In Which A Plan Is Formulated
Amaranth’s face fell, the way only her face could… it was like the sun setting, only really quickly. It had to be kind of devastating to see, even to people who weren’t in love with her.
“Is everything okay?” Ian asked her.
“So far,” she said. “I need to talk to my Mack later, about something… but you guys have fun, okay?”
“About what?” I asked. As if I didn’t have enough to be worried about already without one more thing hanging over my head… well, okay, so it was probably statistically likely that what she wanted to talk to me about was just one of the things that was already hanging over my head. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing!” she said. “Nothing new, I mean… I just think that maybe we might want to have a talk with Ian about a few things, before… before tomorrow.”
“Before tomorrow?” Ian said. “That would be tonight.”
“I mean, before tomorrow night,” Amaranth said. “I want to talk to Mack about some things so that we can talk to you, probably sometime tomorrow during the day, before it’s too…morrow night.”
“Before it’s too ‘morrow night’ for what, exactly?” Ian asked.
“Nothing, probably!” Amaranth said. “Hopefully… probably. Almost definitely. But I don’t want to just blurt it all out, I need to talk to Mack about it first.”
“Wow, you all have some complicated lives,” Winnie said, and then she giggled nervously. I winced. I was getting a headache.
“Can you excuse us?” Ian said. “Mackenzie wanted to dance.”
“Oh, sure,” Amaranth said. “Please, go on… enjoy yourselves.”
We moved away from Winnie and her, but instead of putting his arms back around me, Ian said, “So what is it she wants to talk to me about, eventually?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Could be a couple of different things…”
“Oh, that’s good to know.”
“I don’t want to talk about anything right now,” I said. “I just want to dance, okay?”
As I said that, the nice slow love song that was playing hit a long sustained note and then faded away. A peppy faux-elven song with a fast crystal bell beat started playing… it wasn’t my kind of thing at all, but I tried moving my arms a little bit. Ian made a valiant effort to get into the groove, but his heart just wasn’t into it, and I was just not enough of a natural dancer to keep it up without someone to dance back at.
As we were not talking and I didn’t have anything else to distract me, my eyes took in the crowd. There was a group of girls… Argenti, or probably Argenti-Imperials… sitting on one of the couches by the nearer the edge of the dance area. They were wearing feathered and beaded masks and stylish dresses, like it was a real masquerade ball and not a Veil party full of college students.
I felt a twinge of envy… they’d obviously spent some time planning things out, and then selecting just the right masks and outfits to set them off. Ian had made a good effort at coming up with a costume, but it was cheap and gaudy and while that was very much in the spirit of the occasion I felt like if I’d just made a little effort a little earlier, I could have come up with something more… well, just something more.
I made up my mind not to leave it to the last minute, next time… whether “next time” was another costume party or whatever. I’d be ready.
They looked poised and confident… one wearing black just radiated the kind of cool self-assurance that normally left me feeling tiny and insignificant. Maybe I was maturing a little, but it didn’t bother me. If anything, I caught a little of it myself. I felt a bit less self-conscious and started moving a little bit more.
I felt kind of good… dancing felt kind of good, and it was better than standing there moping about stuff I couldn’t do a thing about at the moment. I had the weirdest flash of deja vu at that feeling, but it didn’t last long.
“Guess you caught the bug finally,” Ian said, as we both picked up the pace a little.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. I gave him a smile, raised my hands and shook my hips a little bit… it felt weird, but it must not have looked terrible because he moved in a little closer.
“Somebody slip you a potion?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I just… maybe it’s the fact that it’s Veil? It was my favorite when I was a kid. My mom said…” I trailed off, something connecting in my head. “I guess that’s it.”
“You guess what’s what?”
“Why I felt so good all of a sudden,” I said.
“Because it’s Veil?” he asked.
“No, because… well, it’s kind of silly,” I said.
“I just kind of feel like I did when I got home from school and I wasn’t feeling so great, but my mom would give me a smile and… well, it was hard to be sad around my mom. I don’t know if that makes any kind of sense.”
“Sure it does,” Ian said. “She was your mom.”
We danced our way through a few songs. People came and went, the occupants of the couch changed a couple of times, but eventually we’d moved out more towards the middle of the floor.
I was doing a pretty good job of avoiding looking at Puddy, but in doing so I caught sight of Trina and her body-painted friend, half-dancing next to each other while Trina ran her mouth… I really couldn’t understand the appeal of body paint, in a school full of glamour students. I might have supposed that Semele just plain didn’t know anyone who could glam her, but I thought Trina and Mariel were semi-tight. I couldn’t imagine she wouldn’t have tipped Gladys off.
And it was a lame costume. I might have been wearing a fur bikini, but at least I was something. She was just… naked and green and glittery. There was a whole crowd of guys dancing around her. Some of them weren’t even dancing, just standing there and ogling her.
“Who are you staring at?” Ian asked. He started to move around me.
“I’m just looking, not staring,” I said. “At Gladys, the painted girl… and don’t you look, she’ll think we’re staring.”
“Oh, we wouldn’t want that.”
“How come she gets all those guys hanging off her, anyway?” I asked.
“Do you want more guys hanging off you?” Ian replied.
“I mean, compared to Amaranth,” I said. I looked back over at her and saw that since we left her, she had attracted a guy or three, but they weren’t staring at her body with as much open interest as Gladys was attracting, and one of them actually seemed to be looking at Winnie for some reason. “When there’s a completely nude and incredibly gorgeous nymph around, why would anyone…”
“You’re doing it again,” Ian said. “Or maybe still.”
“Do you even know that girl?” he said. “Or are you just ragging on her because you don’t like her friend?”
“They don’t like me,” I said.
He stopped dancing and just stared at me.
“What?” I said.
“Mackenzie, I don’t mean to be… mean, but… did you have any friends in high school?”
“Yeah, everyone wanted to be friends with the cool demon girl,” I said. “I didn’t.”
“How about elementary school?”
“I don’t know, I guess I was just pretty much normal, I guess,” I said. “I wasn’t, you know, the super-popular one, but I kind of turned around the age that stuff gets really pronounced, anyway. But I had friends. School friends, anyway.”
“You were, what… nine when it happened?”
“Huh,” he said.
“Well, you kind of act like a third grader about this stuff sometimes,” he said. “I just wonder if maybe that’s got something to do with it.”
“You really think I act like a third grader?”
“Um… sometimes,” he said. “About certain things. Don’t get all mad…”
“I’m not all mad,” I said. “I’m hurt.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t be,” he said. “I’m not just saying this to be a dick, Mackenzie.”
“Yes, the fact that you really mean it makes it less hurtful,” I said.
“I just thought that maybe if I pointed out what you were doing, you could learn to recognize it when you do it yourself, and that could be the first step in, you know… not doing it,” he said.
“So now you’re trying to fix me?” I said.
“No,” he said. “I’m not that stupid. But I am stupid enough to think I can help you, if you want to fix yourself. Or, you know, make a personal improvement… maybe that’s a better way to put it.”
“Just answer me straight up,” I said. “Do you even like me?”
“I like you plenty, a lot of the time,” he said. “I’d like to like you more often. But what I’d really like is if you were…”
“If I were what, exactly?” I asked.
I didn’t know how to respond to that. Righteous anger had been ready as my default, but that wasn’t going to work.
“Mackenzie, I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have…”
“No,” I said. “You’re right. It isn’t fun being like that… I guess my first reaction is to defend whatever it is I’m doing, but if I stop and actually look at it, I’m not really proud of myself.” I sighed. It didn’t seem likely that I’d be able to recapture the same feeling I’d had before I spotted Trina. “Maybe I should go.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be proud… but you don’t have to beat yourself up over it, either,” Ian said. “I mean, punishing yourself for it isn’t going to change what happened… is it going to actually change anything next time?”
“I don’t know, I like to think that Amaranth’s helped me change some,” I said. “A little, anyway.”
“Okay, but does she do that by making you feel even shittier about yourself, or because she gives you something to aim for?” he asked. “Come on… this is your first Veil party as a grown-up.”
“So I should act like one?”
“So you should enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a party. Dance. Meet people
“You know what?” I said. “I think maybe part of the problem is that even here, even when I go out, I’m not really meeting new people. I mean, you try… but a big campus party, or the drama students on lunch hour… there’s too many people. I’m not good with big groups. So I don’t really connect with anyone.”
“Winnie tried to connect with you.”
“Yeah, well, Winnie bugs me,” I said. “And maybe that’s not her fault, and maybe it’s not fair to her, and maybe I’m a horrible person, but I can’t just turn off a dislike like that.”
“Semele tried to connect with you,” he said. He smiled a little.
“Semele sounded more interested in disconnecting with me,” I said. “Maybe… maybe next week, we should do something together with people. Not like this, going to a place where other people are, but… you know. An activity. You know?”
“Oh, sure, all the kids are doing activities these days,” Ian said. “It’s the hot new thing.”
“Smartass,” I said. “I mean something like that time we played cards, only, you know, pick people you actually like and not, you know, the people who happen to be in your dorm and are antisocial enough to not have anything else to do on the weekend.”
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll do that, and this time, you don’t get drunk and try to eat and/or have sex with anyone.”
“This is it,” I said. “We have concocted the best plan ever.”
We both had a good, only semi-awkward laugh at that… but somehow that seemed to make Winnie’s laugh at something unrelated cut across the dance floor and find my ear.
“Hey, can we just get out of here?” I said.
“What, you want to go back to your room already?”
“No, just for a bit,” I said.
“You mean go outside? Aren’t you going to be cold?”
“Probably, but I just really need to get out of here,” I said. “Not for long… probably just until the cold makes me miserable enough to forget why I left here.”
“Okay,” Ian said, looking around. “Amaranth has your coat?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Could you please go get it for me?”
“Um, yeah, I don’t see her,” he said. I looked over to see that Winnie was talking to Semele, who looked like she’d just got out of the shower. “I could go look for her if you want, but I wouldn’t look very hard because I’m afraid I’d find her.”
“Maybe we can just go hang out in the hallway,” I said… right as a group of latecomers let out a bunch of screams.
“Oh, that’ll be fun,” he said. “Listen, this is a dorm… there’s going to be lounges on the floors, if you want to go up and just sit down somewhere quieter.”
“But are we allowed to just…”
“Oh, don’t do that,” Ian said. “I’m sure if we looked really carefully in the rulebooks there would be some little thing about students who are residents of a hall and hours of visitation or whatever, but… they’re hosting a party. They know there are going to be people who don’t live here hanging around.”
“Okay,” I said. “I just… I don’t like feeling like I’m going out of bounds.”
“Well, if we get up there and see a sign with a skull-and-crossbones on it, we’ll know to turn back,” Ian said. “Or else, you know, proceed with a lot of caution.”