It only hurts when I'm breathing

My heart only breaks when it's beating

My dreams only die when I'm dreaming

So I hold my breath...

To forget...

Kif was staring at Milano, as usual. It wasn't actually staring, Kif was blinking normally. But it was clear that his attention was not focused on finishing the shoe he was making.

It was not even Milano's beauty that induced Kif's gaze. It was something much more surreal.

Milano was wearing a mask. This was nothing new. Every single time Kif had seen her, she had been wearing that mask. And he had never gotten a clear as to why in all the times he had posed his query.

His most recent attempt had been answered with her staring straightforward as usual and saying, "You really..."

"Don't... Want to know..."

What was going on?

Milano, unlike Kif, had not moved her gaze from the loom in front of her for the last ten minutes. You could still see part of her eyes through the mint colored mask. They looked like golden smoke over the river. They were beautiful, but were were they so cloudy? Was there something wrong with them?

It was a wonder that Kif got anything done here in the back room of the shop, with this unsolved mystery sitting next to him. At the moment, he wasn't.

Kif raised his hand past his glasses and ran his finger through his dark green hair. He was hot, and the hair curtaining his forehead was spiky with sweat. He made a futile effort to get back on track, to start working on the shoe again.

Within moments, he was trying to figure Milano out again. She could have fun. She would go out with the group who worked at the shop, have ice cream. But her heart never seemed to be all there.

Where was the rest of it?

Why wouldn't Milano tell him anything?

She was in obivous sorrows. Why was she reluctant to get help?

Kif was annoyed. He wanted to help Milano. But she wouldn't let him.

Milano got up quickly and walked into the hall entrance, which could lead to either the restroom, the storeroom, or the side exit. Storeroom, thought Milano. She always volunteered to handle anything to o with the storeroom, and she had a reason.

It was dark inside the storeroom, but Milano had been here far more than once and was quite used to it, so she could see just fine.

Boxes were everywhere, in stack meticulously arranged in neat stacks, rows, and blocks. The sides of the boxes were defaced with shipment labels and cryptic leters or numbers markered on. She started looking at each box, reading the code. She dragged her fingernail over the numbers and letters on one very large box, as if it would help her read the green ink. 37-14-11- PLK. That was the one.

Milano pulled the box, full of fabrics, out of the way, to reveal a carefully constructed empty space with more boxes on all sides. She crawled in and then sat up, and briefly smiled, remering that the little room got bigger once you were in it. She struck a match she had in her pocket and lit the candle that was in her space and moved the box full of fabrics back into place.

Milano pondered the mirror lying on the ground, whether or not to take off her mask and remind herself of her true self that she hid from everyone else. No, not today. Kif would be on my back if I went back there more quiet.

She just leaned back, savoring the brief moments of solitude she had made for herself. But she couldn't stay long before Kif or the store owner started trying to find her. That would end in disaster. Or lies. She hated lying.

+^+^+^+^+^

"Why if it isn't monkey-face!" said the newly arrived (and despised) co- worker. Jill had given up trying to figure out why Milano wore a mask and had moved on to making fun of i round the clock.

Milano prepared herself for another sword-fight of snyde remarks. "Late as usual, Jill?"

"Some of us have a life, Monkey-face!" Jill replied. Milano migh consider getting a more conventional mask, with two holes for eyes and two more for a nose and mouth instead of her own, with a T shape, but she didn't want to give Jill the pleasure.

That one hit home. It was true, she really didn't have much of a life. But she didn't let it show. "It's amazing you even have time to work between all that time you must spend shopping Far Downtown!" Milano said. The far areas of downtown were locally famous for numerous boutiques of slutty clothes. Today Jill had chosen a ridicolus faux business shirt that had no sleeves or even straps and was staying on only because of the ludicrous tightness of the garment. She might as well have neon arrows pointing to her chest. If these signs were available, Jill would probably want them. She finished the number with an insanely trashy leather mini-skirt. This with her magenta hair cut as short as a man's and curled out at the ends and the three lime green disks hanging from each ear screamed "I'm trying too hard".

Jill surpressed a snake-like hiss. "So what are hiding with that mask and dress, monkey-face? your fur?" Jill pointed to Milano's outfight, down to the ankles and long sleeved. It was very light fabric, so it didn't matter that it was summer, but it was not a very common look among women of her age. Most girls were dressing more towards Jill's extreme.

"It's not a dress, it's a two-piece! So when you go on dates do you bother to wear a dress or just go in your underwear?" Milano loved this. Jill deserved just this, blow after blow of insults. She wouldn't leave Milano alone, ever, and since ignoring her didn't work, she fought back. Jill was taking a deep breath in preparation to deliver a long one, but just then Kif stepped between them. He must have broken up at least half a dozen of these fights. "Ladies, why don't you get back to work..." he hoped that this wasn't one of the occasions when the store owner had to hold one back while he handled the other.

"Monkey-face!"

"Tramp!"

And they went back to work. Jill moved her pottery wheel on top of the counter so she could take her standard spot sitting there so any cute guys that happened to walk in would see her "godess-like self" the second he looked up.

Milano sat back down and went back to her loom-work. She contemplated that maybe the reason Jill sat up there was so her skirt would ride up. Her body language was either trying to make Milano feel inferior or flirting with Kif. It was probably both. If there was one thing Jill wasn't, it was subtle. Or nice. Or polite...

Let the the late morning theater begin, thought Milano. Jill had changed positions so she was leaning over the counter, so blatantly trying to get Kif's attention. What was more entertaining was that Kif seemed completely oblivious to her efforts. It was so pathetic.

Kif wasn't even looking up. He had moved on from sewing shoes to his true love: carpentry. He was carving a short square beam with little flourishes while muttering to himself.

Jill seemed to have more on her mind than flirting, today, though, and it seemed that her flirtacious poses were merely a reflex. Milano was dying of boredom. It was so quiet, not even white noise. But then the store owner walked in. Everyone acted like he wasn't there.

"Jill, sit like a normal person! Your butt isn't for sale!" Jill moved, but growled. "It's time for lunch. Try to be back by an hour's time."

Lunch, for some reason, was the time when peace was maintained. For some reason, Jill didn't usually start in on Milano during lunch, which was either eaten at a cafe or on storeroom boxes, which understandably made Milano nervous.

"Good. I need food right now," said Milano. She paused afterwards to hear the coming nasty remark, but it didn't come. Jill was too busy preparing herself for her flirting mission.

+^+^+^+^+^

"Seriously though, Monkey-face, you should take some fashion pointers from me. You have a decent bod- why do hide it all the time?" said Jill, adding, "of course, not as good as mine..." under her breath.

"..." Milano was silent. "Stop calling me that."

"Take off that stupid mask and proove me wrong, Monkey-face..." Jill slurped the last of her drink through the straw.

"Could you please dislodge your nose from my business?" Milano asked sarcastically.

Kif was largely being ignored. This happened pretty regulary. Jill was an alligator that was exceptionally surprised when the zebra at the edge of the watering hole fought back. Milano, of course, was a zebra.

"But what's with the long sleeves and the dress to the ankles?"

"It's a two-piece!"

"Whatever. Answer the question."

"Maybe I just have some sense of modesty or taste," Milano said casually, leaning back on the cafe chair.

"Is there a word for 'fear of answering questions'? Because you definitely have it, Monkey-face."

"When was the last time you actually called me by name?" Milano asked.

"Before I knew what a freak you are, Monkey-face," Jil said, slurping her drink again.

Satalat was a place where technology was largley met with the response of, "Why do we need all this?". Cars were a rareity, owned by more well-off people or middle-aged couples who had bought one when they thought it would be all the rage.

Some advancements, however, had entered standard society with a warm welcome. Modern food and TV was as easily found here as in the other areas of the world.

Milano's parents had owned a car. She had wound up with it, and it was rusting away somewhere in front of her unspeakably cheap apartment complex. Don't! Milano told herself. Don't think about your parents. You need to forget about them!

But I can't! She answered back. She shook her head and started a whole new set of thoughts as she entered the complex. Vala was looking out the counter opening of hobby loft. The persnickety landlady (aren't they all?) watched everything like a hawk and often meddled in her tenants affairs.

Fourtanately tonight was not one of those times and Milano made an uninterrupted trip to her room, undoubtedly one the absolute cheapest and cruddy apartments in the complex. It contained almost nothing- a tv surprisingly, a bay window, and two doors, one leading back out and one into a communal bathroom. No counter, no bed. The floor, walls and cielings were completely padded, like some old furniture. So there was no need for a bed- just a blanket and the floor.

Not even a counter- just purple fabric as far as the eye can see.

Being at home was a completely different world from that at the store. It was better in some ways and worse than others.

At work, she didn't even need to wonder, "Should I take off my mask?". Here, this was a very real question and a hard one to answer. She was alone with her own secrets here, but even alone with curtains pulled she felt on edge without her mask.

May as well leave it on, she thought. She took the television remote and turned it on, seeking some blessed distraction from her own troubles. After being alone for a few hours, and having a good distraction such as the TV, she could be happier than she could be at other times. Milano actually smiled as she dove backwards to the spot on the floor she used as a bed. She was tired, and this was one of her ideas for a good night.

MLMLMLMLMLMLMLMLMLMLMLMLMLMLM

Yay! First chapter! Over 2,000 words!

I hope you aren't bored. It's kind of a slow-paced story. (if it were an anime, it'd be really long.)

Review, please! Even if it's to throw cyber-tomatoes at me! At least that's something!

Lyrics are taken from Shania Twain's It only hurts when I'm Breathing from the Up! Album. Copyright 2003?