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You hesitate, pulling out of habit at the taut string of the basket. He looks at you curiously; understandable, what with your recent erratic behavior, but still a refreshing show of emotion. He's not the caring type, and it's never been like that between you, but there's a point at which mutual well-being is understood to be the path of least resistance moving forward, and you both dread the day that that path becomes unavailable.


At about midday, as the altitude levels out and the flames require less supervision, he cracks the silence with a sigh. "What is it? Don't squint like that, I saw you last night. You think I don't know how you work by now?" He throws his hand in the air. "You're not exactly subtle with it. You don't stare at the moon like that unless you're really feeling moody. What is it? Stale bread got you down?" He throws a chunk of it at you, the only rations you've had for days, now, and flops against a sandbag with a contrived grin. It's not his fault, anymore than it's yours for not being quite as prickly as usual. You're both tired, worried, and, as you occasionally are led to believe, slowly going insane.


When he peers, he looks like a small, hunched bird, head tilting unattractively and eyes subtly widening in curious anticipation. "Spit it out, Strange," he grumbles, and his humor is fast disappearing. "The suspense is killing me."


You can only shake your head. The pressure seems to be the only real thing in the world -- he has to know, yet he can't know. In your mind is a picture, of your frail body spiraling to earth, his eyes red with fury even as his hands release your last line to survival. It's a horrible picture, though not the worst one possible. You stare at him, isolating the last little spark of life in his eyes, imagining it dull to an ember, then darkness as deep as the night above the clouds. Time passes, faster than you realize, and he gnashes his teeth in wild anger, convinced you're ignoring him.


"Fine! Don't answer. I don't care what's on you're stupid little mind anyway." He turns into a sandbag, and soon you hear snores. A year ago, you'd think he was faking, hoping for some hidden vestige of sympathy, but by now you know better. The maintenance of the balloon takes its toll, and the days are full of exhaustion that seems to seep from the air itself.


"Obediah," you whisper, just to be sure, then rise from you position at the edge of the basket, which sits at the central of a vast network of its fellows. Months ago, they were filled with food, ballast, medicine. Now they sit empty and dark even as the sunset casts shadows along the ribboning clouds.


You make your way down, along the rope bridges, making little checks on the machinery to distract yourself. How long have you been up here? There's no way to be sure. If once you knew, you may have forgotten it on purpose, to be free of one more thing to worry about. A month? A decade? No, not that long -- some days you still see smoke and fire in the distance, the smell of burning bodies. They wouldn't burn that long. You doubt there's anyone left to tend the flames, though Obediah once told you that fire never truly needed a master; it grows of its own accord, and dies much like the trees in winter, knowing it will bloom again in violent glory. It was when you flew above the ruins of a great city, where smoke could still be seen. He'd taken great pride in saying it, as if he'd found some part of who he'd been, and he'd spent the rest of the day repeating it in little fragments, and asking for his raven. You didn't have the heart to remind him of its fate.


It's been too long since you saw a tree. Sometimes, you fly over fields where the grass has yellowed, and scraggly branches clutch for the sky in patterns that your companion seems to favor. When paper was plentiful, he used to perch at the edge of the basket, sketching their fractals and exclaiming that beauty was never truly gone. When the last page was used up, he drew over his work with others, until every scrap was an unintelligible mess of ink and erratic graphite. He cried for a day. Sometimes, you joined him.


The light is fading. You move swiftly, trembling slightly as you grow closer to your destination. You've hidden it in the furthest reach from the center, an alcove that once held a chunk of glowing lead. Obediah used it up in a ritual for more bread, and as its toxicity required it be locked in a box of steel, its requisition has proven advantageous to your purpose. You stare at it for a long time, heat beating loudly in your chest. When you open the little door, you do so softly, as if disturbing a tomb.


The wand is as broken as you remember, shattered across the spine so that its two segments are impossible to reattach, the bridge reduced to splinters. Obediah was never truly a wizard. The years were unfavorable and too short for him to learn, but it didn't take long for either of you to realize that the basic charms weren't a matter of inborn skill, but mere coordination. It'd given you water and food, coal and fire. Now it's dead, crushed by mistake when it rolled from Obediah's sleeping hands to your foot, where you'd mistaken it as one of them. You'd screamed twice, first at the illusion, then the reality, and when Obediah awoke you brushed away the pieces and told him you had dreamed.


Possibilities rush through your head, thick and unconvincing. You close the door with a choked sob, again thinking of the terrible ways that the boy could kill you if he were to discover the truth. As you make your way back, you're still not sure of what this complication spells for the future. Sooner or later, the truth will come out. This is a certainty. But you don't think of it as a permanent solution; merely a way to buy some time. You produce a whittled stick, taken from the margin of a basket since lost, and place it gently into the boy's hands. His eyes flutter. You jump, but he merely rolls in his sleep, and settles. A sigh of relief crosses your lips, and exhaustion rolls over you like a wave. Still, you know you'll never sleep. Not tonight.


Night arrives at last. As you watch the moon come up, you try to convince yourself that you're doing the right thing, but the stars, coldly gleaming, seem to look upon you with dark amusement.

June 22, 2020 17:07

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