Chapter 120: Making It UpAlexandraErin on October 26, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 4: The Reinvention of Mackenzie Blaise, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Nicki Tries To Pass Mackenzie Notes
I didn’t want to risk losing Professor Stone’s goodwill by being excessively chatty with Nicki, so I just nodded when she asked if I had everything sorted out… as answers went, it wasn’t completely accurate, but it would be better to wait until after class to get into the nitty-gritty.
After a second’s reflection, I said “I’ll tell you the whole story at dinner.” I wasn’t sure that would be enough to get her to join us, but it at least got the subject out there.
It really didn’t seem like I’d missed much during my lost day… we were still refining our designs for our product projects, and there was some kind of portfolio we were supposed to have started… I glanced at Nicki when he mentioned this and she flipped open a folder that had a clipping of a shampoo ad and her own sketch of a bottle with different contours. I guessed we were supposed to be collecting real products and redesigning them, though it didn’t look like we had to go into a ton of detail.
It seemed I would have to play a catch-up a bit with my work outside of class, but it wasn’t like the professor had laid out a whole bunch of secret design principles we would need to master in order to succeed.
I got the full run-down on the portfolio assignment from Nicki when the class ended, and also glanced at her notes… I hadn’t been too confused by anything Professor Stone said, though, so I really didn’t feel like I’d missed anything.
“Do you need me to scribe you off a copy?” she asked me.
“No, I’m good,” I said. “I’m not a huge note-taker myself, so it’s not like I’d be looking at them.”
“That’s an interesting tiara,” she said.
I knew it didn’t exactly fit my style, so what she was really saying was “Why are you wearing that tiara?”
“Yeah, it’s actually part of how I’m solving my attendance problem,” I said. “But it’s also not mine, and I need to go put it away before I do anything else. Will you come to dinner with us tonight?”
The question ended up sounding more formal than I’d meant it to, but that wasn’t necessarily terrible. Formal meant my intentions were explicit. She was invited. She would be welcome.
“Sure,” she said. “Um, same time as last time?”
I would have sworn I could see objections and excuses lining up behind her eyes… not because she didn’t want to go but because she couldn’t believe we’d want her there.
“Yeah,” I said. “My last class is the same every day… if you’re worried about the time, I could come by your dorm when I get out?”
“Okay!” she said. “I’m in Burlew… 208.”
“I’ll see you then, then,” I said.
We walked out together, which is always awkward when you’ve pretty much already said goodbye, but then we did actually part ways because she had to hurry off to her next class and I had to proceed slowly and carefully back to Gilcrease Tower.
I once again gave thanks for my widely-spaced schedule. It would have been hard enough going straight from design or any other class to Coach Callahan’s without a buffer time in between even without the absolute necessity of taking care of Teddi’s circlet.
With the blank spot in my schedule, I not only didn’t have to rush back to my dorm room but I had time to just hang out there with my thoughts… said thoughts, of course, being about how I would fight Nae.
I decided to try something slightly different with my elemental senses. I’d given up trying to perceive Nae’s motion via air disturbance because she disturbed so little of it, but I didn’t really need to follow her exact position during the whole length of her approach… I just needed to know what she was doing when she got in close. It was hard to see when she was dancing around my legs, and that was when I was most vulnerable to whatever she might pull out.
I’d done simple elemental shielding to keep heat in or weather out… I’d even pulled some impromptu elemental defenses out in some of the actual fights I’d been forced into. What I had in mind now was a shield of air around my legs, but a passive one… not something that would try to hamper Nae, but something that would respond to her presence.
The basic idea wasn’t that complicated. It was just what I did when I reached out and connected to the air around me. This was just more focused and limited, which meant it was something I could realistically bind as a spell. That was important, because the less I needed to concentrate to cast and maintain it, the more I could focus on the fight.
It took me a few tries to work it out, but Mackenzie’s Imperceptible Air Shell (version 1) was more or less operational by the time I had to leave for class. It incorporated the air around me in an invisible cone, aimed downward from my head… well, from my mouth, to be specific. Using my own breath to fill the shell made the connection to the air stronger, though it also meant it took longer for the spell to reach full effectiveness.
That was okay, though. I had a whole magic belt full of energy I could use to sustain it.
Even though I wasn’t doing any enchanting and even though creating elemental-based buff spells was the farthest thing from what I wanted to do, I felt like I was earning Professor Stone’s label for me. This was practical magic… the best results with the least effort. Against a larger opponent I would probably want the area of the spell to be a sphere or cylinder around me, but against Nae I could save energy and fill the spell’s volume with my breath more quickly by keeping things more confined.
I didn’t have a tiny sparring partner to test the spell out against… it was possible that Shiel or Hazel would be in their rooms, but they shared a suite with Nae and I really didn’t want to tip my hand. Ideally she would have no idea that I was using magic… I didn’t think it was cheating, of course. Pala had to be aware I was using elemental magic and she hadn’t said anything about it.
In the absence of having someone else to try moving into my cone of air, I tried moving around the room, feeling my invisible tendrils of air coiling around the legs of the desk and the chair or pushing against the flat surface of the wall. It worked better than I’d hoped, really… it was like having a bunch of really sensitive fingers reaching out to explore anything that got too close to my legs.
I tried to make a point of walking past people on my way to class, both so I could make sure it worked as well for interpreting moving shapes and to verify that other people couldn’t feel when they broke the spell’s perimeter. It seemed to be working as expected.
I was feeling pretty psyched in a level-headed and grounded sort of way by the time I was changed and ready for fighting, but my bouts with Nae actually went more or less the same as they had been going. I did have an easier time avoiding her when she got past my defenses, but my general game plan was still to take care of her before she got in close enough to even trigger my spell.
She brought me down less often since I had a second line of defense, but it didn’t quite make me untouchable… she was quick and agile enough to compensate.
And still there was the feeling that she was holding back, still she wasn’t bringing her teeth or claws into play. She didn’t even seem to be trying to line up a bite anymore… had she given up on the idea, or was she just confident enough now that she could do it?
Whatever the case was, I felt like I was winning more often than she was, and my advantage only grew towards the end of the class as I got better at responding to what my air shell was telling me. She never seemed disappointed or frustrated when I won, either… just patient, in a way that was unnerving.
The impetus was really going in my direction when Palacalled a halt to the class.
“Good luck tomorrow,” Nae said as I headed off to change back into my real clothes.
“You, too,” I said.
Yep… she definitely had something planned.
Coach Callahan wouldn’t have put her in the special section just because she was short, and I don’t think we would have been paired off together if our fighting skills were that mismatched. Though maybe we were both in the “not technically very skilled, but promising” category… I could see that one accommodating a wide range of skill levels.
Whatever was up, I had my invisible ace that I doubted she knew about, and I wouldn’t hesitate to get as physical with her as I had to if she decided to go for the unarmed combat option. A kick from me would inflict real injury, but injuries could be healed. I had no interest in harming her… I didn’t even enjoy hurting her. It was just part of the class. I had to win if I wanted my A, and more than that, I’d need to impress upon the coach that I would do whatever it took to win.
I felt a little guilty about it, though… in a way, I owed Nae my life. During a time when her lover Caron had me over a barrel… in fairness to her, I’d pretty much bent over it myself… Nae had reined her in and made sure I could hold up my side of our lopsided deal and avoid paying the very hefty default penalty.
Nae had indirectly saved me again when Amaranth realized that she was a kobold, which made Caron’s relationship with her a dangerous taboo. Amaranth would never have used that information, but Caron hadn’t been able to be risk that.
It didn’t do to dwell on the past, though, and not just because it was past… for me to win, Nae would have to lose. I had so much riding on this class, but what might Nae have on the line? How much did she need this grade?
I had to hope that the stakes were lower for her than they were for me, because the alternative didn’t bear thinking about.