RATED G | 1,000 WORDS
Story by Alex Singer
It was not Uitspan custom to celebrate the winter holidays.
Religious observance was something discouraged on-campus and among staff, but that had not stopped the students from stringing lights in the grove outside the main admin building. They must have been the work of upperclassmen, because they were quite clever lights.
They were made from a series of empty oil lanterns and empty flasks, with colored paper plastered over the glass and reactive dust scattered through the bottom. They hung six feet off the ground, so that when a particularly extroverted student or professor walked under them their Will caused the dust inside to flare and provide a faint, flickering light.
The administration had torn down the set someone had dangled across the dorms and the lecture halls, but the ones in the grove stayed. Luca watched them blink as he took another step up the ladder balanced against the wall of the emptied lab room. They were red and gold — holiday colors, in Warassa.
"Something on your mind, Valentine?" called the professor from below. Luca nearly jumped. Balzac had been occupied with reviewing notes on the other end of the room. Luca hadn't heard him approach the ladder.
"Ah, no," said Luca, stretching his arm. He sketched a quick distance with his chalk, eyed the angle, and pinned the strip of paper to the mark. It looked identical to the one hundred and twenty-six similar papers that had been pinned from the right corner of the room and outwards in a spiraling pattern. "This one, now."
Balzac willed the nail through the paper with a bored brush of his hand. "I'd no idea," he said dryly, "that the Sevalese had such particular holiday customs."
Luca sighed as he grabbed the wall moldings and slid the ladder along the wall. "That would be because they don't," said Luca. "Not to my knowledge, that is. I suppose some of the northern cities might have some winter observances, but it doesn't get so cold. It certainly never snows."
"Which is why you arrived here in four layers, I imagine." Before Luca could turn and remind him that he'd been six during his last Sevalese winter, Balzac continued: "But, if you're not enjoying the lights, why won't you just let me pin those fasteners myself? Standing here while you break your neck would be somewhat counterproductive."
"You are the one who insisted on being here to ensure my safety," said Luca, shaking his head. "I thank you for that. I would prefer to do it myself. This map must be very precise."
"I can be precise," said Balzac.
He sounded slightly annoyed. Luca looked up as he reached with his chalk so Balzac would not see him smile. "Of course you are, but you do not need fasteners to hold your sfeer in place at this range."
"Which makes this exercise unnecessary," noted Balzac. He drove the nail into the paper and made no move to stop Luca from positioning the ladder for the next set.
"I designed this map with the idea that we are dealing with an Extrovert of middling temperament," said Luca. "Someone with wide borders and a good deal of presence, but only a low awareness of that fact. It's the demographic that covers most practicing cyclists. It's well enough if you can do it, but we're not all over… powered. Sir."
Luca added that last part sheepishly.
"Overpowered," said Balzac.
"You meant to say overbearing," said Balzac. Luca coughed and returned to plotting the next fastener's point. "You think I'll place them wrong because I've never had to put much care in it."
"Well…yes," said Luca, staring solidly at the wall. "The average cyclist cannot extend as well upwards as they can outwards. I'd like to see if we can shape an individual's sfeer. Fit it to a set of borders that are not strictly cyclical. Precision like that could be very useful — ah."
He'd reached for the next fastener hanging from his belt. His hand had met only the fabric of his trousers. Luca twisted around, searching the floor. All he saw was Balzac, staring up at him with eyebrows raised.
"Are there any more fasteners in that box?"
The box tipped itself over and rolled several times on its own accord. It was empty. After a moment, its corners crumpled inwards and the whole thing packed itself down into a small ball. It bounced into the waste basket. Luca supposed he deserved that. He let his forehead clunk against the wall just under his hand.
"…And those were the last in the utilities closet," groaned Luca. He began to climb down the ladder. "There's more in West Hall, yes?"
He was halfway to his coat before Balzac chose to have another opinion. "That's across campus."
"I will be quick. About fifteen minutes."
"You'll be half an hour in this snow," said Balzac, decisively. "Forget it. That's a waste of time."
Luca's shoulders dropped. "I see," he said. "Very well. Should we move back to the flat diagram? I've done some modifications like you asked. I can show you…"
"No, you won't." Balzac held up a hand. Luca didn't feel any sort of applied Will, but his voice had enough natural influence that Luca felt himself hush for a moment.
Luca scowled and dropped a hand onto his hip. "Then what would you like—"
Again, Balzac broke in. "Valentine, you've got me interested in this exercise of yours. We're doing it. That is an executive decision, but I'm not wasting a half an hour while you vanish in two inches of snow."
"I have seen snow before, you know," said Luca, dryly.
"No, you will stay here," said Balzac. "Mark the rest of your points. I'll get the fasteners. It will take me ten minutes."
Balzac shoved his hands into his pockets and walked out the door. Luca stared after him, hands frozen in the process of reaching for the chair over which he'd draped his coat and scarf. The room was otherwise quite spare, save for the boxes of equipment.
"Ah," said Luca, realizing what was missing. "Of course you would simply…"
He grabbed his scarf and ran out the door.
He caught Balzac out in the square, just outside the lecture hall. The snow had become a steady, feathery wall at that point. The air stung Luca's cheeks. He could feel his skin shrink against his bones, and he was amazed Balzac heard him shout over the aggressive hush of the snow around them. Balzac heard him, though. The professor stopped in the tracks he had made five feet into cutting across the green. He stared as Luca came panting after him.
"At least," huffed Luca, holding up his coat. "At least wear something warm."
Balzac stared at him. More exactly, he stared at the coat. "That won't fit," he said, finally.
Luca looked between Balzac and his fitted coat and realized he was perfectly correct. "Well." He rumpled the coat over his arm and pulled out his scarf instead. He stood on his toes, looping it over Balzac's neck before he could protest. "At least take this! It is foolish, bustling across campus without even your neck covered. You will catch a cold, and how much time do you think will be wasted then?"
Luca wasn't sure why the words came out so suddenly. Maybe it was the cold. Maybe it was just how easy it was to picture Balzac doing just that: barging ahead as though he owned the world, with no thought about the little ways in which the world might own him.
"I won't," said Balzac. When Luca moved to tie the scarf around his neck, Balzac took him by the wrist and pulled him near to get a good look at him. "No. You misunderstand. I mean that I don't. Catch colds, that is."
His hand was startlingly warm. That was when Luca stopped and really looked. In spite of the fact he was standing in a foot of snow, Balzac's trousers were perfectly dry. His vest wasn't speckled in the least, and his hair, though teased out slightly by the winds gusting across the campus, didn't stick to his forehead. He even radiated heat. The snowflakes were gone before they even touched him.
"Really?" asked Luca, faintly.
"Never once in my life," said Balzac. "It seems bothersome, doesn't it?
"Oh." Luca felt his hand ease. "Oh. Yes. It's. Very bothersome. When that happens."
Balzac frowned. "You'll catch cold, though," he said, and, with a motion Luca was too confounded to follow, he pulled the scarf back over his head and draped it over Luca's instead.
"Ah, thank you," said Luca.
"Did you come pelting after me because you were worried?"
"Ah…" Luca shook snowflakes out of his hair.
Balzac stared at him, as though he were trying to plot out some sort of map that might explain what he just did. Then he smiled. It wasn't much of a smile. Not one of his big, pleased-with-himself smirks, but rather a small one that crept mostly around his eyes. "Valentine, you've wasted both our time," he said, tucking the knot close to Luca's neck. "Five minutes and forty seconds, to be exact."
"Oh, well then," said Luca, looking away.
He heard Balzac sigh, faintly. He took Luca's coat out from under his elbow, and put it over his shoulders, smoothing out the shoulder pads in just the way that Luca preferred. "But your concern is rather refreshing," he said, after a moment of consideration. "Thank you."
Luca looked up. He wasn't quite sure what to say to that. He wasn't quite sure there was anything to say to that, so he asked: "Shall I go put down those marks?"
"I'd rather you not fall and break your neck," said Balzac. He took Luca by the arm, and steered him to face the direction of the student's holiday lights. "You might as well come with me. Stay near. Neither of us will catch cold."
"Of course," said Luca, as Balzac led him across the snowbound green.