This Friable World - part one
Aalya pulled a lock of choppy bangs behind her ear. It immediately fell back in front of her eyes. Her expression remained a down-turned mystery. Whatever she had been holding she now covered with gloved hands, nearly hidden themselves by her long hair.
"Seriously, dude?" Mazra swung her heavy bag off her shoulder and dropped to the bench next to Aalya. The bag rattled as it touched the pavement, all the glass jars inside tinkling against each other. "Just gonna ignore me?"
Aalya apparently did plan to ignore her because she hadn't flicked her gaze over since Mazra had approached. And there was no way Aalya didn't know it was her.
Mazra huffed out an annoyed breath and unzipped the bag vigorously. The zipper made a noise that sounded like a cat yowling.
A flock of students rushed by, nearly tripping over each other with laughter. Their sock colors clearly denoted their ranks and sects, as well as the school they attended. Mazra automatically read the information as they passed. What a diverse bunch that was, not caring about propriety or hierarchy.
Mazra dug around between the jars until she found the small round one with the imprints of flowers around the edges. She pulled it out and tossed it to Aalya, who barely caught it before it hit her knees.
Aalya looked over, all wide marigold eyes against russet cheeks. At this angle, Mazra could see even more clearly the shaved section in her hair behind her ears.
Mazra sighed. "You're a real pain in the ass, you know?"
Aalya's lips tipped down on the edges. She returned her attention to her lap, with her hidden prize in one hand, and the other gently cupping the jar.
Mazra dropped her head against the back of the bench and stretched her arms wide to the sky. She closed her eyes and breathed in the crisp Autumn air. Soon, the weather would decide between the heat of summer and the cool of winter; but for now, the leaves fell and crunched beneath their feet, and the ground still radiated warmth that combated the biting breeze. It was Mazra's favorite time of year, for many reasons. Not the least of which was all the brittle pieces everywhere around her, bringing life to an otherwise pliant world.
"Don't use it all at once," Mazra said belatedly, in case Aalya was paying attention in her periphery. She stifled a yawn. "I won't be able to make more for a few days. But you know that already, don't you?"
They sat in silence, the two of them. Mazra reveled in the rare experience of sunlight burning against her eyelids, until a shadow covered the light. She peeked her eyes open and saw Aalya was holding up her jacket over Mazra's face.
Mazra looked at the jacket, then at Aalya. She smiled and let out a soft, "Heh." She took it from Aalya, their fingertips brushing in the movement. "Thank you," she said quietly.
Aalya squeezed Mazra's thigh lightly and went back to contemplating her gifts. Mazra crowded her bare skin beneath the comfort and protection of the jacket. Heat burned along her exposed thighs beneath her kimono-like robe, so she pulled the fabric down as far as it could go and moved the jacket accordingly to cover the rest. She could smell Aalya's scent on the thick cloth; mostly the scent of her shampoo, but also a bit of something that was inexplicably Aalya.
Aalya almost never wore a jacket, just her oversized sweater always falling off one shoulder. The jacket she gave Mazra would never have fit over that sweater. Had she brought it simply to give to Mazra if she needed it?
Mazra smiled to herself. Sometimes it wasn't so bad to have left her hat at home.
Mazra must have dozed off. She was startled awake by a soft kick to her shin.
"Shouldn't you be in the shade?"
Mazra peeked around the edge of the jacket. "What's it to you?"
Hysa heaved a great sigh and dropped onto the bench next to her. It was only then that Mazra realized Aalya had left.
Thanks for letting me know, she thought sourly.
"This is what I get for caring about a childhood friend." Hysa leaned back against the bench and kicked their feet out in front of them. "Don't come crying to me when you disfigure yourself from idiocy."
"Oh come on. It won't be that bad."
Hysa cocked an eyebrow and gave Mazra a real strong side eye. "Do you not remember second grade?"
Mazra scrunched up her face. "I remember."
"Kind of doubt you do, if you're being this stupid about it." Hysa sighed again, even more heavily, and closed their eyes. "What a pain, what a pain. I can't even leave you alone. I'll feel too bad looking at your red ass face if you do get hurt."
"I'll be fine. I have a jacket."
"Hmm." Hysa looked sidelong at Mazra. "So you do."
They stared at each other for a moment until Mazra let out a grunt.
"Fine, fine. I'll move."
She pushed herself up with dramatic movements, zipped up her bag, threw it back over her shoulder and placed the jacket over her head to protect her. She stalked toward the nearby tree line, and wasn't surprised that it took a good two minutes for Hysa to bother to follow.
Hysa fell in step behind Mazra, their hands in their pockets, a knitted beanie hiding their dark shock of curly hair except around the edges where it twisted and turned cutely. Hysa always looked fashionable and put together, so it wasn't a surprise. What was a surprise were the long pants.
"Why're you covering your socks?"
Hysa shrugged and sped up to walk at Mazra's side. "Just felt like it today." Mazra gave Hysa a once over. Hysa raised their brow. "What."
Hysa made a face. "Is not."
"Yeah it is. People are gonna wonder why you're hiding your stats. It's not like you're unknown around here. Unless." Mazra stopped suddenly, nearly making Hysa run into her. She turned on them quickly, intrigue fluttering her stomach. "Oh wow. Are you really?"
A flush of color warmed Hysa's tawny cheeks. They looked away, sterling eyes darkening.
"You are?" Mazra gasped. She grabbed Hysa by the shoulders. "You are!"
"Shut up," Hysa mumbled.
"Sands alive, Hysa! This is a big day! How are you going to do it?"
Hysa rubbed at the back of their head. They still wouldn't meet her eyes. "I don't know yet."
"Well you can't just walk in there without a plan."
"I know that!"
Hysa scowled at the dirt-packed trail beneath them and didn't answer. Fiery red, orange and yellow leaves crumpled at Hysa's every move and flickered on the edges of the wind. Mazra felt the shape of them without even looking. Her fingers twitched but she did not reach out for that crisp and brittle comfort. The cool breeze felt nice on Mazra's heated skin, and somehow served to warm her lifting heart.
She smiled and wrapped an arm around Hysa's shoulders. Tipping her head against Hysa's neck, she beamed up at the canopy above. She could see the cornflower blue sky beyond, with white clouds tinged grey from shadow. The light speckled between the leaves, dotting in bands and rays down to them and the ground, where an ever-present game of hide and seek played out between light and dark. She felt the heat of that dispersed light on her sensitive cheeks, and had to pull the jacket down further to block it.
"It'll be okay, Hysa, you'll see," she said with a light jostle of her friend's shoulders. "I'll help you."
Hysa rubbed at one arm with their other hand, their head tipped downward in embarrassment, but pressed against Mazra's forehead in gratitude.
"Thanks," they said quietly.
"We have a lot to discuss, then!" Mazra hugged Hysa quickly, completely, and then jumped away. She was getting more excited the more she thought about it. "Do you have class right now? We should go to the cafe. The one near Wejzn's. That way, if we see Crys you can..."
"Whoa, whoa, don't get ahead of yourself. Until I know what to say, I'm not going to..."
"So you were just going to loiter conspicuously at the castle gates, watching the students come and go while you're hiding your identity?" Mazra pointedly looked down at Hysa's covered socks. "You don't think that would make you stand out more than anything else?"
Hysa rubbed the back of their neck. "I don't want anyone to know who I am yet..."
"You're pretty memorable. That will happen regardless."
"I'm not that--"
Mazra punched Hysa on the arm. "Shut up. You're the tallest Firebreather I know. And one of the best in the city. People know of you. Probably even in other schools."
Hysa rolled their eyes and started walking. "Whatever. If you think that cafe's the best place to plan, then..."
"Of course I do. Trust me! You know I'm good at this."
Mazra pulled the jacket over her shoulders like a cape, and tied the arms around her front. She absently ran her fingers along the shape of the cuffs, catching her fingernails on the raised buttons, and the embroidered designs. She hummed quietly under her breath, a hop in her step.
"What's with that jacket, anyway?" Hysa reached over and played with one of the lapels. "Looks military-grade."
"Oh this?" Mazra lifted the sleeve to her lips and inhaled Aalya's scent. It always reminded her of these cool and friable days. "Aalya gave me this, so I wouldn't burn."
Hysa gave her a flat look.
"What?" Mazra scowled and whapped Hysa's side with the back of her hand. "Why is this the one thing you never believe me on?"
"Because I keep telling you, Aalya doesn't exist."
"Yes she does!"
"Come on, Maz. People have been in the same room when you say she's there. I've been there when you claim she's there. No one ever sees or hears her, only you." Hysa dropped the jacket and shoved their hands in their hoodie pockets. "If you aren't lying about that, then the most logical answer is Aalya's a ghost who's haunting you. And that doesn't seem very logical to me."
"I don't know what she is. Maybe she's a ghost, maybe she isn't. But I don't think she is. She feels real to me."
"Yeah, well." Hysa glanced over through a forest of black curls. "Who ever heard of a ghost that could give someone a jacket, anyway?"
+ + +
Mazra's home was unusually cold when she returned. She sighed, kicking on the heater as she passed. The lights flickered on at her movement, buzzing faintly in the gloom until a semblance of daylight filled the apartment. She had to pass what felt like a million mirrors as always, all sizes and shapes, ages and clarity, filling the walls and in some places the floor and ceiling. She avoided looking at herself as always, simply because it was disorienting. She did get distracted at one corner, though, when she saw a rash of red against one of her pale cheeks. With a grunt, she stopped and leaned forward to inspect, pulling her skin this way and that, moving in and out against the mirror.
She looked down at her thighs, and saw a rash starting there as well.
Aalya had probably helped keep this from something that would scar, but it was going to be painful for a week at least. She scratched at her leg, a mixture of pain and relief mingling into something mostly uncomfortable.
You never learn.
Mazra's eyebrows shot up and she pulled back. Over her shoulder in the mirror, she saw Aalya. Standing in the hallway that had just been empty.
As always, Aalya was in her black skinny jeans with the rips, a large light-colored knitted sweater falling off one shoulder with her black bralette strap showing, and lace-up brown leather boots that were nearly worn through and had too many straps and zippers. Her earrings glinted in the light, and her hair fell in tousled waves nearly all the way down to her ankles. Mazra always wondered why someone with such long hair would keep it shaved in a swatch behind each ear.
But, more than anything, it was Aalya's face that drew Mazra. The slightly slanted marigold eyes, the thick dark eyelashes, the lips that were small but perfectly formed. The consternated expression she wore by default.
Would her voice have been different than what Mazra heard in her mind, if Aalya could talk?
Mazra pulled the jacket off her shoulders and walked forward, holding it out. Aalya looked down at it, then met Mazra's eyes without bothering to reach out.
Mazra quirked an eyebrow. "Okay. If you say so."
Aalya watched Mazra's lips, unable to hear the words, reading them in shape as well as in thought.
As always, Aalya knew the circumstances from that alone. She crossed her arms at her stomach.
"It's fine," Mazra said with a shrug. "No one will ever believe me about you as long as I'm the only one who sees and hears you."
I hear their thoughts too.
"Why don't you speak to them, then?" Mazra tapped her temple. "In their minds."
They don't hear me.
Aalya nodded. You're the only one who hears me.
"Hmm... Have you ever wondered why that is?"
Aalya looked troubled and turned away. Mazra sighed.
Sorry, she thought, so Aalya could still hear her words without being able to see her lips. I know you don't like talking about it.
Aalya's back remained stiff, unmoving. Mazra padded forward on socked feet and stopped behind her. She rested her chin on Aalya's shoulder and laced their fingers together.
Sorry, she whispered again in her mind.
You're angry with me for ignoring you earlier.
I'm not angry, really, Mazra thought, I just don't like it when I don't know what's up with you. Why wouldn't you talk to me then? What were you looking at?
Aalya's shoulders grew taut. A prolonged silence stretched between them. Mazra sighed and rubbed her cheek against Aalya's neck. She was soft to the touch; comforting and comfortable, as always. Mazra reached up and pulled a heavy swath of Aalya's long, dark hair out of the way so she could lean in and lightly kiss the buzzed part of her scalp. Her eyelashes brushed against the army of loops and studs dotting Aalya's ear.
Aalya squeezed Mazra's hand and gently turned. They stood close, their eyes meeting. Mazra would never tire of the variation from chartreuse to bright gold that showed in Aalya's irises. Aalya reached up, her fingertips lightly skimming the rash on Mazra's face. Her expression wavered. Her hand slid back to beneath Mazra's flyaway wavy hair, tangling in the curls. She pulled her forward and down, making Mazra rest her forehead at the meeting of Aalya's shoulder and neck. Aalya slid her other arm around Mazra and held her close in a hug. Mazra smiled sadly and returned the embrace, feeling the warm beating of Aalya's heart reverberate against her own chest. Finding comfort in Aalya's presence.
They stayed that way for long enough for Mazra to almost forget what she had asked of Aalya. And then she remembered, and Aalya instantly knew, and for a moment tension might have built again but Mazra pointedly pushed the question from her mind. Aalya relaxed at that, and the two of them remained close enough to breathe the same mix of moistened air.
At some point, Mazra felt her legs tingle from standing still for too long. Aalya brushed her hands back through Mazra's hair, kissed her lightly on the top of her head, and released her hold. They kept their hands linked and walked through the empty apartment back and back to the combined living room and bedroom, where a futon served as both the couch and Mazra's bed. They settled onto it, with Aalya first having to pull her hair in front so she wouldn't sit on it. Mazra curled her legs up beneath her, while Aalya leaned forward and started the painstaking process of unbuckling and untying her combat boots.
How long do you think you'll stay this time?
Aalya looked up at Mazra's question. For some reason, she looked particularly pained. There was a wet glint in her eyes that normally wasn't there. I don't know.
Mazra smiled at her, but knew without having to look into one of the many mirrors that it was a saddened smile, reflecting her inner mood. She reached over and ran her hand along Aalya's right buzzed side, enjoying the prickling of the short hair against her palm until her fingers slid into the thicker, heavier waves. She wanted to braid Aalya's hair all the way to the ends, then curl the braids around and around her arms until the two of them were so intertwined it felt like they were one.
Aalya's cheeks reddened. She looked away.
Mazra let out a soft laugh. Sorry.
Aalya worried at her lower lip, the blush only deepening. It's okay. I-- Aalya played with the messy curly ends of her hair. I don't mind.
"Heh." Mazra smoothed her hands all the way down Aalya's hair, from her scalp, down and down over her back, over her thigh, ending at where Aalya had pooled it up at her knees.
Mazra ran her fingertips lightly over the curls of hair, up over Aalya's tremulous hands, down to the course fabric of her pants, ending on the bare peek of skin in the rip at her knees. She could feel Aalya trembling beneath her touch, and saw the way she bit harder on her lower lip. Mazra reached over with her other hand, a finger gently touching Aalya's chin, guiding her face up and over until she could see her expression.
Aalya's eyes danced against Mazra's; meeting and then gliding away, darting around the room only to pull back, magnetically, to Mazra's gaze. Mazra's smile widened. She slid her palm up to Aalya's cheek, reveling in the warmth of her, in that quaking gentle vulnerability no one else could ever see.
"You really don't mind?"
Aalya shook her head lightly, not breaking Mazra's gaze, not disrupting her soft touch.
"Well then." Mazra stayed still a moment, and then leaned forward. Their eyes grew closer, their expressions fluctuating, getting more pronounced. Aalya's scent overwhelmed her; something so pleasant, welcoming, familiar, but Mazra could never exactly place what it was. Not floral, not woodsy, not fruity... a smell entirely not of this world, yet still so familiar it warmed Mazra's heart and brought a flutter to her throat.
Aalya flushed. Her fingers twitched against her knees, and then she raised her hands. Placed one gentle palm against the back of Mazra's neck, and wrapped the other loosely, encouragingly, around Mazra's wrist. They grew so close Mazra couldn't focus. She saw Aalya's eyes close, her eyelids fluttering, and Mazra followed suit.
In the darkness behind her eyes, their lips met. Soft, warm, quaking, uncertain but welcoming. They barely brushed against each other before they pulled apart, barely a breath between them. Aalya's fingers twitched on Mazra's wrist, her hand was warm and encouraging on Mazra's neck. Mazra felt heat even brighter than the sun glow inside her. It started in her heart and stomach; pooled deep in her body and brought a giddy shiver all the way up her throat.
Her heart pounded, and in Aalya's touch, she could feel that Aalya's did too.
They moved in again, both silently reaching for the same thing. They met at the lips, a deeper press, a quiet break apart, and then they met in the middle and this time they didn't stop. Heat overwhelmed Mazra's consciousness. Somewhere, one of them slid their mouth open; flicked a tongue against the other's lips and she opened hers too. Their lips and tongues cautiously, gently explored each other. Afraid to venture too far, afraid to pull back too much. Their hands stayed where they had been but grew firmer, more insistent. Now, Aalya was holding Mazra close, keeping her from pulling away. Not that Mazra planned to.
Their legs shifted, their backs turned.
They oriented their bodies toward each other, the center of their respective universes.
How many days passed like this, lost in the simple pleasure of Aalya's touch? How many millennia did they live on that futon, gathering close the measure of their hearts?
Somewhere, the world continued to move, time didn't cease to turn, and Mazra's knees began to ache from her awkward position. She didn't want to pull away, she didn't want this to end. But she could not spend eternity in that moment, no matter what she may have given to try.
They pulled apart as gently and slowly as they had come together. Lips brushing, parting, brushing again in increasing intervals until slowly, finally, they were their own separate beings again, and not the amalgamation of their love.
Aalya's hand squeezed Mazra's wrist. She searched Mazra's eyes intently.
Is that true?
Mazra let her gaze explore every contour of Aalya's face; an adventure she never wanted to end. She reached back into Aalya's hair again, loving the soft texture, loving the weight of it.
"Is what true?"
That you love me.
Mazra looked back into Aalya's eyes. She warmed her palm on Aalya's cheek. "Of course I do."
Aalya's gaze was caught on Mazra's lips at her words, then moved back up with an intensity Mazra had never seen. She searched every nook and cranny of Mazra's expression, danced back and forth between her eyes. Searching, searching, for an answer she would ultimately find, because Mazra had nothing to hide.
"You don't believe me?"
It's not that. It's-- Aalya pulled Mazra's hand over, turned her palm up and kissed the inside of her wrist. Her lips remained there, soft against the beating of Mazra's heart.
"Does it have something to do with whatever was happening this morning?"
Aalya's gaze dropped but she otherwise did not move, and did not take her lips from Mazra's skin. Her breath rose in her chest, bringing Mazra's attention to the sway of fabric on her sweater and the soft black cloth of the bralette beneath.
She was beautiful.
Every part of Aalya was beautiful, from her touch, to her kindness, to her style; from her eyes to her lips to her hair, from her choice of earrings to the way she tied the bows on her boots, backwards from the way Mazra had been taught. Every piece of her, big and small, was the most beautiful being Mazra had ever had the honor to meet.
Aalya let out a quaking breath. She tightened her hold on Mazra, and pressed her lips down in a stronger, more desperate kiss. No, Mazra. You're the one... You're the one who--
Aalya was gone.
Between one blink and the next, just like it always happened, Aalya was here and then she wasn't. The warmth of her, the imprint of her body on the futon, they faded so quickly every time that it was almost depressing. Aalya's boots remained kicked over on the floor, and her jacket would still be where it had been left, crumpled in the hallway.
Why was it that her possessions could remain, but Aalya herself could not?
Mazra sighed. "Whatever your story is, Aalya, it sure has terrible timing."
She curled her knees up against her chest and rested her lips against her inner wrist where Aalya's mouth had been seconds before.
She liked to believe she felt her kiss linger.
She liked to believe it meant Aalya remained there in spirit, if only a little longer.
+ + +
Good news, bad news, everyone! I wrote a story hoping to submit it to an anthology but after further review of the terms, it was recommended to me that I not submit the story. Which is okay because honestly I already wrote over the word limit and the ending wasn't very good because I was trying to cut it short.
So the bad news is I'm not sending it into that publisher, but the good news is this means I wrote a whole new story and now I am thinking of making it my second serial. (I know, I know, I still need to write more in Reciprocal too - but don't worry, I will!)
The good news is, because I'm not submitting it, I'm going to be posting this story here instead :)
I have about 10,000 words written so far. I'm posting the first half, around 5000 words, right now. I'll post the next half in a week or two. This story will actually tie into another story eventually, so if you like the characters or world, they probably will pop up again sometime even outside of the context of this serial.
Depending on how I want to do things, this story might stop (for now) at the next part, until I tie it into the larger story -- or I might do a couple more short pieces to it, and leave it at a different situation for when it will eventually tie into the larger story. Depends on how it all goes.
I couldn't decide on the name. For a while I had it This Frangible World and then I changed it to This Friable World. I haven't decided if I'll switch it back or keep it as-is. Friable is more appropriate but I like how Frangible sounds better, so we'll see.
Anyway hope you had fun with the story :)