Actions

Work Header

The Braiding of the Fellowship

Work Text:

Dedication: Thank you to Claire for the insightful conversations, Dan for the editing and patience, Marissa for helping me see this fic clearly when I couldn’t see it at all, and thanks always to Neal for being my Gimli.

 

They were everywhere. Phyrexia was everywhere and everyone was in danger. Barbie had been running, Amethyst’s hand in hers, Sombra and Doc Brown following close behind. As they rounded a corner, the scene melted away and she was alone. Her body convulsed like something had been ripped out of her, panic flaring in every part of her. She had to get to her friends. Had to save them. They were somewhere and Phyrexia had them but she didn’t know where, and she didn’t know how to save them. It was just her. Alone. She threw herself forward, bolting from room to room in some endless maze that looked like Castle Grayskull mixed with the Dream House, but with sharp metallic edges on everything, and a dull red glow of light coating each surface. She slammed open door after door but could hear nothing but blood beating in her ears.

Barbie startled awake. For a moment she was still there, running and searching hopelessly for all of the people that had been taken from her. She pressed a hand to her chest trying to calm the painful squeeze of her heart, like something was suffocating her from the inside.

A breath in. A breath out. A breath in. A breath out.

She was safe. She was in her room at Castle Grayskull, and Vivian was sleeping deeply in the bed across from her, her steady breathing audible over Barbie’s own shaky half-gasps.

Everything was okay. Nothing bad had happened. Everyone was safe right now.

But something bad could happen. Everyone is okay for now, but how long will that last? Something bad is coming. It’s always coming. You’ll never be safe. It will never get better.

Barbie clenched her eyes shut and tried to drown out the maliciously confident voice in her head. That voice always followed her with its quiet assuredness that it saw things clearly. It had followed her throughout every adventure, every achievement, every career, every day and night. It always promised it knew the future and that nothing was actually alright. She focused on Vivian’s breathing and tried to let her body feel heavy with sleep again but her mind played looping images of possible disasters. A lost DDC, a captured spy, an unobserved infection, the base being discovered, a mission gone wrong, the League simply not being enough to fight off all of Phyrexia. Just losing the war. Not because they didn’t try, not because anything went wrong, but just because losses happen and they weren’t enough.

Barbie realized she was tensing her whole body as if she’d need to fight off attackers at any second. She sighed and reached for her phone, giving up on the hope of going back to sleep. The screen glared up at her with agonizing brightness: 3:58 AM. Great. Another early morning. Her third this week.

She dragged herself out of bed. It hadn’t been this bad in the Dream House. It hadn’t been good, but it had never been like this. Then her worries had been about how Skipper was doing. Whether she’d left the oven on somehow. If her animals were safe. It hadn’t been about the end of all the worlds. A brittle, regretful part of her was bitterly jealous of herself before the League. That Barbie from a year ago got to have such quiet, manageable worry. She couldn’t ever go back to that. Maybe once it was all over. If it was ever over. If they won. If any of them survived it. If…

Granted, something about the hugeness of what stood in front of her made it easy to give up on smaller things. Who cared if she went downstairs in pajama pants with her unwashed hair in a sloppy bun? They had bigger concerns. Part of her longed to have the time to style her hair and go through her whole closet for the perfect outfit, but right now that just felt frivolous and stupid.

Barbie wasn’t frivolous and she wasn’t stupid. She wouldn’t allow herself to be those things, even if she missed the simplicity of just feeling good about how she looked that day. She’d just put on whatever was closest and wash her hair tomorrow.

She pulled on a pink tracksuit that she hadn’t even bothered to hang up and quietly left the room, Vivian still sleeping peacefully as Barbie closed the door behind her.

What if this is the last time you see Vivian? Terrible things happen all the time in this war.

“Okay, brain, that’s not helpful right now. Or ever.”

It’s true, though. What if Phyrexia breaks in and captures them--kills them--and you couldn’t stop it because you weren’t there.

Barbie stopped in the hallway, the cold of the castle floor seeping up through her flip flops. Should she go back? Maybe…

No. That was ridiculous. Vivian was fine. Worrying like this was insane. Nothing bad would happen. Yet. Hopefully.

She padded into the kitchen to see Nico Minoru blearily drinking coffee and staring out the window to the yard where Adam Jensen was running laps in the pre-dawn darkness. Rorschach was sitting on the kitchen floor playing solitaire. Nico nodded to her absently. Rorschach grunted something under his breath.

Now was as good a time as any to get started on all of the things she needed to do today like preparing for dinner. The things she should do to try and keep this army running, things to make sure everyone else could focus on staying alive. Please, please stay alive.

Barbie started pulling out vegetables, bowls, and pots, organizing them on the sprawling butcher block table.

You should send Nico and Rorschach back to bed. The League needs them fresh. They’re important.

Barbie cut a quick glance at the two of them. The League really did need them fresh, but they probably wouldn’t listen to her anyway. But she should tell them to go get some rest, right? What if they didn’t get any rest and they were needed? The words stuck in her throat. She needed to tell them to rest so nothing bad would happen. So they would all be safe. But they already didn’t take her especially seriously--No, come on brain, it’s fine. They’re adults. It will be okay.

If someone came in her right now and attacked your friends, could you defend them with this pathetic knife? You should have brought your crossbow and pistols with you.

The thought sent a wave of burning cold fear down her back. Some part of her knew that it made no sense, but the loudness, the persistence of that thought wriggled deeper and deeper into her brain. Should she run upstairs and go get her weapons? Nico and Rorschach were capable fighters, but maybe they would need her and she wouldn’t be prepared. They could end up injured, or much worse, and it would be her fault. Well no, it wouldn’t be all her fault. But what if she could have helped save them but wasn’t able to because she’d left her weapons upstairs?

The kitchen door creaked open. Barbie lunged for the nearest knife, clutching a meat cleaver in one hand and a paring knife in the other.

Gimli ambled in, stretching his arms wide and yawning loudly. He paused mid-stretch, staring at Barbie. Nico and Rorschach looked up and saw Barbie’s battle stance.

“Woah, we’re okay here,” Nico said softly, gesturing for Barbie to put the meat cleaver down.

Barbie’s face felt hot. “Sorry, sorry! Just startled, is all,” she said, putting the cleaver back on the counter, giving a strained laugh.

Gimli gave a slight bow. “My apologies, my lady. Dwarves aren’t known for subtle entrances. I’ll take more care.”

“No, it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have assumed the worst.”

“Reasonable to assume the worst. Safer.” Rorschach muttered.

Nico stood up and grabbed Rorschach by the arm, dragging him over to the counter. “Alright sunshine, maybe we should do a little more helping, huh?”

Rorschach snorted. “Cooking is women’s work.”

“Wow, we’re going to have a long talk later. Barbie, let us take care of some of the chopping and you can, um, work on something a little less knifey,” Nico said.

Barbie looked nervously at the two of them. They could probably handle this. Maybe. But if the did anything wrong, if they made any mistakes, maybe things wouldn’t be okay. Somehow it felt like a risk. Like stepping to the edge of some chasm. How easily someone could slip and it would all go terribly, irrevocably wrong.

No. No! Come on, that was crazy. It was just dinner. She could let them at least help. Maybe a little bit. She’d just supervise. A lot. She stepped back and let them have the counter, moving to fill several enormous pots with water. “Just, chop them carefully and please don’t use magic for this.”

Nico nodded. “Understood. I’m sure we can handle it.”

As it turned out, no, they couldn’t handle it at all. Rorschach hacked indiscriminately at the bell peppers leaving them in mangled chunks. Nico argued with him, trying to show him how to take out the seeds, and before Barbie could smooth things over, several of the bell peppers had been chopped into a broken, chunky paste on the cutting board.

Gimli, who had been methodically scraping carrots clean with one of his daggers, looked up. “I’d say that’s chopped enough.”

Barbie plastered a grin onto her face. They were trying, and they’d offered to help. She should be grateful. Besides, she should be able to handle all of this herself. They weren’t needed as kitchen help. They were needed to win this war.

“Wow, that’s… perfect,” Barbie reassured them. “Thank you for your help! I’ll just finish up. Don’t worry about chopping the rest.”

Rorschach nodded in self-satisfaction, did an about-face, and swept out of the room.

“Ugh, idiot,” Nico muttered, rolling her eyes at his retreating back. “I’m sorry, I can help, really.”

Barbie shook her head. “No, no, it’s fine. I’m sure you have important things to do!”

Nico gave her an uneasy look but gathered up her book and left saying, “Well, if you need help. I’m around.”

Send Gimli off too. You don’t need help. You’re tough enough to handle this on your own, aren’t you? Or is there something wrong with you? Are you too weak?

Barbie turned to Gimli. “It’s okay Gimli, you don’t have to stay. I know you’ve got some work in the smithy today. I’ll be fine.”

Gimli gave her a considering look before setting aside his small stack of carrots. “As you wish, but if you need help, we’re here. You’re fair busy yourself, you know.”

“I’m - I’m fine. I can handle it.” She waved a hand dismissively.

You have to handle it. Who will handle it if you don’t? Everything, every single thing, has to be taken care of unless you want everyone taken by Phyrexia. And it must be done right. You don’t want anything bad to happen, do you? Everyone must be safe. Safe. Safe. SAFE.

“Aye, but that doesn’t mean handling it alone,” Gimli said.

“No, really, I’m fine. It’s--it’s easier to do it myself. Sort of…” Barbie trailed off. At least when it was just her, she didn’t have to worry about what everyone around her was thinking of her. She didn’t have to think about what mistakes everyone else could make. She could just focus on doing everything perfectly. Every single thing…

Gimli stood and nodded. “I’m just a shout away if you change your mind,” he said as he headed out into the yard, axe hefted over his shoulder.

Barbie sighed and gathered up the pulverized bell pepper, staring at it in resignation. Maybe they could be turned into some sort of pesto?

You should have done it yourself. This wouldn’t have happened if you’d done it all yourself.

“Great, thanks brain,” Barbie muttered.

 

~*~

Barbie had an entire day ahead of her to tire her brain out. That would work. It really needed to work because she had things to do the day after that, and after that, and after that. Things where she needed to be rested enough to get tasks done. And there was a never-ending, ever-growing list of tasks that needed to be done to keep the League outfitted, fed, trained, housed, supplied, and armed.

She’d already promised two handfuls of people she’d help them, and some things she had to take care of because she was the only one with enough experience to do it. The League members with cars were up on the basics like changing the oil, but not everyone had experience with changing brake pads.

Barbie was also one of the only League members with experience in event-planning and while League was far from a party, the principles of keeping a crowd fed and looked after were the same. She’d worked in a hotel for awhile and had been in the military enough to understand everything that went into managing the needs of large groups for extended periods of time. Her time as a vet also meant that she was the person in charge of all the diets and care for the animal Leaguers. They were all intelligent and valued League members, but it’s not as though Maximus could get his own hay or Dex-Starr could pour his own food out. Well, Dex-Starr possibly could, but there might be casualties in the process.

She was in the tiny office tucked into the corner of the pantry, deep into trying to estimate how much pasta they needed to get through the next few weeks. Amethyst could eat a truly impressive amount when she wanted to. Barbie heard Rosa Diaz’s voice as she walked past the pantry, cutting through to get to somewhere else.

“Oh yeah, that marksmanship training tomorrow is gonna be great. Nice of Barbie to get the firearms ready for it so I could set up the practice range. No more sloppy shooters. Well, I dunno, maybe Dante still will be, but at least fewer sloppy shooters,” Rosa said.

Roland Deschain grunted in agreement.

Barbie’s chest felt tight like hooks had just buried themselves into her, running her through.

She’d forgotten completely about volunteering to clean and catalog the firearms today! How could she have messed this up!? How could she have forgotten something so important!

Careless. What if they need those right now. What if something terrible happens and everyone gets captured, or turned, or killed because they were counting on you to have those ready. You said you could handle it. Maybe you can’t handle it. Maybe you’re not good enough. You’re not good enough and everyone will find out and they’ll know that you’re useless and you’re just getting in the way. They’d be safer and better off without you here. If you make a mistake, they could all end up dead. How could you let that happen? How could you make a mistake? You’re not allowed to make mistakes. They can’t afford mistakes right now.

Tell Rosa you made a mistake.

No! Don’t tell Rosa, she’ll see what a failure you are.

No, you have to tell her so she knows! If she doesn’t know and something terrible happens and they’re relying on those weapons and on that training, it could be worse. Rosa will hate you now. Everyone will hate you. They should hate you.

Useless.

Try harder.

You failed.

Failure.

Bad
Bad

Useless
Bad
Badbadbadbadbadbadbadbadbadbaduselessbadbad

The refrain was so loud. It was always loud when she made a mistake. She put her head down on her desk trying to breathe deeply and come down from the panic. This was such a stupid thing to fall apart about. People made mistakes. It was okay.

Idiots make mistakes. Failures make mistakes. If you loved them and wanted them to be safe, you wouldn’t make mistakes. Ever.

She thought about the faces of the other Leaguers and felt the hot, itchy press of tears behind her eyes. Why couldn’t she stop imagining terrible things happening to them? Each of their faces was a precious sight, even Archer, who was a challenge at the best of times, and Rorschach, who didn’t care whose feelings he hurt. She wanted them all to be okay. She wanted to be okay.

Barbie breathed deeply and sat up straighter. She could do this. She could get it all done. She only had to do maybe six other things, and getting the weapons ready would only take, what? Three hours? That was… reasonable, right?

Barbie glanced at her watch. It was almost 8:30, which meant she needed to run to the meeting room to take notes. Elijah Snow had refused to let Cambot just record the meetings, insisting that hard copies of notes about the League were the safest way to keep and record information. Sombra and he had argued about it, but Elijah’s stubbornness outlasted Sombra’s, so paper notes it was.

When the meeting ended and she finally handed over her notes, her brain screeched, What if the League isn’t ready because you took notes wrong? What if you made a mistake and everyone hates you but won’t tell you?

Barbie realized she was still holding onto the notes that Elijah was trying to take from her hands. The other League members were looking oddly at her. Some part of her brain piped up.

Remember their faces. Maybe this is the last time you’ll see them.

No. Stop it brain. Stop it.

Snow raised an eyebrow. “I do actually need these.”

Barbie let go immediately, clutching her hand back. “Yes! Sorry! Um, reflex.”

After that it was run to check on all of the creatures stabled at Castle Grayskull and get their meals ready. Did you lock all their stalls again?

Do a shift in the kitchen washing dishes. Did you wash the dishes right? Did you use enough soap? What kind of person isn’t sure they washed dishes right? What’s wrong with you?

Then teaching the weekly hand-to-hand combat class in the yard. What if you taught that disarming move wrong? What if they try it and get injured, or killed? What if Phyrexia attacks right now? Are they ready? Are you ready?

A voice interrupted Barbie’s thoughts.

“Are you coming to movie night?” Finn Balor asked, jogging lightly in place. He’d played the attacker for the self-defense class and was still nursing some scratches from where Miss Piggy had gotten him with her stilettos.

Barbie startled. “Sorry, I’ve got to help with dinner, and then I need to take care of cleaning the firearms, and then I guess get some sleep. If there’s time!” Barbie laughed, trying for lightness but cringing as it came out a bit desperate.

Finn grinned easily at her. “Aw, that’s a shame. Well, fair play to you for taking on all that. Do you need help? I only ever get asked to hit things.”

Memories of the smashed bell pepper from this morning flashed in her mind. “No, it’s fine!”

Finn Balor looked slightly disappointed.

Barbie quickly added, “You’re so great at what you do. We’re really lucky to have you.”

“Were lucky to have you too, Barbie!” He grinned easily. Barbie gave a thin smile, thinking about how Finn had no idea she’d forgotten about the marksmanship training. How she’d nearly started the day crying in the pantry. “Really, we’re all lucky to have each other. There’s no substitute for knowing you’ve people at your back, helping you stay safe in a fight.” Finn patted Barbie on the shoulder and jogged off for the great hall.

Barbie checked her watch. Just enough time to get something to eat and run to the infirmary. She had a shift to cover while Mordin Solus was working in the lab.

Thankfully it seemed like one of the rare quiet days in the infirmary. No one with any scrapes, broken bones, or terrifying possible Phyrexian infections came running in. That was sort of a relief, but then it just meant that Barbie was alone with her thoughts. Maybe she should close up the infirmary for a few hours and just run to the armory and clean those weapons? That wouldn’t take too long, would it?

What if someone needs something and you’re not there? One voice insisted.

You’re going to fail Rosa and Roland if you don’t get the weapons ready. They’re counting on you to be on top of things. You said you could handle this. Were you lying to them?

Barbie stood up to pace. It’s not like there was anything else she could get done while she was in here. The room felt too small suddenly, the drafty high ceilings seemed to shrink, pressing down towards her. She needed to get out of here. She had to get things done. She had to get everything done. There wasn’t enough time. She was trapped here. If she left, someone might need her and she’d fail at taking care of them. But what if Rosa or Roland came by to ask about the firearms? She’d have to lie. Or tell them the truth and admit that she hadn’t done it yet. She needed out. She debated asking Mordin if he could put off his work in the lab but Mordin was so important to the cause. Barbie could fill in, that’s why she’d volunteered.

Why did her jaw hurt so much? Oh, that’s right, because you’re not supposed to clench it all the time. Her shoulders were hunched up by her ears and she was nervously tapping her foot on the floor. Okay, just breathe. Just breathe. You can keep going. You can get through this. You can leave at any time. No one would think less of you for leaving if you have to.

Yes, they would. Everyone would know that you can’t handle this. That you’re too weak. They would all resent you for doing less than they do.

That’s ridiculous, part of her whispered. But the louder voice, the closer voice that seemed to speak with such authority insisted, No, they would only act like they didn’t resent you, but they would secretly resent you and never tell you. And you would never be able to know if they thought less of you. Everyone will lie to you to make you feel better, but you’ll know what a failure you are, and they’ll know too.

The air in the room felt so stale and hard to breathe. She wanted out so badly. The door was right there. What was wrong with her that she couldn’t just leave? Maybe it was better that she stay here and keep her brokenness to herself. The last thing the League needed was someone who couldn’t keep it together. Everyone else had so many burdens, they didn’t need one more. Someone who needed to be carried through things. She should shove it down and get through this.

You failed

Run away

You can’t handle this

Lie to them

Tell them the truth, you deserve to feel bad when they’re disappointed in you

You’re not strong enough

What’s wrong with you?

They need you and you’re going to let them down.

Why are you like this?

The refrains swirled around her head until they blended together into a single unending cacophony that wouldn’t be silenced. Everything in the room seemed far away, her hand on the desk was someone else’s. Her own breathing was an alien sound. The sensation of sitting on the chair was at once startling clear and completely disassociated from her.

I’m in the infirmary. Don’t panic. You can do this.

You have to do this. You don’t want to fail them all, do you?

Barbie clenched her eyes shut. When the panic settled over her it always felt like that terrifying moment after jumping into the pool, right before she could see which way was up and all she could feel was the press of water around her and the subtle beginnings of her lungs burning to take a breath. Except there was no up. There was no way to rush to the surface and get free of it. The surface was there somewhere, somewhere she couldn’t see or sense. It had to be there. She wouldn’t feel like this forever.

You might...

No. Please.

No. She was going to do it. She was just going to leave and go to the armory. Everything would be fine. She could do this. Barbie shakily gathered her things and looked slowly around the room as though staring at it long enough would tell her if she’d forgotten to do something or left something out of place. The room seemed to come in and out of focus slightly, like it was under a microscope. Barbie shook her head. Okay, she should just leave.

She made sure the door was left unlocked so anyone who needed to get in could and headed down the hall, nearly bumping into Gimli, who was holding a towel around two of his fingers.

Barbie paused, staring at his hand. “Are you going to the infirmary?”

“Aye, just a scratch, but Doreen insisted I go and I’m not fool enough to argue with a woman who’s learned to handle an axe as well as she!”

“Oh. I just--I can...Let me just--” Barbie stuttered for what to say. Should she admit that she was heading to the armory? She could lie and say it was someone else’s shift in the infirmary. No, that would be terrible! She could act like she was just coming back to the infirmary from somewhere else? No! She’d been walking the wrong way for that!

“Is there no one there now? I can bandage myself right enough,” Gimli offered.

“No, no, it’s--I--“ Barbie felt her resolve break and blurted out, “I was supposed to be there. I am supposed to be there! I’m so sorry. If I hadn’t nearly walked into you, I might not have been able to help. I’m so sorry! I needed to go to the armory. I have so much to do and then I was there in the infirmary and it was so quiet and all I could think about was everything I should be doing and then--I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! Here I am talking when I should be helping bandage you up! Come with me and we can get it cleaned up.”

Gimli nodded. “Thank you. Although it sounds like there’s a fair bit on your mind. Dwarves make good listeners if you’ve a need to say something.”

Barbie opened the door to the infirmary and took Gimli to the deep sink in the back to wash out the wound while she considered her choices.

You could tell him. But he won’t understand. It’ll be like everyone else. You’ll get that look. That one where they look at you like they wish you could just be normal.

Gimli grunted as Barbie sprayed another squirt of the soap solution into the wound, rinsing it as gently as she could.

“If you have something else you’re needed for, I can do this, you know. I’ve dressed plenty of wounds. My own and others.” Gimli jerked his head at the various scars crisscrossing his hands and arms.

Barbie snapped out of her internal fight. “No! I mean, no, I agreed to take this shift. I should have stayed. It’s my fault for thinking I could keep on top of everything. Stupid of me.”

“Mm, ambitious maybe. I wouldn’t call it stupid.”

“The League needs me,” insisted Barbie. “I need to be on top of everything! We don’t have room for mistakes. I’m sorry I almost left you to bandage yourself. That wasn’t fair of me.”

Gimli nodded in understanding. “Then I’m sorry I missed while sharpening my axe and had to come to the infirmary. I’ve been sharpening my axes for seventy years now. I should have known better than to let my grip on the whetstone slip like that.”

“But that was a mistake!”

“Aye, it was,” Gimli said patiently. “And you made a mistake.”

Barbie’s eyes went wide in disbelief. Was he crazy? They weren’t the same thing at all! “But your mistake only hurt you. Mine could have hurt others!”

Gimli half smiled. “We’re none of us perfect. Mistakes are part of the journey. A wee friend once made a mistake that nearly got us all killed and cost another friend, Gandalf, his life for a time. None of us blamed Pippin. It wasn’t his fault events unfolded as they did. Gandalf did come back, it’s true, but even had he not, it still wouldn’t have made Pippin the reason bad things happened.”

“How is it not the fault of the person who makes a mistake?” Barbie asked, drying Gimli’s hand gently.

“Well, they bear a measure of responsibility for their actions, we all do, but it’s not so simple as doing one thing and it causes another. I was the one that suggested we journey through the mines of Moria. All of my companions were part of the fellowship that agreed to the journey through the mines. We’d never have needed to journey at all if it wasn’t for the ring. The ring wouldn’t have existed but for Sauron. It was Pippin’s mistake, but he wasn’t the one that tried to take Gandalf’s life. There was a great fiery beast, a balrog, that did that. It wasn’t Pippin that tried to take our lives, the orcs that came after us were responsible for that. Don’t be so quick to claim you are the cause of all that happens.”

“None of you blamed him?”

Gimli looked thoughtful and pulled at one of his thick braids. “No. We don’t bear responsibility for what evil does. We bear responsibility for our actions to stop it. The fellowship, all of us, chose together to destroy a great evil in Middle Earth. That evil would try to stop us from it was never a question. Dark forces try to stop the League. That they sometimes succeed is not the fault of anyone but those that commit such evils.”

Barbie carefully wound gauze around the cut across Gimli’s fingers, looking down to avoid catching his gaze. “But… If we did everything perfectly then--then why wouldn’t it all turn out exactly as we want?”

Gimli sat silently for a moment as Barbie taped down the bandage before slowly answering. “Because while good is strong, evil is strong too. There is no path good can walk that is so perfect that evil will not find a toehold. There is no path good can walk that is so perfect that there is no cost. Good is good not because it never missteps, but because it moves to do what is right.”

“I want it all to be perfect, though.” Barbie’s voice sank to a whisper. “I hate that it’s scary and I have to worry all the time. That everything feels like it could come apart and we’d all suffer. That I would lose people. It’s terrifying all the time and it never stops and all I can do is try to never fail, to make sure that everything I do is right and… and perfect.”

Gimli tested the bandage, flexing his hand methodically. “It is hard indeed. It was hard then when I walked with the Fellowship of the Ring. It is hard now to fight Phyrexia with the League. But we do not take this journey alone. We are bound together by our choices and together, we are strong. We will all have moments where we fail to do our best, but that’s why we have one another. ”

Gimli gestured to his braids. “If one strand fails in a braid of rope, the rope doesn’t unravel. The other strands take up the burden and the braid holds fast.”

“Is that why you wear braids?”

“In some ways. Dwarves wear braids to show which families, which guilds, which places we’re part of. They show what we’re connected to. I made this braid when I joined the Fellowship of the Ring.” He held up an intricate braid made of up of thick and thin ropes of hair woven together into one thickly textured cord. “This braid is for the League. I know I’ve no need for it, but it reminds me what I’m part of.” It was a little thicker, and had a raised braid spiraling around the outside of it, weaving in and out of the main braid in a complicated pattern that looked almost like fish scales when the light hit it.

“That’s very beautiful. I’ve braided my hair a million times and I’d still never be able to braid something like that.”

Gimli grinned. “It’s amazing what seventy years of practice teaches you.”

Barbie felt self-conscious about her own hair in a messy bun. “Skipper and I used to braid each others’ hair before school.”

“My family did so at the start of each day, also.”

Barbie bit her lip. “I miss it. I miss everything when it used to be so much less… horrifying. I love being part of the League. I don’t regret it! I wouldn’t change that for anything. But still. I don’t want to be scared every moment of the day. I spend every day suffocated by fear for everyone in the League. I love them all so much and I almost hate how much I love them because if anything happens it will hurt so much. Is that… weird?”

Gimli shook his head solemnly. “Nay, I’m afraid too, lass. Not so bad as that, I admit, but then I’ve had more time to grow accustomed to it. And by now I have a shred of gratefulness for it. It reminds me how fortunate I am to have people I love. It reminds me to cherish the nights of drinking deep together, sharing songs and stories, the moments of peace by the fire with one another. It reminds me that they’re precious and that we’re none of us alone. We’re all afraid, and right to be so, but we’re together. Being together counts for a great deal.”

“I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I’m so tired. I’m so tired of it.” Barbie could feel the choke of tears dammed up behind her words.

Gimli paused, then gently lay a hand on Barbie’s knee. “I cannot tell you there’s nothing to fear. I’ll not lie to you.I’m sorry for your burdens. I wish I could take it and carry it for you. But perhaps you could share a bit of it with me. Tell me of your fears. Even if I cannot take them from you, I can be here to hear them so you’re not alone with them.”

Barbie swallowed heavily. “Really? You’d just listen to me talk about this, even though it’s boring and sounds like complaining and sometimes it doesn’t even make any sense?”

“I cannot take this fear from you, but I can be with you in it. If it would help, I am here. Dwarves are patient listeners.”

“Are you sure?”

Gimli’s eyes crinkled slightly at the corners. “Aye. Always.”

And out it spilled, in gutters and starts, circling back around on itself. The bottomless terror and the sharp-edged need to never misstep bubbling over, mixing together. Sometimes it was nonsensical, just the refrain of “I’m so scared,” and other times it was long pauses as she searched for how to put words to what she felt. The acidic sting of those moments of terror. The long burning hiss of fear simmering constantly underneath each moment. The keening voices in her head promising disaster. The way her mind sometimes felt like holding a single candle while standing on a dark, barren spit of land as the tide rose around you and the wind screamed in your ears, the cold seeping into your bones with each lap of water and knowing somehow if you’d just been better this wouldn’t be happening.

Barbie felt an anxious bubble of keening terror inside of her break. But it broke with a soft pop, not the roar she expected. Gimli’s steady, solid presence and intent listening gave her something to hold onto. She let the agonizing, virulent fear that lived in her head be known and named it. And somehow, naming it all, here with Gimli, it wasn’t as bad. It was still fear and it was still unpleasantly persistent, but the scream of it was softer. The confidence of that all-knowing voice nagging her was muffled by the strength of Gimli’s presence.

Eventually Barbie lapsed into silence, not sure what to say, but nervous. What if he thought she was insane? What if all of that terror came back the moment he left? What if it never got any better?

Gimli finally gave a wondering huff. “You’re an extraordinary person to carry so many burdens and do all you do. If you weren’t so tall, I’d wonder if there was a bit of hobbit in you. I’m honored by what you’ve shared with me and I hope you feel you can do it again when the need arises.”

“But what if it annoys people and they hate me and then I’ll be alone again only now everyone will know what a--a wreck I can be!”

Gimli gestured to the braid he’d made for the League. “Ohana, Barbie. We love and support those we care about for who they are. You’re allowed to be yourself. Indeed, we’d be wrong to ask you to be anything else. The League needs you. Not the you that you imagine you ought to be. The League needs you, the person that you truly are. Helpful, dedicated, caring, and yes, sometimes afraid and worried about those you love. You fear because you care. You worry because you love. You are strong to care and love so deeply, to carry your heart so fully. We will never turn away from you for who you are, Barbie. I will never turn away from you.”

Barbie leaned her head on Gimli’s shoulder. “Thank you. I don’t… I’m not sure I can believe that. At least not yet. But it feels… it feels like breathing again to hear it.”

“I’ll say it as often as you need to hear it, friend.”

Barbie tilted her head to meet Gimli’s eyes. “Hey Gimli? Would it be okay, I mean, would you be willing to maybe do a League braid for me too? I think it would be nice. You know, just to have the reminder that I’m not in this alone.”

Gimli clapped his hands in determined delight. “Yes indeed. It’s been awhile since I’ve braided someone else’s hair, so you’ll have to forgive a bit of clumsiness, but I’d be honored to share this braid with you.”

Gimli worked his fingers through her hair in seamless, dextrous flicks. Each even pull and resettle of her hair felt soothingly familiar, like being home with Skipper again, but also new like being here right now. And maybe being here wasn’t so bad.

Gimli finished the braid and tied it off with a delicate leather cord.

Barbie turned her head from side to side. “How do I look?”

“Brave as a dwarf, charming as a hobbit, and lovely as an elf,” Gimli declared.

Barbie smiled, and it was a real smile. Oh. She hadn’t felt one of those in… it had been some time. It felt so nice, sweet with relief that she could still smile and mean it.

She felt tears well in her eyes and threw her arms around Gimli. “Thank you, Gimli. Thank you for being here.”

Gimli patted her back affectionately. “I’m always glad to help a friend.” He pulled back and gathered his axes and bag. “I should put these away and wash before dinner. Will you be alright?”

Barbie wiped at her eyes, smiling again. “I actually think I might be.”

Gimli nodded. “I’m here if that changes,” he promised.

He gave her hand a squeeze and left Barbie to straighten up the infirmary before she headed down to the kitchen to get things started for dinner and found a bit of chaos as Lace was hunched over a raw pork loin, taking large possessive bites, while Princess Zelda and Finn Balor were trying to move around her to get to the fridge.

Barbie sighed. “Lace. You have to eat outside. People need to use the kitchen.”

Lace looked momentarily affronted and then grudgingly dragged her loin outside to finish it. Finn grabbed a soda from the fridge, passing one over to Zelda before grabbing a sponge and cleaning up the little meaty dribbles Lace had left trailing out to the yard.

He shook his head fondly. “Sharing the kitchen with a dinosaur. Never a dull moment in the League.”

Barbie was about to respond when Rosa strode in, heading for the coffee pot. Barbie felt herself freeze up. She couldn’t stay up all night prepping the firearms. Well, she could, but she shouldn’t. She should just tell Rosa. She could do this.

Rosa will be angry.

Maybe. But she had to start trusting that the other Leaguers had her back at some point. She touched her braid. Now was as good a time as any.

“Hey Rosa?”

“What’s up? You want coffee?” Rosa said, her back still turned.

“No, I’m okay. I just wanted to let you know that I don’t have the firearms ready for the training tomorrow. I tried to do too much so I think we’re going to have to postpone it until the day after tomorrow.”

Rosa turned, leaning back against the counter and shrugged. “Cool. That works better for me anyway. Do you need help getting them ready? I can do some of them tonight.”

Barbie felt so lightheaded with relief that she almost didn’t hear Rosa’s offer to help. “Oh, um, but, aren’t you going to watch the movie?”

Rosa smirked. “Hah! No, I’m not watching Elf. I don’t do Christmas movies. Lara and I are going for a ride late tonight anyway.”

“Oh. Well yeah, I mean, if you can do the handguns, that would be great.”

“You’d rather handle the long-range ones yourself? I knew I liked you, Barbie.” Rosa grinned as she headed back into the main hall with her mug.

Barbie felt herself sag in relief. God. She could really go for a bath right now. She couldn’t remember the last time she hadn’t been the one coordinating dinner. Being the only one with chef experience made her the obvious choice. She opened up the fridge and looked at the neatly stacked containers of chopped, and somewhat mutilated, vegetables.

“You look a bit lost. Everything okay?” Zelda asked

Barbie bit her lip. “Do you… do you think someone else would be able to handle dinner?”

Finn popped up from the floor where he was still cleaning up. “Yes! I can do it. I’m not much of a cook, but I can get something on the table.”

“Are you sure..?” She admittedly didn’t like the sound of “not much of a cook.”

“Yeah. I’m hardly going to get better at anything if all I do for the League is fight. I’m already well up on my hand to hand. I can stand to pick up a thing or two about cooking.”

Zelda met Barbie’s gaze, looking cheerfully determined. “Just tell me what your plan for dinner was. I can get it organized. Finn, round up some helpers, would you?”

Finn cracked the door to the yard and called out, “Anyone who doesn’t want to be on dish duty, come help with dinner!”

A few Leaguers looked up from their various activities and filed in.

“We’ve got this. C’mon lads, hand washing first. Toothless, would you start the stove?”

Toothless whuffed at the wood, igniting it immediately.

“Good on you. Alright, let’s make some dinner!”

The kitchen clattered into life. It was chaotic and Zelda has to ask Barbie to repeat the dinner plans a few times as she took notes. The kitchen warmed and everyone was still figuring out how not to bump into each other as they moved around, but they were learning. It might not be the best dinner, but it would be food. Maybe that was enough for one night.

Barbie left the kitchen in the hands of Zelda and Finn who were laughing as they tried to figure out how much salt to add to the water for pasta as Squirrel Girl and Ash Ketchum rubbed down several chickens with garlic and butter.

She went to her room and ran a bath, sinking into it up to the tip of her nose. Ahh, that was better. It felt so strange and a bit scary to be sitting here while others were working away downstairs.

You should be down there. What if something goes wrong?

Yes. That could happen. But it was also possible that everything would be fine. They were all together, they had one another if something went wrong. She forced herself to stay in the bath for an extra five minutes, just to prove a point to herself. Just because things might go wrong without her didn’t mean they always would. And just because she was there didn’t mean everything would go right.

She took extra time getting ready for dinner. She wound her hair into an updo, wrapping the braid around her crown. She picked an outfit that wasn’t just for practicality, a pretty blue party dress with sparkles on it.

You’re wasting your time on things that don’t matter.

Barbie stiffened but forced herself to pick out shoes that she liked, not just grabbing the nearest serviceable pair.

Dressed and ready, she made her way down to dinner, passing through the kitchen first. It was, as she suspected it might be, something of a wreck, but Finn was grinning from ear to ear with his hands elbow deep in soapy water as he got started on the washing up. Zelda was helping Ash carry plates out to the great hall, and Doreen was carrying an enormous tray in each arm, loaded up with food.

“Do you need help?” Barbie asked

“Nope! Just hungry mouths!” Squirrel Girl called out as she breezed past.

Barbie ate with Finn, Miss Piggy, Vivian, and Zelda. The food was fine, but she made a show of telling Zelda and Finn how well they’d done in cooking for a crowd this size for the first time. Both of them looked quietly pleased with themselves.

Afterwards there was the usual hubbub of scraping off dishes, various League members lining up along the deep basin sink to help wash up, and another set of Leaguers drying them. Normally she’d organized quite a bit of the post-meal cleanup as well. It was strange to just be part of it but not in the middle of it. Strange, but nice. A kind of quiet relief that she actually could step back and things wouldn’t all fall apart.

The kitchen was wiped down and even Lace had helped mop the floor. Well, sort of helped mop the floor.

With everything done, several of the League members peeled off, heading towards the room that Sombra had set up as a kind of movie theater. Barbie drifted after them.

Finn looked back to see Barbie and beamed. “Glad you’re joining us!”

Barbie looked around the group of Leaguers clumped together and making their way to watch a movie together. And it felt okay. It felt good, even. There was still some of that bittersweet fear that this might all be temporary, that something bad might arrive at their doorstep tomorrow. But there was also joy, and something like comfort in all of it. A sense of being found after being lost for a long time.

Gimli caught her eye and smiled.

Barbie smiled back and turned to Finn. “Thanks. I am too.”