338: Half Empty, Half Full

on January 5, 2009 in Book 12

In Which Amaranth Takes The Cake

“Steff!” Amaranth said. “Are you okay? What happened to your jacket?”

“What?” Steff said. She lifted her arm listlessly and looked at the shredded sleeve. “Oh… I don’t know?”

I had a pretty good idea. It wasn’t torn, but cut, over and over again in different directions. Which meant probably she hadn’t made it back to the necromancy building before she’d had the urge to do something bigger than scratch her palms with the vampiric knife.

“You did put it back, right?” I asked her.

“Huh? Oh, yeah… of course I did,” Steff said. I honestly couldn’t tell if she was lying or not, because she was saying everything in the same tiny, tired voice. “Definitely.”

“Where have you been?” Amaranth asked. “We’ve all been worried sick over you.”

“Oh, that must be what it was,” Hazel said. “I’m a champion worrier.”

“I’m fine,” Steff said. “I just sort of… lost track of time. I’m not too late to kiss the birthday girl, am I?”

“It isn’t my birthday,” Two said. “I wasn’t born. But you aren’t too late to kiss me. There isn’t a time limit on that.”

Steff stared at her, confused. It seemed like Two had just thrown too much at her for her to handle at one time.

This looked really bad to me. Whatever Steff had done with the knife, it wasn’t in her hands anymore, so it clearly wasn’t a case of simple fascination distracting her. Even taking into account the emotional whirlwind that Steff had been going through, it seemed like there had to be more going on.

It hit me that if the knife was in fact evil and not just sketchy-looking and with a questionable enchantment on it, it would likely extract a cost from the wielder or the victim for the use of its mystical powers.

“Go to her, hon,” Amaranth said, nudging Steff towards an expectant and increasingly alarmed-looking Two who didn’t understand why she was hesitating to give their ritualized greeting.

Finally, Steff went over to her, tripping a bit on the leg of a chair, and with a little prompting from Two, she did the required hug and double-kiss.

“Happy, um, party,” Steff said.

“Happy party to you, too!” Two said.

Amaranth looked at me, worrying her lower lip between her teeth. I just nodded. Steff flaking out a bit wasn’t so weird, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing Steff stumble like that, even a little bit.

“Dude, what the hell has Steff been quaffing?” Celia asked.

“She has… issues,” Amaranth said.

“No kidding.

“But she’s getting help for them,” Amaranth added.

“She should get more.”

“Hey, she didn’t spend a couple days petrified,” I said.

“What I do with my downtime is my business,” Celia said.

“You’re going to pretend that you did that on purpose?” I asked.

“It’s so damn boring here,” she said. “Why not be a rock if nothing else is going on?”

“You could always take part in activities with the rest of us,” Amaranth said. “We do appreciate your company, you know.”

“What? Watch TV? Play dress-up with the ear brigade? Fuck everything that moves? Play with little stone dolls?” Celia said.

“Well, what did you do for fun where you came from?”

“I hiked,” she said. “Explored the canyons. Collected rocks.”

“You could go hiking around here,” Amaranth said. “There are some trails in the forest.”

Celia shuddered visibly.

“What?” I asked.

“There wasn’t that much green stuff around where I come from,” she said. “Anyway, it’s too damn cold to be outside for long now.”

“No kidding,” I said. “I’m not looking forward to the snow. When I applied here, I was thinking since it was kind of in the middle of everything, from north to south, that it wouldn’t be too cold in the winter but it also wouldn’t be too intolerant about stuff… turns out it just means I get both cold and intolerance.”

“Oh, well, I can’t speak about the south and tolerance, but I can tell you the autumn has been much more mild so far than it would have been further north,” Amaranth said. “Actually, I’m surprised at how fast it’s been passing me by… the fall’s always been my ‘busy season’ back home. I mean, the time of year when there’s a lot of extra stuff going on. I do most of my regular work in the spring and the summer, then fall was festival season, and then winter was the closest thing I had to downtime. There was the solstice observance, but other than that… well, cold always bothered the humans a lot more than it did me, and with my field hibernating I always had energy to spare. As much as I love my work, I always looked forward to winter.”

“Not me,” I said. “Only thing I ever liked about winter was Khersentide and, of course, the break from school… and I only had a few Khersens I can really remember before I ended up with my grandmother.” I felt a flush of irritation at the memories that were being stirred. “Anyway, what are we going to do about Steff?”

“Well… I don’t know what we can do, except keep an eye on her and be here for her. She’s already seeing a mental healer, isn’t she?” Amaranth said. “I… um… I don’t think we need to try to do their job for them, you know? I think it’s just possible that we could make things worse. Anyway, don’t you think it’s kind of a good sign? I mean, obviously she must have had a pretty strong impulse for hurting herself, but she didn’t give vent to it until she found something that could do it without lasting harm.”

Apparent lasting harm,” I said.

“Yeah, uh, I’m not really clear on what you mammals do or don’t have going on in the sensory department, but it seems pretty damn apparent to me,” Celia said. “The elf thing smells about half-dead.”

“Uh, that’s probably because she’s been in the necromancy department,” I said. “Some of the stuff she does is pretty… hands on.”

“Yeah, among other things,” Celia said. “I don’t mean she smells like dead bodies. She’s always got that taste swirling around her. I mean she’s got the scent of somebody who is half-dead on her. Not sick. Not hurt. Death. It’s got a flavor of its own.”

“So, there’s nothing wrong with her but she’s almost dead anyway?” I asked.

“No, there’s something wrong with her and she’s half-dead,” Celia said.

I looked over at Steff, who was very visibly leaning on Two for support as she showed her the deck of cards. A little movement caught the corner of my eye and I saw Iona, drifting over towards them with a casual look on most of her face that did nothing to hide the hungry gleam in her eyes. I seriously doubted it was the buttercream frosting that was drawing her in like that.

Whatever Celia’s tongue could pick up, so could Iona’s nose.

“We should get over there,” I said, hurrying towards the table before Amaranth had started her response.

“Good idea,” she said. “I feel weird, standing here and talking about her.”

“Look at what Steff made for me, Mack,” Two said, holding up one of the cards. “It’s okay to look at them,” she added. “They’re only orders if you’re reading them for one.”

“Nice,” I said, looking at a card that said “draw on the back of your hand”, and had a picture of a slim hand with neat little fingernails and an elaborate pattern of vines and leaves drawn on it. Steff’s elven heritage wasn’t as easy to leave behind as she liked to pretend, it seemed.

“They are just silly little doodles,” Two said. “But I think they are very good silly little doodles.”

“I think you’re right,” Amaranth said.

Iona had sidled up alongside Steff, on the other side from Two. Two turned towards her.

“You look hungry,” she said. “Would you like a piece of cake?”

“I could just kill a piece of cake,” Iona replied, her eyes locked on Steff, who didn’t seem to notice.

“Oh, you don’t have to kill it,” Two said, holding out a plate with a piece of cake on it, which Iona ignored. “It was never alive. Only the wheat and the sugar ever were.”

“So, Steff, have you talked to Viktor?” I asked. “He was looking for you, you know.”

“He was?” Steff said. “Oh, shit… I hope he’s not mad.”

“I think he’ll just be glad that you’re okay,” Amaranth said. “We got worried when you didn’t show, that’s all.”

“Sorry,” Steff said. “I just… I got wrapped up in stuff.”

“Have you ever met Steff’s boyfriend, Iona?” I asked. “I mean, you guys are the same year and all.”

“Don’t think so,” Iona said, still looking at Steff. “What’s he like?”

“He’s pretty much the last person on campus you’d want to have pissed at you,” I said.

“That a fact?” Iona said, leaning in towards Steff like she was being pulled.

Apparently, my aim with subtle hints was about as good as my aim with thrown daggers, because Steff burst into tears.

“Shit, Mack, I didn’t mean to get everybody worried,” she said. “I was just… I was having…”

“I didn’t mean you,” I said quickly, but it was too late. Steff turned and collapsed against Two, who hugged her tightly without understanding or reservation, her face as blank and neutral a mask as it ever had been. She tried vainly to put the plate with the cake on it down without releasing Steff from the clench. Amaranth took it and put it on the table.

“Oh, you’re all worked up,” Iona said, putting her hand on Steff’s shoulder and tugging her away. “You know what you need? Fresh air. A little walk around campus.”

“You aren’t supposed to go out after dark without a reason,” Two said.

“Oh, we’ll be fine,” Iona said.

I tried to figure out what to say to get Iona to back off without starting a panic… at this point, I was more concerned with that than with preserving her secret for its own sake. I’d kept my mouth shut about what the mermaids had done in their own lands, but if Iona couldn’t keep her predatory nature in check she wasn’t going to be my top priority.

Feejee intervened before I could, though. She put her hand on Iona’s arm and pulled her away from Steff.

“Come on, Io,” she said. She gave me an apologetic look and a “can you believe this?” eye roll. “Maybe we should take that walk.”

“Wow,” Steff said, sniffling and drying her eyes. “First Feejee and you, then Iona takes after me… I wouldn’t have expected the merms to be so hot to trot.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “I think we’re going to have to have a talk about that.” I looked at Two. “Possibly all of us.”

“I’ll be looking forward to that,” Ian said, drifting in a little closer.

The rest of the human guests were kind of watching us with half-concealed interest. I wondered what it looked it like through their eyes. From Hazel’s nausea to the conversation about her possible pregnancy through this, it had to be strange being on the edge of so much drama and not understanding it.

Either that or they were just staring at the weird Harlowe kids and I was badly overestimating how interesting our little lives were.

“Hey, come on, isn’t this a party?” Hazel said again. “The fishfolks may have floated off early, but there’s still plenty of food and I’m waiting for a challenger on the darts.”

With a little more cajoling on her part, things settled down and people started eating and talking and playing again. I hung close to Steff, but she seemed to be doing alright. She wasn’t getting any weaker or more out of it or anything, and half-dead was still half-alive. People probably came back from worse.

It was only as the party wore on that I realized the mermaids weren’t the only ones who’d left. Honey and Dee had both slipped out at some point. I asked Amaranth and Ian if they’d seen either of them leaving, but of course, they hadn’t.

Thinking back, it seemed like I hadn’t seen Dee since Steff stumbled in. The two facts didn’t have to be related, necessarily, but considering Dee’s harsh judgment on Steff’s behavior, it wasn’t impossible to think that the animosity she’d once felt towards Steff might have been rekindled a little.

In any event, the party could hardly be said to have come off without a hitch, but there was cake and there was good food and Two was happy. It hadn’t been an unmitigated disaster. Nobody had ended up in the healing center. Nobody had got arrested. There hadn’t been any screaming arguments. The metaphorical glass could hardly be said to be full, but I wasn’t about to complain.

I supposed that was what I’d have to call a “pretty good night”.

And, as I listened to Hazel explaining about sleepover parties to Two, I realized it had nowhere to go but up.

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One Response to “338: Half Empty, Half Full”

  1. Kanta says:

    “And, as I listened to Hazel explaining about sleepover parties to Two, I realized it had nowhere to go but up.”
    Oh dear sweet Nyarlarthotep, they are all going to die, and Steff won’t even get to watch.

    Current score: 4