In Which, The Town Is Named
The school contracted with a local coach service to provide automated transportation to and from town… probably to compensate for the general remoteness of the grounds. There was no fee… we just had to have our student IDs in hand when we entered the carriage. I had resolved to stop trying to catch Amaranth in the act of pulling her possessions out from where ever they went when she wasn’t using them, and I think I technically succeeded… though I still kind of watched carefully to try to pinpoint the exact moment so I could be sure I hadn’t looked.
Steff, in her second year at the university, was an old hand at the public conveyances, for which I was grateful. I’m the sort of person who likes to know how things work… and maybe a little bit too easily intimidated when I don’t. Watching Steff stride confidently up to the open door, take out her card, and clamber inside, I was able to do the same. Left to my own devices, I probably would have dithered about until the coach left.
When it came to things like enchanted vehicles, I may have been inquisitive… but not adventurous.
“I’m glad we got one to ourselves,” Steff said. “You know, these things are officially supposed to seat twelve? Believe me, you do not want to be on one when it’s at capacity… you’ll probably end up sitting in somebody’s lap.”
She directed the last comment at me, in an obvious sort of way, and I managed to avoid looking away even as I blushed… despite having a six-person bench all to ourselves, I was sitting on Amaranth’s lap.
“So,” Amaranth said to Steff. “Did you ever hear how the lunar landscape that the circle was working on turned out?”
“Oh, that,” Steff said, a little sourly. “Not so good. They couldn’t actually get the moon in focus… some flaw in the alignment of the lenses, Prevailingwind thinks.”
“Is it really surprising that they couldn’t get it in focus?” I asked, trying to keep my voice neutral. “I mean, if the moon really is eleventy billion miles away, or whatever… wouldn’t that make it harder?”
Steff gave me a sharp look, but she forced her face back to pleasant and said, “That shouldn’t matter.”
“Or maybe it’s just the fact that the moon is part of the vault of the heavens and not governed by earthly laws,” I said. “Like I said at the…”
“Oh, let’s not talk about what you said at the circle meeting, please” Amaranth said icily, dislodging me sideways onto the bench.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, feeling unbelievably stupid.
Steff was a member of the local Mechan circle. Amaranth–despite being intelligent and very well-read–harbored strongly scientific leanings. I enjoyed fantasy as much as the next person, and had actually gone through a bit of a phase when I was younger… “the power of scientific reasoning”, and all that crap, you know? But to actually believe that stuff as an adult… or as a college-age kid, anyway… well, the ridiculously superior manner of some of the Mechans had made me blow my top, and made Amaranth think I hated her in the process.
To say it had not been a fun evening would be an epic level understatement.
“Well, at least you guys made up,” Steff said brightly. “I want details on that, by the way.”
Amaranth was better at the whole exposition thing than I was, and so it was easier to let her tell the story of how I’d come to her and apologized, and we’d ended up reaffirming and strengthening our relationship… or, depending on how you looked at it, her ownership of me… with a series of strict ground rules and commands which I had been more than happy to obey.
Though, I think she could have done without reciting each of the rules in turn… and I really wished she would have left out the part where I showed her my Mecknight toys. I knew perfectly well that Steff, like all reasonable people over the age of twelve other than me, considered the show to be “utter shit.” Sure enough, she snorted with derision at the mention of the enaction figures.
“So, I still would have rather not had Mack yelling her head off about how stupid everybody else was,” Amaranth said, pulling me close once again. “And I hope she realizes there will be serious consequences if she ever does something like that again… but, all in all, I think it turned out for the best. It helped us reach a sort of new plane, you know?”
“Sounds that way,” Steff said. “But… um… did you maybe forget something? “
“Hmm,” Amaranth said, biting the corner of her lip while she considered it. “No… no, I really think I covered everything. Or at least everything that’s come up so far or is likely to come up soon, anyway.” She broke out into a broad grin. “I think I did a pretty good job, all things considered.”
“With your rules, maybe,” Steff said. “How about Mack’s boundaries?”
“Well, obviously she… oh!” Amaranth said, her eyes going wide. She jumped away from me like she’d been shocked, and looked at me, her face frantic. “Oh! I can’t believe… I didn’t… I mean, have I… did I do anything…?”
“Amaranth, that was just last night,” I reminded her, in what I hoped was a calm and reassuring voice… though I deeply suspected it sounded like I was lecturing her. “After dinner, you just kind of bossed me around a little and then you went… you know, to work, and then I came to your room this morning.”
“Oh, right,” she said, a little more calmly. “Well… we should probably go ahead and get this worked out now, just to be safe.”
“I agree,” Steff said. “This is really important… no offense, but I think you guys have let it go too long already.”
“So, what?” I asked. “Am I supposed to… list everything I don’t want Amaranth to do?”
“Well, it’s also about what you don’t want to do yourself,” Steff said.
The problem was that we were talking about actions that I had always considered to be more or less unthinkable… and if you can’t bring yourself to even think about something, how can you possibly talk about it?
“Can’t I… can’t I just, you know, make a list?” I asked.
“That’s the idea,” Steff said.
“I mean, in writing,” I said. “I… um… that just might be easier.”
“That’s not a bad thought, actually,” Amaranth said thoughtfully. “I mean, I’d hate to misinterpret something, later on… having it down in writing might make it easier all around. I’ve got a notebook and pen…”
“Um, I think I need some time to think about it,” I said.
“You know, just as a suggestion?” Steff said. “Given your level of… um… squeamishness? You could start by listing the things you’re sure you would be comfortable with… that’d probably take less time. Call that the ‘white list’. And then, you can make a ‘black’ list with stuff you’re dead sure you wouldn’t like. Anything white, Amy’ll do unrestricted… anything black, she won’t even suggest… and anything on neither list is gray, meaning she’ll get consent beforehand.”
“That’s good,” Amaranth said, nodding. “That’s really good. Can you do that, Mack?”
“I… I think so,” I said, though my mind and heart were both racing. The idea of the white list was in its own way even more frightening than coming up with everything I didn’t want to do. What did I like?
“See, that way, you guys don’t get bogged down playing ‘are you sure, are you really really sure’ when it’s something you love, like spanking,” Steff said. I didn’t really like spanking. I just need it, sometimes, but I didn’t correct her, because I realized it would have to go on the white list, anyway. “And you also don’t have to worry about being pressured to do something you know you don’t want, like letting Amy lick your asshole.”
“What, you told her about that?” I asked Amaranth, not sure if I was more aghast at this betrayal of confidence, or at the fact that I was having a conversation with the phrase “lick your asshole” in it. To the extent that something like that even had to be thought about at all, I preferred to think of it in terms of a euphemism.
“Well, yeah,” Amaranth said, in a mostly matter-of-fact and only very slightly defensive tone. “I always tell Barley everything.” There was a brief pause, during which she obviously realized what she had said. She turned very white, and then turned to Steff said, a little shakily, “So, of course, I tell you everything, now, too.”
“This is the kind of thing you guys need to talk about,” Steff said, glossing over Amaranth’s slip, though there was an odd, almost hurt look on her face. “Mack, you obviously consider that kind of thing private, but Amy…”
“I’m just not a private person,” she said, shrugging. “I’m sorry, but I’m not.”
“I think this is the sort of thing that’s ultimately got to be Mack’s decision,” Steff said. “I mean, it involves you both, so if you can’t agree, default to caution.”
I felt both sets of their eyes turn towards me, but I tried to focus on my own thoughts instead of their expectations. I decided that it had been the bluntness of Steff’s wording that had shocked me more than anything else. I didn’t like being embarrassed… mostly. I did like making Amaranth happy.
“You can tell,” I said, finally. I found that even saying it, even opening up the future possibility of having my secrets laid bare was filling me with the odd tingly excitement I was starting to feel sometimes–not always, but sometimes–when I was flushed with embarrassment. “You can tell what I like… what we do.”
“She can tell me, or she can tell everybody?” Steff pressed.
“Anybody,” I said, dropping my gaze. The heat in my cheeks seemed to be taking on physical weight. “Anybody she wants.”
“We don’t have to work this all out now,” Amaranth said quietly, pulling me onto her lap. I think she said that as a concession to me, as I’d pleased her with my answers.
The thought that I had pleased her made me happy, and I murmured, “Yes, ma’am,” appreciatively.
“But, in the mean time, maybe we should go over the limits that she has set,” Steff said to Amaranth. “Because you can use those as a sort of base-line… not that kink flows in a straight line, obviously, but if you generally try to stay on the tamer side of the things you know she doesn’t like, you guys should be fine.”
“Okay,” Amaranth said. “Well, let’s see… there’s no spanking in public, no sex with anybody but me… um…”
“Ooh! She doesn’t like having her pussy touched, remember?” Steff said helpfully.
“Well, I don’t know,” Amaranth said reflectively. “I’ve brushed it a couple times without comment, and she seemed to like it… sweetie, would you say you don’t want to be touched, or just not penetrated?”
By the time she got to the part of the sentence which directly addressed me, I felt ready to burst into flame. It was only the fact that I was pressed up against Amaranth that stopped me, I think.
“I… I don’t think we should talk about this stuff in front of Two,” I said.
“Oh, you and your reasons,” Amaranth said. “Two doesn’t mind us talking about pussies and things. Two, tell Mack that you don’t mind.”
Two turned to address me, but I saw her eyes flick back and forth from Amaranth to me a couple times before answered, “I don’t mind.”
I figured that, in that pause, she’d been taking what Amaranth had said and turning it into a question inside her head. Amaranth meant well, but she was frequently careless in how she addressed Two, and I’d told the golem to mentally rephrase any commands from Amaranth the way she thought I would have given them.
It was actually kind of a perfect illustration of Two’s plight, that she was intelligent enough to do something like that… but unable to simply use that intelligence on her own behalf.
“See?” Amaranth said, beaming. “She doesn’t mind.”
“Except…” Two said, each of the two syllables coming out of her mouth grudgingly, as if they had to fight their way past her teeth, and then it seemed like she’d reached some internal limit.
“‘cept what?” Steff prompted gently.
Two looked at Amaranth and me.
“Except… is it… is it still me minding if I’m minding on somebody else’s behalf?” Two asked.
“Well, what do you mean, honey?” Amaranth asked.
“If it makes Mack uncomfortable to discuss it in front of me and I would not like for her to be uncomfortable because of me, is that still the same thing as me minding?” Two asked in a torrent, like she was trying to shove as many words as possible out through a very small window.
“Oh, honey, it doesn’t really make Mack uncomfortable,” Amaranth said. “Just… flustered, a little, but that’s okay. Sometimes, she likes to be flustered, you know?”
“Sometimes,” I said. I was having the same difficulty getting the words out as Two had when she first spoke up… both because I didn’t like to admit that yes, sometimes getting all hot and bothered did get me all… hot and bothered, and because I didn’t like to contradict Amaranth. Or maybe because she didn’t like to be contradicted. Or maybe they were the same thing. “But, I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about this stuff in front of Two, and that makes me really uncomfortable.”
“Oh,” Amaranth said, her voice distinctly tinged with disappointment. She quickly said, with forced cheeriness, “Well, that’s okay. I’m glad you told me.”
I saw that Two was inclined slightly forward, an expectant look on her face, and I realized that nothing we had said had actually given her a concrete answer.
“To answer your question, Two,” I said. I paused while I thought about how to turn this into a useful general principle. Realizing that would take a lot of careful thought to avoid trapping her in an unfortunate behavior, I simply answered her as it applied to the immediate situation. “Yes… even if you only mind something because you don’t want to make me feel uncomfortable, that’s still the same thing as you minding it.”
“Then, yes, I’m afraid I do mind talk about pussies and things,” she said to Amaranth.
“Oh, okay,” Amaranth said. “Well… we’ll just… talk about something else, then, I guess.”
I was still turning the larger problem over in my head. I could tell Two to take into account the feelings of her friends when faced with a decision, but… well, she was already beyond deferential by nature. It wouldn’t do to increase Two’s autonomy if it only made her autonomously servile. I remembered when Two legitimately got the last slice of chocolate cake at lunch… she’d prepared herself to surrender it the moment Steff had expressed interest.
Also, there was the problem of how one defined “friends”… I was pretty sure Two could figure out who was and wasn’t her friend on her own, but couldn’t somebody come along and order her to accept them as her friend and nobody else? Then, there was the matter of exactly how much weight she should give a friend’s feelings, compared to her own.
I mean, an ordinary person could work those things out for themselves without even thinking about it.
Or so the theory went.
I started to hope that our ride was almost over, because the conversation grew somewhat stilted after that. Amaranth and Steff’s two favorite topics were sex and science, and they were steering clear of both of those. They ended up talking about fashion, of which Steff knew an awful lot and Amaranth was eager to learn more. From there, the discussion turned to the subject of me and what they had in mind for the dance that night. Steff made a number of suggestions which I thought were pretty obviously jokes, but… just to make sure… I made myself speak up.
“You know,” I said, “this is… well, it’s kind of like my first real date. With a boy, I mean… or kind of… period, even.”
“We know, sweetie,” Amaranth said, kissing me on the side of the head.
“It’s just… I want it to be a date,” I said. “Not some… weird… submissive… thing.”
The words didn’t sound any less harsh or judgmental to me for the fact that they would have been harshly judging myself, and I felt ashamed as soon as I’d said it. Nobody said anything about that, though.
“Oh, Mack! We’re just goofing around,” Steff said. “We won’t send you out looking anything other than respectfully fabulous, I promise.”
“Do you promise?” I asked Amaranth desperately, feeling like a child.
“With my heart and soul, I do,” she said, with so much sincerity that I had no idea what to say next. Any response would have sounded unbelievably lame.
I didn’t need to say anything, though… for the coach had just rounded the edge of the forest, and out the window we–at least we freshmen–got our first glimpse of the great walled town of Enwich.