Ashes 2-IV

The Illusion of Free Choice

The frost crunched under my boots as I walked, leaving a trail of melting footprints along the sidewalk behind me. It was exactly as bright as I'd thought it was going to be, the glare off the snow compounded by all the houses whose architects seemed to have heard the saying about glass houses and thought it sounded like something they should follow up on. Add to that the chrome-and-glass skyline, and I was really regretting not grabbing a pair of sunglasses before I'd left. At this rate, I'd be blind by twenty

I huffed out a cloud of misty breath and hiked my scarf back up over my nose, it having slipped down.  Usually, it took me about half an hour to walk from home to school, but I suspected it would take longer this time, what with the weather and- 

"Hanners!" I paused with my foot halfway The cry came as I was about to cross a street, and I turned to see where it had come from.

Running up the street towards me was a stocky girl in a heavy brown winter parka, face-obscuring green scarf and sunglasses (darn it), long black hair flapping out behind her. With her accouterments, it took me a moment to recognize her.

"Sabi!" I held flung my arms out, and she glomped me in a hug. She was about a foot shorter than me, though, so it ended up being a bit unbalanced.

She released me, and I stepped back, smiling as I pulled down my scarf. "Oof. You know I need these." I mimed cradling my ribs, and she laughed, deep and husky, as she pulled down her scarf.

"Nice to see you too," she said with a grin.

"Well, I'd have said it, but I'm trying to cut down on my lying."

"Jerk." She punched me in the arm, a lot stronger than she usually did. "Come on, let's get going, or we’ll be late." We resumed our journey, walking along the street because the sidewalk hadn't been cleared.

"So how've things been with you?" I asked.

"Good, yeah. I'm fine, before you say anything, and so's everyone else."

"So I should just come out and ask?" I said.

"Mm-hmm."

"Okay then. Where the heck have you been? Everything's normal, and then, poof, you're gone. No calls, no texts, nothing."

She sighed. "Yeah, sorry about that, but it was a family emergency. We all flew back over, and... sorry, is it okay if I don't say any more? It's still kind of raw."

I frowned, thankfully invisible behind my scarf. That was... a little unusual. Sabah and I had been friends for years, best friends, even. Generally, we shared pretty much everything, so having her hold something back felt weird. But, friends don't pry.

"Sure, of course. Sorry, Sabi."

"S'okay, you didn't know. So what's going on with you?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Oh, you know, nothing much. You didn't really miss anything important at school-"

"Good, I was worried,"

"-but you did miss a visit from Awestruck."

"What?!" she exclaimed. "You've got to be kidding me. Hannah? Please tell me you're kidding, because if you’re not, I’ll hate you forever."

I grinned at her. "Cross my heart, actually happened. He was dreamy, too."

She gave me a flat look. "One of the most powerful heroes on the planet, an inspiration to us all, and you talk about how dreamy he was?! Sometimes I wonder why we're friends."

Sabah was perhaps the biggest cape geek in existence. She followed all the blogs, all the comics and movies and scandals. Her most treasured possession is a napkin signed by Orbital, and more than once, she's dragged me along to parades and the like, fully dressed in hand-made costumes. It was admittedly a little fun, but I’d never admit it to her, because then I’d have no excuse for dragging her along on shopping trips.

"Well, I can think of at least one reason..." I smirked, as I reached into my bag.

She gasped as I pulled it out. "You didn't."

"I did. You're welcome," I said as I passed it over, but she had eyes only for the picture. She took it reverently, as if holding a religious artefact rather than a picture signed with the words 'Dear Sabah, sorry you couldn't make it. Maybe we'll meet another time. - Awestruck."

She stared at the picture as we walked, completely silent for a full minute. And then, she burst out laughing.

I turned towards her, concerned. "What? What is it? Sabah?"

She doubled over, clutching at her stomach, tears streaming down her cheeks. I stopped walking and looked at her. "This is getting a little creepy, Sab."

At last, the fit died out, and she rose, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "You know, if I wasn't such an amazing friend, I'd be pretty miffed right now," I said.

"Sorry, Hanners, sorry,” she eventually managed to choke out. “It's a great gift, and I really do appreciate it."

"Then why..."

"Hard to explain. Just forget it."

Something seemed... different about my friend; nothing I could put my finger on, but... there was definitely something.

"Hey," I said, putting my hand on her shoulder. "Everything's okay, right?"

She put her hand over mine for a second, then patted it a few times. "Yeah. Yeah, it is."

She smiled up at me, and I smiled back, and we walked the rest of the way to school in amicable silence.

I mean, I was still suspicious, but I could, and would, find out another way.