[Memory, Closed] A Little Longer (Uzoji)

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Aurelie Steerpike
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Fri Nov 08, 2019 4:20 pm

Achtus 30, 2716 Late Afternoon | An Empty Classroom

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"Come on, baby bird, it's time to wake up."

A hand at her shoulder, shaking her gently. The touch is tender, the voice is low and full of the kind of irritation borne of true affection.

"Just a few more minutes," she mumbles into her pillow, turning her face away from the light. The bed is so soft and deep, the blankets warm and the pillow cool against her cheek. Just a little longer, a little longer. A laugh from above her, then a gentle pinch on her cheek. She squawks her indignation, but opens her eyes and turns to the source.

Her sister sits on the edge of her bed, already dressed with her hair neatly bound in an elaborate collection of braids. She thinks of her own hair in despair--will it ever look so tidy? Perhaps this was a secret they told you after graduation. Or perhaps Lilliana just had a very good ladies' maid. Mother will have to help her find one, too. Graduation was close, and then she will ask. Just a little longer, a little longer.

"No more minutes, Aura. Our cousins will be here soon, and Papa is in such a state worry about it. Mother has been all morning calming him down. You know how he gets during the winter holidays." She did know, of course she knows. Papa worried so when it came to family. She tries to sit up, to clear her head of slumber's grasp, but she cannot. Something is holding her down, holding her in. The feathers in her mattress are just so soft, she thinks. Just a little longer, a little longer.

A great bell chimes from somewhere in the house: the grandfather clock in the foyer. Or is it in the sitting room? She finds she cannot remember. What does it look like? What color is the wood? She doesn't know. It seems urgent to her to know. She opens her mouth to speak, but there is no sound. Where is her sister?

"Oh," her sister says mournfully, and she finds that she cannot see her sister's face though she looks right at her. It's as if all the edges are lost, the shapes there but not quite right. She is peering at her sister through a dim glass--but isn't she right there? "No more time now, Birdie." No! She wants to cry out, to sit up. Why is her body so heavy, her voice so still in her throat? "No more time at all."

Just a little longer, a little longer...!


Aurelie's eyes opened slowly. She was still half in the grip of the dream, confused--wasn't she just at home?

No. She would never be home again.

"What an awful dream," she muttered to herself, rubbing her eyes and sitting up. More to assure herself that it was true than because she felt it with any conviction. Dreams could be cruel.

"Wassit?" There was a sleepy mumble from above her--Bernadetta must have heard her. "Y'dreamin', Aurelie? What about?”

”Nothing, Bernie. Go back to sleep.”

Perhaps it was the weather, sky hanging low over the red walls of the University dark with the promise of Achtus rain, that held her captive. As Aurelie went through her morning duties, she found herself trapped in the grip of it. The details were lost to her waking mind; all she had was a feeling of softness and content, something far away and dear. Her every step was weighted with it. The halls were mostly empty of students, and it felt like the space filled with the soft shuffling of passive voices. Scraps of scraps that echoed through them. She walked through it in a haze.

Today she was cleaning classrooms, an early start on preparing them for the return of students in the new year. The work wasn’t hard, but it was exhausting, as they went through each room one by one--this one had desks that needed scrubbing of a rude message written on the edge, this one (clearly mostly occupied by lower-year students) sticky with seasons of sweets. An experiment gone wrong and left to linger in some abandoned closet. The work kept her hands busy, and soothed her mind. No time for idle contemplations.

“What do you think this is?” Aurelie looked up from the particularly stubborn spot of something on a chair to see Bernie holding something mysterious, delicate and expensive-looking. Bernie never could keep her hands to herself--it was one of her least charming qualities. Aurelie squinted at it from where she crouched on the floor, but shook her head.

”I haven’t any idea, Bernie--but it looks breakable. Be careful with it.” Her roommate snorted, tossing dark curls over one shoulder dismissively. She was always telling Aurelie that she worried too much; Aurelie was always telling her that she was very often right.

“Yes, Matron.” Aurelie winced. She hated it when Bernadetta called her that. Still, Bernadetta made to put the object back on the shelf, though she had her body angled not to the shelf but to Aurelie while she did so. “Honestly, Aurelie, I’m not a child! I won’t break it, I just wanted to look--” Before Aurelie could cry out, the great fragile thing slipped from Bernadetta’s careless grasp, falling to the floor and shattering in a great explosion of glass and noise. The blood drained from her roommate’s face. Immediately, there were heavy footsteps in the hall--their real matron, coming to investigate.

Maybe if Aurelie hadn’t been so trapped in daydreams, she would have done what Bernadetta did and scarpered off to a different room. Or, more likely, she could have caught the dark-haired passive and made her stay, to explain to whatever Patron or Matron that came what had happened. Aurelie did neither of these things. Instead, she remained to try to gather the pieces together. So when the Matron did appear, a tall and weedy woman who had always reminded Aurelie of her least favorite aunt, she was the only one to be found.

“What have you done?” Aurelie winced, and though she opened her mouth to explain, the chance never came. “You moony little twit--do you know how valuable a tool that was? What were you thinking even touching it?”

It wasn’t that Aurelie had never been yelled at before--she had been at Brunnhold a full eight years now, she had been scolded far more harshly than this. But wrapped as she was in the warm cocoon of the dream, that safety and security of it, the girl felt suddenly overwhelmed. The protests were given up as she was marched out to the hallway. It wasn’t even her fault the thing broke--but did it matter? Someone had to be at fault, and she was there. A great despair threatened to swallow her up as the Matron carried on, and Aurelie found herself doing something she had not done in many years--she burst into tears. Great, ugly wracking sobs that twisted her up and crumpled her face, red as her hair. If anyone could hear her--good. Let them. She just didn’t care anymore.
Last edited by Aurelie Steerpike on Fri Nov 08, 2019 11:44 pm, edited 1 time in total. word count: 1261

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Fri Nov 08, 2019 4:48 pm

Late Afternoon, Achtus 30, 2716
An Empty Classroom
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Uzoji had always liked Brunnhold.

They had been in the city for all of five minutes before Niccolette had found an excuse to pour herself into the library, some book or another that she needed, she had said, urgently. It always amused him to see his wife become a bookworm; she was unquestionably the most vibrant person he had ever met, and yet nothing in her seemed to hesitate to pour that intensity of focus into reading, studying, and other scholarly pursuits, when they interested her.

Uzoji had always had a more difficult time, himself, sitting still long enough to study. Perhaps it was that he had struggled to find something in the words to grab hold of his attention. In his applied classes, he had excelled; theory had always been more of a challenge for him. He certainly had a strong enough grasp on physics and chemistry for the spells he needed, on the mechanics of airship flight to support himself as a pilot, but he knew his own limitations, and he did not mind them.

Tonight, of course, there would be business to attend to. He had returned to campus with the intention of collecting Niccolette and heading back to the hotel to change, but – when he had seen her in the library, with her head bent forward over her book, reading with such absolute focus, he had not quite been able to disturb her. There was, he had told himself, plenty of time; they had hours still before their commitments. There was no need to hurry her away.

And, so, Uzoji had set about wandering. It was strange, he thought, to be in the halls with no students around. The year would have ended three tendays ago – such a short time, and yet the classrooms already seemed oddly deserted, as if all that student energy had fled with the closing of the year. He wore a heavy dark coat against the cold, neck wrapped in a muffler and gloved hands shoved into his pockets, re-familiarizing himself with the corridors that he had, for two years, called home.

Uzoji became used to the silence so quickly that it was a surprise when it was broken – a raised voice echoing from a nearby classroom, and beneath it, the sound of sobbing. The Mugrobi frowned, slightly, and eased his way over, unrepentant in his curiosity, standing curiously in the door frame. A tall woman – a matron, he thought they called them here – yelling at a tiny girl who looked as if she couldn’t be more than fourteen years of age, who was sobbing as if every word broke her heart further. Both were marked by their uniforms as passives.

Uzoji didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t think.

“Madam,” The Mugrobi said, moving into the room, his voice low and confident and easy, pitched to cut through her tirade without sounding as if it were deliberately raised. He smiled at the older woman, “might I trouble you for some assistance? I’m afraid I’m not quite sure where I’ve ended up.” He held until she drew away from the girl, and he eased her out into the hallway. He glanced back, once, from the doorway, and winked at the young girl, once, when her gaze flickered up.

Uzoji led the older woman away with a steady stream of questions and smiles, knowing that she could hardly refuse him, and by the end – when she had pointed him in the direction of the library – she seemed to have largely forgotten the younger girl, hurrying off in some other direction. Uzoji lingered a few moments, and then promptly turned and made his way back, unerringly, to the classroom, not in the least lost.

The passive was still crying, and the Mugrobi fished out a handkerchief, soft yellow silk with the initials U and I intertwined in the corner, and approached, slowly and carefully, well aware that the edges of his field would signal his approach. He was hardly tall, by Anaxi standards, but he felt oddly large in comparison to her, in a way that reminded him – viscerally and uncomfortably – of sitting next to Aremu’s sickbed, watching his oldest friend toss and turn, wasting away in the grip of the fever that had nearly killed him.

“Here,” Uzoji said, smiling, and extended the handkerchief to her, crouched as far away as he could while still able to reach. “Are you all right?”

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Aurelie Steerpike
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Sat Nov 09, 2019 2:47 am

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While Matron was being led away, Aurelie let herself collapse against one of the desks in the room. It was certainly unseemly, and distantly it registered in her mind that she should get up from off of the floor, but she simply didn't have the energy to stand. Nor did she have the power to make herself stop crying. It was as if something had broken down in her heart, and she hadn't the means to put it back in place. Not yet. Against this tide of tears, even the appearance of some handsome galdor rescuing her from Matron as if by divine intervention barely registered. It may as well have happened in a dream, or to someone else.

It wasn't until she felt the edge of his field when he returned that she became fully aware of just what had happened. Her crying had slowed, though not stopped--a trickle, not a deluge. Aurelie's eyes flicked from his outstretched hand to his face, then back again. If she had seen him before, she couldn't recall--too old to be a student, and clearly not faculty. A visitor, then.

"Thank you, sir, I'm quite alright." Aurelie made no move to take the handkerchief from his hand, though she did scrub her cheeks with the heel of her own. The girl must have a made a pathetic sight--small and crumpled, green eyes rimmed with red, as she ineffectually dabbed at her face with the edge of an apron. Too late, she realized that it was covered with dust, and now too was her face. Some part of her appreciated his gesture, but a larger part was unwilling to accept it.

Aurelie didn't understand why he was here. Though he maintained a reasonable distance from her, Aurelie was keenly aware of what he was. Nothing good came of taking kindness from galdori strangers--least of all in empty classrooms. It wasn't that she feared him, specifically. Aurelie was just unaccustomed to such kindness at the hands of strangers, least of all visiting galdori. Cautiously, she rose to her feet. There was only a little wobble in her knees. That was fine then.

"Did you," she cleared her throat and tried again, "did you need something? Sir?"
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Sat Nov 09, 2019 12:55 pm

Late Afternoon, Achtus 30, 2716
An Empty Classroom
Uzoji had thought that she was a child, and he realized, with a pulse of embarrassment, that she was not. When the passive looked up at him and spoke, Uzoji was immediately aware that he had miscalculated, and that she was probably closer to sixteen or eighteen. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and her face blotchy from tears, and he wouldn’t have said, exactly, that she was pretty, especially not when she smeared dust on her face rather than take the handkerchief – but he could respect her choice not to, and he tucked it away without comment.

The girl rose to her feet, and so Uzoji did as well. Uzoji doubted entirely that she was quite all right, but it didn’t seem the sort of thing that would be helpful to ask about. A waste, he thought, of a girl who might have been pretty, of a mind that might well have been sharp – of a will, he thought, he could admire, with the way she had responded to him.

“No,” Uzoji said. “My apologies if I’ve made you uncomfortable,” he bowed. “It was not my intent.”

And what, he wondered, had been his intent? He had thought her a crying child – he had thought, Uzoji realized, with a little sigh, that he could comfort himself by helping her. He had thought that he could relieve some of the ache in his heart from what he had done to Aremu, some of what lay between him and the other man still. The fever had passed, and Niccolette had saved what remained of Aremu’s arm, but his hand –

Niccolette, that morning, had gone to the library, and he – Uzoji had gone to a man he had heard about in the Stacks, a wick known for his skill at wood-carving, and he had placed an order for a hand. They had discussed all the details of it, size and color and weight, and Uzoji had left all the coin that had been asked for with no attempt to bargain. As if, he thought, a wooden hand could make up for the lack of a real one; as if, he thought, he could make amends that way. Aremu did not need them, not in words or deeds, but Uzoji did.

He accepted that, although it ached to do so. He faced, squarely, his own selfishness in imposing upon the passive girl this way, and he accepted that too, and that made the embarrassment of her discomfort easier to bear.

“Do you need anything?” Uzoji asked, and he kept his eyes carefully, deliberately and firmly on her face when he smiled, just a touch of embarrassment to it at the edges. He supposed he was not ready to face the reality of his own helplessness, not just yet; it was pleasant to believe that he could help, maybe. A little longer, he thought, and then he would give up on his idle dreams of usefulness, and leave the passive to her private miseries.

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Sat Nov 09, 2019 1:38 pm

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"I--"

Aurelie was as much taken aback by the apology for any potential discomfort as she was by the question. Did she need anything? For a moment she held his dark gaze, studying his face for some sort of motive. Nobody had asked Aurelie if she needed anything in... years, excepting of course the context of making sure she was adequately equipped to do her work. The girl found herself without answer, or at least without an answer she felt she could give. Aurelie dropped her eyes to somewhere in the region of her shoes. What did she need?

A good meal and a hot bath that she could take alone, sleep uninterrupted by the sounds of someone's comings and goings. To see her parents and her sister again, hear their voices. A place that was warm, that she belonged to in some way, where someone might be happy to see her. To go home. Or, she needed to forget that she ever had such a thing.

Aurelie didn't say any of this. What was the point? This stranger, however kind he was being, did not care about her. Nobody did. And nobody could change the reality of her life, written in stone when she failed her initiation test. Still--there was something about him that put her in mind, strangely, of her sister. They bore no physical resemblance to each other in any way, of course; Lilliana was Anaxi through and through, and a woman besides. No, Aurelie thought it might have been his easy way of handling Matron. Ana had often shepherded the very auntie that the Matron so put Aurelie in mind of in the same way. The dream was making her sentimental. Soft. Rather than shake her head and leave, she wanted to say--something. Reassure that she was just fine, actually, and he needn't trouble himself over someone like her.

"I don't supposed you have a hot tea and a good long nap on you, do you? Sir," she added hastily, aware she was being rude and over-familiar. Green eyes lifted again, and she gave him the wobbliest of smiles. There, see? She was fine. A momentary lapse, soon forgotten.
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Sun Nov 10, 2019 1:15 am

Late Afternoon, Achtus 30, 2716
An Empty Classroom
The girl lifted her eyes to him, and offered him a pert comment and perhaps the wobbliest smile Uzoji had ever seen. He found himself impressed by her courage, and he grinned, suddenly, boyishly, the whole of his face lighting up.

“I can’t do much about the nap, I’m afraid,” Uzoji said, glancing around. It was a classroom for chemistry, wasn’t it? Judging by the shards of shattered conical flask on the ground, it had to be. And - yes, Uzoji thought, there was a source for running water.

“And I’m afraid I’ve never much taken to your Anaxi tea,” Uzoji made his way over to the professor’s demonstration desk at the front, crouched, and emerged victorious with a burner and a larger flat-bottomed flask. He set the burner on the desk, and hooked it up to the source of gas beneath.

“But,” the Mugrobi said, visibly pleased, “I can offer you a hot cup of kofi.” He picked up the flask, and carried it across the room to fill it with water. He brought it back to the burner, propped it in place, and took out a small box of matches from a pocket. He opened the flow of gas and coaxing the burner to life, sharp blue flame flickering up beneath the glass. He glanced up at the passive, and grinned. “If you can wait a few minutes?”

She seemed too startled not to agree, and so Uzoji kept on. He took out the burlap bag of kofi beans he had in his coat pocket, and wondered, faintly amused, if the girl would think all Mugrobi carried kofi on them at all times. It was only coincidence he’d gotten these from a friend who owned a kofi shop in the Stacks. “Just bear with me,” he told her, with a little smile, and poured a handful of beans onto his handkerchief. With that, Uzoji began to cast, a steady stream of murmured monite.

Drinking kofi, Uzoji told himself, was always glorifying the gods. Was this not honoring Hulali’s waters? The static mona hovering around him agreed, although perhaps sluggishly, and the coffee ground to powder. When the water began to boil, he folded the handkerchief, carefully, and deposited the ground beans into the beaker.

The rich, fragrant smell of kofi began to fill the air as the beans steeped. Uzoji folded up his handkerchief and tucked it away, and fished out two smaller flat-bottomed beakers, setting them on the desk. He grinned at the passive.

“Drinking kofi is an honored ritual in Mugrobi,” the galdor said, cheerfully. “Of course, there’s no telling what fates might befall you, if you share kofi with a stranger without learning their name. I’m Uzoji Ibutatu.”

Uzoji picked up the heavy beaker, and poured, carefully, a cup of steaming hot coffee for each of them. He slid the passive’s across the desk, and smiled at her. “I hope you like it,” Uzoji said, but there was no real doubt in him, not anywhere to be found.

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Sun Nov 10, 2019 11:43 pm

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Aurelie’s pale attempt at a joke had been just that, a joke. She hadn’t expected him to take her at all seriously, so when he offered to make her kofi, she found herself too startled by the suggestion to say no. Though she didn't move from where she stood, she watched the preparation with great interest. She wasn't sure she'd ever seen anyone make it before, though it was possible she just didn't remember the event. Certainly no one had done it in a chemistry classroom in front of her. Did he always have kofi on his person? She couldn't be certain. It seemed strange, but then, so was caring for the troubles of one passive girl--he struck her as an odd person. Green eyes followed every motion; she, of course, could not so easily ask the mona to grind it for her, but a spice grinder would do just as well... Did the size of the grind matter, she wondered? The temperature of the water? Tea could be so very fussy that way...

"Aurelie," and then added after a very brief pause, "Steerpike." Her voice was still rough from crying, but when she gave her family name, some steel crept into it. That was still her name, and she would keep it until it was taken from her. Unconsciously her hand fluttered to her neck where her locket lay, tucked away under her pale blue uniform. The locket was Aurelie's only momento of a life outside the walls of Brunnhold, though the metal was tarnished with time and the small spectragrams beginning to fade around the edges. One of her parents, and one of herself as a toddler in the arms of her sister. It was the dearest and only thing she truly owned.

"Thank you..." Cautiously, Aurelie eyed the beaker Uzoji slid across the desk to her. It did smell absolutely lovely, but she had never had it before and was much less certain than Uzoji of her opinion. The passive was still unsure she should take it, though it seemed equally likely to cause her trouble if she didn't. Though she was having difficulty maintaining her reserve in front of such relentless good humor and kindness. Oh well--in for a tally, in for a concord... She picked up the beaker in front of her, careful to hold it firmly but delicately, and took a sip...

...and almost choked. Quite contrary to the pleasant smell, the taste was bitter and strange. Try as she might, the red-haired girl couldn't keep her face from wrinkling a little in distaste. Another sip, and this she left in her mouth for a moment longer, considering. The distaste gave way to a furrowed brow--concentration. The only sound she made was an evaluative sort of hum.
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Mon Nov 11, 2019 11:51 am

Late Afternoon, Achtus 30, 2716
An Empty Classroom
All things considered, Uzoji thought, the kofi had come out well. The color was rich and deep, a little more watery than perhaps it should have been, but the smell was good enough to make up for it, pungent and nutty and a little sweet. He would have to thank Erhue for them again; there was something amusing about living in the Muluku Islands and getting kofi recommendations from a man in Brunnhold, but he trusted Erhue’s judgment and thoroughly. Perhaps he could add a plant of this variety to his own garden.

Perhaps, Uzoji thought, gazing down at the beaker in front of him, he could make a cup for Aremu – perhaps – how long had it been, since he had done the full ceremony, and properly? To go to the plants himself, and pick the beans, one by one, finding the bright red berries hidden between the leaves – to remove the twigs from the end of them, and find the hidden unripe ones in a glass of water. To dry them, beneath the hot sun, to mill them and then roast them, himself, on a heavy pan in the hearth, and only then to begin the grinding and the brewing.

Uzoji felt an ache in his heart, and an odd tangle of memories rose to mind – his father’s hands, busy with the heavy pan, when he had been a small boy, and the smell that had called Uzoji closer to the hearth – Anoze, his eldest brother, teaching Uzoji the trick of it himself when he was home from Thul’Amat after their father had passed, and Aremu watching from a distance, keeping back, out of range, when he had been young enough to come home with Uzoji.

He had stopped, Uzoji remembered. They had not minded – even Anoze had not minded the presence of the quiet imbala, and Uzoji had always loved to have him there. But he had understood that not minding was not enough for Aremu, and he had not begrudged him the space.

Uzoji grinned over the kofi at Aurelie, and didn’t laugh when she almost choked on the first sip. “Give it time, Miss Steerpike,” he said, easily, and lifted the beaker and took a sip of his own. Yes, he thought – the quality of the beans came through, even with the uneven preparation.

“My wife,” Uzoji said, casually, because he was not unaware of the implications of his presence, and he was not sure – it was taboo, utterly taboo, here in Anaxas, and yet he had seen some male students watching in ways that had made him uncomfortable, “took a few tries to come to terms with the taste,” he smiled, fondly, at the memory. “She’s Bastian, so she didn’t grow up with kofi. I think she rather likes it, these days.” His hands were together on the desk, and he could see them both, the glittering golden ring on his left, and the scarring across the palm of his right. They both made him think of her; they both made him smile, just a little wider.

She looked more contemplative than dismayed, at the second sip, and again Uzoji found himself just a little impressed by her courage. He didn’t press her for her opinion, but took another sip of the kofi himself, and let Aurelie have her moment of whatever peace she could salvage.

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Mon Nov 11, 2019 6:03 pm

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The girl had not missed the deliberate mention of a wife. A fear eased somewhere that she didn't know she'd been holding on to. Aurelie was no fool, whatever others might think of her, and she knew at least a little something of the world. As much of it as she saw behind thick stone walls, anyway. That only left all the other reasons to be careful. She sipped her drink in quiet contemplation.

To hear someone speak of a wife to her was strange, she mused. Surrounded as she was by other passives, and such things as wives and futures and lives outside forbidden to them, the subject had fair little chance to come up. Aurelie's thoughts again drifted to her sister. She would be twenty-eight now; was she married? Did she have children of her own? Lilliana would make a good mother, at least from her dim memories of her own childhood.

Oh, but Ana had always been so dazzling, so beloved--she had to be married by now. If she had children--then, Aurelie would have a niece or a nephew, or maybe even more than one. Would they know of her? Would Ana have told them at all, about her? Aurelie tried to imagine what she could possibly say. A great feeling of emptiness welled up inside her again, gripped her hands and pushed at her heart and lungs as if trying to force them out. In the dream, she had forgotten her sister's face. Awake, she knew that this was no function of dreaming. It was starting to fade from her memory, the edges of a spectragram too often handled.

Hot tears threatened to spill out again. Aurelie, mortified, tried to blink them away. She hadn't cried in so long--twice in one day was too much. This had to stop. One escaped but she scrubbed it furiously away before it had a chance to travel very far. There would be no others.

"Oh no--I'm sorry, I was just..." What a sentimental fool she was being! She cleared her throat. The kofi was warm--focus on that. Deep breath in, and another out. Warm, warm against her palms. In, out. Wake up, little Birdie. "...I was just thinking of someone I used to know."
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Mon Nov 11, 2019 6:49 pm

Late Afternoon, Achtus 30, 2716
An Empty Classroom
Uzoji felt, however briefly, of use. It would be a relief to be done with this trip to Brunnhold. There was the dinner tonight, of course, and he had a careful line to walk during it. The goal of the trip was not so much to deliver the delicate package they had brought across seas and continents, but also to discuss future packages and other such arrangements, and not only on his own behalf.

Two or three day, he had budgeted for the trip. It had not seemed so long, when he made the arrangements, after a few weeks in the air. He had, Uzoji realized, been putting off the return home. Not home as in the Rose, but home to the Islands. It was a hard thing to come to terms with, but once he knew it, he was sorry they could not leave now, that he was not able to fetch Niccolette, drag her to the ship, and come to terms with the ache of it all.

He would, Uzoji thought, calmly and evenly. He would treat Aremu as he always had, as much as he could; he would not make this worse for him by not minding the injury. He could not welcome it, not precisely, but he could – would – welcome the man, and his strength, and help him to find ways to do the same, as subtly as he could manage. The hand – he had felt strangely about it for a moment, but he would trust his instincts. It was a good start; it was the right start.

He had hoped for Aurelie to find a little measure of peace as well, but it didn’t seem to have worked. When he looked at the passive again, her eyes were glittering damp and she was wiping a tear away from her cheek. She saw him looking, and she apologized.

“Is the kofi that bad?” Uzoji asked with a smile, gently, offering her an out. There was nothing wrong with crying, not in the least; he had never thought so, not for a man or a woman. But he was familiar with the embarrassment of it, because it offered whoever saw you a window into your secret fears and sorrows. Uzoji had not been ashamed of his latest tears, but then he had Niccolette. His fierce, sharp-tongued, vital wife had found him weeping. She had put her arms around him, and pulled his head to her like a child, and she had held him without so much as a word, and enveloped him with her field, with all the love he could stand.

Aurelie didn’t take the escape he offered, or perhaps she didn’t hear it. She ventured, instead, into half an explanation, and that made Uzoji wonder if, in fact, she did wish to talk about it. The Mugrobi nodded; he rather understood, particularly at that moment, the sort of thing she meant. “Would you like to talk about him or her?” Uzoji asked. “There’s a tradition around kofi, you understand,” he smiled. “It’s meant for conversation, and for honesty. No lies, not while you can taste Hulali’s waters,” he grinned a little, encouragingly. “All the rest is fair game.”

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