Content warning: Suicidal ideation
Sap sat on her knees on the edge of the counter in the bathroom of Walter's guest room, her hands set against the frame of the mirror as she stared at her reflection. "What are you even doing here. Mooching favors off a girl who barely remembers you, chasing after people who couldn't care less whether you were around. Just like always." She was silent for a moment before laughing. "What the hell. When did I sink this low. This is borderline pathetic."
Kass called from the other room, "What are you doing in there, Sap?"
"Uh—nothing! Reading a… porn?"
With an ashamed sigh, Sap turned on the tap for the bath, letting the steam fill the room.
Gifted with the Affliction of flight, she had never liked to stay in one place for too long, and so she was always looking for new adventures, new places to explore, and new sites to be seen. That was why she didn't protest to Kass's request for help.
The last time she'd seen Kass was… gosh, when was it? Four, five years ago? The girl had changed a lot since then. She seemed to have grown out of her bratty phase. Sap had chalked it up to the magic of puberty, but now she supposed it was just the magic of coma.
The other reason why she didn't protest to staying at Whitlock Manor, was, well, it was a manor! It sure beat sleeping under a bridge, using a tattered coat as a blanket. That was why, two nights ago, when she had first arrived at the manor, the first thing she did was put Walter's hot water to the test. There was a bathroom with a copper claw-foot tub located next to the guest bedroom where she and Kass were staying, just across the hall from where Nell and Terhan slept.
After a good half an hour, Sap floated out of the bathroom in a spare change of nightclothes one of Walter's maids supplied her with, her hair tied up in a soft towel, surrounded by steamy goodness. "I can't recall the last time I've had a hot bath," she announced to Kass. "Probably never." Kass was sitting on the bed with her back against the headboard, reading a book from Walter's extensive library. As if reactivating gravity around herself, Sap dropped onto the mattress, causing it to bounce a little. She rolled over and wrapped her arms around a satin pillow. "Smells like rich people."
"You're steaming," Kass pointed out.
"Well, yeah, I just got out of the bath."
"I know. I heard you singing really loudly. It was hard to read," she giggled.
Sap tried to read her expression—it seemed forced. "You're not still sad about that bird, are you?" They had just buried it that evening.
"A little bit. I was trying to read to distract myself but clearly that's not getting me anywhere," she admitted. She shut her book. "So. What have you been up to? It's been so long. You must have had so many adventures since I saw you last. I remember thinking you seemed like the type of person to have such an exciting life."
"Uhh… totally. You know me, I'm a wanderer." Sap grinned. "Go where the wind takes me—often literally. Other than that, not much to tell." She wished she was as interesting as Kass imagined her to be. She lay down on her stomach, folding her hands on the pillow as she stared at Kass. "How about you?"
Kass scratched her cheek with her finger. "I'm kind of embarrassed to say it…."
"Say it. Say it!"
"Okay, but don't laugh…." She smiled a little. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Come spring, Grandpa says we can look for a witch who will help me grow boobs."
Sap, like the terrible person she was, covered her teeth with her hand as a snorty giggle escaped. "You said 'boobs.' "
"Zod, you're so immature." Rolling her eyes with a smile, Kass tossed a pillow at her. "All the other girls in my class are going to have boobs at some point. They'll think it's weird if I don't. Then it'll only be a matter of time until they put two and two together about my 'missing twin brother' they've been teasing me about all these years."
"I didn't mean that. I'm happy for you. Really. Boobs are fun." Sap took the pillow off of her face at tossed it back at Kass. "It's nice that your grandpa's so cool with it."
Kass appeared to think for a moment. "Yeah. He always says how much he likes having a granddaughter." She hugged the pillow, leaning her weight into it. "You know, when all of this is over, you and Terhan should come to Thendor sometime and hang out with Nell and me. We can do all sorts of fun things. Oh, your dad should come too. Remember when he took us to Pirate's Cove and he let me ride on his shoulders? The place on the beach with that cave and the shipwreck?"
Sap giggled. "Right, you started crying and ran off as soon as you saw the skeletons."
"Did not!" Kass protested, although she was smiling. She thrust her head back against her pillow, and its fluffiness slowly compressed with the added weight. "I hope we can get back to Thendor in time for the winter festivities. Music, food, ice skating…."
"I can't go ice skating," Sap reminded her with a nervous laugh. She kicked up her legs so Kass could see her footless state.
Kass rolled over away from her for a moment. Sap heard her breathe out before she turned back to her. "Have you ever thought about prosthetics?"
"What, just to ice-skate? Flying's so superior."
"No, I mean, regardless of that… isn't flying tiring?"
Sap relaxed her arms. "Yeah, sometimes." She picked at the skin on her lip. It was a bad habit, but all bad habits were satisfying and hard to break. "I don't know if prosthetics are for me, anyway. Also, I have no money."
"Well, if you ever want them, I think it would be really fun to make some." Kass propped herself up with her arms, visibly excited at the thought of engineering. Nerd. "We could even design them together!"
"We should put wheels in the bottom!" said Sap. "And knives!"
"Maybe just the first one," Kass giggled.
For a moment, Sap fell silent. She knit her brows together and stared down at her hands. "How do you do that?"
"Prosthetics? I've helped Grandpa make some in the workshop before. There's a lot of books on—"
"No, I mean how you're always doing things for other people now, without expecting anything in return. How do you do that?"
"Oh." It looked like she had never really thought about it before. "I just want to." She laid back down. "Hey, why'd you guys stop coming to Thendor, anyway? Where is your dad these days?"
"Where are any of us, really," Sap responded. She pulled her knees to her chest and levitated off the bed. "I'm gonna go take a walk." When she saw Kass's raised eyebrow, she rolled her eyes. "I'm gonna take a flight. Whatever." She slid the window open and flew out into the night.
Two mornings later, on the day of the solstice, Sap awoke to find that Kass was not there. Oh yeah, she spent the night at the hospital, she remembered. She stripped from her nightclothes and pulled over her red-and-white striped shirt, followed by her baggy pants, which she unfolded the cuffs of so it didn't look like she was flying, just dragging her feet along the ground in a very unsettling manner. Then she headed downstairs to find Nell and Terhan. They were eating breakfast in the dining table, so she joined them. It was no secret that having a home chef bring you your food made you feel a bit like royalty.
She looked down at what the chef had given her. Some sort of sausage which she couldn't eat, some sort of porridge with chunks of pear, a pastry, and a glass of milk. She opted for the fruit porridge and pastry and casually slid the sausage and milk toward Terhan, to which he didn't complain. When she did so, apparently Terhan took that as an invitation to lean in close and whisper something to her.
"Hey, don't you think there's anything strange about this place?" he spoke. "About the manor, or the hospital?"
"Nope, haven't noticed a thing," she replied with a mouthful of pear.
"It's just that, I feel as if—" Terhan didn't have a chance to finish that thought. Firo was entering the dining room, along with Walter and his daughter… Anastacia perhaps? She kind of looked identical to the other one, Barbecue or whatever her name was.
"Ah, are you thirsty today?" Walter asked Terhan, noticing the extra glass of milk by his hand. "Let's get another glass of milk for your friend, shall we?"
"No, it's fine," said Sap, waving her hand. "I don't drink milk."
Walter's face suddenly turned pale. "Have you… not been drinking the milk here?" His eyes flitted to the clock. "When… did you arrive at the manor again?"
"Two days ago, why?"
Anastacia spoke up, "Father finds it very offensive when people don't drink his milk. He takes great pride in his friend's sheep farm, you know."
Sap folded her arms across her chest. "There's nothing prideful in drinking boob juice.
"How…." Walt dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. "Milk is quite good for you, dear. It has many antibodies—"
"I'm actually pro-body," she clarified.
Firo stood up and leaned in toward Walter's ear. "Um… Lord Whitlock… Kryptillia are lactose intolerant. We don't have sheep in the southern hemisphere. Did I not tell you this?"
Walter cleared his throat. "Excuse me. I will have the chef prepare this young lady another suitable drink." A couple of minutes later, the chef brought a cup of tea, which Sap did not protest to drinking, even if it did taste like bland thistles. What little color there was in the first place seemed to return to Walter's face.
As breakfast continued, and people came and went, she wondered what she would do with her newfound freedom that morning. Kass hadn't yet returned from the hospital, so Sap wasn't sure who to bother until she did. She plucked off pieces of her paper napkin, a sort of "he loves me, he loves me not" ritual but with Nell and Terhan until only one bit of napkin was left. It ended on Nell.
"What are you doing?" Nell, sitting across from her, asked with a furrowed brow.
She stared down at the wreckage. "The fates have chosen you."
Try as he might to escape her, he could not. She used her fork to fling bits of pear chunks at him until he finally got fed up and ran out of the room. When would he learn he could not hide from her? She flew after him and found him at the end of a hallway, where he brought his arms up in front of his face to shield himself.
"Sap, when will you get it? I don't have time to entertain you; I'm too busy worrying about Kass!" he yelled. He quieted down to a more vulnerable state. "For the past three years, we've been inseparable. But then you guys had to show up and ruin everything that I've been working for."
"I'm sure you'll always be her best friend," Sap assured him.
He seemed withdrawn. "That isn't enough…."
Sap didn't dignify that with a response; she merely grinned.
Nell became grumpy and he threw his hands into the air, turning away from her. "Fine, so maybe I do want her to be my girlfriend. So what? What do you expect if my best friend is a girl. A boy and a girl can never remain just friends."
Sap backed up with her hands raised in front of her chest. "Whoa, I didn't know about that rule. So like, if a guy has multiple friends who are girls, does he have to date all of them? Zod, that's gotta be tough. But I'm sure he could make it work. Wow, you must be a veeery busy man, Nell. Oh wait!" She leaned in close. "That's right. Something tells me you don't have many friends. That's lucky for me, since I'm not your friend. Dodged a bullet there, didn't I. But poor Kass!" She touched a finger to her cheek. "I always figured she would find love with someone she liked, not someone who she had to date just so she could continue being friends with him." The look on Nell's face as it continuously reddened was so worth it.
"You're so annoying!" he fumed, stomping his foot.
Content that she had bothered him enough, she flew out of the room, leaving him flustered and full of rage.
Around noon, Sap heard the sound of the carriage pulling back up to the manor and rushed outside, but it was completely empty, with only Firo at the reigns. He hopped off.
"Is Kass back?" she demanded, slumping over the sard that pulled the carriage. It grunted in surprise. "I'm so boooored."
"No, it looks like they'll be busy for awhile. Lord Whitlock told me Kass is repairing one of the machines," Firo explained. It was nice to be able to speak freely in a more familiar language with him. After he put the sard away in its shed, he suggested, "Do you want to go to the mountains with me? We can cook up some wingers."
She had already gotten hungry again since breakfast, so she happily took him up on that offer. Firo grabbed his bow and arrow and they set off. It took them much faster to reach the campsite than it had yesterday, given that Firo was used to the path and Sap could fly. Even though the solstice was today, Sap managed to find a decent assortment of roots, watercress, wild mushrooms, and juniper berries for them to eat. She was using a slab of bark to scrape off the frozen top layer of a winter oyster mushroom when she saw Firo out of the corner of her eye. He was kneeling on the ground, reaching for a cluster of elegant mushroom that stood tall and white, rimmed with skirts and their caps faintly yellow-green.
"Don't touch that!" she yelled, darting forward just in time to smack his gloved hand out of the way. He rubbed his hand and gave her a hurt expression. "That's a death cap," she warned.
"What does it do?"
She stared at him with her chin lowered like he was an idiot, which he was. "What do you think?"
She kicked some dirt over it. "They taste okay but don't let it fool you. Just one bite will kill you within a couple of days. Why is it even out this late in the season?"
"How do you know more than me when I've lived in this area longer than you?" he wondered, following her back to the campsite.
"Ahdunno. I like plants and mushrooms and stuff. In my tribe we always found stuff instead of growing it so I guess I just have a fondness for identifying things." She set down her haul near the firepit. "Kind of like a treasure hunt, you know? But the treasure was food. Or flowers. Flowers are nice. Of course, I've grown stuff, too; when you're sailing here from the South you don't have much of an opportunity to just go to the woods and pick leaves."
"What tribe are you from?" Firo asked her. He added the wingers he caught to her haul—seemed he put that bow and arrows to good use.
"I'm from the Lan Tribe," she told him.
"Ah, that makes sense, given the antennae." He gestured to her thin antennae that ended in a slight coil, the trademark of the Lan tribe. "I'm from the Mbawi Tribe."
"The Mbawi? I think my dad's part of that tribe!"
"Your dad…? But then wouldn't that make you—"
"No, we're not related in that way." That was the extent of the explanation she offered. "So the Southern Standard must be your native language, then? Since it's basically Mbawi. Must be nice."
Firo nodded. He lit the campfire with a match and they roasted the ingredients they found. When they assembled the meal, it looked so delectable. Unfortunately, it turned out like garbage.
"I don't understand," said Sap, her voice dripping with devastation once the meal was finished. "I gathered the best stuff I could find. Why does this suck?"
"Ick. We need Terhan with us," said Firo, tossing his food back in the fire. "That meal he made last night was something else. You tried it, right?"
"Yeah. What was his secret?"
"He said there's more to it than just the ingredients. Like, uh… 'skill,' and 'technique.' "
"Huh," she said.
A small bird landed on a branch overhead, knocking some leaves loose. She looked up as it started chirping and the leaves fell on her face. She brushed them off.
"Half of me hopes they don't find Velvet," she finally said.
"Huh?" Firo stopped poking the fire, seemingly taken aback. His long, pointed ears tilted downward. "Wh-why do you say that?"
She nestled the stumps of her legs underneath her as she sat on a tree stump, staring into the glowing embers of the firepit. "I dunno…. I didn't expect to ever see Kass again, so it's kind of nice after all these years. Terhan is fun too. Even Nell can be kind of entertaining. But when we do find Velvet, I'll have to leave again."
"Why do you say that?" Firo asked. "Aren't you their friend?"
"Ah, nah…." She laughed. "I'm only sticking around so Kass can give me money for a boat. I'm pretty sure she finds me annoying, anyway. Not that she's wrong, of course." She picked up a stick off the ground and began to break off its smallest branches.
"That's not true," Firo insisted. "Kass likes everybody. That's just who she is. She likes you too, even though…"
"Right, even though I'm annoying." She knocked him with her elbow. "You're the king of compliments." Her ears drooped. She knew he was just trying to be polite. He was like a kind older brother. "Even if you're right, she wouldn't like me if she knew everything about me… if she knew what I was hiding."
There was a touch of silence between them. She started breaking off the larger branches off the stick.
Finally, Firo said, "Right—well, I respect your boundaries, so I won't pry—"
"Fine, if you insist on knowing, I guess I'll tell you," she said.
He fell silent. He leaned his elbows on his knees, boots planted firmly on the frosty ground, watching her as she explained.
Sap took a deep breath. "Usually when people ask about my dad, I tell them he's missing. But that's not entirely true." For a second it appeared as though tears would come from her eyes, but something held them back as she stared at the ground. "My tribe always regarded me as kind of a bad omen, partly because of the Affliction and partly because my Dad wasn't born in the tribe, but some people were more accepting than others. There was this little boy, for example, who try to would follow me around everywhere, but his parents would just pull him away.
"Two years ago, during the traveling season, we split into groups for our separate forays." All the branches of the stick were gone and she began to peel off the bark, like a candy wrapper. "One night I was flying above the trees, just for fun, you know, cause I like the view up there, and the cool air helps me daydream. I heard some rustling near the bushes on the ground, so I went down to investigate. It was the little boy. He'd left his parents and followed our group, then ran into the forest after he saw me flying. I was scared that I would get in trouble, but instead, he—he called me 'cool.' And he said he wanted me to pick him up so he could fly too." Her ears turned downward, her chest tightening from the memory. "So I did. I brought him into the sky to show him the stars, but I—I—I—I lost my grip…."
The stick snapped in half. She tossed it aside before burying her head in her hands. "When I made it to the ground, I tried to lift him up. His neck was…. It was at a weird angle…." A shudder rocked her shoulders. Her hands were shaking as she stared at them. "Dad said I was careless. Said he was disappointed in me, that I ought to know better by now. He didn't even sound angry, was the thing. But he scooped up the boy and said he would return the boy to his parent's group. He said, 'Wait here, Sap.' …And so I waited. For a month."
She clutched her knees close to her chest. She couldn't bring her eyes to meet Firo's. "I'm a killer." Her voice was muffled as she spoke into her knees. "Kass is doomed to find out. It's what always happens. And the second she does, she'll leave me, just like Dad did. I've already lost my chance by telling you."
"I would never tell her," Firo spoke. "Look, we all have our secrets here. And this thing that you told me is just between us." He offered her a hug, but she pulled away.
"I wish I hadn't killed that boy. I wish I didn't do half the things that I do." She lowered her knees and rested her chin in her palms. "Do you ever think everyone would be better off if you were dead?"
Firo grabbed her by the shoulders. "Sap, never say that!"
"What—" She brushed his hands off. "I was just joking, relax."
"Well, you're not very funny."
"Whatever." She jerked her shoulders away. "You don't know what it's like to be responsible for someone's death."
He looked away. "You don't know that."
There was silence between them for a heavy moment.
She glanced at the dying fire and released a sigh. "Should we turn back?"
"Guess so." Firo stood up and stomped his boot over the remaining embers. "Didn't really tell anyone else where we were headed." In awkward silence, they set off back for the mountain path.
Not long after, they reached the bottom of the mountain path where it met the road. As Firo turned to head to the manor, Sap tugged at his sleeve.
"Wait—can we actually head to the hospital?" she asked. "I want to see if Kass is done."
"You want to… go inside the hospital?" Firo repeated, his face looking more nervous than it ought to have been. His eyes darted about, as if searching for an answer floating in the air. "Don't you want Nell and Terhan to come with?"
"I shouldn't say no, should I," said Sap, flicking her short braid over her shoulder. "Fine. Let's go to the manor and then they can come with."