It wasn’t the first snow of the season, but it was the first real one, and Icaela couldn’t be happier to be out in the thick of it. As a flesh-and-blood human subspecies, she was hardly “immune to cold,” but something about a powerful snowfall lifted her spirits, made her feel full of energy and life.
Her brother was the exact same way, as she was reminded when she saw him bounding through the mounds of snow on the edge of the street toward her. After a few hops, he tripped, tumbling over the snow and into the street, laughing out loud. No one was driving today, even though the streets had been cleared: given the snow and the street blockages for the festival, taking the Rail was just way, way easier.
Ica pointed at Reg and laughed along. “Be careful! I know there aren’t any cars, but you could still hurt yourself.”
As much as she wanted to chide Reg’s carelessness, she couldn’t help giggling at her twin’s stumbling antics. She nestled down in the snow, feeling so comfortable, so right. If she could call a place ‘home’, it’d be under the snow falling gently on top of her. Icaela knew that it was mostly her elemental attuning that made her so comfortable around the cold, and while that kind of bothered her, she tried not to dwell on it. Not right now, not in this blissful moment.
Still giggling madly, Reg fought his way out of the snowbank, brushing the powder off of his puffy winter coat. “We haven’t had snow this pretty in years, Ica!” He threw his arms skyward in joy. “This is the best possible day for the winter festival! I hope Yule is like this too.”
“I’d hope every day is like this, while we’re at it.” She teased, smiling gently and brushing her blue hair back behind her ear. “But this is more than fine. You know, even if I don’t like being around a lot of people, I think this year’s festival is going to be great. I can’t wait.” She kicked her legs a bit, clearly just as excited as Reg in her own modest way.
We’re like day and night, she thought, opposites and complements. “So, wanna go together?”
“Yeah, let’s do it!” Reg bounced to her side, brushing the rest of the snow from his body. “I don’t have super long before my work shift but I’d love to see the stalls and everything before then.”
Ica laughed at his excitement, and then she got up, not really bothering with the snow, contrary to her brother. “Okay, just a quick look, then?” She said, and extended a hand to her brother. “It won’t be long.” She shot him a grin, a rare sight on Icaela’s face.
“Yeah!” He took the hand and strode ahead, tugging her along. “I was watching the setup ethcast. They brought in a Node Caller to clear up the snow on the street so they could put up tents and stuff. It was really cool—plumes and arcs of fire melting all the snow in minutes. I’m sure I’d have been scared shitless if I were there, but on a screen? It was super cool.”
“You know, isn’t it interesting how brains work? How exciting and exhilarating things look from a safe distance, but face-to-face with those dangers, the reaction would be completely different…?” Ica just blurted out, deep in thought as she walked a bit behind Reg, as he basically dragged her due to her slower walking speed. “Oh! Oops. There I go again.” She giggled, quietly. “A Node Caller, huh…” She muttered.
“Yeah. They say it really messes up your body and brain, node calling. Suuuper powerful, though. So! How’s school!”
“I hope they’re okay.” Ica said before replying to his question. “Well, I’m having troubles with… Magical Field Analysis, but my friend Maddie offered to help because I helped her with Elemental Theory. S…S-So things are going mostly okay. Ravi, though…” She sighed, looking at the side.
“Still trying to focus on absolutely anything but the lesson?”
She rubbed her temples. “Yes! The other day he focused on Maddie’s ass. Ugh! I try to make the lesson a bit, like, you know, fun, but he always… Pays no attention. I don’t get it. He puts a lot of effort in coming to my classes very prepared, and showing interest, the kid is not problematic, but then he just… Doesn’t… focus. It’s not that he can’t, he just… doesn’t bother. I worry about him so much.” Ica sighed.
“It’s good that you care that much.” Robbie giggled. “And to be honest, Madison’s ass is very nice.”
Ica huffed and rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “I mean, yes, but— Of course you’d say that! But Ravi’s too young to be thinking about the asses of ladies ten years older than him. I just wonder if the kid’s having problems, you know? I told him he can tell me anything, but… He doesn’t.” She raised her eyebrows as they approached the tents. “Oh, we’re here already. Sorry I ranted all the way here.”
“I don’t mind! Stuff doesn’t change much in my life, so it’s nice to hear what’s going on in yours.” He tugged her in the direction of one of the stalls. “Ooh, let’s get some candied nuts! Oh, and I wouldn’t worry too much about Ravi. Most teenagers aren’t as focused as we were, you know? But they muddle through.”
Ica followed close with a gentle smile. “Haha, well, I suppose you’re right and I just worry too much… “ She shook her head slightly, still worried but trying to shed the topic. “Oh, ah, yes, I’d love some nuts. Those sound yummy.”
“Nutmonger! I will have your largest, finest nutsack,” Reg declared.
“Yeah, I’ve never heard that one before,” the vendor grumbled in response, but handed over a full bag full of sweet-smelling candied nuts and accepted Reg’s payment.
Ica raised an eyebrow at her brother, a bit confused. “N…Nutmonger? Nutsack?”
“There are few pleasures in life as pure as a mouth full of nuts,” Reg said wistfully. “Anything you wanted to see while you’ve got me?”
Ica couldn’t help but crack a smile and then giggle, chewing on one of the sweet nuts. “You’re such a child, Reg. And that’s why I love you.” She teased, and rested her head on his shoulder, sighing, eating some more nuts. “I… I don’t know, really. I just wanted to spend time with you. Is there anything you would like to see?”
“Well, it doesn’t sound like anybody is performing yet, so, ah… oh! Let’s go look at this year’s ice sculptures!”
“Oh! I forgot…!” Reg grabbed her hand and tugged Icaela along. As they approached the ice sculpture tent, her expression was one of childlike wonder. She clapped excitedly as they crossed the threshhold into the gallery tent, and a perceptive eye may have noticed Ica’s dark blue eyes almost sparkle. She loved these.
Reg was just as enchanted: his bubbly demeanor turned into awe as he beheld the hand-carved works of art arrayed before them. The theme this year had been ‘magical creatures’, so the world’s most fantastic beasts were arrayed in stunning detail: a chimera, a cockatrice, a mimic disguised as a chair coming to life with a mouthful of teeth and a long tongue.
“They’re so amazing…” Reg whispered.
Ica’s eyes widened as soon as her eyes rested on the last exhibit, a gorgeous figure of a Phoenix, wings spread, and flames rendered perfectly in thin ice.
Icaela rushed over to it, stopping right at the limit of visitor allowance, leaning on the railings, and felt the urge to stretch out her arm to it, to touch it, but managed to control the urge. She took a deep breath, then found herself fighting back a surge of tears. It wasn’t enough that she was more elementally tuned than her brother, she just had to be more emotionally sensitive too. “Ooh. This year’s so good, Reg. It’s so good. I love them.”
“Can you feel it?” Reg whispered. “There’s a Field here. Ours. It feels so good to be in here, I can barely notice the cold.”
“Yeah… It’s so nice… “ Ica just closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath, resting her arms on the railing and just… taking in the feeling. “Reg… Do you ever feel bad about being affected by fields like this? Sometimes I feel really self conscious, but… In times like these, I…”
“It wasn’t up to us,” Reg replied, “so no, I don’t feel self-conscious. Maybe I did once, but it’s kinda fucked up that humans might look down on us when it’s human magic that made us who we are.”
Ica sighed softly. “I guess you’re right. S… Sorry. It just gets to me sometimes. There’s nothing else like this feeling, is there?”
“There really isn’t,” he replied, eyes fixed on her.
“I know you’re worried, but I’m ok. I’m just not as strong as you are. You’re so cool.” She flashed Reg a smile, knowing that he could see right through it. “S…Sorry, I’m ruining this, aren’t I?”
“Strong?” Reg laughed a little. “Aw, Ica, no. I’m pretty cool, but so are you. We just have different ways of engaging with stuff. You care more. That’s not a bad thing.”
Ica chuckled back. “You know… I guess you’re right. Thanks, Reg.” Her smile was more genuine now. “It sucks having these feelings even after 5 years, but I guess I always knew they would never go away anytime soon.”
Riding the swell of positive feeling, she turned and focused on the statue. She let her other senses fall away, letting the field be all she experienced, the ebb and flow of the ether washing over her. Just as the feeling threatened to overwhelm her, she remembered something and shook herself back to life.
“So uhm, how much time do you have left, sib?”
“I should head back soon, but I can stay a little longer,” Reg murmured, looking at the statue again himself. “We should spend more time together, Ica. I wish our schedules synced up better.”
“You know… Do you want any presents? I could try my luck at one of those carnival games things.” She murmured vaguely, clearly wanting to do something nice for him but unsure how.
He laughed. “If it’d make you happy, I’d love to get a gift from you. You already know I’m gonna get you something for Yule.”
“So, uhm, one of those ball games? W…W-Would you like a plushie? Do you still like those?” She asked, a bit embarrassed by the question, looking at the side, bashfully. Though it was very hard to tell with the way her eyes worked, almost two solid dark blue orbs. But Reg could tell.
Reg tilted his head and smiled at her for a few moments, then closed the distance and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “I know I’ll love whatever you get,” he said. “See you soon, sis.”
Ica wrapped her arms around her brother’s waist and hugged him tight. “I wish I could stay with you longer. Stay safe, alright? Love you.”
And then she let go, stepped back, and waved him away with a big smile. Just like every time she let him go, a part of her fretted that each time might be the last. It was silly and illogical, she knew, but there it was.
With a wave of his own, Reg walked down the street, away from the open-air festival’s many stalls. Checking her handshell, Ica noticed that Madison wouldn’t arrive for another fifteen minutes or so, leaving her to her own devices until then. She sighed, looking wistfully in the direction her brother had gone for a few moments before shrugging it off and moving toward the edge of the ice sculpture tent. Icaela braced herself for the shock of leaving the homey sensation, the good feeling. She took a deep breath and held it as she crossed the threshold.
After a few minutes of walking, Ica’s eyes wandered to a stall for a hit-the-cans game, then to the large snowflake plush hanging on the inside of its tent. It had two big silly eyes and looked just as big and huggable as anything. A big grin spread on her face as she appraised the absolute perfect gift for her brother.
Ica approached the stall attendant and spoke up, a bit nervous. “H…H-Hi!” She stammered, waving gently.
“Hey there, miss,” replied the teenage girl standing behind the counter. “Care to try your skill? Three throws per credit! Just tap your shell on the panel there.”
She gulped down, and tapped her shell on the panel, heard the credit transfer beep, and grabbed a ball. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply, trying to recall that feeling from the ice-attuned field, its focus. Just as the attendant was raised an eyebrow at the girl’s meditative look, Ica opened her eyes and threw the ball.
It was a weak throw, but it hit between two cans on the bottom, and half the pyramid came crashing down. Ica let out a loud sigh, trying to shake her nerves. She grabbed another ball and threw it again, knocking over all of the cans but one. The last ball glanced off the final can, which tipped onto its corner and rolled for a few moments before falling.
Ica sighed. “Oh, geez, that was stressful…” She muttered.
“Wow, good going!” The attendant said, smiling brightly. “Now you can choose from any of our small prizes! Orrr, you can keep going and get nine more wins, and maybe you can get that snowflake you’ve got your eye on?”
“W…W-What? Nine… ? There’s no way… Uh… “ Icaela’s face fell. She’d been so excited that she’d never thought to ask about the rules. “D…Do you…have a tinier one…?”
“This seems… fun,” a quiet voice said next to Ica. She turned and saw a figure so swaddled in winter clothing that she couldn’t see any of their actual features. It was, however, a distinctive outfit: a long red fitted coat, belted at the waist, and a wide-brimmed hat over a tightly-wrapped muffler that covered the stranger’s nose and mouth. Ica could barely see the shine of their eyes behind the swaddling.
“Fun like you wouldn’t believe!” The attendant replied. “Care to play? One credit, three throws!”
“I do not have… credits…” the stranger’s muffled voice sounded crestfallen. The attendant didn’t quite know what to make of that. Everyone had money.
“You don’t? Uhm… I can… Pay for your throw, I suppose. It’s the winter festival, I think everyone should have a little bit of fun, even without money.” Icaela had given up on the idea of winning the snowflake, but maybe there was a bit of joy yet to be had here. “Uhm, is that okay?”
“Fine by me!” The attendant shrugged. “But the win credits are gonna go toward your shell ID, regardless of who’s playing.”
“That is fine,” the stranger said. “I do not want a prize. I want to play.”
Ica raised an eyebrow at the stranger. Well, she had heard weirder things than just ball game aficionados, so she tapped her shell and stepped back so the stranger could take her place. “W…W-Well, it’s all yours. Have… fun!” She said, with a bright smile. There. A good deed!
The stranger reached forward and picked up the ball, and Icaela immediately noticed something peculiar: their hand was made of smooth white plastic, segmented and folding at the joints, with friction pads on the fingertips.
A prosthetic? Or was the stranger a golem?
They hefted the ball, felt its texture, its weight—then drew their arm back, threw the ball with perfect form, and struck the cans right at the point where they met. They all fell.
“Oh!” The surprised attendant blinked. “How lucky! Well, I’ll… just set those up again for you, since you’ve still got two throws left.”
“Yes please,” said the stranger.
Ica was stumped by the perfect shot. Were they a…robot or something? Calculating trajectories? Her curious mind started racing a bit, staring at the stranger.
The next two throws were exactly the same, replicated perfectly each time. The stranger bullseyed the cans and knocked them down. When they were done, they turned to Icaela and asked, “would you like me to win the snowflake for you? I overheard the clerk.”
Ica was a bit shocked, but nonetheless, nodded slowly. “Y…Y-Yes, I’d like to have it. You’re very kind.” She was starting to get worried she’d be accused of cheating, but… she really did want that plush. “Please.” She finally said, offering the stranger a small, polite bow.
“You allowed me to play the game. It is repayment for your kindness,” the stranger said simply, tilting their head a bit.
Icaela entered two more credits, and the stranger started playing. After the fourth throw knocked down yet another set of cans, the attendant laughed and held up both hands. “All right, all right, I surrender! You’re obviously the can master.”
“But…” the stranger said, then shrugged slightly. “Well. Okay. I got to play and this kind elemental gets her toy; that is the important part.”
“Here you go, miss.” The attendant unhooked the plush snowflake and handed it to Icaela. “Enjoy! Gotta ask you to stop playing after this, though.”
Ica grabbed the plush, staring in mild in disbelief and squeezing its soft fluff. She tore her eyes away to look at the clerk. “Uhm… d-don’t worry, I’m not planning on it. I already got what I wanted. T…Thank you for the plush,” she murmured.
“Hey, thank that stranger,” the attendant replied with a smirk and a shrug.
“Oh… r-right.” She turned to the stranger. “You’ve been really kind to me. Who might you be? I’m Icaela. It’s a pleasure meeting you.” And then she extended her arm and offered a handshake, holding the very large plushie with her other arm, hugging it tight.
“Ah…” the stranger hesitated for a moment, but reached forward and shook her hand. Their hand was cool to the touch, the touchpads soft against Ica’s skin. “Please call me Pino.”
“It’s a pleasure, Pino. What brings you here? You seem like… not from around here. Your clothing, too, you seem to be real cold.”
“Sure,” Pino evaded.
“You only seemed interested on throwing the ball, not the presents. That’s interesting.” She said, releasing Pino’s hand.
“I prefer collecting experiences to collecting physical objects,” Pino replied.
“You know… I think I agree with you, Pino. I just got this for my brother, an elemental like me. We’re both attuned with the ice element so I thought it’d make a good present, but it’s not as much about the present as the moment I give it to him, those good feelings. The experience of it, with this plush as a catalyst.” She gave them a smile.
“Yes. That makes perfect sense. I hope you and your brother both enjoy the experience of this present exchange as much as I enjoyed the act of winning it for you.”
“You’re a good soul, Pino. It’s been a pleasure meeting you, but, ah…” She just remembered the fact that she had to meet Madison. “… I have to go. Will I see you again?”
“I don’t know,” Pino replied, “but I think I would like that.”
“I would like that too, let’s just hope luck, or fate, makes that happen, eh?” Her smile widened and she took a step back, waving. “See you soon!”
As she walked toward the east entrance of the festival, where Madison had promised to meet her, she checked her watch and murmured, “ugh, late.” Nonetheless, her quick steps carried her to the entrance quickly, and she scanned the area for her friend.
Sure enough, walking down the street and swaddled in a big scarf, slouchy hat and a gray peacoat arrived Miss Andershaw the younger. She waved enthusiastically with one gloved hand. “Hey! Ica! Sorry I’m late!”
“Oh!” She exclaimed, waving back as she approached. “Well, w-what do you know, I’m late, too! I suppose that makes it, even, no?” She gave Madison a soft, sheepish smile.
“Hah, it does, yes.” Madison let out a small gasp, seeing the plushie. “Oh! You won a plushie, and it’s so cute!”
“Ah! Yeah… It was a stroke of luck, honestly. I plan on giving it to Reg when I he gets home. I can’t wait to see the look on his face.” She wiggled the huge plushie in front of her. “Oh, but, did you want to do anything? We still have a lot of time to do stuff in the festival…”
“Hell yeah!” Madison hopped in place, sending the end of her scarf flapping. “Are you hungry? I’m hungry.”
Ica put a finger on her chin, tucking the snowflake under the other arm. “Now that you mention it, yeah! Do you have a place in mind?”
“Let’s check out the vendors and see if there’s anything good. I’ve been well-behaved lately, I want some junk.”
Ica laughed. “Fine, fine. I suppose I’ve been ‘good’, as well,” she said, starting to walk over to the vendor part of the festival, and sure enough, as soon as they approached it, an intense smell reached the two girls. “Whoa.” Ica said, in response.
“Batter the planet,” Madison whispered. “Fry the cosmos. Ooh! Corn dogs! Ica, I want a corn dog!” She clutched her friend’s sleeve and bounced up and down.
“Fine, fine! Geez, you’re a little kid. Let’s go get some corn dogs.” Ica rolled her eyes, smiling at her excited friend, as she then was basically dragged to the stall that was selling them.
Moments later, they each had a pair of deep-fried corn-battered hot dogs, resting in a small biodegradable tray with a dollop of pink sauce.
“Okay. I picked the first thing.” Madison picked up one of her corn dogs by the stick and used it to point at Ica. “Your turn. What do you wanna do?”
“I… don’t really know, honestly. I just wanted to spend time with you. I didn’t even think about what we’d be doing while spending time together.” She admitted, taking a bite of the corn and humming as she savored it. “Hey uhm… Did you see the ice sculpture exhibit?”
“Oh, I haven’t! Have you? Is it good this year?”
“It’s… really good. Uhm, want to go there, then?” She asked, taking another bite. “This is good, too…” Ica looked a bit out of it while talking about the exhibit.
“It sounds like you really like the sculptures.” Madison smiled warmly. “Let’s go.”
It didn’t take much walking to bring them back to the ice sculpture tent, and Icaela felt the magical field welcome her once again.
“Oh, no wonder you like it so much,” Madison marveled. “There’s a strong ice field saturating the ether.”
Ica blushed in response. “I… uh… y-yeah. I-I’m sorry, It’s just so nice here. It feels like home.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes and smiling.
“But, uhm, the sculptures are also gorgeous. It’s uh… me and my brother are both ice elementals but… I’m more sensitive than he is to fields and magic. So it’s … yeah.” She added under her breath, eyes still closed: “When I’m here, it doesn’t feel so bad, being a ‘monster’ … “
“Hey,” Madison objected. “Even if you were a thaumomorph, which you’re not, it wouldn’t be fair to call yourself that. You’re a person. Okay?”
Ica looked to the side. She heard? “S-Sorry. Thanks. I know thaumomorphs are trying to reclaim that term, I shouldn’t use it.” She gave her friend a weak nod. “Sorry, Maddie. I didn’t mean to, like… ruin the mood. We should be having fun.”
“I am having fun. But supporting my friend is important too. Do you need to talk, Ica?” Maddie slowly walked over, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“I don’t know… It’s really hard living like this, sometimes. Gets to me. Reg is like, really cool and has already moved past it, but… I keep getting hung up on it.” She sighed, rubbing her forehead. “Even now, I can tell the glances I get. Those hurt the most.”
She looked up and closed her eyes again, focusing on the field. Her hair fluttered a bit under the movement of the ether as if blown by wind. “And while I love being here, the field just reminds me of all that… It’s conflicting.”
Madison wrapped one arm around Ica’s shoulders. “You belong here, okay? This is your city. It made you and you shape it. The way the fields here ebb and flow is proof of that. The city is alive and you’re a crucial part of the lifeblood that runs through its veins.”
Ica gave Madison a genuine smile, opening her eyes, those dark orbs looking at her. “You mean that? T…Thanks.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Thanks. You’re a sweetheart. You know, sometimes I wonder if I can… alter the fields somehow. I mean—I know it’s possible, but you need like, lots of power, but, I just… I just wonder if I could do it.”
“Your attunement draws from fields more than it affects them, but it’s possible. You’d need to venture out of your natural magic if you wanted to accomplish something like that.” She smiled. “But if anybody could, you could.”
“Thanks. I just… want to help people. Show everyone that what I am is a gift, not a curse, like they tried to tell me. That’s why I’m studying, you know? To… help.” She said, then gasped. “Oh no, there I go again. I’m really sorry I made this trip all about myself, really… We should go do something.”
The other girl drew her up in a tight hug. “You are already making this a better place, Icaela. Don’t suffocate under the weight of the world.”
Ica just hugged her friend back and sniffled. “G-Gosh… T…Thanks, Maddie… You’re a really wonderful friend. What would I do without you?“
“Well, you’d probably eat healthier,” Maddie said, pulling back and giving Ica a wink and a grin. “Oh hey, look who’s here!”
“Why hello there, Miss Bancroft! Oh, and you must be Madison Andershaw! So nice to meet you!” Icaela scarcely had time to roll her eyes before Ravi had bounded up to the two of them, wearing the suavest grin his seventeen years of experience could cobble together.
Ica managed to just barely hold in a sigh as she turned to look at Ravi. “Oh, it’s you, Ravi. I’m not working right now, so you better behave, alright? I’m not your teacher right now.” She was kidding herself, she’ll always be her teacher, even off-duty. Or so Ica thought. “I’m a friend. What are you up to all alone here?”
“Uh, I’m checking out the festival?”
“Hey there, Ravi,” Madison held out a hand. “You got it, I’m Maddie Andershaw. What’s it like studying with Icaela?”
“Oh, she’s a saint,” Ravi replied, shaking Maddie’s hand. “I’d be flunking without her.”
Ica actually blushed at that. “Oh, uhm, thanks.” She blinked a few times, surprised. “I didn’t know it was actually helping you that much. That’s really good to know!” She exclaimed, actually feeling a little proud of herself.
“Oh, totally!” Ravi said. “She’s brilliant. So, where you ladies headed next? I hear the concert stage is about to open.”
Madison made an ‘iunno’ noise and shrugged.
“Oh, I completely forgot.” She looked at Madison. “I suppose we should check it out, then?” Ica said, looking over at Madison. “And you, Ravi?”
“Oh, sure,” he said in a facsimile of casual smoothness, “I was thinking of heading over there. I’ll just go with the two of you.”
Giggling, Maddie replied, “sure, why not?”
Ica rolled her eyes, but her lack of distinguishable pupils hid the gesture. “Alright, then. I suppose I don’t mind having you along, then, if Maddie is okay with it.” She gave Ravi a ‘I’m watching you’ stare, and he returned a winsome smile.
“Sure, fine by me,” Maddie said.
By the time they had walked over to the concert stage, the opening band had already begun to play family-friendly Christmas music covers, and they were awful.
“Wow, this… sucks, really a lot,” Madison said.
“Yeah, I regret my suggestion,” Ravi agreed.
Ica just sighed and clapped a frustrated hand to her forehead. “Ravi… “