The phone rang in his pocket, an unpleasant vibration that traveled through the fabric of his cloths and to a skin that bloated and disfigured in small waves. His senses were growing dim, undefined, as quickly as this skin had become too much to bear.
He’d need to change, soon.
For now, he reached into his pocket and prayed his vocal cords had not been altered yet.
“I’ll do it, Sibin.”
There’s no need to ask who the caller is – the voice, the tone and the expressions are stagnant and clear in his mind, as if they were written in stone.
“Of course you will, dear friend.”
Some things never changed.
There was a strange sound on the other end, like the chisel of stone against stone – long and grating in the static of the landline. “You use that word too lightly.”
“As if it can be used darkly.”
There was nothing but silence from the other end. He’d expected no less. His words only ever fell on deaf ears, after all. With a shake of his head, as if to drive out an annoying thought, he asked himself “Why do I want myself to be understood, again?”
A dispassionate quiet gave no answers.
The bar was dim-lit and almost mist-covered from the converting cloud of both cigarette smoke and the excesses of chemical reactions. It mixed strangely with the slightest of abbreviation, like the smell of alcohol or strong caffeine or freshly pealed oranges. Mind you, the orange juice she was drinking was actually quite tasty.
Teodora hadn’t even touched hers.
Dorotea sighed. “What’s wrong?” she asked her friend, her tone that of a conspiring whisper. Teodora merely shrugged and refused to answer. That was normal, Teodora usually didn’t admit anything was wrong when asked and explaining her troubles usually lead to a full-on interrogation. It was kind of tedious for Dorotea, almost like a chore, but Tea was a high-maintenance heart of gold, so why not keep that gold untarnished?
“Tea~.” The dark-haired girl whined. It was a drawn out sound, a continuous echo of persistent frustration. It didn’t take long for Teodora to cave in.
“Um, uh, eh, you see, oh I… how should…” Dorotea rolled her eyes at the other girl, despite the victory she felt drawing ever-near. Just one little push now…
“Is it about your Teacher?”
“Um… she’s not back yet.”
“Tea, she hasn’t even left yet.”
“Yes, yes, I know! But she just told me she wouldn’t be here for a couple of days and maybe longer and what do I do if it’s longer and what if Drina is actually going to visit some of her old Apprentices and what if she decides that she wants one of them back and that they're better than me and then she realizes I’m not worth the effort and then–“
“Wait, wait, wait, wait. Did Drina actually tell you any of that?”
“So what in the name of flying pigs are you going on about?!”
Teodora slumped her shoulders, bit her lip, looked away from her friend and then back in a confusing set of motions that made it seem like she was shaking her head repeatedly. “I…” she began “I asked her if I could go with her.”
Dorotea’s eyes widened “What did she say?”
Teodora sighed “Who’s gonna be the law at Ghumno if both of us are gone.”
The tone she said it in was strange, implacable, but it made Dorotea laugh her ass off anyway.
There was a certain kind of damp in the air – stale and heavy, pressing against her skin with the same minute pressure of butter-fly wings to marble. People hurried around her while she slowly dragged her suitcase across the bus station. While the Humans might have been in a hurry, she was not.
Coats flurried this way and that, like ripples in an ocean, and she the pebble unmoved by the tide. Even if one of these Humans were to bump into her, she probably wouldn’t even notice. She forced herself to pay attention, though, because if she didn’t someone might accidentally break their arm – again.
Humans were the most fragile of beings, after all. She guessed she liked them because of that.
Her bus came into view, looking well maintained and smelling of fresh pain and gasoline. She quickened her pace a bit, skirted around the people around her like a bowling ball between crystal vases. Her suitcase followed behind her, almost weightless in her little hands.
She must have looked like a child to these Humans. That was alright, she wanted to be a child.
She waltzed right past the bus-driver, who was loading the last of the luggage into the belly of the metal contraption.
“Hey, girly!” he called. She did a little pirouette on her heel, just to check if it was aimed at her – it was. “Want me to put that away for you?”
“Nah, I think I’ll save the extra charge for some ice-creamed!” she shrugged, grinning at the thought of her favourite treat. So very cold, so very soft and mixed with white hot chocolate...
The bus driver shook his head at her “It’s the end of October and you kids still want ice-cream.”
“I want ice-cream all year around.” Her grin widened mischievously as she bounced from side to side – never stopping, never static.
“Run along to your parents then.” The bus driver shooed her off, not unkindly.
Her smile didn’t twitch, nor was there any other change in her expression. The steel in her irises had become a bit more reflective, though “Will do.”
Then she turned on her heel and skipped up the steps into the bus, the soft carpet an unfelt material beneath the rubber of her shoes, and all but collapsed into her designated seat. It creaked as if an elephant had sat in it.
The person next to her jumped at the carelessly dramatic entrance, dropping a leather bound book to the floor. That person, however, did not pick it up – too flabbergasted to do anything but stare.
She grinned, wide and unflinching “Why, hello to you too Drina! How’ve you been?”
The Human girl continued to stare – her expression was rather priceless, actually. Dorotea loved that too, how Humans could express so much emotion with the twitch of a few muscles.
She could mimic them, sure, but that took time and careful maneuvering of the whole structure of her face – once it settled into a certain shape, it was hard to change it into another one. Humans could go from smiling to bawling their eyes out in less than a minute, she needed about three to blink. She was of Shadowed Stone, after all, a Spirit bound to a rock – which a stone-cutter had been kind enough to make into a sculpture, once upon a hundred years ago.
“I... I don’t...” Drina gaped like a fish. Dorotea secretly took pride in causing such a radical reaction. Since they had met that evening on the bus, over half a year ago, Dorotea had taken a liking to the young Witch. Drina was expressive, rash and quite willing to speak her mind. Her little, fragile Human body carried within it such a potent mix of emotions that spoke of years and years of careful bottling.
Dorotea wondered how that bottle of glass could withstand it all and when and where, exactly, the cracks would begin to form.
More than anything, however, Drina took care of Tea. She gave the kid strength and protection, rubbed off on her in exactly the right manner to give the girl a bit of self confidence and purpose. Dorotea would miss those weightless days, when the time came and she had to move on. Humans, despite their ignorant nature, tended to notice when a seemingly thirteen-year-old child hadn’t aged a day in a decade.
Finally, Drina’s expression settled into something disbelieving and slightly horrified.
“Are you sure this is your seat?” the Witch said, faintly.
Dorotea took a small piece of paper out of the pocket
of her coat, waved it around slowly, almost teasingly. “Read it and weep.”
Sure enough, the ticket read D4, the seat right next to Drina, who conveniently had to sit by the window. The Human girl was half turned towards Dorotea, back to the window and looked like all she wanted was for the earth to open up and swallow her whole.
“You’re... you’re one of them, aren’t you? You’re... with the Toutes Agir or with Avala? Or... or the Grandharve?”
Dorotea merely raised an eyebrow at the other girl, her eyes gleaming with untold secrets. “What gave me away?” she asked.
Drina looked faintly green. Dorotea wondered if she had motion sickness. The bus had lurched into motion a few minutes ago, but the Human hadn’t seemed to have noticed.
Dorotea sighed and set about organizing her things. She set her suitcase under her feet. It was old and heavy, made like the ones they had back in the 30es. Besides that, all she had was the cloths on her back and the hat on her head.
As she jammed the suitcase under the seat in front of her, Drina spoke.
“...so Tea... and me... and everyone at the Ghumno...” her words were slow, jumbled and uttered with such indifferent, leveled tones that it was obvious she did not want to believe it “You were just using us to get into the Magical underground of the city...”
For someone so emotional – on the inside, at least – Drina was still pretty coherent. Dorotea wondered what it would take for her to lose it.
Dorotea shrugged, heavy shoulders raising and falling with deliberate ease. “It was just a stake-out, it just happened to turn into an infiltration job.”
“You’re thirteen.” The words seemed almost accusatory.
“And you are gullible.” Dorotea countered, flatly.
Drina bristled. From the corner of her eye, the smaller girl saw her reaching for her own pocket – her lighter, most likely.
“And Tea? Is she gullible, as well?” growled Drina.
Dorotea had made the effort to narrow the grin on her face, though the process was slow as always and almost imperceptible if one wasn’t watching closely. She wondered if Drina saw through the thin smile carved into her face.
Silence descended like a heavy cloud between them. Drina leaned on the glass behind her, and the coolness of its surface seeped through her leather jacket. Outside, the rain began to click against the windowpane of the bus.
Drina sighed, more annoyed than defeated. Dorotea couldn’t tell. She could read expressions as easily as she could read runes carved into stone, but the inner workings of a Human mind were all but lost on her.
“Where are you taking me?” Drina asked. Ah, yes, Drina didn’t know where they were going. The Olympic Agones Magiae were moved from year to year and anyone who applied would be given a guide to lead them to the place where the Olympics would be held, however...
“A few places.” Dorotea shrugged, thinking over their route in her mind’s eye “There’s no direct line, really, so we’ll have to go the round-about way.”
“Will Tea be following us?” Drina’s next question caught her off guard. She stilled.
It took her a few moments to form an answer, her mouth having sealed itself like welded metal “What do you mean?”
Drina looked at her, fiery brandy into unblemished metal, and said “It was an infiltration job, meaning you were searching for something of value, something you could use. Did you find it?”
Dorotea listened to the hap-hazardously rhythmic beat of the rain, concentrated on the trembling feel of rubber on concrete that rocked the bus in gentle bumps. She was not well versed in things that weren’t hard and apparent and there – but had some unstable grasp of those weightless thoughts floating in her head, just out of reach.
But she was of stone and stone wasn’t meant to float. If it ever flew through the air, it would eventually fall to the earth it had been thrown onto.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Dorotea answered, simply.
Drina bristled “Come off your high horse and tell me, now...”
“What, in the middle of a crowded bus?” Humour had always been one of the most appreciated, most difficult things to learn. Especially within a people that took everything as a joke – whether in good will, black comedy or if they themselves were the pun of fate.
“Doodle it, then.” Drina’s voice was flat.
Dorotea’s lips were lax, now, half-open so it wouldn’t take much effort to speak in the same pace as Humans usually did. It was a shame, really, that she couldn’t burst out laughing.
She settled for a fit of giggles. “You know, despite appearances,” Dorotea pointed out, tone strangely level despite the hitch of breath “I’m much older than I look.”
“Dorotea, do I look like I care?” questioned Drina, her eyes narrowed and her eyebrows arched in an annoyed frown.
Dorotea grinned “Painfully so.”
The bus lurched to a halt, suddenly, and the bus driver informed his passengers of the unofficial stop just outside of town. A few people piled in, their suitcases deposited with the rest, and the bus resumed its journey.
Drina had watched the scene with a sharp, burning gaze. Dorotea sighed and ran hard, unfeeling fingers across the side of her seat – dully soft and frizzled fabric, not unlike that of an old towel.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about Teodora.” Dorotea said after a while, almost at random. Drina’s head snapped up from where it had rested on the back of her seat – wide-eyed, as if just awoken from a dream. Dorotea smiled, a crack in alabaster stone, and met the Human’s gaze. “Knowing her she’s probably hiding under her bed with that book you gave her.”
Drina’s eyebrows twitched into a frown. She settled back into her previous position and grumbled “Yeah, yeah, I’ll send her a post-card or something.”
Dorotea giggled and closed her eyes.
The bus stopped once more.