Chapter 84: Confidence Tricks

on May 1, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 3: Figments & Fragments, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Two Comes A Long Way

Hazel’s words about the crowd weren’t prophetic so much as her reasoning was spot-on, but either way there was a line of people at the coach stop when Steff and I got there. There was also a coach pulling up to the curb, which cleared out most of them.

I was glad of this, and hoped the crowd would thin out more before Hazel and Two caught up with us. Steff would probably do okay if she could sit between Two and me, but I thought a confined space with a whole crowd of other people would probably not be the best way to start our day.

I hadn’t thought of this before because I was used to making runs into town during a long mid-day break during the week, or during the summer when it didn’t really matter what time it was.

Mass-producing magic carriages was still a fairly new idea, and like most such vehicles that were more than a decade or two old, the school’s had been not just purpose-built but purpose-enchanted. The schedules they followed were as much a part of them as the magic that kept their wheels turning.

The system could be stopped and started again. It had enough logic woven in to prevent any of the more predictable tragedies of automation from happening. But it would have cost almost as much money as having the whole thing built new to make a change to the timetable. This meant that during the summer session, the much smaller demand from the reduced student body was spread out over the same supply of seats.

Back in the present, though, I thought that if Steff wasn’t going to object to climbing into a carriage then I wouldn’t bring it up. My goal was to give her what she needed, not tell her what she needed.

“Hey, there’s your little friend,” Steff said, just as I registered that the girl who didn’t get up from one of the benches had firewagon-red hair. I hadn’t seen her with that color of hair, or with what I’d describe as an unusually tall pixie cut, but they both fit her.

At the sound of Steff’s voice, Nicki got up from the seat and turned around. I got to see the way the smile broke out across her face when she saw us, and that in and of itself was enough to make my day.

It wasn’t that nobody ever smiled at me like that. Amaranth had an amazing smile. She was usually already wearing it she saw me, though. I could watch it get bigger and brighter… really, she had an amazingly expressive face… but happiness was closer to being Amaranth’s default state of being than it was Nicki’s. Nicki being happy to see me felt like more of an accomplishment.

“Hi, you guys!” she said. “I’m so glad you came!”

I almost said, Um, we invited you. and then I realized that maybe Nicki had at some point in the past been invited to something that no one showed up for. The fact that I myself didn’t have much experience being stood up or ditched only spoke for my long history of not being invited anywhere in the first place.

Nicki was enthusiastic and eager to be liked. She’d be an easy target for that sort of thing.

“I’m glad you wanted to join us,” I said.

“I’m pretty much always up for shopping,” she said. “Even if I don’t have the money to actually buy anything, but this early in the year I’m still pretty flush. So, what are we shopping for?”

“Clothes, I guess,” I said. “I need some… better… ones.”

“Oh, really?” Nicki said. She sounded kind of surprised.

“Don’t you like shopping for clothes?”

“I love it,” she said. “But you don’t seem to really care what you look… I mean… you…”

“Mack was raised by gorgon monks who considered vanity to be a sin,” Steff said. “The first time she saw a mirror, she thought it was a kind of magic cage for trapping doppelgangers.”

I might have been a little ticked by Steff teasing me in front of Nicki, but Nicki laughed at it, so I did, too.

“Well, I’m not exactly fashion-conscious,” I said.”But, I mean, I do wear clothes…”

“Occasionally,” Steff said. “When there’s no other alternative.”

“…and I guess there’s nothing wrong with them looking kind of nice,” I said. “Anyway, you seem like you have a lot of fun with your appearance.”

“Well, yeah,” Nicki said. “That’s because it is fun. Like playing dress-up! I mean, it is dressing up… well not, dressing up, but getting dressed, and you can play around with it…”

“I see why you get along with her,” Steff said. “It’s even awkward when she’s talking to herself.”

“You think?” Nicki said. “Sometimes when I’m alone I’ll start to sort of ramble, but then I start to feel silly and just sort of… trail off, so… um. Where are we going, anyway?”

“Well, I know places to get clothing, obviously, but not really where to shop for clothes. This was mostly Two’s idea, so I think she probably has some ideas,” I said. “But you and Steff also know about clothes… Steff knows my taste, and I like your taste. So, you know, everyone’s judgment counts.”

“I just think it’s so cool that you’re such good friends with Two,” Nicki said. I winced a little, almost hoping that she wouldn’t elaborate. Thinking of Two as some helpless object of pity was only marginally better than seeing her as any other kind of object. “She’s so… popular!”

“Yeah… yeah, I guess she is,” I said, feeling both relieved and guilty.

“Two really kind of took Mack under her wing last year,” Steff said. “Tried to teach her a few the facts of life. Mack’s sort of Two’s unofficial little sister.”

“That’s still not settled,” I said. “We agreed not to argue about it… though we did really grow apart over the summer. I mean, we were apart. She was off doing things with her friend Hazel, and I was here, haunting the dorms. This is the first time we’ll really be doing anything together since she got back. There’ve probably been other chances, but I guess we both tend to fall into routines really easily… and I’m not good at making the effort to reach out to people. I spent too much of the years I was supposed to be learning how to do that ducking for cover, I think.”

“Well, I’m glad you made the effort for me,” Nicki said.

Behind her, Steff started looking around in different directions, shading her eyes with her hand.

“What in the world are you doing?” I asked her.

“Trying to figure out where the audience is so I know which direction to hold up the cue card that says ‘Awwwwwwwwwww’,” Steff said.

“I’m glad you think it’s sweet,” I said.

“Sweet like kettle corn,” she said. “Or candy corn. Maybe sweet corn? I’m going for a theme here. See if you can pick up on it.”

Nicki laughed. It was easier to forgive Steff’s ribbing when she laughed, both because it meant that Steff wasn’t hurting anyone and because… well, she had a nice laugh.

The two of us talked about design class for a bit, while Steff sat back towards the far end of the bench and occasionally riffed. Another coach came by after about fifteen minutes, and cut out the rest of the people who were waiting. A few other people showed up after that, though.

“Here comes the pseudowench,” Steff said a bit after that, turning around and looking up the path.

Nicki and I turned to look, too. Two just discernible in the distance. After a few moments of searching, the smaller form of Hazel was, too.

“Wow, you have really good eyesight,” Nicki said.

“Compared to you, yeah, but it’s the ears, not the eyes,” Steff said. “Her footsteps aren’t the easiest to hear, but they’re really easy to identify. When she’s not moving through a crowd, her strides are all the exact same length and she puts her feet down with just the right amount of force. Hazel’s pretty easy to pick out, too, because of the whole lack of shoes thing… but even harder to hear.”

“Oh Hazel’s coming, too?” Nicki said. “She seems pretty cool.”

It was a rare thing that I had the chance to watch Two arriving somewhere. She didn’t tend to announce her presence when she entered a room. It wasn’t interesting to note how confident she seemed. She waved at people on the other paths, a little automatic wave that still had a surprising amount of warmth for being identical every time she did it. Just because it was highly formalized didn’t mean it wasn’t sincere.

Maybe this confidence, too, was in her nature. When she knew where she was going and what she was doing, there was no reason for her to have any doubts, and no room for them, either.

Still, she’d started her freshman year with a sort of perpetual wariness, an awareness of the fact that any moment someone she didn’t know could do something she didn’t know how to respond to. On firm ground, Two had a perfect awareness of the firmness of her stance. But when things got even a little… uncertain… she didn’t have the ordinary capacity of most humanoids to bluster their way through.

At least, she hadn’t been created with that capacity. I’d watched her arriving at justification for shortcuts and rationalizations for dealing with things that fell outside her experience. Originally it had been a slow and even painful looking process. Now she could cut to the hearts of most matters pretty quickly and make a decision pretty quickly.

I thought her friend Hazel probably had a lot to do with that. In some ways Hazel had been as sheltered as any of us when she’d arrived, but that just went to show how “sheltered” wasn’t an absolute concept.

I knew that Hazel had lost her mother. I’d slowly gathered the impression that she’d been somewhat responsible for bringing herself up the rest of the way after that, and taking care of her dad. I didn’t know the details, but I felt like her life might have undergone a couple of the same general sorts of zigzag shifts mine had. Her first year at school had been plenty eventful in its own right.

She was also more than a full decade older than I was, though gnomes counted their ages a bit slower than humans did. At thirty-three, they were technically an adult in the same way that humans in their late teens and early twenties were, but it wasn’t until fifty-five that they were expected to be completely responsible or respectable.

“Hi, Mack! Hi, Steff! Hi, Nicki!” Two said as she came within reasonable hailing distance.

“Hi, Two!” Steff and I both responded. I turned to suggest that Nicki to do the same, but she was already doing it, only a couple seconds behind us.

“Hey, folks,” Hazel said, nodding. “Nicki! Almost didn’t see you there..”

“Hello again,” Nicki said. “It’s the hair, blends right in.”

“Stay well clear of apple trees, or you’ll get yourself picked,” Hazel said. “So, when are you coming over to Gilcrease to play with us?”

“I’ll come over sometime, but I’d probably rather watch first,” Nicki said. “I like the game, but I’m pretty new at it… and not that good.”

“Well, you should fight me, then, and I promise I’ll go easy on you,” Hazel said.

“Maybe you should schedule a match-up in advance for some time,,” I said, knowing that Nicki was unlikely to come over of her own initiative, even with an open invitation and an understanding that no invitation was needed. “Take some of the guesswork out of working around each other’s schedules.”

“Not a bad idea, that,” Hazel said. “Not tonight, though. I feel that yielding my space on the floor to some guests tonight would become me as a hostess. It seems the hospitable thing to do.”

“How many games can you hold at once?” Nicki asked.

“Well, one giant one, two medium ones, or three fairly cozy ones,” Hazel said. “We could probably fit more in if no one were watching, but I’d rather err on the side of having room to spread out… you see, I think of war as an art, and I prefer an expansive canvas to paint on.”

There followed a three-way conversation about the finer points of the stone soldiers game that was quite a bit friendlier than the one at the breakfast table had been, even with two of the same participants.

Two and I sat quietly. I was half listening to the conversation. Without the drama of earlier, though, it wasn’t really able to hold my interest and I kept finding myself being drawn back to the cave of my mind, where I had apparently spent sometime alternately constructing and then smashing blocks of stone. The flashes had definitely been growing more concrete and specific in the back of my mind.

I couldn’t hear the owl-turtle thing’s words, but the sense of understanding it was growing more solid. The feeling of growing realization was shifting to something more like the feeling I’d have while sitting through a lecture about some new enchantment technique when all I wanted to do was get my hands dirty and try it.

Another carriage came rolling up. I glanced at Steff, who was glancing over at the other group of people who were waiting for it. Three girls and two guys. Technically we’d all fit within the coach’s capacity, but it would be what Hazel referred to as “cozy”.

I could see the panic rising up inside of Steff and I could feel it starting to grip me, too, as I tried to figure out what to do… but then I realized Two was already walking towards the other group.

“Excuse me,” Two said. “Hi, Lara.”

“Oh, hi, Two!” the one apparently called Lara said. “So, I guess you and your friends are going into town, too?”

“Yes, we are,” Two said. “But we need to have some extra space in the carriage to take care of my friend Steff, so would you mind very much taking the next one? If you are in a hurry, we can wait instead. Thank you.”

“Wow, she really takes charge, doesn’t she?” Nicki said quietly to me.

“She definitely has her moments,” I replied.

Lara and her friends looked around at each other. Some of them looked a little uncertain, but no one seemed to be offended by the request.

“No, I don’t think we’re in any hurry… are we , guys?” Lara asked.

“No, we can wait.”

“Yeah, that’s not a problem.”

“Is it everybody ready?” Two asked, turning back to face us.

“I guess so,” Nicki said, and we all climbed into the coach.

“Feel better!” someone from Lara’s group called as Steff climbed aboard.

“Have I ever told you that I love you?” Steff asked Two.

“Yes,” Two said. “I love you, too.”


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30 Responses to “Chapter 84: Confidence Tricks”

  1. Hey folks! Just dropping a line for those who don’t follow my blog… I have a chapter of Kin and Distant Relations in the works, originally for the end of April but then my insomnia kicked me in the backside. Look for it Thursday.

    There have been a lot of requests for a Two-centric sequence, and hopefully the next few chapters will not disappoint. Enjoy!

    Current score: 0
  2. N. says:

    Go Two!

    Current score: 1
  3. Zathras IX says:

    Mack likes Nicki’s taste
    Even though she hasn’t even
    Tried tasting her yet

    Current score: 3
    • William Carr says:

      Now, that’s just wrong.

      Current score: 0
    • Pamela says:

      I really envy
      Your ability to write
      Wonderful haikus

      Current score: 1
  4. anon y mouse says:

    “Maybe you should schedule a match-up in advance for some time,,” – double comma.

    Current score: 0
    • Luke Licens says:

      “It wasn’t interesting to note how confident she seemed.”

      It wasn’t?

      Current score: 0
  5. Burnsidhe says:

    “Yes. I love you, too.”

    Well. That’s a bit of a surprise. Two doesn’t say things she doesn’t mean, usually, so… wow. Either she means it, which is a change for her, or she doesn’t mean it, which is a different change for her.

    At least, that’s my impression.

    Current score: 0
    • Brenda says:

      Or she is aware that there are many, many degrees of love.

      Current score: 0
      • Burnsidhe says:

        Which again is another piece of character growth. 🙂

        Current score: 0
  6. Lunchbox says:

    awww. Two is just the best friend anyone could have.

    Current score: 0
  7. pedestrian says:

    This scene, with TWO taking charge, brings tears to this old cynic’s eyes.

    Perhaps I’m too jaded by bitter experience and crushing disappointments but if our future AI Overlords are as a kindly as TWO, I could learn to tolerate be bossed around a bit.

    Kherseese, it be just like I had Alberta back again.

    Current score: 0
    • Mickey Phoenix says:

      That last sentence just made me cry. There could be no finer memorial to your wife than the size and shape of the hole that the loss of her has left in your life.

      I offer you hugs if you wish then, and my heartfelt sympathy for your loss. She must have been a wonderful person, and the world is poorer for her death.

      Current score: 0
  8. Brenda says:

    I like how Nicki’s fitting in here!

    Current score: 0
  9. Month says:

    Ok, so now it’s Macks time to raise the “AWWWWWWWW” sign towards the viewers.

    Current score: 0
  10. Computer Mad Scientist says:

    2=<3. Mathematical fact. *crosses arms*

    Current score: 3
    • Anvildude says:

      Okay, that’s just amazing. Pity the only people who’d understand it are those that read this story. Otherwise it’d be a great Sig line.

      Current score: 1
  11. 'Nym-o-maniac says:

    So much Two love. Rock on, Pseudowench.

    Also, Mack and Nicki are made of adorkable.

    Current score: 0
    • N'ville says:

      adorkable. Brilliant word, and I know someone who that fits perfectly.

      Current score: 0
  12. Lesath says:

    D’aaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!!

    Current score: 0
  13. Readaholic says:

    D’aaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!

    Two a’daaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwable!

    Current score: 0
  14. Shwaggy says:

    Love the chapter…Nicki and Mack are just too cute for words. Except that you somehow convey their cuteness by words, which makes you awesome. And seeing Two confident and bold enough to ask someone to wait like that was wonderful!

    Minor issue, “It wasn’t interesting to note how confident she seemed.” I’m guessing that’s meant to be “was interesting”

    Current score: 1
  15. Matt Doyle says:

    Two is the best.

    And I’m rapidly becoming very fond of Nicki, too.

    Current score: 1
  16. blink says:

    lol I love how mack is always ready to be offended at something nicki says then realizes she was just assuming the worst

    Current score: 0
  17. Kaila says:

    My reaction to the end of that chapter was pretty much ‘eeeeeeeee!’. I squeed myself a little.

    2=<3

    Current score: 1
  18. That one guy says:

    As always, I love reading the story. 🙂

    “Is it everybody ready?” Two asked, turning back to face us.

    OMG, Two inserted an extraneous “it” — I didn’t think that was possible! The mind boggles.

    Current score: 0
  19. MistyCat says:

    “Do you mind waiting?”

    “No problem.”

    “!THANKS.”

    It jarred a little. Seemed out of character.

    Current score: 0
  20. Mickey Phoenix says:

    You actually made me cry with Two’s last line there. Such a perfect response to Steff’s somewhat flippant expression of gratitude (which, although she would be loathe to admit it, is just a cover for actually loving Two).

    I really love Two. And I’m hugely impressed with how you have shown her growth and maturation over the past year.

    Current score: 0