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Interlude I

VI.

Late December, three months later, on a dark winter night thick with snow, at Hailey's apartment.



  "I'm home, Jess!" Hailey called, kicking snow off her boot on the front step before she walked in. Her hands were laden down with groceries from Hector's place and her face pink from the cold outside. The hallway was no better, and she felt her teeth starting to chatter. Hailey closed her eyes briefly and extended her mind out into the edges of her skin. She found the points she was looking for and set them vibrating slightly, like she were mentally twanging a taut cord.

  In moments Hailey began to warm up again. The spell had worn off since she left Hector's. Feeling the warmth trickle through her skin, she felt like she was properly home. Hailey pulled the door shut with her foot before heading downstairs to starting unloading the groceries.

  "Hope you like ham, because that's all I could think of for Christmas dinner," Hailey sighed. "Hector gave me an employee discount but it's still not much." She bustled around the kitchen, checking on the brownies she'd pulled out of the oven just before she'd run to the store. They looked perfect, just the right balance. She pulled a few of onto a plate and set it aside before turning to the tree in the corner.

  It was an artificial tree, which to Hailey's sensibilities as a native Pacific Northwester was an affront to nature. Her landlord had expressly forbidden bringing trees in for one reason or another, which left her limited options. She didn't like the plasticky, obviously fake pine branches, but she couldn't not have a Christmas tree. It was a compromise.

  Hailey kept a vague running commentary aloud of everything she did while she went about cleaning up the kitchen. The apartment was always so quiet of late, and Hailey was never much for the quiet. She craved activity and interaction. Anything to remind her that her ears were still functioning properly, and that someone still lived in that place.

  The air was her constant companion. She'd grown accustomed to feeling it as an extension of herself and felt comforted by its presence. Hailey was prone to shifting it around solely out of habit. While she worked in the kitchen, she sent a slight breeze coasting across her face, despite the chill. It helped the room feel less stuffy and more alive.

  The air was a great help to her as well in cleaning. She sent it thundering underneath chairs and over the tops of cabinets, blowing around dust with ease and collecting it neatly into the trash can. She felt like a composer directing a whispering orchestra as the gust tossed the room around. Any loose papers or light objects had long since been weighted down, as this was a regular occurrence.

  Done cleaning and done shopping, Hailey headed back up the stairs to their bedroom. She knocked on the door twice gently before calling out, "Just me, Jess."

  A bright crescent moon streamed in through the window curtains, casting long shadows across the floor from the couple of stuffed animals that sat perched on the sill. The room was cold and dark, and Hailey immediately set to warming it up as best she could. It was a wide space, but it was enclosed and had plenty of objects to trap heat, so it wasn't as difficult as some spaces. She wished they could afford to pay their heating bill, but it just didn't fit the budget she'd laid out. They saved wherever they could by relying on magic. Hailey crossed the room and collapsed in her desk chair.

  "Long, long day. I'm taking too many classes. I think I'll drop one next term," Hailey mused, picking up her notebook and leafing through pages at random. "It's just too hectic between that and work. Plus I never get to spend enough time here." She looked up over the top of the notebook. "Would you like that?"

  A faint breeze brushed Hailey's face, sending a few strands of hair fluttering.

  Hailey shivered. "Jess, you gotta stop doing that. I'm cold enough as is."

  "Mm," she answered, slightly muffled.

  Hailey set the notebook aside and turned to face her. "I wonder if you'd want to go back to school. If you could, I mean," she added. She felt embarrassed asking such a question, when she knew that Jessica couldn't answer.

  She didn't understand a word Hailey was saying.

  Jessica was sitting cross-legged on Hailey's bed, wrapped in a blanket and looking around the room inquisitively. Presently she was sending little licks of firelight dancing around the room like tiny floating candles, spinning out an intricate pattern. Hailey was impressed Jessica maintained the dance even while tickling her with the current of air, two very different spells.

  "You know, that's supposed to be my affinity. How do you do all that at once so easy?" Hailey asked. Jessica cocked her head to the side, not understanding, and Hailey did her best to hide her exasperation. It wasn't Jess' fault. She was doing the best she could.

  Hailey brought her hands to her mouth, miming a knife and fork. Jessica nodded, 'hmm'ing excitedly. She leapt off the bed and headed back downstairs, Hailey following less enthusiastically.

  Thankfully it was leftovers night, or Hailey might have simply given up on dinner entirely. She felt far too exhausted to cook. Instead, they enjoyed microwaved chicken from the day before, which Jessica dug into with gusto. Hailey picked at her food gently and watched her friend chowing down. Had she always eaten like that?

  Yes, Hailey reminded herself. It was the same Jessica, through and through. Her personality wasn't really different. Just adjusted, viewed through a different lens. More importantly, Hailey was quite literally the only person Jessica ever interacted with anymore. Enthusiasm at the little things wasn't that weird.

  "You know, Jess, Christmas is coming up," Hailey said, still picking at her chicken with her fork. "I need to get you something."

  Jessica looked up. For a moment Hailey thought she might have understood, but she looked away again a moment later. 'Jess' was the only word she'd caught, which she recognized as her own name. Everything else was just noise.

  "I wonder if your parents got you anything," Hailey continued. "Doubt it. How do you put up with them anyway?"

  Hailey had gone to meet with them after it became clear Jessica's condition wasn't improving. Before she'd even begun to explain what was wrong with their daughter, they'd said they didn't care what she got up to and that her life decisions were her own business.

  Hailey had been quickly shuffled to the door and told not to return.

  "Probably best I didn't say anything," Hailey mused. "It's a good thing you were already dropping out of your classes or I'd have the university all over me too." Jessica frowned, looking at Hailey's plate of chicken which she'd largely ignored. "You want more?" Hailey asked. She pointed at the plate, then at Jessica.

  Jessica shook her head, gesturing to Hailey and miming eating.

  "I'm not feeling very hungry," Hailey said, shaking her head. Jessica frowned again. She mimed sleeping, then waking up and pointing at her stomach with a pained face in quick succession. Hailey sighed. "You're probably right." She began to eat again, and Jessica nodded with satisfaction. "It's a good thing you stopped being shy around me," Hailey added with her mouth full. "Shy people suck at charades."

  When they finished dinner, Jessica cleaned and put away the plates while Hailey went to relax on the sofa, still burned out from the day. Jessica joined her a minute later, bringing along her laptop (which Hailey had seen no need to return to her family). Hailey wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close, then took hold of the blanket across the room with her mind and floated it over to wrap them up snug.

  Jessica's laptop had been a bit of a challenge. Hailey had found it locked up tight and Jessica staring at the letters on the keys with a defeated expression. Hailey had taken it to a friend, Mason, and—after a great deal of persuasion—gotten him to unlock it without asking too many questions. Since then, it had become Jessica's portal to random knowledge. She had stumbled her way to the few sites she used by sheer persistence, either via random clicks or following images and icons to what she needed. Hailey wasn't sure what she did all day, but Jessica seemed content, so Hailey didn't question it.

  When they curled up on the couch, that usually meant watching a show. Lately, that had been a good deal of anime. It really wasn't Hailey's thing, and she was out like a light within minutes every time. It just wasn't for her. Still, given the artwork and the high energy of whatever Jessica was watching, Hailey could see the appeal for someone who couldn't possibly follow a plot verbally.

  Sure enough, Jessica pulled one up, and it was only once she was gently shaking Hailey awake again that she even realized she'd fallen asleep.

  "Sorry, Jess," Hailey mumbled. "Is it time for bed?" She mimed laying down on her hands, their usual gesture for going to sleep. Jessica shook her head. Hailey realized that the laptop screen was still on and paused on something.

  It was some series about magic, if Hailey remembered right. It was nonsense, of course, now that they knew what the real thing was—but still Jessica had latched onto it. Maybe it was the characters or the frantic pace, Hailey didn't know. What she did see was that the picture was frozen on a character holding up a bird feather. Once she saw Hailey was paying attention, Jessica tapped the keyboard.

  The character dropped the feather into a pot, puff of smoke and everything. Jessica pointed at the feather emphatically. Hailey wasn't sure what she was supposed to understand from the scene. Were they going to make a potion or something?

  "Jess, I don't get it."

  Jessica paused it again, and mimed scribbling something on paper.

  "It's over on the desk," Hailey answered, pointing. Jessica frowned, pressing up against Hailey under the blanket and shivering deliberately. She laughed. "Fair enough."

  With some effort, Hailey found the paper and pencils on the desk and took hold of them. Moving things with her mind had become a bit easier over time, but she still never managed to be very precise with it. Hailey doubted she'd ever really get a hold of it, with how little progress she seemed to manage. Case in point, she managed to accidentally wrap the paper around Jessica's head instead of landing gently in her outstretched hand like she'd intended.

  Jessica slapped Hailey on the arm gently with a stern look on her face, then took the paper and laid it against the lid of her closed laptop. She began scribbling out a feather, then what Hailey took to be a gemstone.

  "Gems and feathers?" Hailey murmured, not following.

  Jessica circled them, then drew an arrow and drew out a person in a superhero pose, cape and all, with action lines.

  "Gems and feathers equal flying?"

  Jessica then drew out a circle between them, then surrounded it with the shape Hailey had dreaded. Another hypocycloid—eight sided this time—with gemstones at the cardinal points and little feathers at the diagonals.

  "You think I can fly if I did a ritual using these?" Hailey wondered aloud. "You can use feathers for energy?" She was cautiously excited. She'd never given up on her goal, despite everything that had happened. Hailey Winscombe still longed more than anything to fly through the air on her own power.

  She just couldn't do it. Not that way.

  Hailey pointed at the ritual shape and shook her head. Jessica frowned, then pointed at it again and nodded.

  Hailey sighed. "No. I can't. Not after this."

  Jessica shook her head. She pointed at the ritual shape, then at herself and raised her eyebrow.

  Hailey nodded. "Because of how much it's hurt you."

  Her head shook again more frantically, brown and blue hair almost smacking Hailey in the face. Jessica pointed at herself, then gave a thumbs up and smiled. Hailey's eyes threatened to well up, but she forced it away. She refused to cry in front of her best friend.

  "Jess, you're way braver than me," Hailey murmured, hugging her. "I just do stupid things for fun. You actually go after the things you want in life. Hell, you managed to move in with the girl you loved on your own terms. Well played." Jessica hugged her back, and Hailey continued mumbling into her messy brown hair. "You're the smart one too. You figured out all the branches and the affinities and such. I just goofed off and did little air tricks."

  Hailey felt a teardrop roll down her cheek against her will and land in Jessica's hair. Jess stiffened as she felt it, but Hailey just held her close and refused to let her look up and see the tears rolling down her face. "I'm going to figure this out. I'll help you get better, and then we can go flying together. We can fly up in the sky and you can sing your heart out where no one's around to make fun of you for it. That's the best offer I've got, unless you can invent time travel." Hailey laughed bitterly. "Hey, maybe that's the eighth branch we never figured out. Good old time travel. Wouldn't that be nice?"

  Hailey buried her face in the blanket, wrapping it up tight around them both. "I need you to come back, Jessica," she mumbled. "We're the only ones left. Please. Come back and sing again."

  Jessica nudged her gently, and Hailey sighed. She loosened her grip just enough for Jessica to move around, and her friend started murmuring something that Hailey couldn't understand. A moment later, she felt warmth spreading all across her skin. It was so comfortable and soothing that Hailey immediately burst into tears. Jessica held her tight as Hailey sobbed, crying herself bitterly to sleep while a flurry of snow began pounding against the windows.

 

 

 

 

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Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Amateur Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

Bio: Sysadmin, student, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of wordcounts.

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