228: Too Great A Wait To Bear

on June 1, 2008 in Book 8

In Which Steff Attempts To Take Through Deception What Mackenzie Will Not Willingly Give

As usual, Sooni swished on over to my desk before our logic class started. She was smiling down at me, looking smug and utterly composed. I was reminded of the first time I’d seen her, when I’d been scrabbling around on the ground like an idiot with her looking down on me.

It seemed so long ago. I’d learned more than I cared to about her in the weeks since then, but that first impression had been powerful. Sure, she was a stupid silly, little girl who’d never grown up, but she’d put me in my place without even trying.

Today, she looked even taller somehow, if that was possible.

She was decked out in black, with a dress whose top looked like it was two scarves crossed over each other and slung under her breasts, lifting them up and leaving a good portion of her chest exposed. Her mountainous hair was done up in almost conservative fashion, with tight, thin braids piled into a beehive that was secured with black ribbon. It was still ridiculous, but it didn’t do as much to pull focus from her chest as some of the more outrageous hairstyles she’d worn.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” I asked when I realized I hadn’t heard her.

“I did not say anything,” she said. “I was waiting for you to wish me good luck.”

“What for?” I asked.

“Today is my first senate meeting,” Sooni said. “There will be a planning meeting with all the other senators from our hall and we are picking a leader to represent our delegation.”

“Don’t you think they’ll probably pick one of the second floor senators?” I asked.

“Why would they do that?” Sooni asked me.

“Because they’re seniors,” I said. She stared at me uncomprehendingly. “Because everybody else probably already knows them,” I elaborated. “Because they’ve got experience, you know… or maybe because they’ve earned it?”

“Well, what in the world does that have to do with anything?” Sooni asked, scowling.

I thought about how best to explain the concept of actual personal merit to somebody who’d evidently been insulated from it her whole life, then finally gave up and simply said, “Good luck, Sooni.”

“Thank you!” she said, and tottered back to her desk. I realized she’d traded her big wooden sandals for even taller black heels. The bottom of the dress clung to her legs instead of flaring out in a skirt like most of the things she wore. It did have a slit up the back for her tail, and the hemline was still ludicrously high.

“Good luck, Sooni,” Maliko said as Sooni took her seat. “I just know that you are going to be chosen.”

“What do you know about it?” Sooni said.

Maliko glared over her shoulder at me right until the beginning of class, and kept shooting looks back at me whenever the teacher’s back was turned. It was like high school. Or elementary school.

Well, the curved magical sword Maliko wore on her back made it a little different… but I’d survived scarier fights in my weeks at the university. I wasn’t afraid of an overgrown pussycat with a sycophantic crush who was too stupid to understand that I had absolutely no interest in spending an entire night worshiping Sooni with my tongue, or something unspeakably gross like that.

Immediately after lunch, it had seemed like a vast gulf of time stretched out between me and my appointment with Viktor. Now that I only had two classes to go, I wondered why I’d been so desperate to fill that void. How was I supposed to focus on spell layering and contingent linking with a brooding half-ogre hanging over my head? I’d been all stoic and noble when Steff had spoken of taking my place, but now I was starting to think about what that actually meant.

Though I’d still take the punishment without hesitation if it meant a chance to be with her, my mind was starting to try to imagine how bad it could get. I thought about real pain: me hurting my foot on the protection circle, Tyler signing me into submission in a panic, Iona latching onto my crotch with her teeth, Gloria jamming a phantasmal sword blade through my heart…

Was that it? Would Viktor have a mockbox? He could kill me over and over again, cut me to pieces… the ones we used in weapons class only did momentary wounds and pain, but the more complex models used for skirmish matches could convey the appearance and sensation of dismemberment.

If he had the necessary contacts to get his hands on one of those, I could be in for a very long night. As far as I knew, he was going to honor my blacklist, but “no phantom dismemberments” wasn’t on it.

Or would he simply use brute strength? With his muscles and my invulnerability, it was hard to imagine how a mockery could inflict more pain than he might with his bare hands and feet.

He could always decide to go for something more… intricate, though. Ogres as a culture considered torture to be the highest art form. Viktor personally eschewed it in favor of more uplifting forms of personal expression, but he couldn’t have grown to adulthood without learning a few tricks.

If he was willing to inflict actual injury, there were any number of things he could do with blessed items or magic weapons. Of course, there were some circumstances in which holy water or symbols would spontaneously “unholy” rather than allowing themselves to be used for unseemly ends, but I wasn’t sure that tormenting a half-demon would count regardless of the motivations or subtexts involved.

Holy water…

I shuddered, my hands gripping the sides of the desk as if for support. A spasm in my spine almost tore the top of the desk off.

It was unbearable, not knowing what was coming. Part of me hoped that I’d show up and he’d tell me that this had been my torture, but the rest of me knew that was ridiculous.

This was only part of the torture.

It didn’t seem like I was learning anything during that logic class, except that Maliko’s death glares seemed to grow more and more impotent the longer I spent trying to guess at Viktor’s plans for me.

Steff said she’d been “practicing.” Did they have specialized implements tucked away somewhere in that lair-like dorm room? Did the time out box have other functions I hadn’t managed to discover during my time in it?

There was a thought. Would Viktor enlist Steff into the punishment in order to try to teach her a lesson? That seemed unlikely. She’d wanted to “play” with me for a long time, and she knew how to get me excited effortlessly. If he was serious about making me suffer, he wouldn’t risk letting her turn it into a game.

The class dragged on forever, and then it was over far too quickly. I wanted to dawdle on the way to the history building, though I knew that the speed at which I arrived would have no effect whatsoever on the orderly progression of time for the rest of the afternoon.

When I got there, Steff grabbed me in the hallway… literally. Her hand shot out of the alcove in front of a darkened classroom and I had a moment of flashback to Belinda’s ambush before I realized who it was that had snagged me. She dragged me through the open door, shutting it soundlessly behind her.

“Fuck, Steff, I don’t know if I’m safe from heart attacks,” I said, shaking uselessly with nervous energy. I could hear my pulse thudding in my ears. “As if I’m not keyed up badly enough, worrying about what’s to come…”

“Yeah, that’s, um, what I wanted to tell you,” she said. Her eyes were darting around the dark room, as if she expected to see somebody sneaking up on us. “You can actually quit worrying. Viktor… well, he sort of called it off.”

“What?” I asked.

“Viktor called it off,” she said.

I didn’t take in the words. My mind wanted to assign some terribly horrific meaning to them, and wasn’t finding one.

“Say that again?”

“He said forget about it,” Steff said. “You don’t have to come over or anything.”

Relief flooded through my… well, actually it felt like it drained out from below my stomach and flooded my pants. Fortunately my nature meant that this was a strictly metaphorical flooding, but that’s what it felt like.

“Are you serious?” I asked, wondering if the afternoon of waiting actually had been the torture after all… or maybe if the whole thing had been a test. Steff offering to take my place could have been part of it… and when I said I’d go through with it…

“Yes,” Steff said quickly, nodding. A bell went off in my head. “You can just go find Amaranth, or go to the library or something. Have fun.”

I looked at her. She didn’t look relieved or happy. She looked desperate… more desperate and even hungrier than ever. She needed to be believed.

I don’t know a lot about the mechanics of lying effectively, but if you’re telling somebody what they most want to hear in the world, then looking like you need them to believe it is probably a bad idea.

“I don’t believe you,” I said.

“No, really, he said you’re free,” she said. “He doesn’t care. Honest!”

“Steff, you’re lying,” I said. “You’re trying to take the punishment. He said it had to be my choice, remember?”

“Aren’t you listening?” she asked, her voice cracking. “There is no punishment. It’s over.” She hiccupped. “It’s… it’s…” The dam broke, and she fell against me, sobbing. I remembered to put my arms around her after a second or two. She just broke down so quickly that it caught me off guard.

“Steff, we’re going to be okay,” I said. “I promise.”

“You can’t promise that,” she sobbed. “You don’t know.”

“I don’t,” I agreed. “But… if he says you can’t see me, we’ll work on it. I can talk to him. Amaranth can talk to him. There’s a lot of school year left. We’ll work it out.”

“It’s pointless,” Steff said.

“It’s not,” I said. “I’m not giving up on you. Why are you giving up on me?”

“I’m not,” Steff said. “But it’s over… let me do this one last thing for you. Let me do one thing right.”

“You do plenty right,” I said. That had to be right. She made me smile and she made me excited. She was my friend. Could I think of any specific examples, though? “You made me and Amaranth talk after our big fight, and that was after I said all your friends…”

“Yeah, I remember what you said,” Steff said. Nothing cut through tears like a bit of ire. She wiped her eyes and gave her hair a toss. “You… you’re really going to do this, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I said I would. I don’t want to…”

“Let me, then!”

“I don’t want to, but I said I would,” I said. “And like I said, I’m not giving up.”

“I really don’t deserve you,” Steff said.

“Nobody does,” I said. “But they keep inflicting me on themselves, anyway.”

She tried not to laugh at this, and ended up snorting hard instead. She grabbed her nose.

“Ow,” she said. “That was painful.”

“We should get to class,” I said. I saw the idea on her face before she’d even opened her mouth. “I’m not skipping, so don’t ask. When Viktor gives the okay for us to date, I think Amaranth and you need to sit down and talk about my blacklist and what it means.”

“I know what it means,” she said defensively. “I was the one who told you about it.”

“My classes are important because I care about my future,” I said. “That’s the same reason I have to go through with this thing. I want that future to include you.”

“Okay, let’s go, then,” Steff said. “Before you get any cheesier.” She gave a weak laugh, but there were still tears in her eyes and she was still shaking with the occasional sob.

She didn’t get any more composed after we sat down in the classroom, and by the time Professor Hart came in, she had her face in her hands and she looked like she was shivering uncontrollably, she was shaking so much.

The professor took one look at her, and then looked down at the papers on his desk. “Miss Steff, you are excused,” he said. The abruptness of the remark was stunning, like a physical blow. He didn’t even look up at her as he said… he just sat there, shuffling his papers. “Get the notes from somebody. Thank you.”

I expected Steff to protest this dismissal, but she simply nodded and put her book and sketchpad back in her bag. I tried to say something to urge her on, some word of support, but nothing came. She got to her feet and headed towards the back of the room while Professor Hart calmly arranged his notes.

“Hey!” I said, finding my voice as Steff shuffled out into the hall.

The professor ignored me.

“Hey!” I repeated, getting to my feet. “I’m talking to you.” I could feel hot anger rising up within me. Couldn’t Hart tell that Steff was suffering? How could he be such a heartless jerk to her when she was crying?

He looked up at me. I’d started to step around the desk, but his eyes fixed me to the spot.

“That’s ‘Hey, I am talking to you, Professor’, if you please,” he said.

“She’s on a potion for her emotions,” I said.

“I am aware of Miss Steff’s status,” Hart said. “And now, so is the entire class. Thank you so very much for that, and now please either join her or retake your seat.” I stared at him in disbelief, but he was apparently serious… and done talking to me. “To continue where we left off Friday, the most contentious issue facing the revolutionary government was the power of taxation and with whom it should reside. There were two competing… don’t forget to get the notes,” he said as I headed for the door. “Two competing factions, one led by…”

I didn’t have to go far to catch up to Steff. She’d simply kept walking straight ahead as she came out of the classroom and leaned against the opposite door, which appeared to lead to a class in session. I gently pulled her off of it and turned her around, holding her until her sobbing slowed.

“Come on,” I said. “I don’t want to put this off any longer.”

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One Response to “228: Too Great A Wait To Bear”

  1. Leila says:

    Poor, oblivious Mack, she always did have trouble picking up on when people are actually trying to help.

    Current score: 6