You’re eighteen years old.
You’ve never had a girlfriend… never had a boyfriend, if we get right down to it, though you’ve never really been sure if the thoughts you have about boys mean anything, since you’re supposed to think about boys… and now you’ve been at college for all of like negative two days and a girl blatantly makes a pass at you.
Sure, she’s clearly rebounding from a previous relationship and she has issues, but… still…
Still… you’re standing alone in a bathroom, talking to yourself instead of going after her.
At least you aren’t talking out loud.
Okay, that part might have been.
“Stop it,” I say, definitely out loud, and then I’m bursting through the door with purpose. The straight view down the hallway to the glass front of the lounge where the meeting with literally everyone else on the floor is breaking up kind of blunts the edge of that purpose, but I recover pretty quickly. No one was paying attention.
I used to have a huge problem with feeling like all eyes were on me, especially the first time I went back to school after my turning, because for a while it was true… and afterwards, I could never hear a whisper or giggle without wondering if it was about me. Of course, giggling and whispering are major parts of the social curriculum at an elementary school, so the choices were either get over it quickly or run away and hide forever.
Though, I never actually got over it… the instinct to simultaneously imagine and fear scrutiny is still there. I just push past it.
Which is what I do now.
Anyway, there’s no sense in just charging after her. It would be real impressive if I went crashing down the stairs after her and ended up falling on my face. I don’t have to worry about breaking my neck, but my pride is as susceptible to injury as anyone else’s.
Also, invulnerability to injury isn’t the same thing as invulnerability to pain. And I wouldn’t admit this out loud while I’m trying to be cool, but pain hurts.
Why am I so sure that Alea’s gone down the stairs and not just retreated to her room? It didn’t really register as significant at the time, but was wearing her cloak when she appeared in the mirror… she’d taken it off before the meeting, which meant she ducked into her room to slip it on, which meant she intended to go out.
Well… that, and it’s hard for me to imagine she wanted me to follow her to her room.
I’ve never even had a girlfriend…
I push that aside. I can sort out how I feel about Alea… and how she feels about me, which is something equally important… later. The thing about following someone you can’t actually see is that the farther ahead you let them get, the less like following it becomes and the more like looking.
I take the guess that she will have gone out the front of the building, if not through the sunken patio off Harlowe’s basement or through the front end of the Nexus. Why? Because it slopes down. Not that I think Alea has an particular affinity for downward paths, it’s just that I don’t think she’s heading anywhere in particular. If she is, I’m pretty much out of luck.
I’m in luck.
The stars are just starting to come out, and she’s stopped in the open lot just across the way from Harlowe to stare at it. It occurs to me that what I’ve been thinking of as the front of the building… what is the front, architecturally speaking… is actually the back, for most purposes. Campus life exits to the rear. The area to the south of Harlowe is part of the university grounds and is clearly meant for development, but it hasn’t been. The grass is mowed, but not as recently or neatly as most of the greens.
“You came,” Alea says before I’m even close to her. She hasn’t even turned around yet.
I wonder if her command of dirty Pax is good enough to understand the double entendre, then I realize there’s no possible reason for the autre-entendre of that word to apply. If she had instead asked me if I wanted to come or if I was coming or something like that, then maybe there could be some implications, but the only reason my brain had even made the connection is because apparently I’m secretly a twelve year old boy who just learned what things mean.
“Yeah,” I say. If it isn’t the smoothest possible response given the situation, I at least have direct firsthand knowledge that it’s also not the least smooth. I could have opened my mouth half a second earlier and let all the words my brain was spilling vomit out. “I did.”
“The first time I saw the dome during the day, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it was the same one as at night, but I couldn’t believe that something so big could possibly be moved. It was this giant, impossible thing. When it was night again, I stayed up all night to see what the trick was… and there wasn’t any trick. The sky changed, at first slowly at the edge and then all over. I kept going out near the dawn, to try to find the moment when it stopped being night and started being day.”
“No. I watched until my eyes felt like they would catch fire, but there was none, not that I could see. It was night when I started and at a certain point I would look around and it was certainly day, and had been for some time.”
“I think mostly I’d just say that it’s day when the sun crests the horizon,” I say. “That’s actually called daybreak, even.”
“Daybreak,” Alea repeats. “She did not use the word, but my guide said something similar. I disagreed. The sun’s entrance is dramatic, but the sky retains some night-like elements still and the day-like things that she brings are present before her emergence.”
“What did your guide think of your disagreement?”
“She didn’t have much to say about it, either way,” Alea says. “She was not my superior, merely one lending aid. She is… I’m told the word you would know is gorgon. They’re better with the sun, so those charged with my keeping handed me to her for these excursions. They took it for an enthusiasm to adapt myself to the surface, which they approved of but did not share. Those who are posted just beneath the skin of the world cling to it, for fear of the vastness outside.”
“They say that the underworld is bigger than the overworld,” I say. “Because of layers, you know? If you have a ball inside another ball, the one on the outside is almost always the bigger one, but if you peel the skin off an onion, you’ll have more onion than skin.”
“The underworld is vast, too,” Alea says. “But the outerworld is… all at once. There are no pockets, no… compartments.”
“We should take you to the city sometime,” I say. As long as she didn’t look up, she’d get all the compartmentalization that she wanted.
“When?” she asks.
I didn’t actually mean that as an offer is the worst thing a person could say to that.
After a few seconds that I’m sure weren’t regulation length, I say, “How about tomorrow?”
It would be the weekend, after all. I’m sure something about carriages was mentioned somewhere. I’m almost sure I can figure out where they are and how we get on them before I have to demonstrate this knowledge in front of Alea.
“Could we go at night?” she asks.
“You want to go now?”
“No, tomorrow,” she says. “I am not dressed for an excursion. Tomorrow night… if the city is available then.”
Excellent… now I’m even more sure I’ll figure it out in time.
“I’m sure they’ll keep it open, if I tell them it’s for you,” I say.
“Good,” she says. “Then you can help me find the moment.”
…I’ve never even had a girlfriend.