Chapter 234: Never AloneAlexandra Erin on August 5, 2014 in Volume 2 Book 7: Courtly Manners, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which The Chamber Of Secrets Is Opened
It was only after she put herself forward and spoke that I noticed that Nicki’s face was puffy and red around her eyes and nose.
“I’m sorry, my queen,” Grace said, looking both helpless and chagrined. “She’s been… freaking out about this since she woke up, and I don’t understand what’s wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Amaranth said. “What Nicki feels is what Nicki feels, and I think the best way to resolve it would be…”
“I’m sorry!” Nicki repeated, ignoring both of them and charging towards me. She threw her arms around me and buried her head in my shoulder, which almost knocked me off-balance given how weird I was standing to begin with. “Honestly, it just happened, I didn’t mean for anything… you’re my best friend, and I don’t know what I’d do…”
That was an approximation of the closest impression I could get of what she was saying into my shirt. If the “best friend” part hadn’t been particularly clear and loud, I never would have believed I’d heard it right… I ended up standing there just sort of marveling at it for longer than I probably should have, which didn’t do much for my ability to render appropriate consolation.
Amaranth came up behind Nicki and put a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“It’s okay, honey,” she said. “I can promise you that Mack doesn’t mind, and besides… I don’t think it’s the only thing that ‘just happened’ last night.” She looked me right in the eyes, through rather than over the rims of her glasses. “Is it, baby?”
“Um, no, not exactly,” I said. I tried to disentangle myself from Nicki a bit, not pushing her away completely but stepping back so she could see my face. I tried to copy Glory’s gesture of holding both her hands, though I took hold of her hands closer to the wrists than Glory would have. “But, yeah… seriously, Nicki, it’s cool. I don’t keep track of who sleeps with Amaranth, but I know Ian and Steff both have, separately from anything I do with them.”
“But they’re with you,” Nicki said. “I’m… just a friend.”
“There’s no just in friendship, sweetie,” Amaranth said. She looked at me. “Romance is important, sex is important, friendship is important… they all may overlap a lot, but they’re not just degrees of each other.” She looked at me. “Maybe instead of trying to tell her it’s okay, you should just forgive her? Forgiveness is a virtue, after all.”
“Is that really going to make any difference, though?” I asked. “I mean, I think telling her it’s okay makes it clear that I don’t see anything to forgive her for.”
“It’s not about how you feel, baby,” Amaranth said. “It’s how she feels.”
“It’s okay, Nicki,” I said, almost reflexively, then added, “I forgive you. And… I understand why you’re upset, and why you’re worried that I’ll be upset. But I’m really not.”
“You’re sure?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m really sure.”
“Okay… I don’t want things to get weird between us,” she said. “Honestly, it was less that I thought you’d be pissed at me or whatever and more that I thought I would make things awkward, and then it would be hard for us to hang out… we don’t see each other that much anymore outside of class to begin with, and soon we won’t even have class together.”
“We might end up in class together again,” I added, and though I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t mean it at the time it left my mouth, as I heard it in my ears I realized it was unlikely. She was a G&D student, not enchantment, and I was almost done fulfilling the lone design credit I needed for my degree.
“I guess,” Nicki said.
“I don’t want to cut this off,” Amaranth said, “but I think we might have something else that needs discussing more right now.” She tilted her head, looking at me over the rim of her glasses. “Don’t you think so, baby?”
“Uh…” I said, not really out of evasiveness but because I felt skewered to the spot.
“Amaranth, I want you to know that I give Mackenzie full responsibility for everything that happened last night,” Glory said.
“Thank y… hey,” I said. “There were two of us.”
“Yes, but Amaranth is not likely to accept letting you off the hook just because I say it was my idea,” Glory said. “And I hate to make gestures if I don’t know they’ll be accepted, and even more so when I’m sure they’ll be rejected. So, this one can be entirely your fault.”
“It’s both your faults, if it mattered… which it didn’t,” Amaranth said. “Everybody involved seems satisfied and if everybody consented, then fault doesn’t really enter into it.”
“Be that as it may, I have the feeling you wish to sort this out with your toy,” Glory said.
“Count on it,” Amaranth said.
Glory gestured at Grace.
“Show them somewhere they can speak privately,” she said.
“Yes, your majesty,” Grace said. She looked at the two of us. “If you would please follow me…”
“One moment, Grace,” Glory said. “Come over here.”
“Yes… your majesty?” Grace said, gliding towards her with obvious apprehension.
“Closer,” Glory said, and Grace complied.
You’d think that the two of them standing next to each other, almost literally face-to-face, would have highlighted the slight differences between each other. Instead, it just underscored how eerily similar they were in appearances. If Glory could act as mousy and insecure as Grace, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to tell them apart.
“High five, sis!” Glory said, holding up her hand as her face broke out in an enormous grin.
Grace looked perplexed for a moment, but then her expression mirrored Glory’s suddenly exuberant one and she completed the gesture. She still hadn’t regained her marbled composure when we reached our destination… which turned out to be one of the better-maintained bathrooms..
“I’m sorry about this,” Grace said, “but this chamber is silence-sealed when the door is closed… no one in Oberrad House will overhear you in here.”
“Thank you, Grace,” Amaranth said. “That’s actually more privacy than I was expecting… I was thinking you’d just find a quiet corner. Well, I guess you did.”
“It’s sort of essential, in a house full of elves?” Grace said. “We took off the lock for safety reasons, but only the queen will open the door if it’s closed.”
“You may leave us now,” Amaranth said, maybe a little more stiffly than she normally would have, but Grace probably needed to be formally dismissed.
“See you later, Grace,” I said, because I felt bad about treating her like a servant.
“Bye!” she said around her back as she retreated.
“Thank you for that, baby,” Amaranth said, taking me by the hand and pulling me into the room so she could close the door.
She looked around at the floor as if considering telling me to sit, but she seemed hesitant to do so, which I appreciated. The place looked clean, and elves were less messy than the more mortal races, but they weren’t actually preternaturally immaculate like nymphs were.
“Now, I want you to know, first of all, that I meant exactly what I said about fault not being a factor here,” she said. “Do you understand?”
“Yes…and that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences down the line, right?” I guessed.
“You’ve got it,” Amaranth said. “I’m sure you could guess how I feel about it, but I don’t want to dwell on that right now because I don’t want you to think that you’re off the hook.”
“If you have to punish me, I understand,” I said.
“I don’t think you do,” Amaranth said. She turned away, and I could see her chewing her lip as she did. “Baby… this isn’t about crossing some arbitrary line and getting a paddling … what you did could really hurt people that you care about.”
“…I think you might be overstating it,” I said. “I mean, Ian and Steff have both been kind of ambivalent about the whole thing, but I think they both knew things were kind of heading in this direction.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re okay with it,” Amaranth said. “Even if they might have been down the line… even if they would have said yes if you’d put it to them last night… it’s going to hurt that you didn’t.”
“I really don’t think Steff will care,” I said, though I knew in the back of my head I was only pointing that out because I knew that Ian would.
“Steff might be more open to it, but even if she’s been putting on a brave face, you have to know that nothing makes her feel more inadequate than full elves.”
“…I actually hadn’t been thinking about that,” I said.
“That’s partly on Steff for not wanting to admit when she has a problem, though maybe she just doesn’t think it’s a big enough problem that she can’t get over it since she likes Grace and Glory,” Amaranth said.”Still, it’s something you should keep in mind. But Ian…”
“Okay, I know Ian’s got problems, but maybe he needs to get over them, too,” I said.
“Maybe he does!” Amaranth said. “And if he can’t… you’re going to have to figure out what to do about that. I’ll be there to help, either way… any way that I can. But baby, even if it his problem and even if he does need to get over it… springing it on him like this is not the way to make something happen. You know Ian didn’t like the idea of leaving you here specifically because he thought something like this was likely to happen. I think you can count him as having officially registered his disagreement with it.”
“So, Ian decides who I fuck now?” I asked, heat rising.
Fuck… where was that anger coming from?
“If you want him to, he does,” Amaranth said calmly. “And don’t take that tone with me, missy… Ian’s not here. Raising your voice to me isn’t going to let you bull your way through this. But whether you put Ian in charge or not, he has feelings either way… and he’s affected by what you do, either way.”
“I thought you’d be happy for me,” I said. “Having sex… getting out there… making someone else happy. Isn’t that everything you’ve wanted for me?”
“Are you going to be happy if you lose Ian over this?”
“No!” I said.
“Then how can I be?”
“…you think I’m going to lose him?”
“Do you… do you think Ian’s going to be that pissed?”
“I’m sure he’s going to be angry,” Amaranth said. “What I’m not sure of is if he’s going to be hurt badly enough for that. I think… well,no, I know. Your reaction is what matters now, baby. You can’t change what you did. You can’t take it back. The only thing that matters now is how you handle it. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” I said. “But… there’s not a way to handle it that’s so right it will just make everything okay, is there?”
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “You’re just going to have to do your best.”
“You’ll help me, right?”
“I’m helping you now, baby,” Amaranth said. “But this is going to have to come from you. Ian likes me, and I like to think he has some amount of respect for my expertise, but this is between you and him, and if someone else steps in to mediate, I think that’s just going to make things worse.”
“Because the real issue here is that he’s not really feeling the polyamory, isn’t it?” I said.
“I didn’t say that, baby. He’s definitely come to appreciate some aspects of it,” she said. “But you… you have a slight advantage, or maybe I should say silver lining. You never thought of love and romance as things that you could have, so even though you had just as many preconceived notions as he did… and some of them worse… you weren’t as strongly invested in them personally as he is. You never thought to look for your one and only, and you never expected anyone to want you as much as you’d want them.”
“Don’t you usually try to cheer me up?”
“I’m telling you what you need to know, not what you want to hear,” she said.
“If Ian’s really just settling for what we have because he can’t get what he wants…”
“I didn’t say that, baby,” she said. “i’m not a mindreader, not even a heartreader. I know what he wants to do, carnally speaking… as far as what he wants and who he wants it with, I can just go on the same signals that you get.”
“I’m not sure I get all the signals that are sent to me.”
“What should I do? How should I handle this?”
“I think you need to go to him,” Amaranth said. “Send him a reflection, but then talk to him face to face.. he needs to know this happened, he needs to know it soon, and he needs to know it from you.”
“Soon like now?” I asked. She nodded. “As in… right now?”
“You can tell him that it wasn’t something anyone planned and that might mean something, but if you keep it from him, then that won’t really wash. The silence becomes deliberate, even if the action wasn’t.”
“Okay,” I said. “I guess… I might as well do it here and now, right? I mean, while we’re in the quiet room.”
“That makes sense,” Amaranth said.
“You’ll be here?”
“Quiet and out of frame, but yes,” she said. “I’ll be here with you for this, and I’ll be there for you after.”
“I’m glad,” I said. “I’d hate to have to do this alone.”
“Mack, you need to learn that love means you never do anything alone,” she said.
“That’s a really nice thought,” I said, my heart lifting just a little bit.
“It is… but it’s also a bit, well, prescriptive,” she said. “You weren’t alone when you slept with Glory, you were in relationships with three other people. That’s what love… this kind of love… means.”
“…I think I liked it better than the other way.”