In Which Grace Gets Served

Even though I was expecting something like it to happen in a general sense, I was surprised when Grace showed up for lunch the next day with a slightly-stunned looking Nicki in tow. I’d been thinking I would probably see Nicki in class that afternoon and make a point of inviting her to come eat dinner with us, which would give Grace an opportunity to join us if Glory was already putting our not-so-evil scheme into motion.

“Oh, hello again!” Amaranth said when they drifted over to our table. She already knew what was up, of course, since she’d heard my conversation with Glory. “We didn’t meet properly yesterday… you must be Grace?”

“Yes,” she said. “And you’re Amaranth. I already know all of you… I mean, I know who you are. This is a little weird, isn’t it? Well, I guess now it is that I’ve said that, it’s weirder…”

“It’s okay,” Amaranth said. “Would you like to join us?”

“Yeah,” Nicki said. “If that’s okay?”

“Of course it’s okay!” Amaranth said, glancing around the table to see if there was any objection. Ian’s face was a bit hard to read, but he didn’t say anything. It might have just been surprise. “I know Mack’s told you that you’re always welcome.”

“I know, I know,” Nicki said. “I just don’t want to wear out my welcome. Today, though, I kind of have an excuse… Grace was just saying that she’d like to actually meet you.”

“That is so sweet,” Amaranth said.

That was the moment it occurred to me that while my scheme wasn’t exactly evil, it was a scheme… we’d hatched it without consulting with Nicki, and nobody had clued her in about it before Glory went to work.

Obviously a suggestion from her sister carried the force of an order for Grace, and I hadn’t thought to say anything about whether we were going to be open about this or not. I’d told her that I wasn’t going to be keeping secrets from Nicki, but I’d be putting Grace in an awkward spot if I told her it hadn’t been her own idea.

…though it was also possible that Nicki already knew the truth and was telling a version of the story that she found less awkward. She didn’t know any of us that well… a lot of the people at the table were virtual strangers, even… and “my girlfriend’s sister is making us spend time with you” is probably one of those things that can’t help make things weird when said aloud, even if she didn’t seem unhappy about it.

I decided to ask Glory how exactly she’d played it before I said anything, if I did. If that meant I was keeping a secret from Nicki… for the time being or otherwise… well, it wasn’t like it was a harmful one. And Grace probably had actually wanted to meet us. She was just enough like Nicki that she needed an outside impetus to do so.

“Oh… we should actually go get some food first,” Nicki said, though she and Grace had both just sat down. “I just wanted to make sure we’d have a place to sit before we did that.”

“Yeah… oh!” Grace said, stopping mid-rise and sitting back down. “Would… would you mind getting my food for me?”

“Um, sure,” Nicki said. “What do you want?”

“Whatever you pick out for me will be fine,” she said. “Just get me whatever you’re having, too. I just… I want to see what it tastes like to have someone bring my food to me.”

“Okay!” Nicki said. “I’ll be right back.”

“And see, now you guys don’t have to pointedly avoid talking about me or act like I can’t hear you while we’re away,” Grace said as Nicki headed over to the serving areas. “Isn’t that less awkward?”

“It probably was until you pointed it out,” Steff said.

“But now you’ve gone and made it worse by pointing that out,” Hazel said.

“First meetings are always a little awkward, which means if you think about it, none of them are especially awkward,” Amaranth said.

“That’s why we have rules for how they work,” Hazel said, as Two nodded her approval. “Let’s start with proper introductions, okay? Mackenzie, you know her. Why don’t you do the honors?”

“Um… okay,” I said as everything I’d ever known about making introductions swirled down a drain at the bottom of my mind. “Okay. Um… everyone, this is Grace. Grace… you already know Amaranth, of course. And that’s Hazel.”

“Are you new?” Grace asked her.

“I’m vintage,” Hazel said.

“This is Ian, Steff, Two…”

“Hello,” Two said automatically.

“Oh, hello!” Grace said. “I’ve never spoken to a golem before.”

“I have spoken to seventeen and a half elves before,” Two said. “Most of them were when I worked in fast food.”

“Really? I’d never had fast food before this week,” Grace said. “I’m a big fan of it.”

“You should try a real restaurant sometime,” Steff said. “People bring your food to your table all the time.”

“And this is… Delia Daella,” I said. I’d saved Dee for last as I internally debated how to introduce her, since she usually introduced herself as ”Dee to my friends”, which seemed to constitute an actual standing offer that I wasn’t sure I should be extending.

“Dee to my friends,” she added fluidly, giving me an almost imperceptible nod of approval. I didn’t know if that meant I’d done it the way I should have or that she understood what I was thinking, but I’d take it either way.

“Could I be your friend?” Grace asked.

“If you choose,” Dee said. “I have accepted less likely friendships since coming to the surface. I liked your sister more than I like most faint elves, and I suspect I may like you more than I liked her.”

Her lips didn’t move while she said the second clause of that sentence, and I would have bet money that her words didn’t travel farther than our ears.

“My sister said you have a great sense of humor,” Grace said.

“Indeed,” Dee said.

“I hope you like macaroni and cheese!” Nicki said as she returned, carrying a tray with two plates on it. I reflexively cringed at her choice, but when she set it down I remembered that the Archimedes Center’s food was always a cut above standard cafeteria fare. Their mac and cheese wasn’t the stovetop kind, it was a cheesy pasta bake with a crust of bread crumbs.

“I have literally no idea if I do or not, but that looks good!” Grace said, accepting her plate from Nicki. “Thank you so much.”

“What would you like to drink… my lady?” Nicki asked, blushing madly as she added the last part.

“Eee! I don’t know!” Grace said. “Strawberry soda. No, grape! No… half orange and half strawberry, with a slice of lemon in it.”

“I didn’t know you were one of those fancy elves,” Steff said.

“Oh, hush,” Amaranth said. “I’ve seen you adding sugar to your soda.”

“Be right back!” Nicki said.

“Nicki, honey, you might find it easier to manage if you leave your plate here,” Amaranth suggested.

“Oh, yes, of course,” Nicki said.

“Breathe,” both Dee and Steff said at the same time as soon as Nicki was gone.

“Oh, was I not? She… does that to me,” Grace said. “Sorry.”

“You’re going to give yourself a condition,” Steff said.

Nicki returned with drinks, and after she sat down things kind of… settled in. This was in large because we all had food to eat, which helps fill awkward moments. Grace learned more about us than we did about her. She wanted to know everything about us, and she wasn’t afraid to ask.

At the time, that seemed natural because she had been interested in us beforehand and she did tell Nicki she wanted to get to know us. Afterwards, I did kind of wonder if she hadn’t been deliberately deflecting attention from herself by asking questions… but she really didn’t seem to have that kind of sneakiness in her. Though it was possible that she was operating at a level that wouldn’t even register as artifice in the society she was immersed in… her sister had really been wrestling with the idea of open and honest dealing.

I was surprised when, as we were finishing up, she looked at Ian and asked him if he would mind talking to her alone.

“You know, you seem really nice,” he said. “But I’ve decided I have a rule about ‘alone’ and ‘elves’… at least ones I don’t know. But if you’d like a word with Mackenzie and me, I don’t mind.”

“Okay,” she said. She looked at Nicki. “Wait for me while we take a little walk around the building?”

“Sure, but don’t forget, I still have class this afternoon,” Nicki said. “I mean, I don’t really have to run off, but I think we should stick to public places.”

“Every day with the classes,” Grace chided. The exasperation sounded like a joke.

We disposed of our trays and then ambled out into the early afternoon sun.

“I think that went pretty well,” Grace said. “I was super worried, but… it wasn’t awful, was it?”

“I really don’t think so,” I said. “If you, uh, happen to come back more, it’ll probably be more natural since it won’t be the first time.”

“You wanted to say something to me,” Ian said.

“Only that you didn’t say much to me during lunch,” she said. “But you stared at me an awful lot.”

“I wasn’t meaning to stare,” Ian said. “But I guess that’s what happens when you look at someone without talking… honestly, I don’t know what to say. Ever since you… expressed interest in Nicki… I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out if I’ve got any right to be protective of her when I hardly know her, and now that I’ve met you, I’ve been trying to figure out if I have any reason to.”

“That’s a compliment, isn’t it?” Grace said.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s just an explanation,” he said. “I don’t mean that I’m giving you a pass, or that I’ve made up my mind that it’s my place to. I’m still… evaluating.”

“Oh, okay,” she said. “That’s fair. I just wanted to make sure we weren’t going to have a problem if I showed up again.”

“I can’t say we won’t,” he said. “But right now, we don’t.”

“That’s all I ask,” she said. “Thank you! I’m going to go collect my Nicki. And thank you, Mackenzie! I’m going to hug your girlfriend now, if that’s okay.”

“I’m cool with hugs,” Ian said.

Grace’s hug was… really careful. Like an elven whisper that just grazed past my ear, she technically wrapped her arms around me and there was definitely contact, but it was the bare minimum necessary to qualify for a hug. I don’t mean the kind of ginger dude-hug that guys sometimes give each other where they’re keeping as much space as possible between as much of their torsos and lower areas as possible… I’m sure from the outside, it looked plenty enthusiastic. She just managed to stop short of actual pressure.

“Thanks again!” she said, and then she was gone.

“So, that was a thing,” Ian said. “I’m not sure what kind of a thing it was, but it was a thing and it happened.”

“Yeah,” I said. “What were you expecting?”

“Dunno,” he said. “Grace seems on the level, and Dee said Glory seems to be basically honest, but they could be… the elven version of on the level, or however Steff said it. If they are up to something, I wouldn’t expect to be their target… but I’m the one who hasn’t trusted them from the beginning, and they’ll both know that.”

“You didn’t really think they’d lure you into an ambush?” I said. “Even if they were up to something.”

“No,” he said. “If I thought that, I wouldn’t have gone with her… but it made sense to take some precautions. Like when Glory wanted to interview you.”

“Yeah… well, you must be starting to trust them since you only asked for me,” I said.

“Hey, there wasn’t anyone at that table I wouldn’t rather have watching my back,” he said. “Except for Dee, but I thought it might be pushing to ask her again. And Steff, but only if I was sure I could trust her. Actually, now that I think about it, I get the impression Hazel’s not someone you want to push into a corner.”

“So what you mean is that apart from Amaranth… who is a total pacifist… and Two, you can’t think of anyone else you’d rather have fighting beside you,” I said.

“Yeah, although… I’ve never actually seen Two fight,” Ian admitted.

“I have,” I said. “She holds her mace in front of her like it’s a shield and hopes that her opponent runs into it.”

“See? I made the right call,” he said. “Anyway, you don’t even like fighting… and honestly, there are a lot of people out there I wouldn’t pick over you, they just didn’t happen to be sitting at our table… and that’s got nothing to do with the fact that you look like you’re becoming more of a fighter.”

“Better at fighting, please, not more of a fighter,” I said. “And please don’t tell me that you picked me because you love me, Ian. Love can accomplish a lot of things, but it can’t win a fight. It didn’t matter this time, but that’s a terrible reason to trust someone with your life.”

“Yeah, but trust isn’t,” he said. “And that’s why I picked you… why I would pick you again. I’d trust Hazel or Dee as being basically decent, I’d trust them to back up their friends, I’d trust them to do the right thing, but I don’t know them the way I know you, so I couldn’t trust them the way I trust you.”

“I think you’re just saying things to make me feel better,” I said.

“Is it working?” he asked.

“I don’t know yet,” I said. “Try saying more things and I’ll tell you.”

Tales of MU is now on Patreon! Help keep the story going!

Or if you particularly enjoyed this chapter, leave a tip!

Characters: , , , , , ,

30 Responses to “Chapter 161: Eating With Grace”

  1. pedestrian says:

    AE, I don’t know why but this chapter’s got me laughing outloud.

    Not sure if it’s the all the shared embarrassment triggering an emotional response in me or the accumulating social faux pas as everyone tries to avoid offending one another.

    Like one of those scenes in slapstick comedy where everybody is so polite and proper one moment and the next the cream pies are flying through the air.

    Current score: 1
  2. Xicree says:

    Grace is so bloody awkwardly adorable it hurts… But unfortunately cause of the baggage of elven nonsense i can see her having come along with, a misstep could have her doing something she’ll really regret, but not be able to see her way clear of cause its culturally imbedded…

    Thankfully though her basic nature seems… really really sweet.

    Current score: 1
    • Lunaroki says:

      I totally agree. Grace is very much awkwardorable. ^_^

      Current score: 0
      • Zukira Phaera says:

        I was going to say adorkable, but I like your word better in this situation 🙂

        Current score: 0
  3. Zathras IX says:

    ŦΨØ has spoken
    To seventeen and a half
    Elven folk before

    Current score: 1
    • Ducky says:

      Am I missing a syllable? I only see 4 in the first line.

      Current score: 0
    • tomclark says:

      Grace, Dee and Glory.
      Ian thinks that they might be
      on the Elf-level.

      Current score: 1
  4. Helge says:

    Nice chapter. I enjoyed how the relationship between elves and humans is becoming more interesting. I mean, I’m a huge fan of Dee and Steff, but Grace and Glory are a great addition.

    Missing word? “This was in large because we all had food to eat” – I think “in large part” may be what was meant here?

    Current score: 0
    • Lunaroki says:

      “In large” is an expression sometimes used in virtually the same sense as “in large part”. It might seem unfamiliar to you but I can assure you it is an established variation of the more familiar phrase in semi-common usage.

      Current score: 0
      • Helge says:

        The two phrases actually mean something different. “In large” should not be used where you mean “in large part.” If you could say “as a whole” or “from a wider perspective,” then “in large” is correct. The other phrase is synonymous with “mostly,” which admits of other, minor points that could be enumerated.

        In this case, “in large” is probably not correct.

        But maybe reasonable people can differ. 🙂

        Current score: 0
        • pedestrian says:

          Do not accuse me of being reasonable.

          The English language is MY mistress,
          only I am allowed to abuse her!

          Current score: 0
  5. Anne says:

    LOL Fighting criticism by Mack, and it’s correct too.

    Current score: 1
    • The Chosen One says:

      “Love can accomplish a lot of things, but it can’t win a fight.”
      It’s too bad, I was really hoping The Power of Love would be real in this universe. Not that Callahan would ever include it in the curriculum, of course.

      Current score: 1
      • Zukira Phaera says:

        that… frightening notion

        Current score: 1
        • tomclark says:

          …especially if you’ve read 8-Bit Theater!

          Current score: 0
      • Burnsidhe says:

        “Use a lighter touch! You’re not flinging a sword around to hack through plate, you’re caressing!”

        Current score: 1
        • Elxir says:

          Oh great, here come the nightmares… Or for certain people the happy dreams… O.o Honestly though, that thought is simply hilaristurbing.

          Current score: 0
  6. Oni says:

    Something that I’ve been thinking off and on for quite some time but never vocalized: I don’t know if it’s just me, but something about the setting/tone always makes me envision these scenes in locations from my old college life. The cafe (even the new one) is my college cafe, the dorm is my old dorm (right down to the lounge with a glass wall that just looks at a hallway; I always figured that was there so that students wouldn’t get the wrong idea about thinking it was a private space. Hint: didn’t stop us from taking it over regularly), etc etc.

    Anyone else ever get this going for themselves?

    Current score: 0
    • Flooge says:

      Ohhh totally. Whenever any building is described, no matter what the actual description is, my brain always defaults to one of the buildings on my old campus. I think its because when I look up college in my brains dictionary, there is this huge “picture” of memories from when I was living there.

      Current score: 0
    • Yumi says:

      You know, I started reading this series when I was in high school, so I didn’t have strong ideas of college settings to reference, so I generally just came up with ideas of what their campus looked like based on the story. Since starting college, however, new buildings and buildings that hadn’t been particularly established have taken form based on my campus, and now my mental MU is an odd mash-up of a fantasy college and the one I attend.

      Current score: 0
    • Brenda says:

      Ohhh, yeah. The dorm room in Harlowe matches an older dorm I moved into that cost about half the amount for a lot more space; Mack’s current room is partly from the dorm I moved out of. The lounge is from the old dorm, except for the kitchen section which is from the new one. The cafeteria is from the college I started at and ended up leaving for the one where the dorms were.

      Current score: 0
  7. pedestrian says:

    One of the nice extras about the community college I attended last year was the food. They have an excellent Food Services training program. Aside from the cafeteria and the outlying cafes, there was an award winning restaurant. Even the student experiments were tasty.

    Current score: 0
    • Cadnawes says:

      That sounds nice to have around. Experiments and surprises are often better than you expect. My college’s best options were usually the result of a program they had which encouraged parents to send recipes from home. If they were good, and they often were, they’d get added to the options permanently. The pasta of this chapter reminded me of one of them- baked mac and cheese but with real cheese, crumb topping and broccoli. I think I owe my freshman fifteen to it.

      Current score: 0
  8. Prospero says:

    Elves for all their hearing don’t notice Shirefolk. Well that’s just precious! Bill Springstep triumphs again.

    Current score: 0
  9. Sithobi1 says:

    “there wasn’t anyone at that table I wouldn’t rather have watching my back” should probably be “there wasn’t anyone at that table I WOULD rather have watching my back”.

    Current score: 0
  10. Lacilove says:

    This chapter exhibits the very reasons I will always love Steff!! she is definitely my favorite character. Although I love Amaranth I wish Mackenzie paid a little more attention to her when she isn’t at the brink of death or completely losing it. It still bothers me that she let her go off with that enchanted knife.

    Current score: 0
  11. Athena says:

    Another great chapter!

    Grace was making me laugh, and cringe, although I mostly cringed at Steff adding sugar to her soda. Really!? Geez, girl…

    Current score: 0
    • Brenda says:

      That made me laugh, if only at Amaranth saying it like that!

      Current score: 0
  12. Erm says:

    “Hey, there wasn’t anyone at that table I wouldn’t rather have watching my back, … except for Dee, but I thought it might be pushing to ask her again.

    From the context, I think he meant there wasn’t anyone he would rather have watching his back.

    Current score: 0