Chapter 196: Trading In FuturesAlexandra Erin on January 8, 2014 in Volume 2 Book 6: Career Counseling
In Which Steff Desires A Present
Steff caught up with me outside the Archimedes Center just after breakfast.
Well, I say caught up, but it was more like snuck up… I wasn’t specifically trying to get away from her, and she could have easily stopped me before I left, when the meal was breaking up and before we all went our separate ways.
I don’t think there was any malicious intent there… or even the not-particularly-malicious intent to scare the non-holy bekeesus out of me… but still, I jumped about a foot when there was suddenly a couple of finger tips on my shoulder and her voice in my ear saying, “Hey.”
“Sorry!” she said.
She was grinning, but there was concern in her eyes.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Just give me some warning next time… I know you like to scare me, but I like to know when I’m going to be scared.”
“I wasn’t actually trying to,” she said. “I know I was making some noise.”
“Not a lot of it,” I said. “And anyway, just because I know there’s someone else walking on the same sidewalk as I am doesn’t mean I’m bracing myself for… well, for whatever.”
“I’m kind of surprised,” she said. “Honestly, Mack, I thought you knew I was there… I thought you were all into awareness and preparedness now.”
“I was,” I said. “And I guess I probably should be. That’s the problem of focusing on one thing at a time… it’s pretty indistinguishable from being distracted from everything else.”
“It kind of worries me, how much sense that makes to me right now,” she said.
“Anyway, what’s up?”
She didn’t answer immediately, which made me pretty sure that something was wrong. It wasn’t like Steff to stand there fidgeting without a good reason. She wasn’t one to gather her thoughts before speaking, and she also wasn’t exactly overly delicate in her sensibilities.
Steff had changed quite a bit in the time that I’d known her. She’d gone from preferring shapeless, androgynous clothes most of the time to shapely, feminine ones. The fact that she had a more feminine shape now might have had something to do with it, though her wardrobe had been in a pretty obvious state of transition when I’d first met her.
It still was, in a different way… as exemplified by the lacy black corset dress she had on today, her outfits were increasingly moving away from ones influenced by her surface elven heritage. It had been hard to find elven dresses that were sized for a half-elf body, and the dominant physical aesthetic on the surface didn’t begin to account for the curves that Steff had developed.
Since the flowing gossamer gowns that she had once preferred ended up clinging to her body in awkward and uncomfortable ways, she’d come to embrace clingy, slinky dresses instead. She still alternated them with things like tight leather pants or black miniskirts, but she’d had to get new ones of those sized for her hips.
I didn’t usually pay a lot of attention to her fashion choices, it was just part of the background of her presence in my life. Steff’s style had changed… but it was like the changes to her body, in that it was all still recognizably hers. Her post-potion body was definitely more my type, if I was being honest with myself… but it wasn’t as though I’d been lukewarm about her before the change or ever had a moment when I thought, “Oh, good, now I can find her attractive.”
…although that might have been because giving myself permission to be attracted to anyone much less another girl wasn’t something that I would do. I didn’t get over my hang-ups so much as get past them… just kept going in spite of them.
“Mack?” she said, and I knew that I’d missed something, thinking about her clothes.
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I was…”
“Lust in thought,” she said. “I know, I saw the blush.”
“I was just… admiring your outfit,” I said. “I’m sorry. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, exactly. It’s just… you know that thing I said before…?”
“I know lots of things you said before,” I said.
“Still a smart ass,” she said.
“That’s why you like me.”
“You’re half right about that.”
“Which thing, Steff?”
“The thing about… seeing you… used and hurt,” she said. “Comma wanting to, in context-specific fashions.”
I blushed, which might have been surprising to anyone who had been paying absolutely no attention to my life up until this moment. Though it still seemed a little weird… this was about the most circumspect Steff had ever been about anything, much less sex, for relevant values of the word. It wasn’t smooth by any measure, not even my own, but it still did something for me… to me.
Although maybe the fact that she was talking around it was what caused the reaction. I’d grown used to blunt talk, at least insofar as it was possible to grow used to something that went in the face of your formative influences. This was… different, from Steff. It suggested instead of announced. As much as it was perfectly obvious what she meant, I still had to work it around in my brain a little, which gave the words that much more time to sink in.
“You know, as much as it’s totally your turn to stare at your feet and say nothing… but I’m a little worried that you’re not saying anything,” she said. “Mack? I could use a little reassurance.”
“Steff, it’s okay,” I said.
“It is?” she said, in her hopeful voice.
I hated hearing Steff’s hopeful voice.
It’s not that I didn’t want her to have hope. I did! I wanted her life to be filled with hope. It certainly beat several of the alternatives. But hope sounded so fragile coming out of her mouth. There was something high and bright and brittle in it. It made me want to protect her, while simultaneously being incredibly aware that I had no idea how to do so.
But she had told me that she needed reassurance, so I could at least do that.
“Yeah… I mean, you really don’t have to explain what you meant,” I said.
Steff was one of those people for whom the phrase “If you know what I mean…” would often be redundant… not always, but often. If you didn’t, then you probably didn’t want to.
“Oh… well… maybe I kind of do?” she said. “Because what I meant was I want to see those things… badly, and, you know… soon.”
“Oh!” I said, blushing again… harder. I realized Steff was being shy, too, which seemed positively indecent, in all the best ways. “Steff, you know that I always have time for you, right? I mean…”
“…schedule, class, and the rest of your personal life allowing,” she said. “Yeah, that’s reasonable. So, what I’m asking is, do you have time for me now?”
“Right now?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Not right now… we’ve got places to be. But tonight? Or this weekend? Soon?”
This was at least the second time this year that Steff had come to me like this, which wasn’t really a thing that had happened last year. Then, last year we’d been in the same dorm, if on different floors and different sides… this year, Steff was the only one of our group who hadn’t moved into the co-ed Gilcrease Tower.
The first time, I’d chalked it up to her feeling left out, and indeed it had seemed like she’d really wanted company. There had been other stuff going on in her life, of course, because there’s always stuff going on… she hadn’t just gotten lonely at random.
But still, the pattern seemed kind of… if not weird, then at least worth noting.
“Sure, but… what’s the rush?” I asked. “I mean, where did this come from?”
“You talking about the future… post-graduation, I mean. Have you really thought about what that’s going to mean?”
“Well, maybe not in exhausting detail, but I’m starting to think about it,” I said. “That was the point.”
“I meant personally, not professionally. Mack, the future is a lot closer for me than you, and the present shorter,” she said. “I mean, you know we aren’t going to be together forever. I don’t think there’s any way I’m going to be ready to graduate next spring, but it won’t be much longer than that. Then I’ll be heading west, or wherever… and you’ll still be here.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s going to take me four years to get my degree, if it comes down to that,” I said. “So we might end up graduating at around the same time.”
“So? That just means we’ll both be going our separate ways instead of you staying while I go,” she said. “Nothing changes from my point of view.”
It hadn’t slipped past me that she’d mentioned heading “wherever” as an alternative to going west. It seemed like the closer the future loomed for Steff, the less sure she was of where it would take her. Given that her plan… her dream, really… wasn’t exactly healthy or realistic, this could be a good thing on the balance. But I didn’t like the idea of Steff adrift. I remembered the way she had been when I’d first started getting to know her: confident and helpful, relentlessly positive and genuinely insightful. Then it was like she’d lost a part of herself, and it had taken her a long time to come most of the way back from that.
Maybe time does heal all wounds, but it doesn’t work like magic. It’s the natural kind of healing, the kind that happens really slowly over a long period of time, and it’s never really quite finished.
“Just because life might take us in different directions, that wouldn’t mean that we couldn’t still see each other,” I said. “We’ll be adults. I mean, we are adults, but we’ll be able to travel after school, if we want to.”
“Let’s be realistic,” she said. “Everybody thinks they’re still going to be friends after school, but that’s not usually how it works, is it?”
“Yeah, okay, but by that kind of thinking… we might not be together next year, or next week,” I said. “I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t, but people grow apart. They fall apart. Everything we do with each other, we’re doing in spite of that. We’re doing it because we’re not just people, we’re us… and maybe we’re not anyone special, but our lives aren’t guided by averages or statistics.”
“No, just the roll of the dice,” she said. “I mean, what are the odds that you’ll even have the money to travel? Or the time? If you’re free, that probably will mean you’re out of work and broke… but if you’re working, you’ll probably get like one week of time off a year… if you’re lucky. So much of it comes down to chance.”
“Well, maybe that’s a good reason to be thinking about this now,” I said. “I mean, I’ve never thought about ‘freedom to travel’ as one of my career goals before… maybe I should.”
I was thinking about Acantha, whose work as a consultant seemed to take her all over. Well, all over the places that there was work… but I got a strong sense of freedom from the way she talked about the way she operated. Like, since she could pick and choose her jobs to some degree, then to the same degree she could choose where she went.
Like the saying went, it was nice work if you could get it.
Not for the first time and probably not for the last, I wondered if I’d been judging Acantha’s very self-centered sense of ethics too harshly.
There had to be limits, obviously, and there also had to be more to it than that, but maybe you had to be willing to take what you wanted from the world, in order to get what you wanted.
“Okay, but even if you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you can do that,” Steff said, “that’s your idea of a life? Bouncing back and forth? Splitting your time between lovers in different provinces? That sounds like a good time to you?”
“Kilrest isn’t a province,” I said. I wasn’t just being pedantic… I was also trying to angle for just how much Steff was re-thinking her future. “Anyway, it’s not so much the bouncing back and forth or the splitting time that sounds good… it’s the love. It’s still seeing you, still having you in my life, still… being… had.”
“You have no idea how it wears you down, being pulled between places,” she said. “That was my life growing up, remember? One year with my dad, one year with my mom.”
“Yeah, but… your dad was an asshole who forced you into that. You probably wouldn’t have liked living with him all the time in one place, either,” I said. “You said it: you were pulled. This would be me, doing what I want because I want it. Steff, you’re the one who told me how much difference it can make when you want something… don’t you think that would make it better? Easier?”
“Better? Maybe. Easier? Maybe,” she said. “But that’s a long way from good or easy… I still think it would wear you down. I think you might keep it up for a little while, but how long do you think it would be until you decide it’s not worth it?”
“That really depends on if it is or not,” I said. “Anyway, this is all speculative… it’s not like we can know what our lives will be like, a year or three down the road.”
“That’s… true, but not reassuring,” she said.
“Yeah, I didn’t think that one through,” I said. “But it works both ways. You and I could live for a long time. Amaranth could live forever. If it does take us ten years… or longer… before we’re in a place where we can see each other regularly, it’ll suck, but in the end…”
“We’ll have spent ten years growing apart,” she said.
“Well, I don’t know what you want from me, then,” I said.
“The present,” she said. “The future can suck my delightfully feminine dick. That was my whole point, Mack… we don’t know what the future’s going to be like… it might suck, it will probably suck, but in the meantime, oh somebody’s god do I want to fuck you now… and no, not right now, but… soon.”
“Okay… soon,” I said. “Tonight?”
“Tonight,” she agreed, and that was that.