Chapter 83: The Long Way Around

on April 27, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 3: Figments & Fragments, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Steff Takes Mackenzie The Back Way

Steff hesitated a bit when we got outside.

I say “hesitated a bit” because it was a brief hesitation, but it wasn’t exactly hard to spot.

One of the things that had always drawn me to Steff was her facial expressions. There had been something really distinct about them that had taken me a while… plus more familiarity with elves… to put my finger on.

Because her father was an elf, she had it within her to achieve a measure of the kind of self-control that Acantha or Dee tended to display, but from her mother’s side she had the human tendency towards involuntary self-expression.

This meant that whenever Steff was not actually upset to the point where she was shaking or sobbing, her body language could be preternaturally still while still perfectly conveying an emotion in human terms. Her reactions were smaller, but in the way of being more acute rather than subtler. Whenever she leaned in and leered, it was a concentrated leer and the pose she struck was always perfect. When she was distressed, she had a tendency to freeze up… but not quickly enough to stop it from showing on her face.

That was what I saw as we left the breakfast table conversation behind us and stepped out onto the sunlit plaza in front of the student union.

“What’s up, Steff?” I asked gently, because “what’s wrong” seemed a little too loaded, even if she was obviously stricken. This was our day to get out of the dorm and do normal things. If she wanted to talk about what was bothering her, she could, but I wouldn’t try to drag it out of her.

“Nothing,” she said. “I was going to… it’s not important.”

“If it’s important enough for you to think of it, it’s important enough for me to hear,” I said, my bold streak still apparently running its course.

“I was going to ask if we could go the long way, but then I changed my mind,” she said.

“The long way?” I repeated, and then I realized that she meant walking around the back of the union and circling around it to get to the carriage stop instead of taking the straighter route… the one that went right past the memorial to Leda that had replaced the fountain where she’d been killed.

The spot where the swan princess had left the world during my freshman year was also the spot where she had taken advantage of Steff on a night earlier in the same school year. She hadn’t shown much response to it before, but it was understandable why she might be uncomfortable around it.

And as soon as I understood that, I also understood why she’d changed her mind. The reason there was a path behind the student union was because it led to the admin building. We’d be passing right through its plaza on the way to the coach park.

Steff, feeling vulnerable, was trying to protect me as well as herself.

“It’s a good idea, actually,” I said.

“You don’t mind…?”

“The walk? No, I don’t mind it at all,” I said. “I mean, it is a nice day.”

We held hands and I kept my eyes on the grass on the other side of the pavement as we walked past the building where Leda’s killer had… last been seen… but other than that, I didn’t have any problems. Going into the building might just have given me a heart attack, but walking past it didn’t trigger any particular associations.

Still, the silence itself was an issue. While there was nothing else going on in my head, I still felt the disquieting echoes of the previous night’s events in my head. If we were going to be doing any more sessions… and if the first one had even worked as intended… I would definitely have to request a lighter dose next time. Having random bursts of distraction going off inside my head could be a dangerous thing, in Acantha’s class or Coach Callahan’s.

In an attempt to screen out more of the non-revealing revelations, I turned my mind back to the earlier conversation. Miniature warfare wasn’t my favorite topic, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

“One thing I don’t get,” I said. “If Hazel is so bad at stone soldiers, then why would it take two of you to fight her in the first place?”

“Well, I guess by the light of day I’m not sure I’d say she’s that bad,” Steff said. “She’s bad at fighting, and there are whole sections of the rules that she doesn’t know or tries to fudge things in on purpose, but she’s figured out what she’s doing and she does it well enough that her win-loss record is actually creeping upwards. It’s just not the sort of thing that makes for an exciting or interesting game for anyone else.”

“Still, if her record’s that bad, why would she be taking on two people at once?”

“Bravado,” Steff said. “I mean, she was kind of daring someone to do it… literally. She’d already declared it was doubles night, but Shiel was out and nobody else wanted to do a two against two match on her side, so she just laughed and said she’d take on two at once.”

“And your reaction to that was to team up against her?” I asked. There was sadism, and there was bullying… I didn’t like to think of Steff as a bully, but Hazel made boasts like that out of wounded pride, and trying to make her eat her words just seemed needlessly cruel.

“I was pissed… it was how she laughed more than anything,” Steff said. “And she might have said something she shouldn’t have, just before it.”

“What did she say?”

“I don’t want to repeat it.”

“Was it really that bad?” I said. It was hard to imagine Hazel saying something that would shock Steff, and even harder to imagine Steff not being willing to say it herself for shock value.

“Well… I don’t actually know, that’s the thing,” Steff said. “Those gnomes talk like they have a mouthful of marbles and someone put the dictionary in a blender. When they say someone ‘doesn’t half reek of fags’… do you think they’re calling them queer, or just, you know… smoky?”

“Um, smoky,” I said.

Steff sighed.

“Yeah, I was pretty much afraid of that,” she said. “It seemed kind of obvious this morning… but last night, just something about that word and laughter… and I was kind of on edge… the word ‘reeks’ didn’t exactly make it sound better, I guess. I don’t know. I guess I was looking for a fight. It made me feel better for a while, even.”

“I guess a fight with little tiny pieces of rock is better than a lot of alternatives. Why did you smell like cigarettes, anyway?” I asked, more confused than concerned. Steff had climbed into bed with me before her scented bubblebath, and I hadn’t noticed any kind of smoky smell when I woke up.

“She didn’t say it to me,” Steff said. “But, you know… solidarity, or whatever. Do you think I owe her an apology?”

“Did you actually accuse her of gay-bashing or anything?”

“No,” Steff said. “Just took her up on her dare.”

“Well, then I don’t know what you’d be apologizing to her for,” I said. “You could apologize for the misunderstanding that led to her playing a six hour game from hell, I guess, but I think she’d rather continue thinking of that as her thrilling military victory than an ordeal she suffered through. I guess you could apologize for being prickly this morning and say that it was based on a misunderstanding last night.”

“I don’t know how I’d feel about that,” Steff said. “Just because I overreacted to something that she said doesn’t mean the way she plays isn’t annoying.”

“Well, she’s making use of the rules to win the best that she can,” I said. “So you either need to change the rules, or figure out strategies that don’t depend so much on knowing exactly where her units are. Aren’t there area effect spells? Volley attacks?”

“Yeah, and they’re useful for taking out massed units, but the radius isn’t so big that you can paint the whole map with them. Especially when she always pushes for big battlefields. There are rules for things like fire and disease effects that can spread… my army wouldn’t be so good with the fire, but I could maybe shift some points around to get some plague rats or something.” She shrugged. “Or I could just not get baited into playing her anymore. That’s the main thing, I think. The less people there are who want to play her alone, the more she’ll have to realize she can’t just draw defensive games out forever.”

“But if no one wants to team up with her, that doesn’t leave a lot of options.”

“Oh, some people do,” Steff said. “She and Shiel are really good together… they combine their forces instead of each managing their own, but that takes special alchemy that most people don’t have. Hazel takes care of things like fortifying positions and getting their infantry out of tight spots, and Shiel directs the attacks. Also, every once in a while Hazel comes up with something that’s rules-legal that no one’s thought of doing yet. It doesn’t always work and a lot of times when it fails, it fails spectacularly, but it heep things from getting predictable. Shiel is one of the best players in the league for obvious reasons, but other people have had time to get good now. Shiel plus Hazel is just about unstoppable.”

“Does Two play?”

“No, she has the rules down pat but that doesn’t mean she really understands how to play it. I think she prefers games where the rules are also instructions. You know, roll the dice, move exactly that many squares in the one direction you’re allowed to move, pick up a card, do what it says.”

“I can’t stand those games,” I said. “You might as well just roll the dice once at the beginning and say the highest roll is the winner. It would be quicker.”

Steff nodded.

“Yeah,” she said.

It felt like we were running out of conversational impetus, which worried me. As much as it helped me to have an actual topic of conversation to focus on, it also helped her. Neither one of us really wanted to be alone with our thoughts at the moment, albeit for different reasons. A day out on the town together… this wasn’t the perfect time for something like that, but for the same reasons it was just what we needed.

She stopped moving as the conversation also drew to a halt. I didn’t say anything, waiting for her to make a move.

“You know…” she said, more slowly and carefully than she usually spoke. “It isn’t really… just any one thing that’s bothering me. I mean, there are some big things, and you can probably think of them, and you’d be right. I’m just… just… I was doing okay with being here, but then leaving and coming back… it all kind of came back at me all over again, and the timing…”

“It’s okay, Steff,” I said. “You don’t have to explain it right now. You don’t have to explain anything to me.”

“I want to,” she said. “You pretty much taught me by example that it’s not good to keep things all partitioned off…”

“That’s me, the walking cautionary tale,” I said.

“I just… I don’t know if I can,” she said.

“I already told you that I don’t mind taking the long way around,” I said. “Take your time. Take it as slowly as you need to.”

She laughed, and it was only when she started laughing that the self-control broke enough for the tears to break free of her eyes.

“Slow is nnot exactly my natural cruising speed,” she said. “I’m a lot better at rushing in.”

“Yeah… I’ve noticed.”

I didn’t think of myself as a master of comedic timing or anything, but I managed to inflect that right to get another laugh from her. I wasn’t really good at the whole comfort thing, but I felt like I was doing something right if she could smile through the tears.

“Is it okay if I keep crashing with you for a while?” she said. “I can take a hike when Ian wants to come over, it’s a big enough building that I can sleep in a lounge somewhere without anyone complaining, but… I just…”

“Steff, I seriously don’t want to pry, but… as your friend, I need to ask you if you are having problems with Viktor,” I said. What I really meant was, is Viktor causing you problems, but even being bold I still wanted to be tactful.

“I’m just trying to give him some space,” she said. “I’m not really in a mood to be touched right now. I can touch you without a problem… but me and him, we don’t work that way. And it’s not fair to him to take up his space when I can’t give him anything in return.”

“Has he complained at all about… anything?”

“He doesn’t have to.”

“Okay,” I said, and I didn’t push the point farther.

I thought the most likely explanation was that Steff didn’t want to be around Viktor, but that wasn’t necessarily an indictment of him. I’d asked her twice about him now, and felt fairly satisfied that she was telling the truth. This was her issue that she was dealing with, not a threat from him.

If Steff felt the most comfortable around me at the moment because she saw me as non-threatening, I could understand why she wouldn’t want to be around her hulking half-ogre boyfriend. He wouldn’t have had to have crossed a line or done anything in particular to make her feel vulnerable… his physical presence was menacing enough. That was part of what Steff liked about him, in the ordinary course of things, but at the moment…

If she found it easier to say that she was giving him space than to say that he was triggering something in her, it wasn’t my place to call her on it.

“You’re a better friend than I deserve, Mack,” she said, taking my hand again.

“You don’t get friends because you earn them,” I said.

“How do you get friends, then?”

I thought about this. I wasn’t exactly an expert on the subject, but the friendships I’d formed… and the ones I’d rejected… made for interesting case studies. So did the people I was friendly with… like Belinda and Celia… who I’d never quite clicked with. Friendliness wasn’t enough. Merely looking for a friend or declaring friendship wasn’t enough.

Where did real friendship come from?

“I guess it happens by accident, mostly,” I said. “Some kind of compatibility helps, I guess, but it’s hard to predict what that means. Two lives bump into each other, and they get all tangled up… and then they step back and inspect the damage and decide they actually like themselves better that way.”

“Or they just stumble on obliviously together as one messy, co-dependent jumbled heap,” Steff said.

“Or they do that and decide they like it better,” I said.

“Shall we stumble onward, then?” she asked.

“Just you try and stop me,” I said.

“It’s a good thing I’m not afraid of commitment,” she said.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because trying to keep you from stumbling would be a full-time job,” she said.

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16 Responses to “Chapter 83: The Long Way Around”

  1. Brenda says:

    That was lovely.

    Current score: 0
  2. HiEv says:

    Typo report:

    “it heep things from getting predictable” should be
    “it keeps things from getting predictable”


    “Slow is nnot exactly” should be
    “Slow is not exactly”

    Current score: 0
    • Burnsidhe says:

      In dialog, multiple consonants in a row tend to indicate that the word is being dragged out. It’s deliberate.

      Current score: 0
      • Brenda says:

        It could also be a typo, though.

        Current score: 0
      • Anne says:

        Whether or not the second instance is a typo, the first one is definitely a typo… I think AE meant keeps as well.

        Current score: 0
  3. Zathras IX says:

    If it’s important
    Enough to ponder then it’s
    Important to hear

    Current score: 2
  4. Frelance says:

    “You’re a better friend than I deserve, Mack,” she said, taking my hand again.

    “You don’t get friends because you earn them,” I said.

    This dialogue bothers me. “deserve” and “earn” operate in very different ways, they shouldn’t be conversationally linked. Thoughtless people frequently conflate them, but that kind of interpersonal-intellectual laziness is not how you are in the habit of presenting your characters. Mackenzie isn’t wrong, but she also isn’t answering Steff. It’s a non sequitir.

    Current score: 0
    • pedestrian says:

      I think that this page of psychoanalysis is intended have Our Mack as being a cautiously neutral but still supportive listener to Steff’s waking nightmare.

      Permitting our broken elf to feel that she has some control of explaining her trauma on her own terms at the speed she wants to divulge/communicate.

      A flash of idea. Think of Mackenzie as a blank canvas, upon which Steff can paint with her pain and fears.

      Current score: 0
  5. anon y mouse says:

    “Two lives” – I read this wrong at first with humorous results, having it be something about how Two is living.

    Current score: 1
  6. Month says:

    From philosophic to a smartass, in under 2 seconds. Impressive.

    Current score: 0
  7. Cadnawes says:

    Even if what was said wasn’t what Steff thought was said, Hazel was still being rude. I have to say, Steff’s impulse of solidarity strikes me as adorable, and frankly, a good sign. She’s been through a lot, but can still reach out to people, even ones she doesn’t appear to like. It makes one smile.

    Current score: 0
  8. tomo says:

    that bit at the end was absolutely adorable. kudos, AE.

    Current score: 0
  9. packrat says:

    I think that Two would really like Quelf. Of course, she’d be the only person not finding following the rules humorous.

    Current score: 1
  10. Rafinius says:

    “You might as well just roll the dice once at the beginning and say the highest roll is the winner. It would be quicker.”
    Oh, how often I have said this myself… 😀

    Current score: 0
  11. King of GAR Johan says:

    So, Jerkface is Jamie?

    Current score: 0