goodbye

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"You're insane," was all Aura Kennedy could get out before her short legs failed to keep up with her best friend Seraphina's pace.

Whipping her head around, Seraphina gave Aura a firm nod before turning back to the Ministry building. "I am 100% certifiably insane. We've been through this before." Her grip tightened on the shoulder bag strap that hung heavily. "But high-scoring thesis papers don't come from mediocre ideas."

Aura side-stepped a fellow Southlander and apologised for the close collision before speeding back up to Seraphina. "That doesn't mean you have to risk your Southland citizenship for this sociology degree!" She exclaimed with a hiss.

Seraphina stopped abruptly and put a finger to her lips. "Say it any louder, will you?" She straightened back up and swept her eyes around the pathway, smiling at the walking residents of the Southlands.

The sun shone particularly bright that morning in the Southlands of Castell, with the light hitting off the metallic and glass buildings of the city. The hovercars occupied the streets as women stormed the paths knowing exactly where they needed to be. Florists opened up their stores. Baristas filled the air with coffee aromas. Southwives, dedicated to bringing up the babies that came from the Midlands, pushed a line of prams for the babies' morning walks.

Everything was fine.

Safe.

Protected.

Normal.

"Don't you see what's wrong here, Aura?" Seraphina lowered her voice into a conspiratorial whisper, her dark brown eyes harbouring a mischievous glint as she gestured to their surroundings.

Aura responded with her signature eye roll, if only to delay Seraphina from reaching the Ministry doors by seconds. "Don't start with your self-righteous, martyr-talk now. This is ridiculous. Won't you come back to the university and talk it through with the Professor?"

"Not one of these women, including you and I, have never seen a man in real life," ignored Seraphina as she loosened her scarf. The fire in her heart was ignited, and nothing, not even the cold bite of Castellian winter could put it out.

"Is that really so bad?" Aura whined. "We've heard about them in our history lessons. We've seen the illustrations. Isn't that proof enough?" Aura lowered her head to deliver her deathly glare with a voice that matched Seraphina's whisper. "Look, Sephy. I know how much you're afraid of being holed up in this place. But breaking Castellian law by going for a Mating Permit without the intention of mating, and then using this permit to further break the law by entering the Northlands is too much! You'd be a criminal!"

Seraphina heaved out a sigh before grabbing onto her best friend's hands. Her eyes bore earnestly into Aura's gifted, ocean-blue eyes. "I need a kickass research paper to graduate. I also don't want to become a Southwife and become brainwashed by the State. My whole life has been stuck inside this lie, Aura. This is my chance!"

Aura's heart softened as she observed Sephy's face. It was the exact same face she used back when they were seven, where Sephy decided to squash her cheese sandwich into the bully's face after she had kicked out the contents of Aura's lunchbox. Aura had objected on many occasions, but her friend's bright eyes burned a fire that soon became her signature look for many years to come.

Aura reluctantly let go of her friend's hands. "Stay safe, okay?" Her voice cracked towards the end. "I want to see my best friend back in one piece."

"And not arrested," reminded Sephy with a cheeky smile. 

"And not arrested," confirmed Aura. If there was no stopping Sephy's agenda, then the least she could do was to keep her safe. 

The two girls shared a tight hug, the kind where each pulled even tighter when they should've let go. 

Aura watched Sephy's unkempt brown hair melt into the sea of other women before eventually, she completely lost her. 

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Sephy used the sudden winter breeze as an excuse for the hot tears that welled in her eyes. It was hard to leave everything that she knew, but she needed to take advantage of her timing.

Although the age restriction on Mating Permits was 20 years old, it was more common for postgraduates such as herself, to begin applying at the 25 year-old mark. The less suspicious she seemed, the better.

A gentle buzz of warmth began to emanate from her chest as her pulse quickened from looking at the looming steps of the Ministry of the South (or MOTS for short). Out of all the buildings in the Southlands, the Ministry was the only one that hadn't been rebuilt into the more sustainable form of Neoplastic. Not only did it still have sandstone walls, but the interior was built from concrete, not the draught-proof silicon seals that were vital in all new residential housings.

This is where it all starts, Seraphina thought to herself. A research paper on the male species to lead me to the greatest secret this country holds. 

Yet there was a shred of doubt that ate at her conscious as she turned back around to see the place she called home for her whole life. 

On the corner of the street was her favourite florist aptly named Flora who always gave Sephy a 10% discount on her favourite flowers: jasmines. Two shops down was where she spent most of her adult life scraping up her credit rating (as there was no such thing as money in Castell) in order to qualify for a Mating Permit: Barista Blend. She still remembered the sweet smell of coffee wafting into her nose when she dreaded the early morning shifts, but the colleagues always made it better. Then of course, down the very end of the street was the large Southland University where she had lived for a fifth of her life. There she developed her passion for sociology with Aura experienced late night pizza runs when they were way past curfew, discussing their future plans. 

A seed of longing and doubt settled at the pit of her heart. 

You really don't need to have such an outrageous research topic, argued her Rational side. Why not do one about feminism through the ages instead where you could stay in the Southland?  

Weak argument, rebutted Seraphina. Society used to function with both genders living in the same space. What use is my sociology degree if I don't get down to the core difference between our society now and the Dark Ages back then?

A wave of assertiveness washed out the growing sense of fear as her surroundings faded out to nothing more than white noise, zeroing in on the obstacle that lay in front of her. 

And then, she walked into the jaws of the law. 

























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