321: At A Distance

on November 23, 2008 in Book 12

In Which Mackenzie Admires The Long View

Steff never did come over to our side on Sunday, and she didn’t show up for dinner, either. Amaranth and I both chalked it up to the late night on Saturday and a general lack of quality time with Viktor, but I think we were both relieved to find her coming up the stairwell come breakfast time on Monday morning following an uneventful meditation session with Dee.

At least, we were momentarily relieved, as it quickly became apparent that something was badly bothering Steff. Breakfast was a pretty subdued affair, as she didn’t want to talk about it and the two most obviously pressing matters for discussion… the pitchfork and the party… couldn’t be discussed in front of Two.

I was starting to understand how Amaranth and Steff felt when they had to keep the conversation off sex.

After breakfast was over, Steff asked me if I would take a little walk with her. I looked at Amaranth, who gave me a little nod, and then I said yes.

We wandered down the path which curved around the east side of the union before going north to the two towers. It went past the dizzyingly tall dorms to the edge of the campus proper then curled back around to the west, becoming a hiking path. A big warning sign marked the end of the protective enchantments where the sidewalk became a paved trail.

The grounds were a good deal drier than it had been the day before, though sadly not appreciably warmer.

“You know a dude got killed out in the storm?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Where’d you hear that?”

“They brought him to the necro department to get identified,” she said. “It looked like ghouls got hold of him… don’t know if they killed him or just found the body, but he’d definitely been torn apart and eaten.”

I shuddered, remember our own close encounter with the undead scavengers.

“Did he die on campus?” I asked.

“Yeah, back by the towers,” Steff said. “His body was between a lit path and the edge of campus, so they wouldn’t have had to cross any barriers.”

“Wow,” I said, for lack of anything else. “I’m glad we stayed in Weyland.”

“Yeah.”

Steff didn’t say anything for a bit after that. She was looking at the ground, kicking and scuffing at the pavement with the toe of her boot until she found a smooth, flat little rock lying in the middle of it and then she started kicking it along in remarkably straight lines. She could make it skip three or four times on a kick. After doing this about a dozen times, she picked the stone up, looked at it thoughtfully, and then put it in her purse.

“There’s a game elven hunters play,” she said. “The girls, anyway. You have to kill a squirrel with a river rock that’s bounced off a tree. The winner is the person who can get the most bounces.”

Despite her melancholy air, I almost snorted at this… killing squirrels with rocks hardly fit with the typical image of elven beauty and elegance. It fit perfectly, of course, with the image of scary elven superiority.

“How many could you do?” I asked.

“Why would I want to kill a stupid squirrel?” she asked sharply, and I immediately felt stupid. Of course Steff was a girl to me. I couldn’t look at her and see anything else. To the girls of her father’s people, though, she looked like a bad joke. An ape in a princess costume.

“Do you know what you’re going as for Veil?” she asked, almost as if she’d read my mind.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t given it a lot of thought. Since you told me about the Veil Ball, well… everything happened, you know?”

“I do know,” Steff said. “It’s less than a week away, though… I hope you didn’t forget after I went to the trouble of putting it in your date book.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. I briefly entertained a vision of going as a Mecknight, but to do that right would require a considerably large outlay of funds for little payoff as probably nobody would recognize what I was. I’d probably either have to get a copper store mask or hit the thrift shops for some cheesy costume that could be thrown together from odds and ends. “So, what are you doing?”

“Dunno,” she said. “I can put together a queen of the undead costume without much trouble, but I don’t know if I really want to go that way…”

She trailed off, and I knew the temporary distraction afforded by the topic had worn off.

“What’s wrong, Steff?” I asked.

She turned away and said, as clearly as if she had been facing me, “I had a fight with Viktor.”

“Oh, shit, Steff… I’m sorry,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say, and because I had a horrible suspicion that it was my fault.

The fact was, Viktor didn’t like me. Polyamorous or not, sensitive modern ogre prince or not, he still loathed me. It couldn’t be fun for him to know that I was Steff’s nearest and dearest after him.

“Not a fight-fight, obviously,” she said, still not looking at me. “An argument.” She took a deep breath, and then she told me what I already knew. “About you.”

“Yeah… I figured,” I said.

“He thinks you’re too dangerous,” she said, turning around. “When we got back to Harlowe yesterday, he told me that after he heard what happened at the inn he decided our ‘sit down together and work out ground rules’ was going to be a ‘sit down together and tell you to fuck off’.”

“What?” I asked. Okay, that wasn’t quite what I’d expected.

“He… he hasn’t made up his mind for sure, though,” Steff said. “That’s why he kept saying okay when Amaranth wanted to push it back a little bit more. He wasn’t sure he could go through with it.”

“That’s crazy,” I said. “Did you tell him about the possession pitchfork thing?” I asked.

It hit me that Steff didn’t even know the whole story of that yet, but she’d been the one who first advanced the theory.

“Yeah, but strangely, the fact that you’re mixed up with a cursed possession artifact doesn’t make him feel any more cuddly about you,” Steff said.

“Well, even if he doesn’t want us together, that doesn’t mean you’re going to break up with me, does it?”

“Mack… I have to,” she said. “Don’t you understand? If he says no, that means I can’t.”

I felt hot surprisingly cold rising up within me. My hands contracted into fists, squeezing so tightly that the ragged edges of my tiny nails pressed into my skin. If there’d been a wall handy, I probably would have punched it.

“That’s ridiculous!” I raged. “Steff, I know you don’t exactly have a normal relationship with him, but that doesn’t mean he should be able to dictate your life. Don’t you have a safe word, too? The games have to stop sometime.”

“Mack, if I did have a straight-up vanilla across-the-board relationship with Viktor, you and me wouldn’t even be an option,” she said, and now she sounded mad, too. “What we call ‘being poly’, most people call ‘cheating’, which is what it would be if I saw you behind his back. Not just because we have a happy little Dom-and-slave relationship, but because we do have a relationship.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling stupid for not having grasped that immediately. The whole everybody’s-dating-everybody thing had sort of become second nature to me in an alarmingly short amount of time, though since these were my first experiences with serious relationships that could probably be excused.

“It’s okay,” she said. “And like I said… he really isn’t sure. Otherwise he would have insisted we come in and get it over with.”

“Yeah, but now I’m in the same boat with you as I am with Amaranth,” I said. “Waiting for some aloof, all-powerful presence who hates me to tell somebody I love that they can’t be near me.”

“Oh, I don’t think Mama Kh hates you, babe,” Steff said. “And anyway, I think the crux of it with her is Amaranth’s relationship with you… I mean, how she relates to you. She could decide that’s not healthy but not put you completely off-limits. Okay, that’s still not great… but it’s not quite the same thing as losing her completely.”

“Yeah, but what about you?” I asked. “If Viktor decides I’m too dangerous to be around, he’s not going to decide I’m magically safer if we’re just friends.”

“Well… I’ve been thinking about that,” Steff said. “I think he might not go as far as saying we can never be in the same place as each other, since we’ve got classes together and all the same friends… just no being alone together.”

“Gracious of him to let us keep going to class,” I grumbled, trying to imagine how I could keep going if I had to deal with Amaranth and Steff at that kind of a remove after having been so intimate with both of them.

“Oh, hon… I don’t think he’s going to do it,” Steff said. “If we’d just headed over on Saturday night instead of going to the matches and getting all delayed, he probably would have and then he would have stuck to it. But the moment’s passed. I mean, yeah, nothing’s definite and we should be aware that it’s a possibility, but… the tide’s going out, you know?”

“If that’s true, then why are you so upset?” I asked

“Hon… I had a fight with Viktor,” she said, standing there in front of me with tears welling up in her eyes.

“Oh!” I said, and a few seconds later, at the prompting of a quietly Two-ish voice at the back of my head, I thought to hug her.

That was all it took for her to break down completely, like whatever had been holding back the flood of tears was a tiny delicate barrier that shattered at my touch… or to cut out the poetry, she started bawling and I felt horrible because I had meant to make her feel better.

Gradually, the tears stopped and the sobbing subsided.

“Thanks,” she said. she pulled out a hankie that looked like a spiderweb, and dabbed at her eyes and wiped her nose and upper lip with it. “Thank you. Sorry. I cried bunches yesterday, but I thought I was all cried out.”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry about,” I said. “I’m sorry I made you go through the whole thing over again instead of just listening when you needed me to listen.”

“It’s okay,” she said. She closed her eyes and steadied her breathing. “I probably would have ended up crying either way. It’s just that kind of day.”

“Are you okay now?” I asked.

“For now,” she said.

“Um, you know… after my first class lets out, I have to go in town to see my lawyer,” I said. “I figure I’ll get a present for Two while I’m there. Do you want to come along? We can just have a quick little trip into town together, get away from everything and forget about all the crazy bad stuff for a while.”

“Oh, I’d like to… but I probably shouldn’t be cutting classes right now,” she said. “I’m going to have to run… really run… to get to my first one, in fact.”

“Oh, okay,” I said. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t going to argue with Steff when she felt like being responsible. “Well, I’ll miss you at lunch but I guess I’ll see you at dinner, then.”

“Yeah, definitely,” she said. “And before that, in history class.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “Okay.”

“Um… so… I should go,” she said. “Do you think you can find your way back on your own?”

“Steff, the towers are right there,” I said, pointing maybe about half a mile back. “I can see the union from here.”

“Oh, okay,” she said.

“And we’re on a straight path,” I added.

“Sorry… I got yelled at for leaving some of my cousins in the woods one time when I was seven,” Steff said. “I didn’t realize they weren’t like me… I felt awful when I got back because I remembered my other cousins doing the same thing to me, on purpose. I figured if I could find my way back, that meant anybody could.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, trying to hide my smile. There was something almost adorable about Steff’s innocent chauvinism. “Go, if you have to go. I’m sure I’ll be fine… I spent a lot of time looking at maps yesterday.”

“Okay,” she said, but she just stood there.

“Steff, are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s just…”

“Just what?”

She kissed me.

It was the sort of quick nervous peck that I would never in a thousand years have associated with Steff, and she didn’t stick around for me to reciprocate. She took off, cutting across the stubby wilder grasses towards the campus proper. She’d call it “really running”, but to my poor nearly-human eyes it looked like the same smoothly gliding stride she always used. I wondered what it looked like to an elf, and then I was glad I couldn’t see that.

I couldn’t imagine going through life, never being able to look at the most perfect diamond without seeing its flaws, not being able to see the intended shape and texture of a painting because I was looking at all the tiny cracks in the paint. Even the most perfect complexion was just a bunch of cloggy pores in a sea of dying skin, if you looked at it too closely.

Why would you want to? I’d settle for standing back and admiring the view.


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5 Responses to “321: At A Distance”

  1. pedestrian says:

    Gee whillickers Alexandra, how do you keep all these plotlines going? Just when I think I’ve assembled all the separate subtext you smack us with a fresh flurry of punches. punchlines? punch & judy?

    Current score: 0
  2. MadnessMaiden says:

    Definitely want to see how this plays out.

    @pedestrian: you saying “gee whillikers” made me read your entire post in that one character from Hey Arnold!’s voice. Was his name Sid?

    Current score: 0
  3. Erm says:

    “You know a dude got killed out in the storm?” she asked.

    “No,” I said. “Where’d you hear that?”

    “They brought him to the necro department to get identified,” she said. “It looked like ghouls got hold of him… don’t know if they killed him or just found the body, but he’d definitely been torn apart and eaten.”

    Yeah, I’m going with mermaid.

    Current score: 3
  4. Jechtael says:

    I almost laughed out loud in the middle of the barber’s shop waiting area at the image of Steff calling Mother Khaele “Mama *hgkhhh*”.

    Current score: 1