Aika stood outside the door fingering the large brass key clutched between her hands. Her eyes wandered up from her feet to stare at the wood in front of her. She remembered it being bigger. She swallowed a lump forming in her throat and exhaled as she lifted the key, slotting it into the lock and turning it with a soft click.
The door cracked open, creaking on hinges that hadn't been attended to in years.
The first thing that hit her was the smell. Oiled canvas, leather, and the must of old, dry paper. She bit her lower lip and pulled the door shut again. Slowly, she backed away from the door and turned to walk back to familiar, comfortable territory - a house not twenty yards away from this one.
She crept inside, hoping not to be seen.
But she was there.
She was always there.
"Back already?" the older woman asked, not even turning from her work in the kitchen. She was scrubbing out a pan from the morning meal that had been soaking for hours. Her hair was dark and tied back with a patterned kerchief.
"I… um… forgot some things." Aika said lamely, shifting the duffel on her back. It was almost as large as she was.
"Doubtless," the woman replied, setting the pot down in the sink before wiping her hands on her apron. She fixed the red-headed girl with a smile, but her brown eyes hid another emotion, something that Aika was too young to read. "Wouldn't it have made more sense to drop off the things you already packed before coming back for more, though?"
Aika fidgeted, tugging on the duffel strap, refusing to meet the eyes of the woman who had been a mother to her, had raised her since…
She took a deep breath and set her feet, pulling confidence around her like an oversized shirt. She looked up.
"I want to stay here."
The smile on the woman's face didn't falter, but her eyes did seem to take on an odd lustre. She shook her head slowly.
"I'm sorry, honey, but there's not enough room-"
"There's the same amount of room as there always was!" Aika protested hotly, her mouth thrusting forward into a pout. "It's not like Vyse needs the whole attic to himself!"
Vyse's mother fixed the young woman with a long suffering look and sighed. "Aika, you and Vyse can't share a room any more. You're too old."
"But we've always shared a room!" Aika almost yelled, her eyes beginning to burn. "He's my best friend!"
"You're twelve, Aika," the older woman said, her voice just beginning to bear the barbs of a slowly simmering annoyance, "almost thirteen. I won't have you sharing a room with my son. You know why."
The redness sprang to Aika's cheeks as quick as though she had been slapped on each. She averted her eyes, staring into the wood grain of the floor, self consciously reaching up and squeezing the straps of the duffel bag as hot tears welled in her eyes. Then the only mother she had stooped down and folded her into a slightly damp hug, squeezing her tightly.
"I love you Aika," she said softly, brushing red hair out of the young woman's face with a water wrinkled hand. "I always have. You're a member of this family and I understand why you're afraid and mad and… confused. I don't want to kick you out of our home, but…" her voice trailed off as her eyes glassed over, staring a a picture in her mind wistfully before focusing back on Aika. "You're becoming a woman, Aika. A beautiful one too, if you're half as lovely as your mother. Right now, Vyse thinks of you as his little sister. If you stay here that's all you'll ever be. Is that what you want?"
Aika couldn't meet her look, gentle as it was. There was too much truth for her to handle and all she wanted was to run away, tuck herself into some hidden nook of Dyne's base and never come out again.
She fought that impulse.
Children ran and hid.
"No," she said with a gentle force, finally meeting the older woman's eye. Vyse's mother smiled.
"Good. Go become a woman when he isn't looking. Maybe someday…" her voice trailed off, unwilling to finish the sentence. Aika filled in the blanks for her, smiling softly and rubbing at her face with the palms of her hands.
With a nod and a deep sigh Aika steeled herself, shifted the duffel on her back, and turned for the door.
"I love you," a voice called from behind her, a voice that caught, just a little, as she said it.
"I love you, too," Aika responded before slipping out into the courtyard.
Within a few short strides she was outside the door of her parent's house again, fingers chilling on the iron of the latch, momentarily frozen. In her previous haste she has left the key hanging in the lock and it pointed at her like an accusing finger. She ignored it, summoning every ounce of courage, pulling it into her chest then exhaling it through her nose in a hot push of humid air.
She opened the door.
This time it wasn't a smell that hit her… it was a fragrance, a gentle curling wisp that beckoned her inside. She heeded it, closing the door behind her without a second thought.
There was a patina of dust covering everything. Even the air was swimming with it, motes falling gently through light casting into the dim room then swirling as the still air was stirred by her passing. She ran a finger through it, tracing lines on her mother's vanity. It took her a moment to realize that the lines formed a word - a name - the name of her mother. She stared at it numbly for a moment before wiping it away with a slow hand. The ragged marks of revealed wood looked a scar… or the new pink skin under a deep cut. A dead, protective layer on top of life and pain.
She hesitated for a moment then lowered her finger to another spot on the vanity's surface, tracing four large letters slowly with her index finger.
She stared at her own name, then nodded.
There was a soft thud as her duffel bag hit the floor, though she barely registered the sound. She was tired. So… very tired.
Her small body hit the blankets of the full sized bed her parents had shared, sending more dust motes to dance in and out of the beams of light. She lay still for a moment, watching them out of the corner of her eye as she stared up at the wooden planks of the ceiling, noting places that had leaked in the years since this house had been shut up.
She closed her eyes and breathed in through her nose. She could smell sawdust and flowers, old boots, soap, and the tang of metal. They touched her nose like a soft familiar kiss.
She wasn't aware of snuggling down in the smell contained within the old sheets, but when she slept, she dreamed of them. Small memories - disjointed without any semblance of order. The memories of a child. When she dreamed, she could feel them. The weird sensation of soft lips under a scratchy beard. Slender nailed fingers lightly scratching her back. Big arms and gentle hugs.
They were still there, in a way. They had left pieces of themselves in everything they had loved. And nothing had been loved more than the girl lying curled in their bed.