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Ordinary World

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The city was alive with noise, but the young woman who sat alone at a table in the small cafe felt dead. This wasn’t because of her lack of feeling in her body. Her knee bobbed up and down, her fingers tapped, and her ears still heard the noise of the espresso machines at work to her right and the carefree music playing overhead. She didn’t feel like a cold corpse, she felt like a ghost. Life was all around her, but she wasn’t apart of any of it. She was just watching it, trapped behind a barrier that no one could see. A blast of a car horn sounded in the distance. A blur of movement as a man late for a conference rushed past the window out of breath. The sharp, unmistakable smell of coffee hung in the air. A couple sat a few tables ahead of her, talking quietly with each other. One of them made a joke and the other laughed louder than necessary. And there she sat unnoticed and alone.

“Talia!”

The young woman was torn from her inner thoughts as her name rang through the air. She walked up and smiled warmly at the barista as she closed her hand around the cup with her name hastily scrawled on it. The warmth from the liquids in the drink seeped through the soft surface of the cup and warmed her hand which was previously chilled from the outside fall air.

Talia was a 19 year old freshman in college with long dark brown hair that just came below her shoulders, deep blue eyes, and a tall, trim frame. She was dressed casually in jeans and a tan military style jacket with a plain t-shirt underneath. A heavy, steel watch on her left wrist shimmered in the artificial light as she carried her cup back to the table she had been sitting at. The watch was too big for her, and looked as if it must’ve cost a fortune. On her right hand, a simple golden class ring gleamed with the school symbol engraved into it; a laurel wreath that resembled a pair of wings. The ring had no other decorations, jewels, names, or dates on its polished surface. The school symbol was the only custom detail on the ring.

As she raised the cup to her lips and took a careful sip of the steaming mocha coffee, she felt the light coating of whipped cream briefly on her tongue. The slightly sweet, chilled cream was almost immediately obliterated as the bitter hot liquid stormed in after it. Feeling the hot air pressing on her chilled body from all sides, Talia knew how the cream must’ve felt.

One of her sleeves slid down, revealing a row of scars seared on her forearm just below her wrist. Suddenly feeling the pull of memory, Talia yanked the sleeve back up, hiding the scars, not from the others around her, but from herself. There was a thought she must not think. A memory she must not see. Not here. Not now. Not with all these people around her. Not when she was so tired. She doubted she would have the strength to resist the insistence of panic.

To her relief, the voice that had called her name rang out again, calling another's name and drink. The voice was strangely soothing, though she was unsure why. The voice came from a red-haired woman. She had the sort of face that made you feel welcome the instant you saw it. It held a constant friendly warmth even when she wasn’t smiling. She wore very little makeup, but then, Talia thought, she didn't need any. Her skin was almost artificial looking with almost no flaws or signs of damage of any kind. With the few words Talia had heard, she could barely detect a slight accent. French, maybe? As Talia watched the woman continue with her work, she had the strangest feeling rising within her. She thought she knew this woman; that the two of them had met somewhere before. But that was impossible. Talia was from nowhere near this city, and had only moved here a few weeks ago. And besides, how could Talia have forgotten someone as arrestingly beautiful as this? She dismissed the thought, and dragged her attention back to the drink in her hands.

 

The key fit into the lock, with some convincing, and the door swung open to reveal the tiny thousand square foot apartment that was as bare as it was dark. There was hardly any furniture or lighting of any kind. Only a leather couch, a flat screen television, and a dining room table with four empty seats. Talia walked into a kitchen barely big enough for two people to move in comfortably, and pulled out a half empty pizza box from the stainless steel fridge. She was too tired to cook; if you could call what she did ‘cooking’ at all. As she nibbled at the re-heated, chewy pizza, she watched a comedy that didn’t make her laugh, a tragedy that didn’t make her cry, then went to take a shower.

The water was still heavy in the air when she pulled back the curtains and stepped out. The smell of the expensive body wash her parents had gotten her for Christmas wafted through the little tiled room. Her wet hair was cold on her shoulders and back, and the water dripping from her was getting colder still as her feet pressed down the little mat beneath her. If she wanted to, she could’ve turned her head towards the mirror and stared at the deep scars slashed into her back slanting diagonally from her right shoulder. But Talia did not turn around. She had already seen the scars. She had seen them a hundred times already, and wished she could rip them from her skin. She was reminded of what had given her those scars every time she saw them. It wasn’t just memories of pain. It was memories of fire and blood, of the tearing of metal, the feeling of being trapped, the disbelief in the realization of being alive, and the hope for a quick death. Without stopping, she grabbed a towel off the rack beside her and wrapped herself up, warming her slightly chilled skin.

The night air was cold but not unbearably so. As Talia lounged lazily in the hammock she had strung up in her fenced-in patio, the stars watched her from above. She gazed up at the sea of stars that somehow seemed to be emptier of stars than she remembered. In the distant coastal house she’d lived in before, the stars were as bright as they were numerous. As a child, she would sneak out of the house, stretch out on the sand and stare at the heavens for hours. Now the stars were out-shown by the mass of lights within the prison of concrete and glass she was trapped in. She missed the calming quiet of her house by the sea. The sweet smell of the salt spray. The lulling motion of the waves. The warm breeze blasting in from the sea. Breathing in deep the diesel and sewage fumes, she let out a mournful sigh of defeat.

On the cold autumn air, the gentle strum of a guitar drifted by. The sound was a welcome lull, distracting her and allowing her mind to rest a moment and lose itself in the relaxing notes. Accompanying the guitar, a soft female voice quietly sang out. The clear, pleasant sound brought with it a wave of warmth shivering down her back. Talia realized she knew the song, and suddenly couldn’t help herself from mouthing the words to herself. She hadn’t sung in months and wasn’t about to start now. Unable to keep herself awake, Talia let her eyelids drop and allowed the sweet sounds to suck her into sleep. For the first time in months, she didn’t fall asleep dreading the following morning. She didn’t fall asleep praying to never wake up. For the first time in months, she was temporarily freed from the weight of her grief. Only a voice in the night, drifting through her mind.

 

Talia’s fingers typed furiously, her eyes intent on the screen in front of her, then her typing stopped abruptly, her hands hovering over the keys as she gathered her thoughts. A moment of silence as she remained deep in thought, then the typing began again. The cafe was fairly empty during this time of day. That was why she came here at this time. The soft music and light chatter around her was surprisingly calming, and she found it easier to concentrate her thoughts this way. There was a movement in the corner of her eye but she ignored it. Someone joined her at the table and opened their mouth to speak but she spoke up and stopped them. She didn’t like to stop her writing before she had finished her thought. Thoughts worth putting to paper were often thoughts that refused to return.

“I hear you… Just give me a minute…” She continued typing the last few words and finished the sentence before she broke her focus away and let out a breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding, her whole body suddenly spent from her rigid concertation. When she looked up from the screen, she was surprised to see that her new guest was the man who spent most of his time in class either sleeping or staring at his phone with earphones constantly at his ear.  

“What’s up, Zevran?”

“That girl over there. Do you know her?” Zevran nodded towards one of the workers. Talia immediately looked back down and continued writing. Oh here we go again…

“Which girl, Zev? There’s lot’s of them in here and none of them are here to flirt.”

“Just because you aren't doesn't mean the rest of them aren't.”

“This isn’t a nightclub, Zev, and half the girls here are here to get a paycheck, not a date.”

“What can I say? I’m an eternal optimist.”

“I can already tell this isn’t going anywhere pleasant.”

“Anyway back to my original question. The red-head. Do you know who she is?”

“Your next conquest?” Talia remarked, but still didn’t look up.

“Conquest? I assure you, my friend, I have no ‘conquests’.”

“Call it whatever you want, but whatever it is I’m pretty sure I want nothing to do with it.”

“I ask because she looks strangely familiar to me and I wondered if you felt the same.”

Secretly curious, Talia casually let her eyes drift over to the woman he was talking about. “She’s working here all the time. Of course I’ve seen her before.”

“I mean… Elsewhere…”

“What do you mean ‘elsewhere’?”

“I don’t know… You don’t feel the same?”

“You know you could just walk over and introduce yourself instead of gawking like a creep.”

“Oh I have, several times. Nice lady, she. Have you seen her thighs?”

“I haven’t seen anything below her nametag.” Talia replied in a monotone voice that showed she was only barely paying attention. As she spoke she continued typing and focused her attention back on the screen in front of her.

“Maybe you should. It wouldn’t kill you to make a few... friends… A few weeks and you’re practically a ghost.”

“I prefer it that way. I can manage just fine on my own.” Then, after a moment of thought, her head came up and she glared at him, “Zev… Are you seriously playing matchmaker?”

“Such accusations. You wound me.”

“Believe me, I would do worse if there weren't witnesses around…”

“And I believe you could. Still going to the gym daily? A woman may like someone with muscles like that.”

“And most women don’t like other women in general, especially if they value their personal lives.” Talia growled tersely, careful to keep her voice low but audible enough for his ears only. “Look, you bang your way through the ladies and gentlemen all you like, just leave me out of it.”

“You’re no fun.”

“I can live with that.”

“Well, I would take on the heavy burden you’ve refused but I have pressing matters elsewhere.” He said as he glanced at his phone.

“Yeah, you better get to work before the boss skins you alive for being late again…”

“Any other advice, my friendless virgin?”

“Try not to get distracted by anyone’s thighs… And I’m not friendless… Quality over quantity.”

Flashing her a coy grin, he stood up and sauntered away. Talia shook her head and rolled her eyes after he was gone. Despite what she’d said, she really had understood what he’d said about thinking the woman was familiar. It was a strange feeling that she barely understood. It was a sense of a past connection. Where had she seen this woman before? How could she have seen her before? Talia was from nowhere near this city and had only moved in a few weeks ago. She looked up again and saw the red-haired beauty chatting with one of her co-workers. Why do you feel so familiar? Where have we met before?

As she stared, she suddenly saw a flash of memory flare up in her mind. The images were blurry and impossible to make sense of. Focusing harder on the womans face, Talia tried to make the images appear again. The older woman glanced over at her, probably sensing her gaze, and Talia caught sight of her name tag. Leliana. Talia dug through her memories, searching for the images again, but she couldn’t get them to surface again. In the chatter of the cafe, Leliana's voice suddenly reached her ears again and the images flashed by again. Talia was ready for it this time and managed to make some sense of them.

She saw Leliana’s face, much like how she was now, distant and partially hidden in a crowd of people. The surrounding area was a dreary wooden building, lit only by candle and sunlight streaming through the windows. There were dark wooden tables and chairs scattered around, like that of a restaurant, but if it was restaurant, it was a poor one. Everything looked worn and rough, and there was broken glass everywhere. There were the sounds of people talking, gruff voices shouting, and the clammer of metal. She strained to try and understand what the voices were saying, but try as she might, she couldn’t make sense of them. She thought she heard a name, Loghain, and something about traitors. One of them said something that sounded like warden. The word seemed strange in such context. Warden was the word someone used when describing someone in charge of a prison. Could that be what this was about? Traitors avoiding capture and running into the prison’s warden? If so, how could either of them be involved in anything of the sort? And why did she look so worried?

Before she could see anything more, the memories suddenly disappeared as a voice wrenched her back into reality. Talia had become so absorbed in her task that she almost didn’t hear the voice, and for a moment she mistook it as part of the memory,

“It’s Talia, right?” She suddenly realized that Leliana was standing right in front of her. She hadn’t even realized how long she’d been staring. Talia shook herself out of the daze and tried to unjumble her thoughts enough to come up with a proper response.

“Yeah, hi. Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. I just- I thought that… You just looked familiar and I thought maybe we… Nevermind…” Talia ducked her head and rubbed the back of her neck, suddenly feeling self-conscious and wishing that a car would come smashing into the cafe and flatten her right then and there. To her surprise the woman simply giggled, the sound bringing with it an unexpected wave of relaxation.

“It’s alright. Was he a friend of yours?” The woman, Leliana, asked as she nodded vaguely in the direction that Zevran had gone.

“Oh, Zevran? I wouldn’t really call him a friend. Maybe an unwelcome tagalong. We just have classes together.”

“What are you majoring in?”

“Aviation.”

“No way! You’re a pilot?”

“A pilot in name only, for right now. I still have to actually get my license…” Talia replied, trying to hide the apprehension rustling behind her eyes. She spoke the words almost with despair, as if she was fighting a war against forces she couldn’t possibly defeat. She didn’t mean to draw attention to her despair but Leliana seemed to have caught onto it. She was watching Talia with a thoughtful expression on her face.

“That’s still awesome.”

Talia nodded and gave a polite smile in response.

“Don’t you ever get scared?”

“Pardon?”

“When you’re flying. Don’t you ever get scared up there? I know I would be.”

Talia stared at the older woman for what seemed like an eternity, fiddling with the class ring on her right hand and fighting a losing battle with the wreck that was her mind. The memories came flashing back again, too soon for her to stop them. The tearing of metal. The heat of fire on her neck. The sounds of people screaming and crying. The smell of burning fuel and death. Blood and aviation fuel.

“No.” Talia finally replied, as calmly and indifferently as she could manage. I didn’t used to be… Quietly, she cringed and cursed herself for her inept attempts at subtlety. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to keep calm.

“Really?”

“Yeah, it doesn’t bother me. Personally, I don’t see what the big deal is. I’m more likely to get squashed by a semi on my way to the airport than to die in a plane crash. And people drive every day without a second thought. Flying is the safest way to travel in the world; statistically speaking. Besides, nothing’s scarier than finals week.” It was a poor attempt at a light jest to lighten up the mood, but Leliana laughed softly at it anyway. The laugh seemed forced, and Talia wondered if Leliana had actually believed a word she’d said.

“Speaking of school, is that what you’re working on there?”

Talia glanced back at the laptop in front of her and nodded, “Yeah, just a stupid paper I have to write.”

“I didn’t know they gave out papers this early in the year…”

“I have some evil professors…” That rewarded Talia with a genuine bout of laughter that warmed the parts of her that the inside heating couldn’t reach. She grinned and chuckled a bit with Leliana, feeling herself unwinding from the tight knot she’d previously been tangled into.

“Well, I’ll let you get back to work on it then. And let me know if you need any help. I’ve had to write a few myself, and I’d be willing to lend a hand. I know it can be rough during your first years.”

“I might do that. You’re in school too?”

“I was. I had to take a gap year… Or two…”

“Run low on money?”

There was a long pause, before finally, “Yes… Something like that…”

Talia shrugged. “See you around, then.”

As Leliana left and got back to work, Talia realized she’d forgotten to ask what she had been studying. She would’ve called out and asked, but a rush of people had come in and the workers were suddenly busy with one order after another. So, she turned back to the laptop and silently wondered as she continued typing.

On the screen in front of her wasn’t a paper for school. She had no papers to write. The screen displayed a letter she was writing to her brother. Her older brother was an airman in the Air Force and was currently deployed in Afghanistan; or was he still in Germany? Talia could no longer remember. When their parents were killed, he hadn’t come home for the funeral. He was busy fighting his own battles. But she still wrote to him regularly. Though she never told anyone, she was lonely in this city and missed her family, but she couldn’t reach any of them. She had distant uncles and cousins on the west coast, but other than that her brother was the only thing close to family she had left. They wrote to each other often but never spoke of their parents deaths. Those wounds were still fresh. She told her brother about how well she felt she was adjusting to life in the city. She spoke of the convenience of being so close to stores and not having to drive so long to get anywhere. She never spoke of her hatred for the constant noise and the incessant smells of pollution puncturing her nostrils. She never spoke of the loneliness that was consuming her, or that she went to bed every night praying to never wake up the next morning. She didn’t want her brother to worry about her. Fergus had enough on his mind. 

On the street outside, Zevran stood watching, and allowed a genuine smile form on his lips. The man was already almost an hour late and would undoubtedly be facing an unhappy manager on his arrival, but this was more important. As he turned and continued walking, he considered what he’d just done. Wynne had once spoken of actions being like a drop of water in a still pond. This was more like a spark in kindling.

Chapter Text

Normally, Talia wouldn’t have woken up for another hour or so, and even then she would’ve dragged herself out of bed unwillingly to get to class on time. But that morning she was woken by a soft whine, followed by something wet on the bottom of her feet. Reluctantly, she pried open her eyes, briefly despairing over the dim morning light; the sun had only just risen. As her senses began to stir, she looked down towards the end of the bed, only to find a pair of grey ears and a bushy tail swishing from side to side. For a moment, she considered ignoring Brego and going right back to sleep, but she knew better than to try. Even if she did, he would just wake her up again, and this time he may start barking again, and she didn’t need anymore trouble from her neighbors. With a groan, Talia rolled out of bed, stretching herself in the cool morning air and rubbing her eyes. As she stumbled around the wreck that was her room, trying not to trip over the textbooks scattered on the floor, her siberian husky, Brego, waited at the door looking ever so pleased with himself. As her hearing came to her, she could hear the quiet howl emanating from his throat. He could never quite bark like a normal dog as his barks always ended up turning into a howl, as if his voice somehow had a mind of its own. She quietly shushed him and continued through the doorway, feeling his breath on her heels as he followed.

    Though Talia would never admit to being a morning person, she had to admit that mornings were the most beautiful time of the day to her. The pale light throwing beams of sunshine through the trees, the misty clouds of fog upon the grass like still grey waters, the soft chirp of birds breaking through the stillness of the air. She never tired of the mornings beauty, even if she hated having to get up so early to enjoy it. Brego appeared to be enjoying himself just as much as he trotted through the damp grass, his tail high and his nose to the ground. A squirrel scampered through the dead leaves and stopped to watch them. Brego saw him almost instantly and crouched low, preparing to sprint after him. One word from Talia was all it took to keep Brego still as the squirrel clambered up the tree, out of reach. If Brego was upset about letting his breakfast slip away, he bore it graciously and decided that it was a small price to pay as Talia gave him a good scratch behind the ears. Returning the gesture with a quick lick to her fingers, Brego continued his thorough inspection of the grass.

    As Talia walked beside her dog, she couldn’t hold back a sense of uncertainty and unease. Before now, the dog had once lived in their big house with a huge backyard, and had grown accustomed to many yards of space. Now that space was reduced to less than a thousand square feet of a cramped apartment. She knew he was unhappy here, but there was no where else for him to go. Fergus couldn’t take him, and none of her relatives were answering any of her calls or emails. Her grandparents had died long ago, and any other relatives were far away and likely had no idea of her existence. Now that her parents were gone, there was no one left to take care of him, and he’d been in the family for so long, she didn’t have the heart to give him away.

    After their morning walk, Talia stood in the kitchen brewing up her coffee while Brego scarfed down his breakfast nearby. The cool morning air had brought her out of her drowsy state, but she still felt heavy. Coffee would take care of that. The scent of the coffee grounds alone were beginning to wake her up fully. As she nibbled at her poptarts and sipped her coffee, Talia collected her thoughts, preparing herself for the day ahead. Then the time came to leave and she was at the door ready to leave, with Brego staring up at her with big blue eyes. Just before she left, she tossed him a kong with a treat inside. Hopefully, that would keep him fairly occupied until she got back.

   

    Talia forced the key into the lock and pushed the door open, her messenger bag dragging down her shoulder. She was greeted by both the blast of warm air and an elated husky who nearly knocked her to the ground. As soon as she dragged off her bag, she knelt down and pet him. His icy blue eyes were wide in excitement and his gaping mouth looked as close to a smile as a dogs mouth could look. His entire body tingled with elation, which seemed to grow with every touch from his Talia. His short, silvery fur was clean and soft against her skin. Looking around the apartment, it looked as if there had been a dusting of snow; snow that looked an awful lot like shedding. Brego needed a good brushing. He also desperately needed more exercise, and Talia was doing her best to keep him busy when she could. Unfortunately, class, work, and flight school kept her occupied for long hours during the day. But as soon as she got home, she made up for it by taking him to the park every day. A walk in the morning and an afternoon in the park was the best she could do. The two of them had once played in their yard all day. Brego seemed to have ten times the energy she did, so she often exhausted herself by the end of the day. But now Talia was so busy that she could barely keep up with him. The extra exercise did her some good though. As a pilot, she was expected to keep herself in good health, and the extra cardio work did a lot to keep her in shape.

    The two were on one of their normally scheduled walks in the park again, the evening sun low on the horizon, but not yet set. As Talia walked along the pathway, a breeze blew in from the river. Talia closed her eyes and breathed in the crisp autumn air, trying to imagine she was back home on the coast breathing in the salty sea air. If she listened to the rushing water of the river for long enough, she could forget the foul smells and obnoxious sounds of the city. The spell was broken when she heard a voice call out to her, “Talia, is that you?”

    She opened her eyes and was surprised to see a face she knew. Leliana was striding over to her. It was strange to see her out of uniform, without the apron, cap and nametag. She looked better in a loose fitting cardigan and light blue jeans. Brego wagged his tail as she came over and started towards her, but Talia whistled for him to come back. Brego obeyed reluctantly, and sat by Talia’s side, keeping a respectful distance. Talia knew Brego would behave himself, but she didn’t yet know how Leliana felt about dogs. But she needn’t have worried, as Leliana walked right up to him.

    “Is he yours?” She asked, gesturing to the panting husky.

    Talia nodded, “His name’s Brego. He won’t bite.”

    Leliana knelt down and pet him affectionately, much to Brego’s delight. “Your name is kingly…” She murmured to the dog as if he could actually understand her.

    There it was again, that nameless sense of familiarity. Where have we met before? Talia stared down at her, trying to make the connection, hoping for another memory to surface. Sure enough, fractures of images flickered in her mind. She couldn’t make out many details, but she could almost see the same scene in front of her. The only difference was the setting. In her fractured memory, they seemed to be in a closed in space surrounded by trees, with something glowing in the background. Maybe a campfire? As quickly as the shards of memory had come, they were gone, swept down the river of her mind with nothing to keep them here. Talia didn’t even try to bring them back, knowing that it was a lost battle. It was only then that she noticed the little corgi sniffing her shoes, happily wagging its stubby little tail. Smiling down at the little lap dog, she asked, “And I assume this one is yours?”

    “Yes. Her name’s Bonbon” Now there’s a special naming sense… Brego greeted the other dog cautiously, but the two soon became amiable towards each others presence.

    “Wanna go find a bench? My feet are getting tired.” Talia asked.

    “Sure. I think I saw one that way.”

    They found a fairly clean bench under a tree by the riverside. As they sat and talked, their dogs tried to play with each other. The size difference made things more challenging, but the smaller corgi didn’t seem to care. Talia and Leliana watched with quiet amusement as the big, burly husky allowed himself to be bossed around and practically herded by the stubby legged little corgi.

Talia soon noticed that Leliana was fiddling with a ring on her left finger. “That’s a pretty ring. Who gave it to you?” She asked casually.

    “Oh that.” Leliana stared at the ring dreamily, her eyes far away as if lost in memories. Her thoughtful gaze was replaced by a somber one when she finally replied, “My ex gave it to me a long time ago…”

    “Oh… I see… I’m sorry.” Talia was shocked by the effect the subject had on the woman. She was suddenly sadder than Talia had ever seen her, and Talia suddenly felt guilty for bringing it up.

    “It’s ok. We broke up a long time ago.”

    “If you broke up, why do you still wear the ring? I mean, sorry if that’s too personal.”

    “I don’t really know. I guess I’m hoping one day she’ll come back and apologize and we’ll start over again. I know it’s foolish but…”

“She? So you’re-” Talia didn’t need to finish the sentence. They both understood.

“Afraid I’ll hit on you?”

Talia shook her head. “Hardly. The only people who get hit on are the good looking ones.”

“And how do you fall short of that description exactly?”

Talia laughed at the jest, though she thought she caught a glimpse of something more serious in the older woman's eyes. Did she actually mean what she’d said? No way. She’s just teasing me. I must be seeing things. I’m just so tired is all. Convincing herself that a joke was all it was, she listened as Leliana changed the subject.

   

    Talia sat at the table that night, eating her dinner while Netflix played her favorite show on the television. As she ate, she glanced around, wondering where Brego was. She found him sitting right next to her, looking up with big eyes, begging for a bite of food. Talia shook her head and gestured to her food with her fork. “Uh uh. You’ve had dinner. This is mine.” Brego didn’t stop begging, but it had no effect on Talia. Her father may have been one to slip him scraps every now and then, but she wasn’t so charitable. And Brego was hardly starving.

    Later on she found herself lounging in her hammock again. The stars were gone tonight, obscured by a layer of clouds. Overhead she could hear the soft drone of a small plane circling overhead. A smaller plane would likely mean it was a plane from the academy on a night flight. The student might’ve gotten lost. Talia closed her eyes and listened to it, hoping they’d find home, but soon found herself feeling something twisting in her gut. A memory, long pushed back was surfacing again. The sound of the plane began to alter, rising in pitch until it formed into the continuous screeching howl of a jet. She was cornered by darkness, pressed by an frantic urge to flee. From across an ocean, she thought she heard Brego whining. On the verge of panic, her clothes drenched in sweat and her throat gasping for air, a new sound reached her. It was the gentle strum of a guitar, distant but audible. Slowly, her surroundings began to alter again. She was back on her hammock, swinging gently with Brego nuzzling her from below. She reach out for him, and ran her fingers through his fur, listening to the soft notes being carried on the night air, drawing from them the comfort that was bringing her back to reality. As her breathing began to settle, she heard a soft, lilting voice accompanying the guitar. The song was familiar; a soft rendition of ‘Shenandoah’. She took a deep breath, her chest still weak from the tension. The drone of the plane was distant and the music overpowered it. As she allowed the music to ease her anxiety, somewhere in the back of her mind she registered that fact that the voice was familiar. She had heard it before, but not in song. Talia fell asleep in bed that night. And as she did, she wondered about the voice in the night. The voice that she now recognized as the one who had called out her name so many times in a small cafe.

Chapter Text

Talia walked into the room and almost immediately stepped back out. Surely she must’ve made a mistake and accidentally walked into a classroom where class was already in session. The lights were darkened and the projector glowed eerily as it thrusted its images onto the screen in the front of the room. She stepped back and checked the room number, then looked down at her class schedule, then looked again. There was no mistake. This was the room she was meant to be in. Hesitantly, she inched back into the room and called out,

“Uhh… Is this World History 101?”

It was one of the students who answered, waving invitingly, “Yep, come on in.”

Still unsure of herself, she glanced around the room with plenty of empty seats to choose from. Finally deciding on a seat, she manned forward blindly in the dark, tripping and almost falling on a step she hadn’t seen. She chose a chair somewhere in the back beside a scrawny kid who slumped lazily in his chair staring blankly. As she settled into her seat, Talia could hear the faintest sounds of a rock band coming from the boys earbuds.

Looking past the projector, Talia could see a digital clock built into the wall. Just to be sure, she checked the time on her own watch. It showed the same time. It was almost time for class to start; she’d gotten here just in time. It was a miracle she’d gotten here at all. That morning she’d woken up to find her husky, Brego, chewing on her underwear and spent a good while trying to get it back in one piece. She smiled briefly at the memory, reflecting amusedly that most people her age had trouble finding their underwear in a pile of others, while she struggled to get hers back from her troublesome dog.

In one corner, a big stone statue of what looked like a man stood in an exaggerated pose with its arms raised and its head lifted up towards the ceiling, as if wailing in defeat. In the other corner, Talia could see the professor's desk and a figure slumped in one of those big comfy chairs that was better suited to a business mans office. There was the faintest sound coming from that direction. Was he asleep? It was impossible to see the man in the darkness. In fact, she couldn’t even be sure if it was a man or not until the bell rang and he jerked up in his seat. He looked around the classroom with languid eyes, as if trying to remember where he was, before he stood and addressed the class.The professor's name was Mr. Kondrat, and he didn’t seem to have any life outside these 4 walls. Talia tried to pay attention but his voice was so monotone and uninterested, that she found it easier to allow her mind to drift.

Her thoughts took her away to the night before, the strum of a guitar, the soft voice; Leliana’s voice. Her voice wasn’t too distant so it had to be coming from somewhere nearby. Talia almost wanted to laugh at the coincidence. She found it ironic that the two women should find themselves living so close together. Maybe I should stop by and say hello sometime? What was it about this woman that drew Talia to her? The more time she spent around her the more Talia wanted to befriend the older woman. Perhaps it was the fractures of memory, the unshakable sense of familiarity that she still couldn’t explain. The woman was a mystery that she felt she needed to uncover.

The class session dragged on as the professor robotically went through the syllabus. Talia felt as if she’d been stuck in that room for days and was relieved when they were finally released. As she walked through the building, she could hear whispers and murmurs from the other students about the old man who had just stood in front of them. Rumor has it, his wife left him for another woman, and now he was drowning in alcohol and gambling debts. Students would recall seeing him often at one of the local pubs, sitting alone drinking or at a table playing cards with a group of strangers, occasionally starting drunken fights that he almost always lost. His work and his life had pinned him down, and there was nowhere left for him to go. He was, Talia decided, a 21st century fossil.

Talia glanced at her watch briefly, and, satisfied that she had enough time to run an errand before her next class, quickly left the building. It was raining hard outside, the water slamming down so hard it seemed the concrete might crack at any moment. She could see other students rushing for cover, their heads bent and their umbrellas desperately fighting a losing battle against the downpour. Before she braved the constant waterfall she pulled up her coat’s hood over her head and zipped the coat up. Her feet and legs would be at the mercy of the rainwater, but at least she could protect her main body from the chill. She had known it would be rainy, but she hadn’t anticipated such a heavy flow as this.

At this time of day the campus police station was fairly empty, much to Talia’s relief. Yesterday the tiny lobby had been packed with students elbow to elbow, and she had decided to leave them to it. She hated crowds and couldn’t bare the thought of being packed into such a cramped space with so many strangers. She would've felt suffocated. There was no line, allowing her to walk right up to the smiling receptionist. As she spoke to the receptionist, she noticed an officer watching her from the other side of the room: a blonde haired man in his early 20’s. Out of curiosity her eyes glanced over his nametag which read, Alistair. Is it Al-ah-ster or Al-iss-tare? Talia glanced at him and greeted the receptionist politely, “Hey, I’m just here for my parking pass.”

“Did you order it in advance?” The receptionist inquired.

“Yeah, here’s my ID.”

There was a long awkward silence as the two waited, the computer seeming to take an eternity to find the information. Talia glanced around the room, trying to think of something to say. Part of her felt she should say something to pass the time, but nothing came to mind. Should I comment on the weather? Don’t people talk about that enough already…  

“Well the computer sure is taking it’s time…” Alistair commented, his voice startling Talia. He had a clear lively voice with a British accent. Talia nodded,

“It’s probably because there’s so many people on the servers at once.”

“Yeah, our servers crashed twice yesterday. Nothing like a horde of angry freshmen to make your day a little more interesting, eh?” As he spoke, a crooked smile spread across his face. Talia chuckled at the jest, even though it wasn’t that funny, which filled the awkward silence. Then at last the information came up on the screen and Talia walked out of the station with her parking permit.

 

    The woman sat upright in her chair, watching the room with cold eyes. The moment Talia saw her, she disliked her at once. She had the face of someone who was used to getting their way, who hated smiling, and who loved to nit pick an essay down to that last comma. The black haired woman wasn’t that old, but her pale face was pulled into hard lines, and she had black eyes that could have belonged to a raven or a crow. She wasn’t someone who enjoyed her work. She was someone who endured her work, and occasionally didn’t despise it with all her being. Talia had read her name in the syllabus. Her name was Mrs. Wilds and she would be Talia’s Philosophy professor. Talia took her seat, vaguely wondering why there were so few people in the room so close to the beginning of class. She had only counted 12 students in the room, many of them were young freshmen like herself, and one she recognized. Zevran was sitting in the very back, leaning lazily in his chair and staring at his phone. She didn’t blame him for being so disconnected. It seemed this was either a particularly hated subject or a particularly hated professor. Likely a bit of both . Great...

Talia sat through the class wracked with trepidation about the coming semester and the professors voice unnerved her. It was low and smooth, but it could be sharpened to an edge at a moments notice. It seemed to Talia that no matter what they were talking about there was no way for her to speak and sound pleased without either sounding sarcastic or like she was secretly planning a brutal murder.

 

As soon as class was over Talia grabbed her bag and made for the door. As she went, she noticed Zevran moving towards the professor who was looking through some papers on her desk alone. Rolling her eyes and feeling a swell of nausea, Talia hurried out of the room. You’ll really go for anyone won’t you? She was in such a hurry to leave, that she didn’t hear the conversation that followed. It was Zevran who spoke first,

“Has anyone told you what marvelous eyes you posses?”

“I would suggest you avert yours if you wish to keep them in your skull.”  Mrs. Wilds replied scornfully, glowering at him disdainfully.

“Perhaps you and I could go out for a drink sometime.”

“I don’t drink.”

“It doesn't have to be an alcoholic drink. I heard of a nice little cafe that opened not far from here.”

“Yes… I heard that also…” The woman's eyes lasered into his own. There was something rustling behind those black eyes, a flicker of something more than petty annoyance. “That place is also frequented by many students, and I would prefer to distance myself from such rabble. That includes you, now begone fool boy.”

“I do have a question, if I may.”

“Speak quickly.”

“This syllabus seems particularly brutal. It is worth pointing out that this is not our only class, and we have lives beyond school, as I’m sure you guessed.

“You had a question, did you not?”

“All I wonder is if you would consider toning it down a bit. A bit less homework and more time to work on assignments would allow us more time to breathe. There is so much more to enjoy in life, and it would be a shame to waste what little of our youth we have left.”

Mrs. Wilds didn’t blink. “You are not here for play, you are here to work. You are adults now and I expect you will find a way to fit everything into your schedules. There’s always time for the things you truly value, as I’m sure you’ll learn.”

“So that’s a no, then? Ah well. It was worth a try.” Zevran shrugged and began to leave but before he did he noticed Mrs. Wilds fiddling with a silver ring on her right finger. The ring was simple with only an elegant design of a laurel wrapping around the ring etched into the metal surface.

“A lovely ring, by the way. Where ever did you get it?”

The woman hadn't been friendly to begin with, but in the blink of an eye her voice turned brittle. It had gone from simple irritation to pure venom in an instant. Her eyes were suddenly murderous, and anyone else might’ve been startled by them. But Zevran stared back with a mischievous grin still on his face, awaiting her answer,

“Silence, boy. It is none of your concern.”

   

    Talia walked into her apartment drenched to the skin. As always, Brego was there waiting with a radiant smile, but Talia was hesitant to let him out, fearing he’d just get muddy and wet; and get nothing done while he was at it. She didn’t want to risk losing her pet deposit. Dropping her bag by the doorway, she began peeling off her soaked clothes. Fortunately the only thing that really needed changing was her pants and socks. She didn’t bother putting on new pants as she sat wrapped in a blanket on the couch, waiting for her coffee to brew. Brego lay nearby, curled up next to her on the couch, knowing he wouldn’t be told to get down as long as he behaved himself. Talia liked his quiet steady presence; when he wasn’t barking at everything that moved by the window, that is.

As she listened to the calming pound of rain on the roof above her, she opened up her laptop and scrolled through her social media. The picture on her profile had been taken after her first solo flight. She was leaning against he plane she’d flown- an old cessna 172 with flaking paint- with a big smile across her face. The flight was one of the biggest hurdles she’d jumped in her path to being a pilot. Her parents had been so proud. She had no messages, but she noticed a new friend request demanding her attention. She read the name and didn’t need to look at the profile picture to know who it was. Leliana. Still she looked around the woman's profile out of curiosity. It turned out she’d been born in France- so Talia had been right about the accent- and had spent most of her life there and all around Europe. Talia’s first thought was how good the older woman’s English was, but then a question entered her mind. So what’s she doing here in America? The question puzzled Talia. Usually, people came here to go to school or escape a war. Leliana didn’t seem to be doing either. Searching through the rest of her profile didn’t reveal the answer. She liked taking beautiful pictures of Europe and her dog. Looking further back, there were pictures of her with a woman Talia didn’t recognize. This must’ve been the woman that Leliana had mentioned that day in the park. She seemed genuinely happy in the photo, and Talia felt a wave of sadness, knowing that that happiness was short lived. Talia suddenly felt uncomfortable delving this deep into her personal life. She was just about to close the window when a message popped up from Leliana.

L: You there?

T: Yeah. What’s up?

L: Nothing. Just relaxing at home. How about you?

T: Same here. Rain makes for soggy clothes and restless dogs.

L: Lol! So, how are your classes going?

T: Same as they ever do. Mostly boring stuff right now, but I have a flight lesson tomorrow after work.

Talia’s gut twisted as she typed those words. Tomorrows flight weighed heavily on her mind. She should’ve been excited, instead she was nervous.

L: Awesome! Where are you working at?
    T: The local library. My mom was good friends with the director there and she gave me the job. The pay’s not bad and I don’t deal with too many mean customers. I imagine you must get those a lot. lol

L: Lol! Yes, I’ve had my fair share.

T: Hey, speaking of work, will you be working much this week?

L: Yes, mostly on weekdays, but I get the weekends off. Why do you ask?

T: So I know when to come in and annoy you. ;)

L: I wouldn’t mind the company. :)

Talia had to smile at that. She couldn’t help herself.

L: Well, I have to go. Bye!

T: See ya

Chapter Text

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!

By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—

    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,

    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”

           Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

 

Talia’s head jerked up from the book in her hands and she glanced around, remembering where she was. Seeing that no one had been watching, she closed the poetry book and put it back in its place. As she did so, a faint wisp of dust wafted up into her face. She cough quietly and held back a sneeze, not wanting to make too much noise.The poetry section in the library was fairly unpopular and always deserted but still she preferred to keep vigilant. If she could help it, she would rather avoid a lecture from her boss. Sure enough, a silver haired old woman passed by the section glancing briefly at Talia before moving on. By then, Talia had continued her work, stuffing books back into their places among their kin.

The cart creaked softly as she pushed it through the lines of bookshelves, her eyes scanning the book labels. There are few places in the world quieter than a library, and silence is law in such a place. The soft light streaming in from the windows illuminated the particles of dust in the air that she had been fighting a brutal war with. She wiped down one section and left to wipe down another, only to return to find that the dust had resettled itself just for her to wipe down again. Another sneeze surfaced and this time it was too quick to hold back. She tried to at least keep it quiet but her voice still echoed out around her, briefly shattering the comfortable silence as unseen patrons privately cursed her.

“Hey Talia.”

Talia turned her head to see one of her co-workers peering around the side of the row of bookshelves she was in. Seeing her friend she nodded, “What do you need, Jowan?”

“Everyone’s breaking for lunch. You coming?”

“I’ll be there in a minute.”

Jowan left and Talia finished putting away one last book before pushing the cart down the aisle towards the end of the shelves. As she made her way towards the room where the rest of the staff was congregating for lunch, pushing the cart ahead of her, she allowed her mind the drift.

There was a jolt as the cart bumped into one of the shelves. Without warning, the end cap on the bookcase fell off, causing an avalanche of books. No one was hurt, but Talia was frantic. She knelt on the floor trying to pick up the books and fix the mess, but it was a hopeless task.  A silver haired woman came over and Talia looked up. The woman was her boss. Trying to keep herself calm, Talia stammered, “Wynne, I uhh. I didn’t mean- It just sort of- Uhh…”

“Take it easy, Talia. It’s not your fault. That thing was ready to fall apart anyway.”

Talia continued trying to clean up as if she hadn’t heard Wynne, so the old woman knelt down and took Talia’s wrist, physically stopping her.

“Talia.” She said again. “It’s alright. We can take care of this later. Go get your lunch. Everyone’s waiting.” When Talia raised her eyes, she saw a gentle warmth in the old woman's eyes. She had seen it’s kind before. It was the same way people had looked at her during her parents funeral; that same compassionate pity. Wynne had known her mother, and deep down Talia knew that was the only reason she’d gotten the job she had now. Wynne’s sympathy for her was as invaluable as it was irritating. Part of her was annoyed that people still looked at her like that; like some lost kid who needed protection. She knew Wynne meant no harm, but it still made her angry. She didn’t want anyone’s pity. She could look after herself, she didn’t need someone to come save her. Without thinking, she stood up and gruffly brushed Wynne’s hand off her arm, then turned and left, only then noticing that her face was contorted in indignation. Behind her, she thought she could her Wynne sigh.

When she walked into the breakroom, everyone was already seated, and snickering about something.

“Uh oh. What are you guys laughing about now?” She mused as she went to grab a water bottle from the fridge.

From his place next to Anne, Jowan looked up and replied, “Our pacing man’s back.” Talia moved over towards the window and glanced out at the main room of the library, searching for the man they were referring to, and there he was. He came almost everyday, never speaking to anyone nor borrowing any books. He simply found the same deserted area of the library and paced back and forth along the row of books, doing who knows what on his phone.

“What is he even doing that he can’t do at home?”

“Maybe he doesn’t have wifi and is tapping into ours.”

“Yeah, but doing what?”

“Maybe he’s playing games on his phone.”

“Or reading fanfiction.”

“Or maybe he’s just watching porn.”

“Or maybe… He’s a secret agent spying on someone…”

Another scattering of laughter. Talia rolled her eyes. As the others sat around the only table in the break room, Talia realized there wasn’t any more room on the table and pulled up a chair so she could at least sit near them, and ate her lunch on her lap. The others were chatting about the latest gossip, what their children had most recently gotten in trouble for, a few stories about some former patrons who’d been put in jail, and then they spent a good fifteen minutes complaining about the weather. All the while, Talia sat where she was, listening quietly and laughing with the others. Talia’s boss, Wynne, always seemed to know when everyone was really done eating. The silver haired woman stood up and announced,

“Alright, let’s get back to the grind everyone.”

Without a word of opposition, everyone cleared the table and returned to their duties. Talia crushed the now empty water bottle in her hands and tossed it into the trash, wiping off the crumbs from her sandwich on her jeans. It was only now that she checked her watch and realized that it was time to clock out. Then, after she’d done so, she walked out of the library, feeling her entire body grow more and more tense with each step.

 

As she stepped out of her car and made her way across the asphalt, Talia fought back a wave of nausea. It had been a long time since she’d been to an airport. It was strange how different it all felt now. Overhead she could hear the roar of engines, a sound that she was so familiar with. A few months ago, that sound would have been exhilarating or even liberating. Now the sound sent a shiver of fear through her veins. The fall air was cold, but she was sweating. She had to push herself to walk up to the door.

Inside she found herself in an open room with couches, tables, and chairs. Windows lined a wall, allowing a view of the tarmac lined with planes, and there were people- other students and instructors- milling about and chatting. Talia only caught bits of their conversation. Apparently Mrs. Morgan was having an affair with her ex-boyfriends younger brother and her husband was having an affair with her yoga instructor. Talia didn’t bother listening in further. Two dispatchers sat lazily in their chairs, murmuring quietly to each other. Although the atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming, Talia couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. She had spent most of her time training at a much smaller airport, where she came to know almost everyone there. But these people were strangers to her. She felt like an uninvited guest barging in on the party. She stood awkwardly for a while, scanning the name tags of the instructors. Then one approached her and held out a hand, a radiant smile on his face,

    “Are you Talia?”

    “Yes, sir.” Talia nodded and shook the hand, her voice quiet and unsure.

    “I’m Daniel.” The man stated without any real need to. His name was stated clearly on name tag on his chest. Briefly, Talia wondered why it was necessary to put name tags on people when they were going to tell others what their name was anyway.

    She forced a smile to her face and replied, “Good to meet you, sir.”

    “Sir? How old to I look?” He looked to be in his mid 20’s.

    “I call everyone that’s older than me ‘sir’.”

    “Even your classmates?”

    “Well no, but…”

    Daniel chuckled and continued, “Anyway, let's get you started, ok? Follow me.”

    After they spoke for a while in one of the briefing rooms, they walked out onto the tarmac and Talia felt the cold breeze hit her face. She was grateful for it. She needed the blast of cold air to remind her how to breathe. The planes lined up on the tarmac were all identical, painted to same way; pure white with a blue stripe along the side. These planes were much different from what she was used to flying. She had originally done her training in a cessna 172, a high winged, bulky plane used mainly for training. These planes were different in almost every way. They were low winged, light weight, and skinny. Upon climbing into the cockpit, she found that these planes used a stick instead of a yolk. At least most of the other controls were in roughly the same place.

As Talia strapped herself in, she could feel another swell of nausea welling up inside her. The smell of the aviation fuel, the sound of the engine as it rattled to life, the feeling of being confined in a tight space. It all reminded her of something. At once she could feel the tap of a memory she’d long pushed away, a memory she’d thought she’d buried. As she plane slowly rolled down the runway, she softly gasped for air and struggled to maintain control. It felt like she was climbing a mountain, and they still hadn’t even left the ground. Twice the instructor had asked her if she was alright. Both times she had nodded, forcing a smile. She didn’t trust herself to speak, afraid that the fear would surface in her voice. She didn’t even hear the voices on the radio when at last they were cleared for take-off. She was too busy pushing away the claws of terror that threatened to paralyze her. Then the engines rose, the plane gained speed, and the air streaked past as they shot down the runway. Talia could feel her mind struggling to stay in the present. She couldn’t allow herself to get lost in the past again, not with a plane in hand, not with her instructor watching her every move, not with her future hanging so delicately in the balance. But soon the screams of the engine, the rattling of the light frame, and the helpless feeling overpowered everything in her. The final barricade fell and the memory long beat back was upon her. Suddenly she was no longer sitting ridged in the seat of a Diamond DA-20. She was trapped in darkness, being crushed beneath the weight of the metal biting into her back, and choking on the jet fuel fumes and the smell of burning flesh.

The engines were still tearing themselves apart, causing an unnerving screeching. In the distance, she could just barely hear the moans and cries of the other passengers. She opened her mouth to call out, but nothing came. The darkness was only penetrated by the orange glow of the fires breaking out around her. The air was hot and the flames seemed to be sucking the oxygen out it. If Talia had been paying attention in chemistry class, she’d have known that that was exactly what the fires were doing. The hot metal had sliced through her clothes, and she could feel her skin being burned. Her left arm was burning particularly badly, but she didn’t dare try to move it. It was far too painful, and she was afraid she might accidentally tear her arm off. The pain was so bad she was afraid to move at all. She wanted to cough but any movement seemed to give the metal new flesh to cut into, so she strained to keep still. The darkness slowly began to be invaded by orange light as the fires began to close in on her. It was getting harder and harder to breathe, and the crushing weight on her back only made it worse. She gasped for air one last time as she felt to heat of the flames as they lightly touched her flesh.

    Reality was yanked back into focus when a voice suddenly rang out through her headset, “Fuel pump and landing light off, please.”

    Shaking herself out of the grip of her demons, she reached out and flipped the proper switches, trying to focus on flying the plane. The initial panic briefly receded but at the back of her mind she could feel the ghost of the fear tapping at her consciousness, trying to work its way back into her mind's eye. Her grip on the yolk tightened as she strained to keep herself in the present. Soon enough, the plane rattled and the smell of aviation fuel was suddenly overpowering, and her black memories fell onto her again. The panic would rush in and smother her and she had to fight hard to keep from shutting down completely from the terror. Each time the memories took hold of her, she would grip the yolk until her knuckles went white and her body went rigid. Numerous times her instructor would explain a maneuver, a memory would interrupt her listening, and she would miss half of his instruction, mess up the maneuver and he would have to explain it again. She had learned almost nothing throughout the entire hour they spent in the air, and her instructor could tell she was struggling to pay attention, though he couldn’t have known why.

    Back in the terminal, she rushed to the bathroom and locked herself in a stall, expecting to throw up. The vomit never came. She simply leaned against the wall panting desperately. On the inside, within her floundering mind struggling for control, despair consumed her. The plane crash that had given her so many scars, and had taken her parents from her, had now stolen away her dreams. How could she possibly expect to make this her job when she couldn’t even make it past take off? Swallowing down the bitter taste of defeat, Talia sank to the floor and buried her face in her knees.

 

    Gripping the metal with white knuckles, Talia pulled herself up until her chin was well above the bar, feeling the strain on her arms. As soon as she was satisfied with her performance, she slowly relaxed her muscles and allowed herself to drop down below the bar, but her fingers still gripped the metal. She sucked in a breath and repeated to motion again, her chin rising and falling before the stubborn metal. The air smelled of sweat and held the dryness of cold air conditioning. Her aching fingers were caked in flour to keep from slipping on her own sweat. As her muscles worked, she allowed herself to think back to flight she’d had that day; the moment when she’d brought the plane down to the runway too hard. The frustration and humiliation burned into a silent rage that fueled her veins and gave her limbs the power they needed. Her eyes darkened, her breathing became more intense, and the pain in her arms became distant. When she was at last satisfied with her work, she gratefully released her grip, her shoes thudding as she landed on the concrete floor. She snatched up her water bottle and moved away from the pull up bar she was using, allowing her mind to regain touch with reality. The room was a blur in her hazy mind, but after a few swigs of water it began to come into focus.

She was in the campus owned gym. There was workout equipment all around her and dozens of other students making use of the equipment in their own way. Overhead, a line of fluorescent bulbs burned, throwing unnatural light into the concrete room that was the most unpleasant looking place in the whole campus. Grey walls, grey floors, grey dusty air, and grey light. Talia would’ve likened it to an interrogation room. Though, one with enough room to interrogate an entire army at once.

    A drop of sweat trickled down over her eye and she wiped it away. She was close to exhaustion, she knew. Another repetition on the bench press and she would call it for the day. Thankfully one was already open and she made for it, taking another gulp of water as she went. She slid the weights onto the cold metal bar and looked around for a partner. It was against the rules, and incredibly unsafe, to bench press alone. She found someone who didn’t look busy, an older man who looked as grey as their surroundings, and asked for his help. The man agreed in a monotone voice that seemed to mirror his cold face that could’ve been carved from stone. No words were exchanged as Talia reached up and began lifting the bar of metal up and down.

    “You don’t look well rested.”

    “That’s because I’m not.”

    “Why?”

    “Bad dreams is all. I’ll get over it.”

    “Your dreams disturb you?”

    “Yours don’t?”

    “Of course not. They aren't real.”

    “I know that when I’m awake. But it feels so real when I’m asleep. Like I said, I’ll get over it.” Talia replied, trying to keep the frustration out of her voice. This constant back and forth was wearing on her patience.

    “Sleep is meant to restore the mind and body. Dreams that interfere with this are self defeating.”

    “Well naturally… You say that like I have any control over it…” Talia grumbled, her irritation increasing and the pain in her arms growing distant.

    “The mind and the body are connected. If you cannot take control of one, you will also lose the other.”

    “And how do I do that?” Talia asked, her irritation giving way to faint curiosity.

    Before he could answer, Talia felt her phone buzz. She took a gulp of air, forced the bar back up into its metal slots, then sat up to look at her phone. Someone was calling her and she recognized the number. She glanced apologetically towards the man and he merely nodded in response. He hadn’t spoken, nor had his facial expression changed.

    “Hey, Zev. What’s up?”

    “Hey, Talia. Where are you?”

    “The gym. Why?”

    “Are you done yet?”

    “Pretty much, why? What’s going on?”

    “Are you coming to the festival?”

    “What festival?”

    “Uh, the annual fall festival. Duh. How have you not heard about it all week?”

    “Well… I was… A little busy…”

    “Well, the festival is going on today and for the rest of the weekend.”

    “Where is it?”

    He told her.

    “Alright, I’ll have to go home and change but, sure, I’ll check it out.”

    She put her phone back in her pocket and turned around to speak to the man who’d been helping her, but he wasn’t there anymore. She looked around but couldn’t find him. Oh well. He never talked much anyway. She shrugged, then grabbed her bag and left.

Chapter Text

    As Talia walked along the path through the park, she got the sense that something was happening. On a normal day, this park was practically deserted at around this time. That was why she came here. But looking ahead she could see hordes of people congregating in a big area. White canvas tents flapped in the breeze around the people and strings of electric lights were strung around the whole area. The sun was only just setting,Talia could see the swirl of warm colors melting into the ball of light and then dripping onto the rolling waters of the river. But even so it was dark enough that the lights were already on. They glowed with a warm golden light that reminded Talia of the sunset behind them. This must’ve been the festival Zevran had told her about.

As she made her way through the crowds, she listened into the chatter around her. Talia didn’t often speak to people, but she often found it more useful to listen. Some might call it eavesdropping, but she wasn’t comfortable speaking to strangers. It was easier listening to someone who was.

    “How much for-”

    “Twenty bucks.”

    “What?”

    “Twenty bucks for a T-shirt.”

    “That… blows…”

    Talia turned her head to see a teen with a hoodie on talking to a shop owner. Behind the owner there were numerous band shirts up on display in his little tent. The owner was on the phone and clearly disinterested in his customer, the kid in the hoodie, who looked none to pleased. The shop owner turned his head and in that moment the kid reached out and tried to casually swipe one of the shirts, but the store owner caught him and slapped his hand.

    “Hey! I told you twenty bucks! You looking to get beat?”

    The kid recoiled angrily and sulked away.

 

    Standing among the crowds of strangers, Talia scanned the millions of faces, hoping for a familiar one. She had hoped she would see someone from class or even from the airport, but there were only strangers here. Part of her knew she should make conversation and try to make new friends here, instead of standing around awkwardly trying to keep her distance from every living creature. Had she been someone else, she might’ve, but she was no such person. She was socially awkward and unversed in starting any social interaction. If someone were to walk up to her and begin talking to her, she could continue the conversation with no troubles, but walking up to someone and even saying ‘hello’ felt strangely uncomfortable to her. She was a better reactor than an interactor.

    To her relief, a familiar face finally came into view. Talia didn’t realize she was smiling as she approached Leliana. She made her way through the crowds towards the red-haired woman who had her back to Talia. When she got close enough she tapped one shoulder before quickly moving to the otherside before Leliana could she her, grinning like a foolish child. As expected, Leliana glanced over only to see no one standing there but when she looked the other way, Talia was there, still grinning from ear to ear. Leliana laughed briefly, and greeted her,

    “Hello.”

    “Hey.”

The two shared an awkward silence and Talia realized that she hadn’t thought far enough ahead. She hadn’t actually thought of something to say, and now she was just standing there like the moron she felt like. She frantically searched her brain to think up something to say. Speak you fool!

“So, uhh… What are we looking at over here?”

    It was the first thing that came to mind, but it worked out surprisingly well. Leliana took interest almost immediately. The stand was selling a number of frivolous things and among them was a collection of shoes, which Leliana was all too eager to discuss in excessive detail. Talia hadn’t realized there were so many details that footwear could have. As she stood there, trying her best to focus on the tumble of words, only half of which made sense to her, she found herself staring at the womans face. There was a lovely light in her eyes as she spoke of the things she loved, and Talia never tired of its beauty. She was unaware how much time had passed as she lost herself, but eventually she became aware that Leliana was staring at her. At last she pulled herself together and asked her to repeat herself.

    “I was just asking if you needed new shoes.”

    “Oh. No, no I’m good. The ones I’ve got now work just fine.”

    “I didn’t mean your casual sneakers, I meant maybe something for a special occasion like a party or-”

    “What parties am I going to? And besides why can’t I just wear my regular shoes? They’re comfortable enough.”

    As she spoke, Talia noticed a blur of movement, and looked in time to see a hooded figure sprinting past with something clutched in their hands. Somewhere in the distance she could hear one of the store owners shouting. Without realizing what she was doing, Talia took off after the thief. Behind her she could hear Leliana shouting after her, but she didn’t stop. The pursuit sent the two of them blazing past hordes of people, through tents and over obstacles. The thief was smaller than Talia, making it more and more difficult to keep track of them. Eventually, the thief rounded a corner behind the parks bathrooms, its foundation crumbling with loose bricks scattered about. Talia was nowhere to be seen. If the thief thought they’d given her the slip, they were proven wrong seconds later when she appeared again, tackling them to the ground with a grunt. There was a pulse of pain as the thief shot their elbow into the side of her face, and now she was determined to have revenge for that. She grabbed hold of them and forced them to face her, her fist raised and ready to take out their teeth. As she did so, she saw the thief's face and realized the thief was a woman. A short woman she thought she recognized.

“Sigrun?”

Before she could say anymore, Sigrun sent a stray brick slamming into her face, leaving her dazed. Then there was a blur and someone tackled the thief to the ground again. Startled by the sudden burst of violence, Talia was about to protest but then she saw that the attacker was a policeman, and one she knew. It was the man she’d seen in the station when she was getting her parking permit. Alistair looked up as he clapped his handcuffs onto the thief's wrists, beaming with approval.

“Thanks for the help. I’ll take it from here.”

Talia slowly picked herself up, holding her bruised, swollen cheek and looking balefully at the little thief who was giving her an equally icy glare. Another policeman arrived to help and after they had the thief put into their car, Alistair approached her again. “I really do appreciate the help. I was just about to lose that  I’ll have to repay the favor sometime.” That could prove useful someday…

“Oh, no problem.”

“By the way, you should really get some ice for that bruise.”

 

Talia found Leliana standing by herself eating some caramel corn. “There you are. You’d think you’d be easier to spot with that hair…”

Leliana flashed her a coy smile, then the smile softened and she was suddenly concerned, “What happened to your face?”

“My face? What’s wrong with-” Then she remembered the bruise. “Oh that. I got hit in the face with a brick.”

“And what’d you do to that brick?”

“He got offended because I told him he was heavy. He didn’t take it very well…”

The two chuckled together, then Leliana asked, “So, are you busy tonight?”

Talia thought for a moment, “Not that I know of. Why?”

“I wonder if you’d like to come over to my place for a bit? There’s something I’d like your opinion on…”

Talia shrugged, “Sure. Why not? It’s not like I have anything better to do.”

“No homework?”

“That’s not better… And anyway, it’ll still be there tomorrow morning an hour before class.”

Leliana giggled warmly. As if on cue, a clap of thunder rang out, and the sky was suddenly a sea of roiling clouds. The floodgates of the heavens opened, and the rainwater instantly soaked the earth. All around them the water thundered down, gushing through drain pipes, overflowing in ditches, and streaking across the windshields of cars. The water splashed beneath their feet as they rushed through the downpour, each trying in vain to protect themselves from being soaked. By the time they made it to Leliana’s place, they both looked as if they’d just gone swimming in the river. Despite the chill and discomfort caused by the downpour, they were both laughing together as Leliana turned the key in the lock and they walked inside.

The red-haired woman’s place was remarkably clean. That was the first thing Talia noticed about it. The layout was a carbon copy of her own apartment, though the furniture obviously differed. There were potted plants crowded together by the window, and looking out onto the patio, Talia could see a lush garden of flowers. She hadn’t known Leliana had such a green thumb. The soft warm lighting emmintated from a little lamp in the corner by an armchair.

Their clothes obviously needed to be run through the drier, and Leliana loaned Talia a baggy hoodie and sweatpants to wear while they waited. All of her clothes were so small, it was the only thing that would fit, but Talia didn’t mind. As she sat in the living room waiting, while Leliana made some tea for the two of them in the tiny kitchen, the young pilot studied the apartment again. She could see a plain white bookshelf up against a wall, and glanced briefly at the book covers. Leliana liked to read romance novels, though there were a few fantasy novels there as well. They were all obscure titles. Talia didn’t see a single author she recognized. Until... Curiously, she stood up and studied the book covers closer. She thought she recognized one and pulled it off the shelf to study it closer.

‘Alindra and Her Soldier .’” Leliana’s voice startled her as she looked up to see the red-haired woman smiling at her from the kitchen doorway. Talia smiled back and nodded,

“I think I read this one a long time ago, but I don’t really remember when. Wasn’t it about some noble woman who fell in love with some guy but he ended up dead? Always struck me as a depressing story...”

“It’s not depressing! It’s hopeful.”

Talia raised an eyebrow curiously. “How so? They both end up dead and no matter how much they loved each other they could never be together.”

“But they will be together someday. We don’t know when, but they will.”

Talia thought about protesting further, but stopped herself, deciding instead to listen and think things over. There was a little light flickering behind those blue eyes, and Talia was suddenly afraid she’d smother it.

“This story has always been one of my favorites. A love so strong and enduring that it moves the gods to action. Sometimes I wonder, does such a love exist? Can it exist?”

Not in this world. Talia thought to herself. She shrugged and said, “Maybe it can. I guess in a way it’s all matter of perspective. One couple may see themselves as true love and other people may see them and decide it’s merely lust. I guess love is whatever you make it out to be. For better or worse.” Usually for worse. Normally, Talia would’ve spoken whatever she was thinking, and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. But something in her resisted the idea when she spoke to this woman. Leliana was so bright and hopeful, it would be a shame to stomp out that positivity with Talia’s suffocating depression. There’s too little sunlight left in the world to just drown it out with petty pessimism. Besides, Leliana was so much prettier when she smiled.

“That’s an interesting perspective.” Leliana commented as she moved back into the kitchen to continue with the tea. A long pause, then suddenly Leliana asked a strange question, “Haven't we talked about this before?”

Talia moved into the kitchen and stared thoughtfully for a while, unsure how to respond at first, but at last she managed, “I don’t think so. Why?”

“It just seemed familiar for some reason.” The two shared a moment of thoughtful silence, then she shrugged, “Oh well, I must’ve just been talking about it with another friend. Sometimes I lose track of who I’ve told what.”

“I hear that.” Talia replied as she accepted a cup of piping hot tea, not realizing that it had no sugar in it until she took a sip. The look on her face made Leliana burst out laughing. Feeling vaguely foolish, she heaped sugar into her cup, and joined Leliana on the couch. They spoke easily, as they always had, sharing the trivial news of their lives. Leliana told stories of rude customers and foolish mistakes. Talia laughed a little too loudly as Leliana spoke of accidentally locking herself out of the cafe on her trash run close to closing time, and the guys at the pizza store a few blocks away helped her get back in. Talia sipped her tea and vaguely wondered what was meant to be in it. Vanilla definitely. But there’s also a fruity flavor in there I can’t figure out. Maybe blackberry? Or is it raspberry? It does also have a flowery smell to it. Maybe rose petals? Talia looked up and stared at Leliana’s face for a while, studying it without any particular reason. Though she wasn’t the most beautiful woman Talia had ever seen, there was a certain softness to her beauty. She was pretty but she wasn’t stunning. She was nice to look at but she didn’t make you sweat with lust when you looked at her. She was someone you could just relax and talk with, without feeling inferior about your own appearance. ‘Easy on the eyes’, was a phrase that came to mind, but in a more literal sense than usual. And speaking of eyes, there was something else worth studying. Her eyes were vivid and bright, but Talia couldn’t help but notice a certain guarded quality to them. When she spoke of the things she loved, her eyes lit up like fire, but when she was still and quiet they were dark, as if hiding a sorrowful pain. Perhaps the pain of her past breakup was still hurting her. Talia thought of the tea she’d just been drinking. In a way, it reminded her of the woman. Soft, mellow, and calming, with enough of a sweet fruity flavor the keep you interested but not blown away, and a feminine, flowery fragrance that was there but it wasn’t strong enough to choke your lungs, and an underlying bitterness hiding beneath it all. She suddenly realized that Leliana was staring at her as if she’d just asked her something. Crap! I wasn’t paying attention!

“Sorry, what’d you say?”

“I was just asking what really happened to your face.”

“I told you…” Talia said, feeling a strange sense of annoyance at being the center of attention.

“I mean what actually happened.”

Talia shrugged trying to look casual, “Someone got robbed and I went after the thief.”

“Is that why you suddenly charged off earlier today?”

“Yeah. Sigrun, I think was her name.”

"Do you know her?"

"Yeah I..." Talia thought about that for a moment, and realized something strange. "I uhh... I actually don't remember how we met... or when or... how I even learned her name..." She filed the information away, deciding to stew on it later. "Anyway, I caught up with her and to thank me for not pounding her she chucked a brick into my face… At least the cops caught up with her eventually…”

“Why? I mean, the cops were already chasing her so there was no need.”

“I don’t know. I didn’t really think too hard about it. I guess it was really impulsive. At the time I didn’t see the cops so I just took off when I caught sight of her. Seemed like the right thing to do, so... I just did it.”

“What if they were armed? You could’ve been seriously hurt or even killed.”

“Well, I’m not. The police caught up with them eventually and they got busted. That’s all that matters.” Talia shrugged again, trying to make light of the situation. Part of her rather liked the idea of being killed. At least then she’d die doing something noble. But she wasn’t going to tell Leliana that. If someone found out about her suicidal thought processes, they’d panic and Talia didn’t want to worry anyone needlessly.  She was never going to actually kill herself, she knew that, but it didn’t mean she wouldn’t welcome death when it came knocking.

“No, it’s not all that matters-”

“Why did you come to America?” Talia asked suddenly, immediately changing the subject. Leliana was taken aback and took a moment to think before she answered, almost hesitantly.

“I was studying abroad and after the semester ended I just… didn’t want to leave.”

“That’s it?” Talia was puzzled by the vague answer.

“That’s it.”

Talia may have been socially inept, but even she could see that the woman wasn’t telling the whole truth. There’s more to it than that. You just don’t want to tell me. But why? Why would she lie about something like that? Talia thought about pursuing the truth, but then decided against it. If she was holding back information, there had to be a reason. Maybe she just didn’t trust Talia enough yet. Or maybe she was waiting for the right time. Whatever the reasoning for her deception, Talia decided it was best to leave it be. She’d tell her when the time was right, or she wouldn’t. It wasn’t really Talia’s business anyway.

“What were you studying?”

“Music Composition. Which reminds me. I asked you over for a reason.”

“Oh yeah, I totally forgot. You said you wanted my opinion on something?”

“Yes.” She said as she set down her cup, “I’ve been writing a song for a while and… well, I wanted your opinion on it so far.”

Without knowing why, Talia was suddenly excited. “Well sure. I don’t know much about music but I’d be glad to hear it.”

Leliana smiled and nodded before getting up to grab the guitar leaning by the window. She grabbed a few papers sitting on an end table and brought them with her as she came and sat back down, laying the papers on the coffee table. For the first time since Talia had known her, she looked nervous. Her fingers faintly shook as she tuned the guitar and prepared herself.

Talia understood her restlessness, and decided to try to ease her nerves. Almost as if on impulse, she reached over and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Don’t be nervous. I can’t carry a tune myself, so I can’t judge.”

She looked up and nodded, smiling bravely. Then she took a deep breath, and as the rain tapped softly above and around them, she began to play. Soon after, her soft lilting voice sang out, and Talia felt a pleasant shiver run through her. The song was a sweet, calming one. When it was over Talia, unsure of what to do, clapped softly and nodded in approval.

“Wow.” Was all she could get out at the time. Then after she thought for a moment, she asked, “So, in the song you talked about someone you’re falling in love with. Do they know?”

“No, not yet. I’m kind of hesitant to talk with them about it because they’ve never been with anyone and I don’t want to move too fast. Plus,” She trailed off for a moment, “expressing these things for someone I care for so deeply is… somewhat new for me.”

Talia nodded, “I get that. Maybe once they hear the song they’ll finally get the message and things will go easier.”

“... That is the hope, yes…”

“Let me know how it goes. I hope it works out for you both.”

Chapter Text

Talia didn’t make a conscious decision to go back to the nearby coffee shop, but she seemed somehow drawn to it, first out of impulse, then out of habit. A sugary, hot drink quickly became her version of dessert. A hot chocolate became her evening companion, and then, when Christmas neared and the seasonal drinks were finally available, she switched to the caramel apple spice. Now that the holiday season was upon them, the city now held a warmth that was nonexistent beforehand. The light posts were decorated with glowing shapes of candy canes, presents, and snowflakes, casting warm light on the sidewalks at night. Snow drifted through the air and settled upon the dark ground, adding a crisp white to the otherwise ugly brown surroundings.

Leliana seemed to always be working when she came. The two spoke often and they had become friends quite effortlessly. They both had similar tastes in music, a fact they’d discovered when Talia had commented on the song playing over the radio. Talia’s desperate attempt at breaking the ice, turned into an hour long discussion. Leliana had a wide range of music tastes. It seemed she liked a little bit of everything ranging from alternative rock to orchestral pieces. Leliana liked to ramble, but Talia didn’t mind. She never talked much anyway.

On another day, a discussion about Talia’s progress as a pilot turned into a conversation about travel. Leliana seemed to be interested and so Talia spoke of the different airports she’d been to and answered her many questions about what it was like to fly. Usually the subject of flight prompted panic within Talia’s tired mind, which was still fixated on the crash that had scarred her for life. However, this time Talia found that she could speak of flying without fear. The calming presence of the other woman seemed to drive away any sense of uncertainty or terror that might’ve tried to get a hold of her gut. Leliana once had been in a band that often toured around Europe. Talia, an American who had never been outside her state border until now, listened intently as Leliana described the distant countries, speaking of them as if they were magical lands from a fairytale.

Talia walked into the cafe on a Monday after class and noticed Leliana was talking with someone else. She recognized him quickly. Alistair sat contently cradling his coffee and chatting with Leliana, who was sitting across from him digging a plastic spoon into a cheap cup of yogurt. Talia had spoken with him a few times on campus, and he seemed to be a pretty nice guy. Their conversations typically ended up steering towards sports. Though Talia had little to offer in knowledge of that area, she still listened and allowed him to tell her all about it. The man was a die-hard Wisconsin cheese-head. When Talia’s drink arrived she walked over and warmly greeted the two of them. “Hey, how’s it going guys?”

“Morning, Talia.” Alistair beamed.

“Morning… sir.” She replied after a moment of hesitation. Alistair rolled his eyes.

“You can just call me Alistair, you know. There’s no law saying you’ve always gotta be so formal with me. At least, none that they’ve told me about.”

“Yeah, sorry.”

The man smiled mischievously, “I think I’ll let it go this time…” Then after she joined them at the table, he asked inquisitively.  “How’s your flying going, by the way?”

Talia hesitated for a moment, subconsciously chewing her lip, then proceeded carefully, without realizing she had already failed to convincing anyone, “It’s… fine. Slow but… fine.” As she spoke, she couldn’t help but tug on her shirt collar apprehensively.

“You’ll have to take me for a ride some day. I’d love to fly above a city sometime.”

“Sure. If I can get enough money for the plane…” Out of the corner of her eye she could see Leliana eyeing her dubiously. By now, the red-haired woman must’ve known how bad of a liar Talia was. Alistair may have been oblivious, but Leliana couldn’t miss her tells. Alistair’s radio squawked and he spoke into it for a moment before standing up.

“Duty calls?” Talia asked.

“Yeah. Don’t you two go making any blood sacrifices while I’m gone.”

“No promises.” Leliana called after him. Talia rolled her eyes.

When he was gone, there was an awkward silence between her and Leliana. It seemed neither of them had anything to say. Normally, Leliana was the first to start on a topic, but she was silent, as if lost in thought. Talia felt she should say something to fill the silence, but what? Should I try to make small talk? Isn’t that what normal people do? Crap. I wish I was normal. Then, without warning, Leliana began to speak.

“You know, there’s a symphony playing at the theater on east street.”

“Yeah?” Talia said inquisitively, silently hoping to be invited.

“I bought two tickets, but my friend couldn’t come with me. He couldn’t get out of work. Would you wanna come?”

Talia nodded and replied, “Sure. When is it?” trying not to sound too eager.

“This Saturday evening at 7.”

“PM?” She asked without thinking, and immediately facepalmed at herself internally. Leliana gave her a ‘no shit sherlock’ look, and opened her mouth as if she was about to reply sarcastically when Talia stopped her. “Sorry, dumb question. Uhh… Just give me a sec...” She quickly checked her calendar app on her phone and replied, “Yeah, I can do that.”

 

The week dragged on, and Talia awaited the weekend with more and more enthusiasm. At last the day arrived and she found herself dressed in a professional looking black suit, standing in the lobby of the building where the orchestra was playing, watching the crowds of smartly dressed strangers as they moved around and mingled with each other. The temperature outside was nearing freezing but inside the heat was suffocating. As she stood there waiting, she tugged at the collar of her shirt for the upteenth time, feeling increasingly annoyed by the discomfort that the clothes were creating. Normally this wouldn’t have been her first choice of clothes, but Leliana had told her that the event called for formal wear, so she had dug out the only pieces of clothing she owned that would’ve been considered formal. Black jacket, long sleeve white shirt, black pants. It was the uniform she was required to wear at the airport when she trained at the flight academy. At least she hadn’t put on the black tie. As she had been putting it all on, she realized that the outfit made her look more like a pilot; all she needed was the insignia and hat. She also grimly reflected that the last time she had worn this was when her parents were still alive. They had brought her to a fancy dinner party, and her mother had helped her pick out everything. The depressing thought was creeping back into her mind, but it immediately retreated when there was a blur of red and she saw Leliana making her way through the crowds.

Talia raised her hand and Leliana raised hers in acknowledgement. As she got closer, Talia got a good look at what she was wearing. She wore a pearly white satin dress with wide straps and a v-neckline. The dress practically flowed off her lovely body as she moved. She wore gold dangle earrings with sapphire gems set in them, and a simple gold necklace. Outside it was snowing and there were still a couple of icy flakes settled on her faux-fur caplet. The result of all this was breathtaking, and it took Talia a while to take it all in.

“You look..” Beautiful seemed an overused word, so Talia searched her mind for a better one. Unable to come up with anything interesting, she finally managed, “… nice.” Even as she said it, she knew such a compliment wasn’t nearly adequate to describe how she looked and internally cringed at herself. But Leliana didn’t seem to mind.

“Thank you.” She briefly ran her eyes over Talia. “You’re looking sharp yourself, though I was hoping to see you in a dress.”

Feeling suddenly self-conscious, Talia rubbed the back of her neck and shrugged.

“It was the only thing half-decent that I had. I don’t really have any dresses.”

“Well, we’ll have to change that sometime. We can go shopping together.”

Talia shrugged again, trying to look casual, “Sure, we can if you want.” Somewhere in the back of her mind, she dreaded this future shopping trip. She hated shopping, a fact that her mother never seemed to care about, dragging on the affair for much too long and making the experience more excruciating than it needed to be.

She glanced at her watch. It was almost time for the performance to start so they made their way into the auditorium to find their seats. The auditorium was an older room that had recently been brought into the 21st century. It had 2 levels of balconies above the ground floor and boxes rising up all around the stage, with gilded railings, fine wood paneling and a presine red carpet underfoot. Feeling very out of place, Talia scanned the aisles for their assigned seats, with Leliana at her side. There were so many people crammed into one place, so to keep from getting separated Leliana laced her fingers with Talia’s. Her hands were soft and cool, and Talia enjoyed the brief contact. It took some searching, but eventually they were seated side by side, waiting for the performance to start. When everything had settled down, Talia became aware of a pleasant scent tickling her nose. With so many people around and so much going on, she hadn’t been aware of the perfume Leliana was wearing until now. Is she smelling me too? Crap. Probably should’ve showered before I got here… Feeling self-conscious once again, Talia inched slightly away from Leliana.

The lights slowly darkened and bright spotlights flooded the stage as the curtains were pulled back and the performance began. In the darkness of the auditorium, conversation was impossible, but even so, when the music softened Talia could hear a few people chatting with each other in the hushed silence. She silently cursed them and tried to focus of the music.

After hours of sitting in the dark, the lights flicked on and the intermission began, allowing everyone a chance to grab a drink or stretch their legs. The two stayed sitting and chatted a bit about the music. Leliana recognized a few of the pieces and she was eager to discuss them with Talia, much to her delight. The subjects were trivial but the content didn’t matter to Talia. As long as they were discussing something that Leliana liked, something that made her eyes light up with that passionate fire that Talia had grown so fond of, she was perfectly content. It was a relief to be thinking of something more pleasant than the many hellish thoughts that had been running through her head over the past few months.

As they talked, Talia loosened her shirt collar a bit and was tempted to undo one of the buttons; at least one of them. The heating had been turned up high and her back was wet with sweat. She could feel the scratchy material cutting into her skin, and longed to be out of it. She couldn’t understand how rich people could stand wearing something so uncomfortable, and pay so much for it. Leliana seemed to notice her discomfort.

“Getting a little warm over there?”

“Yeah, a bit.” Talia replied sarcastically. “Why do these places always try to roast their guests alive in the winter? This is why I hate formal clothes.”

“It’s more than just the clothes. The material matters. Generally you’ll want to wear lighter materials to things like this where you know it’ll be warm. You’re wearing the heavy cotton.”

“Yeah... I’ll try to remember that for next time…” Talia nodded, trying to comprehend what she was talking about as she continued to ramble on. Fashion talk just didn’t make sense to the young pilot. Clothes were clothes.

After a few minutes, Leliana excused herself to go to the bathroom and Talia was left sitting on her own, patiently waiting. After a while, she glanced at her watch and realized how long it had been since Leliana had left. The intermission was almost over and the musicians were about to start again. Surely Leliana’s bathroom break shouldn’t have taken this long. Of course, the line was probably long, as it always was, but there was a tiny whisper of doubt in the back of her mind that told her something was wrong. Feeling a strange sense of unease, she stood up and left in search of her friend.

The doors of the auditorium opened up to reveal a large area that served as an area for people to get drinks and mingle. Looking over the railings on the level she was on, Talia could see the main lobby where she had come in. This part of the building was separated from the main lobby, and sat on three different levels, each level was connected by two sets of stairs and two elevators. There were stands selling popcorn, candy, hotdogs, and one long table where they were selling alcohol.

Looking past the stairs she found the bathrooms. She moved towards the women's side, carefully moving past the crowds of people that formed a continuous moving wall in front of her. Someone suddenly shouted something right by her ear, and she jerked away from the sound irritably, wondering if her eardrums had burst. Talia didn’t like social gatherings. She didn’t like being near this many people at once. It was all just too much. Too many voices adding to the noise, too many breaths adding to the heat, and too much going on. A hundred heartbeats wrapped in sweaty skin, a hundred voices talking over one another, and two hundred eyes judging each other’s appearance. Talia tugged at her shirt collar again, feeling another surge of discomfort.

Then she spotted Leliana. She was standing some distance away, talking with another man who was carefully balancing a drink in his hands. They both were smiling calmly but Talia had the feeling this conversation was anything but pleasant. She could tell by Leliana’s face. It was a look she knew well. She gave rude or angry customers the same look when something had gone wrong and they were taking it out on her. It was her fake smile that hid daggers. The man was only slightly older than her, likely in his early 30’s, dressed in black tie like everyone else. Talia didn’t know much about fashion but she’d walked by enough department stores to know that this suit cost a lot. Designer labels. The man seemed at ease but Talia sensed something darker in his eyes. There was a certain guarded quality in them. He may look relaxed but he never would be. He’d been touched by something at some point and it would never let him go. Looking back at Leliana, Talia was unnerved to find a similar vigilance glinting in her eyes. These were two of a kind. But what kind were they? Talia strained to listen in as she approached, hoping to find some clues from the conversation. In the general chatter, only a few words reached her,

“... It’s strange, you look so familiar. I would swear we’ve met before.”

“That’s funny, monsieur, because I think I’d say the same about you.”

“Is that accent even real?”

“Only as real as yours.”

“Then you must be familiar with Saint-Tropez. I was there on vacation a few summers ago. Really lovely area.”

“No, I’m afraid not.”
    “Oh?”

“A bit too rich for my blood.”

“Really? Judging by your high end clothes I figured-”

“Oh this was a gift from a dear friend.”

“Really? You must have some very good friends…” The man was still smiling, but his eyes suddenly narrowed, studying her minutely.

Suddenly feeling uneasy, Talia decided to make herself known. Louder than she needed to, she called out, “There you are.” Leliana and the man both turned to look at her and she continued, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.”

“No no, it’s fine.” Leliana said quickly, as if to cut off any further conversation.

“They’re about to start up again, we should get back to our seats.” Talia said as she jabbed a thumb over her shoulder.

“Of course.” She smiled politely at the man, “It was a pleasure talking with you, monsieur.”

“Likewise.”  He nodded before the two women disappeared through the crowds.

As they moved away towards the auditorium, Talia glanced curiously at her friend, “Who was he?”

“I don’t know.” Leliana replied flatly. She was giving nothing away.

“He seemed to know you, though…” Talia’s eyes narrowed slightly.

“Yes, it certainly looked that way.” Was her only reply. Talia thought about digging deeper. She sensed that Leliana might know more than she was letting on. But she stopped herself. Fine then, keep your secrets.

About halfway through the performance, Talia felt something on her shoulder and turned to see Leliana resting her head on her shoulder. Trying not to discourage the contact, Talia didn’t move an inch for the rest of the performance. That was a long hour of not stretching or re-adjusting herself, but the discomfort was worth it in the end.

Talia often missed human contact. She’d been so used to it growing up with her parents who were always eager to exchange physical affection. Her father was the best at giving big bear hugs. Her mother loved to play with her hair. How many times had she fallen asleep with her head on her fathers chest, listening to his heartbeat? Or woken up to sensation of her mother brushing the hair out of her face? Coming to this city had stripped her of all that, deepening her sense of loneliness. There was no one to hug, lean against for comfort, or even shake hands with. No close friends or family; no one. She came to appreciate any physical contact she could get from her friends; especially from Leliana.

After the show ended, the two of them were walking down the sidewalk, when Leliana suddenly turned and asked, “Can you give me a ride home?”

Talia was caught off guard by the question but still she nodded, “Sure. Why?”

“I took a taxi here but I don’t like public transportation very much and I’d prefer your company to strangers.”

Talia shrugged. “Sure, that’s fine. My car’s just up here.”

A sizable layer of snow had settled on her cars windscreen, and she had to dust it off before they could go anywhere, accidentally soaking her shirt much to the amusement of Leliana. As the two of them sat with Talia at the wheel, Leliana could always be trusted to fill the awkward silence.

“Have you been to many concerts like that?”

“Not in a long time. My parents used to take me occasionally.” Talia replied, those few words tasting bittersweet on her tongue, “I’m glad I got the chance to go again.” she continued, breaking out of her mood and flashing her passenger a quick smile.

 

They stood beneath Leliana’s porch light as she fiddled with her door lock, and Talia felt like she should say something before she left. Though, try as she might, she couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t cheesy or dumb or both.

“So uhh…” She tried to begin, nervously rubbing the back of her neck and looking anywhere but at Leliana as she turned to hear what she had to say, “We should… We should do this again sometime… I mean not this exact same thing. Maybe like uh… I don’t know maybe go out for lunch or… something... Sometime soon… I mean not-not real soon, I’m-I’m pretty busy and I imagine you are too but- I mean if… If we have time again maybe-” Talia groaned internally, suddenly wishing she’d just kept her mouth shut. This was horrible.

“I’d like that.”

Talia looked up to find her friend looking back at her smiling calmly. Leliana continued, “I’ll message you the next time I’m free and we’ll see what we can work out.”

“Sure… And of course, I’ll always see you at the cafe, right?”

“Naturally!”

Talia finally relaxed and quietly let out a sigh of relief, “Ok…”

She was startled when she suddenly felt herself pulled into an embrace with the other woman. The sudden contact was hardly unwelcome, it was just unexpected. Eventually she allowed herself to gently wrap her own arms around the other woman. She was struck by how cold the other woman’s body was, and impulsively tried to rub a little warmth into her little frame. Again she smelled Leliana’s perfume. Though the contact was only for a brief moment, to Talia it seemed to last much longer.

“Good night, Talia.”

“... Good night.”

Talia watched as the door closed, and the tumblers of the lock set in place, then realized she was still standing there with that foolish grin still on her face. She didn’t want to stop smiling. There was a surge of euphoria running through her veins, and she was strangely warm in the frigid night air. Vaguely wondering at the cause of this, she decided to head home. Luckily, she didn’t have far to go. In the surge of childlike giddiness, she was tempted to fall back into the blanket of snow collecting on the ground, but she fought the urge, reminding herself that she was wearing the only piece of formal clothing she owned, and she didn’t want to have to buy more. So she continued on, humming a tune to herself that she barely recognized. She was still smiling when she walked in the door to her own apartment.

 

The next morning, she rolled out of bed and clicked on her computer to see if there were any announcements before class. When she did so, she noticed a new assignment that she didn’t recognize. Curiously, she opened it and read its contents. Due date: December 17th. Today was the 18th. The assignment was due yesterday! Trying not to panic, she stood up and rushed into the kitchen to prepare for the day.

 

“The due date has passed. I can’t give you credit for it anymore.”

“I know, but I have it here now… Can’t you at least give me partial credit?”

“You’ve had a whole week to work on it and turn it in!”

“I know, I just… Things happened... I’ve been a bit busy with flight school and it just slipped through the cracks. I’m fine with partial credit, or anything at all… Come on that was worth 100 points!”

The pale faced woman considered for a long minute, her black eyes giving nothing away. Then she sighed, “Very well… Half credit… But only because I’m feeling charitable this morning. Next time, I won’t be so merciful, so I expect you to keep a closer eye on due dates from now on.”

Talia breathed out a sigh of relief and moved away, leaving the assignment on Mrs. Wilds’s desk. “Thank you…”

“Don’t thank me yet. I haven’t even graded it yet.”

“With you, I’ll take what I can get…”

“You’re the one choosing to spend your school nights with a scrawny whore instead of doing your work. I’m not the bad guy in this.”

“No one’s the bad guy, however,” Talia’s foot came down hard on the tile floor as she stopped and turned around slowly, meeting Mrs. Wilds eyes. As she stared, a flash of memory surfaced, startling her with its suddenness. She blinked and the memory went away. Straining to bring it back, she focused hard on the other woman’s black eyes, and the memory surfaced again. The memory was a simple one. They were almost how they were now, with Talia on her feet and Mrs. Wilds sitting down in a chair, with her legs crossed, her chin held high, and her body taught in her posture of superiority. Though the surroundings were drastically different. The room was in simple and rugged, cobblestone floors and stone brick walls, with a fireplace burning behind Wilds, casting a dark orange glow, and darkening her face. In the corner she could only just make out a bed, but it looked as though its mattress was made of straw; maybe it was. There was very little light in the room, the only illumination seemed to be the fireplace at the center of it all. Talia could see Mrs. Wilds lips moving, but try as she might she couldn’t make out what she was saying. The memory was too hazy and it was over too quickly for her to make sense out of it. But as the memory played, she found herself feeling something without knowing why. Like the memory somehow carried the residual emotion with it. She was suddenly enraged, and when the memory was gone, she found that anger bubbling within her, adding to hatred that was already building.

“Her name is Leliana and if you call her a whore again I’m going to take out your teeth… One punch at a time.” Talia had been thinking those words to herself, but with a sense of horror, she realized she’d actually said them aloud. What was she thinking? Talia had no idea what had gotten into her or what has possessed her to say such things. She knew she should apologize, but something in her rejected the idea. This woman had brought her personal life into this and Talia decided she didn’t deserve her courtesy. It seemed to Talia that she’d grade her papers the same either way, so she may as well say what she thought and maintain some small sense of pride. To her surprise the other woman was completely quiet. The two locked eyes, each watching the other like poker players waiting to see who will bet and who will fold.

A question formed in her mind, and suddenly she blurted out, “How did you even know what I was doing that night?”

“Because I know things.”

“Have you been following me?”

“I said, I know things.”

Talia squinted suspiciously, “Am I going to have to involve the police?”

“Only if you can prove I’ve broken any laws. Which you can’t. So I suggest you go on with your day before I have you charged with intimidation, which I can prove because there’s cameras in the classrooms.” As she spoke, Talia looked up the see one of the mentioned cameras looking down on her from high up in the corner of the room. She leveled one last menacing gaze at her professor, gritting her teeth and trying in vain to think of a comeback, then turned back around and walked out.