Cast of Wonders 527: Both Hope and Breath
Both Hope and Breath
by Riley Tao
It’s perfectly normal for breath to fog up mirrors. Everyone knows that. For most of my childhood, I never thought twice about the way mirrors went cloudy when I drew near. The only time it really mattered was when Dad flew me to school; even well into my upper school years, I never could sit in the front seat without frosting over the rearview mirrors, much less pilot an aerostat myself.
In my senior year at Ettwood Upper, I was the only person still flown to school by a parent–and Dad never let me forget it.
“You know,” Dad said, smoke and mist drifting out from between his lips, “I did the math. If your Aspiration didn’t block you from piloting, I would’ve saved two hundred hours this year.”
I sighed, letting out a cloud of Aspiration. As always, the faint white mist hung in the air for a second before gravitating towards the nearest mirror–in this case, the left-hand passenger window. “Well, I’m sorry that the physical manifestation of my hopes and dreams isn’t good enough for you.”
“Ha, ha. You know that’s not what I meant, son,” Dad said. “But I heard there are some new therapists that can change your Aspiration. I might schedule an appointment with one for you.”
Dad exhaled through his nose, letting out twin columns of black smoke and white mist–his Aspiration. Though by all rights the gases should have simply mingled and obscured his vision, they instead split into tiny, fine lines of black and white, outlining nearby vehicles, traffic signs, and pedestrians in real time. Dad glanced at the lines, then pulled a lever, shifting the aerostat to vertical mode, and we began ascending towards where Ettwood Upper floated.
I leaned on the passenger window, gazing out at the floating city. Ribbons and flags danced freely from nearby buildings and for a moment I imagined wrapping them around myself and spinning along with them in the breeze. I breathed out, letting numbfog blur my reflection, and in the eddies of white I imagined myself… flowing…
“I can’t see through the rear window,” Dad said. “Tone it down with the numbfog, would you?”
I blinked, startled. “Right. Sorry.”
“Seriously, son, you need to figure out how to drive sooner or later. How are you going to get around in college?”
While it would be nice to be able to pilot when I went off to college, I didn’t want my Aspiration to change. I could see why Dad wanted me to have a better Aspiration: his splitsmoke helped him navigate the world and kept him out of danger, while my Aspiration seemingly did nothing but cloud my vision.
But my Aspiration had its uses.
“I guess you could always take the zeppelin to school,” Dad continued, nodding towards it. Different-colored gases wafted out of the zeppelin’s well-worn ventilation shafts as it drifted down towards the school landing pads. Floatbreath leaked from its logo-emblazoned underside.
“Dad, do you really want your wimp of a son to be stuck in a tiny zeppelin with two hundred hormonal teenagers who can’t control their Aspirations?” I asked. “It’d be like throwing me into a tiger pit.”
“Upside to throwing you into a tiger pit: no matter what happens next, I wouldn’t have a wimp of a son anymore!” Dad chortled, smoke and mist puffing from his nostrils.
“Not funny,” I grumbled. Dad’s laughter petered out awkwardly.
I took advantage of the silence to roll down the window. Dad was right about one thing; there was too much numbfog in the car. The ever-present breeze wiped the numbfog from my lips, and my Aspiration streamed into the distance, elegant and fluid in a way that I would never be.
We passed by a nearby house–engines on high, apparently the owner was moving to a better spot in the city–and Dad perked up.
“That reminds me–the house is running low on gas,” he said.
“What kind?” I asked.
“Sparkwind. Isn’t one of your friends’ Aspirations sparkwind?” Dad asked.
Of course Dad wanted to know which one of my friends produced money-making gases when they breathed. “Tynsil.”
Dad brightened up. “Oh, right, you showed me his picture. Can you ask him to refill our sparkwind tank when I pick you up?”
“Her,” I corrected on instinct.
He frowned, lines of smoke and mist pausing around his head. “What?”
“Tynsil’s a woman,” I said. And not your personal gas station, I thought, although I kept that one to myself. I’d just get another lecture about how I didn’t understand how to survive in the real world. “And I met her over the echonet. She doesn’t go to Ettwood; she’s in college.”
When Dad exhaled again, it was pure, jet-black smoke. “Allim. Are you being catfished?”
I clenched my jaw and said nothing.
“Plenty of men pretend to be women on the echonet, Allim. He’s probably lying about being a sparkwind Aspirator, too. Don’t spend too much time with him.”
I tried to keep my breathing even. “It’s not like that, Dad.”
“Look, he’s either a man or a woman, and I’ve never seen a woman with a face like his.”
“Men and women aren’t the only things in the world, Dad!”
“Well, sure, but unless you’re saying he’s a thing, I–”
A terrible pressure swelled in my lungs, and I instinctively hunched over. He kept grating on, voice pressing against my skull, and I wanted to bare my teeth and scream.
But that would only hurt me. So instead, I breathed in, gathering my Aspiration–then exhaled, Aspirating, sending thick, rolling banks of fog from between my lips.
Other people’s Aspirations could levitate buildings, or connect airphones, or guide them while they piloted aerostats. My Aspiration, numbfog, did none of that. But it did one thing very, very well.
It kept me sane.
The cloud of numbfog swirled around my head, blinding and deafening me as Dad went on a miniature rant about the shouldn’ts and the shoulds. It took me from the cramped, antiseptic, faux-leather interior of our aerostat and into an empty, endless freefall.
By the time we jolted to a stop, the numbfog I’d Aspirated into existence had faded, and I snapped back into awareness.
“…time at school, okay?” Dad looked at me expectantly. I don’t think he’d noticed the numbfog I’d whipped up.
I shook off the disorientation and said, “Yeah. Totally.” I picked up my school bag–lightened by floatbreath–and hesitated as I opened the door. Right. I’d left my airphone inside. I grabbed the slim rod of metal and slipped it into my pocket.
“Bye, son. Have a good day,” Dad said.
I blinked. “Uh, yeah. You too.”
I stepped out of the aerostat and onto the school’s skymetal landing pad. The aerostat door re-sealed with a hiss behind me. I watched the aerostat ascend again, then turned back to the open, outdoor fields of Ettwood and began walking.
It was just another school day.
Another upside to having a relatively tame Aspiration was that I didn’t have nearly as many classes as my peers. As long as my Aspiration didn’t cause anyone any kind of trouble, Ettwood didn’t force me to attend more than the bare minimum number of classes. So all I had to do to get my upper school diploma was show up to lectures for three hours a day and make a passing effort whenever the teachers handed out a test.
As always, it was an irritatingly bright and sunny day, and my Introduction to Fluidics class was scattered around one of the lecture fields listening to the professor ramble on about computing. After a few minutes spent settling in on the grass, I let the professor’s voice melt into the background and watched the Aspirations of my classmates float, mingle, and fade into the air. I didn’t recognize nearly half of them. My Theory of Aspirations teacher would have been so disappointed, but I figured I could cut myself some slack. Everybody on the planet had an Aspiration of some kind; it was unreasonable to expect one person to be able to remember them all.
My airphone buzzed, and I yanked it out of my pocket. I checked to make sure nobody was paying attention to me–they weren’t–then laid down on the grass, unlocked it with an exhaled breath, and checked my messages.
Yo, Laiara, you there?
A message from Tynsil. I smiled, a momentary warmth flickering in my chest. Barely, I sent back.
And it was true. My body felt like morning mist, like I could wave a hand through myself and come away with eddies and swirls of me-stuff. Experimentally, I tapped myself on the chest, and felt an inexplicable pang of disappointment at my continued solidity.
You okay, Laiara?
That warmth flared up again, stronger this time, and I had to restrain myself from laughing aloud. I am now. Gods, it feels good to be called my real name. My chest seemed to weigh down on my lungs, and I grimaced. But in the future, don’t use my name unless I tell you I’m secure. Dad reads through my phone sometimes, and he still calls me Allim. I don’t want to have to explain to him why you’re calling his “son” a girl’s name.
Just to be clear–you get how invasive your dad’s being, right?
It’s not that bad. I delete all our messages after we talk.
I could picture Tynsil rubbing her forehead. Okay. If you say so.
As a matter of fact, I do.
To my relief, Tynsil changed the subject. You still on for shopping?
Of course! Gods, please tell me you’re not cancelling.
Foolish mortal, you dare insinuate that I would stand you up?! You shall pay for your insolence! Seriously, don’t worry about it. I’ll pick you up after school. Be warned: my aerostat is messy as hell.
I can ignore it. Numbfog makes you very good at ignoring things. A thought struck me, and I scowled. Makes you good at forgetting things, too. I’ll be right back. I have to tell Dad not to pick me up today. I’ll say I’ve decided to take the zeppelin home instead.
Last-minute? Won’t he get suspicious?
He hates flying me around. I’m sure he won’t look the gift blimp in the vents.
Are you sure? We can just do this some other time.
Nah, nah, it’s fine. You said yesterday that school and your job are getting worse–I don’t want to make you reschedule. Before she could complain, I switched to messaging Dad.
Decided to take the zeppelin home. Don’t pick me up today.
There was a moment of anxious silence. Then–
Proud of you, son. See you at home.
I winced as the warmth Tynsil had kindled in my chest went out. Still, if it kept Dad out of my hair, I’d take it.
With a rumble, the ground began to tilt, earning murmurs from the rest of class. My connection to Tynsil fritzed out, and I irritatedly tapped at my phone, as if that would bring her back faster. The lecturer raised their voice and told everyone to calm down, which as always was worse than useless. As the city stopped rotating and my reception came back, Tynsil sent me another message:
There’s a storm cloud ahead; the city’s steering away from it. You might experience some echonet disruption.
I relaxed, letting out a laugh. Thanks for the warning, Ms. Meteorology Major, but you were a little late.
Now that the city had rotated, the suns were in my eyes–which seemed like an incredibly petty complaint, somehow. Oh, no, thanks to the people keeping the city moving and making sure we never suffocated in our own Aspirations, I’d had to squint a little and roll onto my side.
I glanced back at my phone to see a new message from Tynsil. Oops, hold on a second, she sent.
Oops? I bit my lip. Tynsil, ‘oops’ is not something I want to hear from someone in charge of keeping the city from flying into a hurricane.
I’m glad you think a college student can meaningfully influence anything important. Keep that idealism; I need an ego boost every once in a while. But no, it’s nothing like that–I’ve just got some work to do. Now that the city’s on a different path, I’ve got to double-check the weather up ahead. Sorry to leave so quickly!
Don’t be. You got your own stuff, I get it.
Tynsil immediately started typing, so I followed up with, Besides, you’re a sharp girl, and I feel safer knowing you’re keeping the city away from storms. I shuddered as the memory of the last time it had rained on the city bubbled back to my consciousness. I’d been bottled up indoors with Dad, our Aspirations forming a chokingly thick atmosphere, to the point where I’d burst into the rain to let my breath disperse freely rather than stay in the storm shelter one minute longer.
Tynsil’s next message snapped me out of my memories. See you soon, Laiara.
See you around, Tynsil.
And she logged out. I sighed, a plume of numbfog twisting out and swelling around me.
For the rest of the school day, I heard and felt and saw nothing more.
Tynsil’s idea of “messy as hell” was significantly stricter than mine; when her narrow, open-roof, two-seater aerostat floated down to the landing pads, the only mess I saw was a few leaves scattered in the back.
“Sorry!” she said, electric flecks flashing between her teeth. Sparkwind was one of the more dangerous Aspirations, although I never worried about Tynsil accidentally hurting me. “I ran a little late. There are so many more aerostats nowadays. Ooh! Speaking of which! I actually read a fascinating paper about how the advent of the echonet and the corresponding globalization increased the demand for inter-city transport; I’ll mail you a copy later.”
“I haven’t the faintest idea what any of those words mean, but I’m glad you’re excited about them.” Our Aspirations mingled as I clambered into the aerostat; where the sparks of her Aspiration met my numbfog, the latter burned away into harmless flashes of light.
“You should have a decent idea of what the echonet is by now,” she teased. “And globalization–what’ve you been learning in school?”
“Nothing much,” I admitted. “I spend the day in a numbfog haze.”
Tynsil shuddered. “They don’t… regulate Aspiration usage?”
“Not as long as it doesn’t damage school property. Trust me, you’re lucky you get to go to a fancy university that actually cares about you.”
“…gods, Laiara, I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be.”
“I’m not sorry because I have to be.”
There was nothing I could say to that, so I leaned back and buckled myself in. Tynsil completed her pre-flight check, scanning over each of the indicator panels with more comfort and ease than I’d ever had with anything in my life. That was how it’d always been for us, ever since we’d first stumbled into each other on the echonet, when I’d asked questions that only she had the answer to.
Tynsil pulled on the steering stick, and the aerostat began to rise.
“By the way,” I added, “if you think this is dirty–” I brushed off the handful of leaves on our aerostat’s back seat. “–then you should never drop by my room. I mean, you shouldn’t come to my home anyway for… a variety of reasons… anyway… but seriously, you’re an overachiever.”
“Sparkwind Aspirators almost always are,” she said. I laughed, a bit of numbfog escaping from my mouth and–as always–drifting towards her rearview mirrors.
I cursed, releasing more numbfog. “Sorry! I can hold my breath if you need me to. Or–” Every word I said just fogged up the air more, so I shut my mouth, embarrassed.
Tynsil blew lightly, as if shooing a fly from her lips, and a miniature lightning bolt flickered out, incinerating the numbfog that threatened to obscure her view. “Don’t worry. Spread all the numbfog you want–you couldn’t cloud my view if you tried.”
Ah, yes, I had nearly forgotten. Tynsil was just the best person ever. I let myself breathe freely. The mists of my Aspiration never got too choking while Tynsil was around to burn them away. “Yeah. I bet I couldn’t.”
“What time do you need to be back home by?” Tynsil asked, navigating her tiny aerostat through the lumbering zeppelins and towering buildings.
I shrugged. “Any time will do. I’ll just tell Dad the zeppelin ran late.” Tynsil opened her mouth to object, but I pretended not to see. “So tell me about that globalization thing, huh? Sounds fascinating.”
Tynsil rolled her eyes, but she played along with the lame deflection. “Well, it’s all about how the echonet is connecting people who never would’ve met otherwise. Like you and me.” She winked. “Pretty good side effect of the echonet.”
“Mm.” I pressed my lips together. “People can pretend to be things they aren’t on the echonet, too.”
“That’s not a rupture, it’s a vent,” she said. “The echonet was the first place I could be a girl instead of a boy. First place you could explore being both, too. And after a while, it goes from pretending to reality, y’know? But anyway–the echonet links people, makes them meet friends across the world, sometimes even makes them want to get together in real life. And what’s the best way to do that?”
I rapped on the side of our aerostat. “Aerostats.”
“Exactly! And even though the data isn’t clear on how strong the influence of the echonet on the aerostat industry is, there are some tertiary effects…”
I hadn’t the foggiest idea what Tynsil was talking about, but the passion and drive with which she talked about it was infectious. The simple knowledge that someone, somewhere, cared about something as much as Tynsil cared about numbers and logistics did more to burn away the numbfog from my brain than three years of Dad insisting that I wouldn’t get anywhere in life if I kept lazing around all day. As she navigated us through the floating platforms of the city, I couldn’t help but think that there was nobody better-suited for the Aspiration of Transformation than Tynsil.
We docked with a cheerfully-lit zeppelin-turned-clothes-shop fifteen minutes later. There was no landing pad, so Tynsil took out a loop of rope and tied the aerostat’s horn cleat to its twin on the dock. I stepped out of the aerostat and stared at the store, lost in thought.
“Alright, I’m ready to go. Laiara?” Tynsil straightened up.
I blinked twice, realizing that I’d accidentally Aspirated a tuft of numbfog into existence. “Hm? Yeah. Totally.”
“Hard to be nervous for long with numbfog,” I muttered. “Hard to be anything, really.”
“We don’t have to go shopping today,” Tynsil said. “If you’re nervous–well, the first time I tried on feminine clothes, it… didn’t help. Made things worse, actually. Wasn’t really about how I looked for me.”
“It… I know. I know it might not solve anything. I want to try, though, I’m just… I don’t want to be seen.”
“It’s a thrift store. There’s no organization to speak of inside; you’ll have plausible deniability. I can always be the one to buy them for you.” Electricity flashed between her teeth. “And if someone tries to hurt you, I’ll fry their eyeballs out of their head.”
“I’d rather have my eyeballs un-fried, actually,” I quipped.
Tynsil flinched. “Gods. I’m sorry, I didn’t even think before I–”
“It happened. Don’t worry about it.”
Tynsil reached out and squeezed my hand; I gave her hand a squeeze back. Together, we walked into the store.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to be worried about being watched. There was hardly anyone else present–just a bored-looking teenage clerk, and once we went to the back of the store, they faded from sight.
“So… how do I do this?” I asked Tynsil.
She shrugged. “Don’t look at me, this is your moment. Just… wander about. See if there’s anything you like. And… if there’s something you’ve wanted, you can describe it to me and I can help look–”
“One of those puffy shirts,” I said immediately. “The ones whose sleeves flare out, the ones that flow. You know, like the old aerostat sailors used to wear.”
Tynsil giggled. “A blouse, you mean?”
“Don’t be embarrassed. We’ll call them puffy shirts now. There’s a couple here!” Tynsil pointed to a nearby rack. I walked up to one and hesitantly poked it.
“How do I, uh, choose?” I asked.
“In general… well, you could simply try them all, or at least all the ones that fit.” Tynsil glanced at my expression. “I could also just pick one out for you.”
“Please,” I said.
Tynsil gently unhooked a blouse from the rack and began wandering. “Anything else?”
I coughed. “I don’t know if this makes sense, but I want something that… moves.”
Tynsil rubbed her chin. “Can’t say I know what you mean by that…”
I stepped forwards and spun around, numbfog sinking in a spiral around me, flaring into light wherever it met Tynsil’s sparkwind.
“Something that would move in the wind, y’know?”
“A cloak?” Tynsil asked.
“Not… really. A cloak is too… big? Unwieldy? It’d probably get stuck on things? Like, I want a cloak, but just for my legs.”
“I don’t think that’s…” I trailed off as I spotted a flash of blue to Tynsil’s right. “…what I want…”
Tynsil followed my gaze to the folded skirt on a shelf and grinned. “A puffy shirt and a cloak for your legs, huh?”
I lightly swatted Tynsil on one shoulder. “Oh, hush. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find the name of something on the echonet when all you have is a vague description and a parent breathing down your neck every moment the suns are up?”
“I do, in fact.”
“Well, I was going to suggest an outfit that I think you’d like, but… if you say so.” She mimed zipping up her lips and throwing away the key.
I mimed picking up the key, touching it to her lips, and unzipping it. “Alright, you get to speak for another day.”
Her eyes twinkled. “Actually, I think I’d rather show than tell. Here.” She picked up the skirt, the blouse, and added in a pair of leggings. “Come on back and try these on.”
I followed Tynsil as she led me to a small changing room, my hair briefly mussing up as we passed beneath an air vent–good circulation was absolutely vital for any indoor establishment like this one. The burst of chilly air cleared away the numbfog around my face, and for a moment, I hesitated. What was I doing? What if it turned out that I didn’t like it? What if this was all a waste of time? What if none of this was worth it?
“Ooh!” Tynsil picked up a sky-blue scarf and wrapped it around her neck, spinning to show me. “This one’s coming home with me.”
And just like that, I relaxed. Any time spent with Tynsil was worth it.
Tynsil handed me the clothes we’d picked out. I slipped into the changing room stall. My breaths came heavier, numbfog instantly coating the mirror, and I hesitantly changed into the blouse and skirt.
They felt soft.
I turned back to the mirror, tried to wipe it clean, but at this point I was breathing so heavily that my Aspiration spilled from my lips faster than I could clean it away, spilling out into the hall and curling around Tynsil’s feet–
“Are you decent?” Tynsil knocked at the door.
I struggled to answer. “Yeah. Can you–can you come in? I–I can’t look at the mirror.”
“Okay,” Tynsil said. I unlocked the door with fumbling hands.
Tynsil’s eyes lit up, and she made a squee of excitement. “Laiara, you look beautiful!”
Her words fell on deaf ears. “No,” I choked out, hyperventilating, and every breath pumped more numbfog into the room, smothering everything in formlessness. “I know I don’t, I know I look disgusting, and I’m going to turn around and see myself in the mirror and–”
“Shh, shh, shh. It’s okay, it’s okay. Here. Tell you what. Do you trust me?” Tynsil stepped closer to me, my lantern in the fog.
“Yeah,” I managed to say.
“Then turn around.” She gently brushed my hair with one hand. “And tell me what you see.”
Holding my breath, I did.
And the fog in the mirror burned away.
The stranger who stood in front of me wore a petite, stunned ‘O’ on their lips, their eyes wide with shock and wonder. Half of their hair had been brushed back, exposing one surprised ear, while the other cascaded to the right, pooling on their shoulder and gleaming in the light. Their red shirt had been swapped for a lacy white blouse, which swirled down into their dark blue skirt and descended below the edge of the mirror, into the sea of fog that still covered the changing room floor.
Burbling laughter welled from something soft and bright in my lungs, something that warmed every exhale I took. “Heh.” I grinned. “Heh-heh. Ha. Aha. Ehehehe. AhaheheAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” I spread my arms out, reveling, and the vision in the mirror’s wild grin for once matched my own. My mad, wondrous, fantastic laughter reached Tynsil, and she began to laugh too, sparks flying through the air and igniting my Aspiration–
–and then the brilliant light in my chest flared, pressure releasing from my lungs, my hopes made manifest as gentle fire. Liquid sunshine roared from my lips as I laughed.
When my breath ran out and I was dizzy from giddiness, I finally slowed, wild-eyed, as motes of light drifted around me like fallen snow.
“What… what did you do to me?”
Tynsil’s eyes gleamed. “You had this potential inside you already–a whole ocean of natural gas waiting to be set alight. I just lit the spark.” The light in her eyes turned pensive. “It would’ve happened whether I’d come along or not. Better that you come alight now, while you can laugh and let that pressure out, than later, when you’ve been beaten down so much that you have no way to vent. Otherwise, the ignition just might make you tear your body apart instead.”
I imagined that blossom of expanding fire, caught behind fearful, sealed lips instead of exulting wild and free, how that frantic, trapped light would either shatter its prison of a body or die a quiet death.
For a moment, I reveled in the simple act of breathing.
Then I turned to Tynsil. “Does this have a name?” I gestured towards the hovering light in the air, the sense of warmth and brilliance, the drive and energy coursing through my veins.
“Lumenflame. The Aspiration of Euphoria.” Tynsil squeezed my shoulder. “I held this Aspiration too for a while. As long as you keep breathing, you’ll be alright.”
I stared at the person–at myself–in the mirror. I exhaled, and lumenflame bathed my body with a warm, gentle light. “Breathing… doesn’t do what it used to do.”
Tynsil’s expression turned serious. “An Aspiration change is a major thing. You almost certainly can’t go back–”
“I don’t want to go back,” I blurted out.
Tynsil flashed me a smile. “Good. Because you couldn’t if you wanted to.”
“The Aspiration of Euphoria,” I repeated dreamily, still basking in the warmth of my own breath. Then I jolted awake. “Oh, no.”
“How am I going to explain this to Dad?”
Dad was fuming when I got home–and when a splitsmoke Aspirator fumed, you could see the smoke plume from a mile away. Even before I set foot in my home, I knew what that meant.
Tynsil stopped the aerostat as soon as she saw the smoke plume, turning towards me with a question on her lips, but I just shook my head and told her to keep flying. Not long after, my house faded into view. It wasn’t much–we couldn’t afford the fancy ventilated indoor houses most people used, so our home amounted to a walled courtyard on a floatbreath balloon. The sparkwind engines which kept it moving on pace with the rest of the city were low on fuel, and our home was slowly but steadily drifting sideways; Dad would fix it before it became a problem, but the slight tilt of my home in comparison to everyone else’s made it seem… unstable.
“If home isn’t safe for you right now–”
“It’s fine,” I said. Then I hesitated. “Could you… could you stay for a bit? Just in case?”
“Of course. If you’re not out in an hour, I’m assuming your dad’s taken you hostage and I’m going in to kick his butt. Ka-pow!” Tynsil punched an imaginary face.
For once, Tynsil’s antics only made me feel colder. “Please don’t. It’ll just make things worse. I… If I’m not out in an hour, it means something’s gone very, very wrong. Call the cops.”
Tynsil lowered her hands. “You don’t have to go in in the first place. Crash at my place; I’ll sleep in the aerostat.”
Dammit, Tynsil. I already wanted to run and hide–I didn’t need her encouraging that. “I have to go to school to get my diploma; Dad will find me no matter what.” I took a deep breath and exhaled, lumenflame clinging to my body like armor. “Drop me off at the front gate.”
Wordlessly, Tynsil gave me a grim nod. Then she pushed on the steering stick, and we began to descend.
I stepped out of Tynsil’s aerostat; she lowered it a little further, out of sight from the main gates. They creaked as I pushed them open, announcing my presence. Dad was sitting at a table, staring intensely at a pair of cupcakes, his head lost in twin plumes of black smoke and white mist.
Neither of us said anything. For a moment, I had hope that his Aspiration was blocking his view of me, or that he was too busy stewing to take notice of–
“I bought you cupcakes,” he finally said, “to celebrate your responsibility in taking the zeppelin home. I thought my son was finally growing up–and at no better time, too, right before he was going to go off to college.”
“I can expl–”
“I’m still talking,” Dad snapped. “I waited for you at the zeppelin stop. I was going to walk you home. We were going to eat cupcakes together.” Dad let out a slow, controlled exhale; I could barely see anything of him now beneath the swirling monochrome cloud around him.
“But you never came.”
“You could have messaged me,” I said, lamely.
“Ah, yes. You live on your airphone more than you do with your own family nowadays, don’t you?” Dad snorted. Two plumes of dark smoke shot out from the vague, clouded-over area his head should have been. “I did message you.”
“The–there was a storm warning,” I protested. “Interference with the echonet–”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses.” Dad set his arms on the table. “I just want to know why, son. What the hell did you go running off with a man you met on the echonet for, and why the hell did you lie to me about it?”
“How did you–”
“Allim, answer the question!”
With every word, more jet-black smoke hissed from Dad’s lungs, streaming towards me like a snake, forcing its way between my lips and reaching into my throat. I started to panic. On instinct, I exhaled, expecting a soothing cloud of numbfog to deafen my ears to Dad’s shouts–
–but a tide of lumenflame shot out instead, reinvigorating me and burning away the smoke Dad sent my way.
“Because you insult her!” I snapped. “You misgender her and disrespect her and insult her and I know you’re going to do the same to me!”
Dad halted. Although his expression was unreadable beneath the splitsmoke he’d conjured up, I could still sense his surprise. My lumenflame had burned clear a patch of glowing ground around me, beating back the tendrils of smoke Dad tried to send into my lungs.
“At least your new Aspiration seems less useless than the last,” Dad finally said.
“Useless.” I snorted. “Is that the only thing you see? How useful it is that I can finally breathe?”
“You are out of line, son,” Dad snapped. “I’m just trying to keep you safe. Why can’t you just listen–”
“Because I’m not your son,” I said. “I’m not a boy, and I’m not a girl, and I’m definitely not a thing.”
“You are my son,” Dad rumbled, “and you will always be my son. I don’t care what you do or say, or what is done to you–that will always be true.” Tongues of cloying, sickly-sweet smoke lashed out at my circle of lumenflame, extinguishing it back into numbfog wherever they touched.
“I know you’re trying to say that you love me!” I shouted, my words hot and bright. “But every time you call me your son it hurts, Dad. Call me your child instead. Please. That’s all I ask.”
“Fine. Child.” Dad spat darkness at me with a single word. “Allim–”
“MY NAME IS LAIARA!” I poured months of insecurities into a single, brilliant gout of lumenflame, a rolling jet of fire that slammed into the defensive smokescreen Dad had put up and stripped it away, leaving Dad shocked, blinking in the onslaught of light. “And I am trans, and I am here, and I am sick and tired of you doing your utmost to change both of those.”
An infinite moment passed in which neither of us breathed.
Then I spun around, still glowing, still brilliant, to leave.
“Laiara–” Dad said.
Then I shook my head. “I’ll see you around, Dad. I’m staying at Tynsil’s tonight.”
Dad stormed forward–and when a splitsmoke Aspirator stormed, he stormed. A wall of darkness that stretched ten times my height bore down on me as Dad screamed, “Gods, son, I gave you what you want, now come back here and explain–”
I continued walking.
And all that looming darkness turned out to be nothing but smoke.
Tynsil pulled the aerostat into view, eyes wide at the storm Dad was calling up. “Laiara! Behind y–”
I breathed lumenflame, that smokeless, pure light, and the Aspiration Dad had tried to choke me with burned away like morning dew in summer sun.
Tynsil watched, shocked, then satisfied, as Dad stumbled, his momentum broken, as I calmly stepped into Tynsil’s aerostat.
Then Tynsil squeezed my shoulder, a single spark flickering between her and I, and pulled the steering stick upwards.
We rose together into the sky, wind buffeting against my skin.
Making the transition from teen to adult is always fraught with challenges, but it’s much harder when your parents or carers won’t see you for who you really are. In this story, we see Laiara in several different modes: as a child of a parent who cares for their wellbeing and future, but in all the wrong ways; as a school student who is sidelined from academic engagement because they don’t fit what’s desirable and are stuck in a system that doesn’t want to see them; and, as a young person taking tentative steps into their own life, as their authentic self. Simple moments of friendship, of shopping, of self care – these are special and precious, extraordinary in their ordinariness. The worldbuilding, too, is rich and wondrous. I’m itching to see more of this setting, these characters!
This story was accepted from one of our submissions windows for Young Authors, and we’re sure you’ll be hearing more of Riley’s work in the future.
About the Author
Riley Tao (they/them) is a second-year college student. They have been previously published in Protean Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Seize the Press, among others. They are currently seeking representation for a novel based off of their short story “Both Hope And Breath.” They publish silly short stories on occasion at reddit.com/r/bubblewriters.
About the Narrator
Hugo Jackson is a trans-nonbinary author, with the fourth novel of their young adult fantasy series, The Resonance Tetralogy, being released in 2023 sometime by Inspired Quill.
Most of the time they spend online as a big grumpy leftist furry; however, along with writing, Hugo has a passion for stage acting, voice acting, stage combat, and anime. They stream video games and editing sessions with mostly-weekly regularity under the Twitch handle PangolinFox.
They construct their own furry, anime, and sometimes Steampunk costumes and regularly attend any conventions they can.
Hugo has been exposed to story writing and dramatic narrative from a very early age, as their older sister used to write and illustrate stories to keep them amused. Their greatest creative influences in their youth were the Mysterious Cities of Gold, Visionaries, and Disney’s Robin Hood; in books it was The Deptford Mice trilogy, written by Robin Jarvis, who is their favourite author along with Garth Nix (The Abhorsen Trilogy, Shade’s Children). They have an enormous array of soundtracks from anime, films and video games. Music is one of their biggest inspirations, with various favourite tracks responsible for the majority of the Resonance Tetralogy storyline.