He assured him.
Max could only sigh and nod.
It was gonna be a long day.
...
"You mother fuckers were in on this weren't you?"
The boys jumped back at the sudden accusation and turned around to see Max. He didn't look angry per say, just oh so very done with life.
"W-whaaaaaaaat? Nononononono." Dolph started. Max narrowed his eyes, "... yes."
"Sorry, Max. But David and Gwen made a very convincing argument when asking us to go along." Preston explained.
"Plus, some of us were actual people he needed to question about how dependent your relationship with each other was. He didn't want any of us to tell you so you could conspire against it." Neil added.
"I know, I know." Max sighed, "So how long was the powerpoint?"
"23 slides." Jermy answered.
Max seems to choke on air for a second.
"Wait, SERIOUSLY. I was just joking. He actually made a slideshow?"
The guys all looked around at each other nervously before nodding. Max just stared for a moment... and then burst into laughter.
Everyone stared at the boy in shock. Jermy tested the waters a bit by letting out a small chuckle as well and, when that didn't cause his immediate death, everyone else joined in.
"Oh my god! Only David, right!? Woo! That's rich..." Max wiped a tear from his eye before looking around at his laughing companions.
This felt... good. Huh. He's never felt good when Mal wasn't around... Maybe this actually WOULDN'T be so bad.
"Try to keep up kids!" David's voice interrupted them, "I don't want you to get lost."
There was a murmur of agreement before they began following him again.
...
Mal looked around the mess hall. With most of the campers gone, they were left with only her, Gwen, Nikki, Erid, and Nerris. It felt pretty empty.
"So... um." She started, "Now what?"
"Whatever we want!" Nikki answered.
"Yeeeaah, you're getting some much overdue girl time." Erid told her.
Mal tensed up a bit at that and her eyes shot to Nikki who gave her an apologetic look. How much had she told them? Just because she trusted Nikki with her feelings didn't mean she wanted the whole camp knowing!
She took a breath to steady herself before answering.
"Alright..." She said, a little shakily, "So, what happens in girl time?"
"Pretty much anything really." Nerris said, walking over and taking Mal's hand, "But we can start by getting comfy!"
The elf kin pulled her towards the corner of the mess hall that was all decked out in bean bag chairs and all sorts of pillows. Everyone, including Gwen, flopped down onto them and got comfortable.
"So." Gwen started, "How was your day?"
"Um... alright I guess... Uh, this just feels like hanging out with your friends." Mal admitted, "I mean I can imagine myself doing this with Max and Neil here so why do you call it girl time?"
"Well, that's because we usually discuss more... sensitive topics. You know, the ones boys usually don't understand."
Mal blushed a bit.
"It doesn't always have to be like that." Gwen assured her, placing a hand in her hair, "If you want it can just be about things that are bothering you or something you'd just like to tell us. The point is that this is a safe space."
Mal looked down a bit.
"Max is my safe space."
"And that's great." Gwen's face softened, "It's wonderful how much you two care about each other. But you need to broaden your options on who you let in."
Mal hummed and just enjoyed the feeling of Gwen's hand running through her hair... at least until it got caught in one of her tangles. She winced. And sat up for a second, brushing her bangs aside in thought.
"Uh... you said we could do anything I wanted right?" She asked.
"Of course!" Nerris said.
"What's on your mind?" Erid asked.
Mal bit her lip and looked to the side.
...
Max and Neil only narrowly managed to catch Space kid as he tripped and almost landed helmet first in the mud.
"Space Kid, on what planet would it be a good idea for you to go hiking in an astronaut costume?" Neil asked the boy.
"Pretty much every other planet but this one." Space Kid answered, "But it can't be all my suit. Jermy's tripped too."
"Jermy is fucking Jermy." Max told the shorter boy as he and his friend hoisted him to his feet, "Speaking of which, I've gotta go check on him 'cuz Mal would kill me if I let him get hurt."
Just as he said that, they heard a nasally scream.
"God damnit." Max muttered to himself and took off in the direction of the sound.
He came around a tree and saw Jermy looking dizzy as he sat on the floor. He was about to go ask him what had happened when the boy suddenly shot up and whipped around. That's when he saw Harrison on the floor, looking like he had been squashed by an anvil.
"Oh, beans, I'm so sorry!" The overweight boy squeaked, kneeling down and helping the magician to his feet.
"I'm fine." Harrison said grunting a bit but straightening up regardless.
Max stayed where he was. He tilted his head to the side a bit and thought.
"What do you see in that kid?" Max asked Mal, only to remember that she wasn't there and hoped no one was around to hear that.
Unfortunately the universe was not so kind and Neil came up behind him just as he said that.
"What?"
Max spun around in surprise and then relaxed when he saw Neil.
"Sorry, I was just thinking out loud." He told him.
Neil turned to where his friend had been looking to see Harrison patting Jermy on the shoulder and then pulling away in disgust.
"I assume you're talking about Mal as she's the only one who sees anything in that guy."
Max sighed at being found out but decided to continue the conversation regardless.
"Mal sees something in everyone if they're trying. And, to be honest, Jermy is probably trying harder than anyone." He responded.
Neil hummed.
"Then I guess that's another reason he's so helpless with her." He smirked.
Max froze for a moment. Confusion creased across his face and he looked up at Neil.
"What does that mean?"
Suddenly the world seemed to crumble around Neil. Oh shit, had he really just said that? It had been so obvious from an outside eye, he had though Max already knew. But of course he didn't know. If he had then Jermy wouldn't be alive right now.
"Uh, you know, as a friend!" Neil sputtered like an idiot, "Like she's probably the first person to really accept him as a friend right away so... uh..." he paused as he watched Max turn back to Jermy and watch him in gradual realization.
Max's eyes were cold and hard as he stared down Jermy. It was honestly, completely, bone chilling.
"Are you saying that shit stick has a fucking CRUSH on my sister?"
His voice had been so slow and steady. GOD it was terrifying.
"U-uh, yeah. I mean that's what we all think but you, uh... d-didn't hear if from me, right...? I'm gonna go now."
Neil then ran the fuck away with a small squeak. Max didn't even twitch as he did so. His eyes were still locked on Jermy just watching and trying to figure out how the fuck he felt about all this.
Only days ago he had gone crazy over Mal making some new friends without him and now mother fucking JERMY FARTZ was IN LOVE with her. But, for some reason... he wasn't mad. Confused maybe. Feeling a bit protective DEFINITELY. But he didn't feel like mounting Jermy's head on a stick and that kind of confused him. Max slowly began walking over to Jermy as Harrison walked away. He walked right up to the taller boy and simply said:
"Hey."
...
"I canNOT believe I let you talk me into this." Mal squeaked from her position on her chair.
"This was YOUR idea, Mal." Gwen said.
Mal winced as another snip was heard.
It was finally happening. For the first time in... basically ever, Mal was getting a haircut.
It had started out with her saying that she'd never gotten one before and how her mother only ever cut Max's hair when he started looking too much like her and then Gwen had whipped out the scissors. It had taken a while. But after a whole lot of coaxing, encouragement, and lots of assurance that this was a totally okay thing for her to want and that yes Gwen did in fact know how to cut hair, she had gotten up on the chair and Gwen got to work.
"I was kinda hoping you'd tell me it was a horrible idea."
"Why would we do that?" Nikki asked, "You said you wanted it. And if you want it then why can't you have it."
That made her chest hurt. No one other then Max had ever told her that her wants were valid. She took a deep breath to stop herself from crying. Nerris and Nikki must have mistaken it for trying to calm her nerves because they each took one of her hands and gave her encouraging smiles. They were so SO nice. She had never experienced any of this before and now here she was, toughing through it, without Max at her side no less! You know what? She could do this. She squeezed Nikki and Nerris's hands and allowed Gwen to finish in peace.
Hair continued to fall to the floor with every snip and by the end of her head felt MUCH lighter. Gwen backed away and looked at her with a grin as Erid came over with a mirror turned backwards.
"You ready?" The cool girl asked.
Mal took a deep breath and slowly nodded. The mirror began turning to face her to reveal...
Mal gasped.

Her hair, instead of almost reaching to her feet, now stopped in the middle of her back

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Her hair, instead of almost reaching to her feet, now stopped in the middle of her back. Her bangs had shrunk and were styled to frame her face better and everything was better groomed overall. The girl just stared for a moment before tears welled up in her eyes. A small hiccup was heard from her. Everyone went straight into panic mode.
"What's wrong!?"
"Is it bad!?"
"We're so sorry!"
Mal laughed, startling everyone.
"No-ho-ho..." She laugh-cried as she tried to string together a coherent sentence, "This is just... you're just... you're all so nice and... I love it... it's amazing... thank you so much..." more happy tears dripped down her face, "I've never felt so special before."
Everyone around her wore a sad smile as they came together for an embrace. Mal's entire life she's been pushed away and told that she wasn't worth it. Not worth the time. Not worth the effort. Not worth the kindness. Then, for these people to come straight at her and tell her that she WAS worth the time. She WAS worth the effort. And she most DEFINITELY was worth the kindness... It was too much. But a good too much. She was overwhelmed but in a good way. This was the first time she had felt so loved around anyone other than Max.
...
Jermy whipped around once he heard the shorter kid's voice.
"Oh, hi Max." He greeted him.
Max cut straight to the chase.
"How long?" He asked.
Jermy's smile melted into confusion.
"Huh?"
"Mal."
There was a short silence as the taller kid slowly realized what was happening. He looked like he was about to throw up.
"U-u-uh... e-ever s-since I m-met her.... please don't kill me."
"I'm not going to."
There was a brief pause in Jermy's terror as he looked at Max in confusion.
"Yeah, it surprised me too but it's true." He continued.
The two of them stared at each other for a long moment. Neither of them really knew what to say after that.
"... Welp, anyways, If you hurt her, I'll kill you, you know the drill." Max shrugged.
"No offense, but I think she's fully capable of doing that on her own." Jermy replied.
Max laughed.
"Hell yeah she could."
He walked off with a smile on his face.
Everyone else was pleasantly surprised to learn that Jermy had not been annihilated that day.
...
Mal was practically bouncing on the balls of her feet in excitement as the day drew to an end. She had a good time that day but she couldn't wait to tell Max about it. Not to mention show him her new doo. It only took the smallest glimpse of curly black hair coming into view from behind a tree to send her into a sprint towards her brother. Max had literally zero problem being bulldozed to the floor and squeezed senseless by the vibrating ball of sisterly joy. He did flip David and the other boys off however when they began aweing.
"I missed you!" She squealed.
"Me too, Mal." He laughed.
They pulled apart and his eyes went wide.
"Your hair!"
Mal grinned.
"Do you like it?" She asked.
Max smiled.
"I love it."
They came in for another hug. David and Gwen watched in satisfaction.

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