Steve sat as stock-still as she could manage, trying to match Mike’s family. She couldn’t help but picture herself as a smear of red ink on a black-and-white photograph: distracting and unwelcome. She cleared her throat and smiled, trying not to think about how poorly she forced smiles.
“This is a really lovely condo, Mrs. Lewis,” Steve said cheerfully.
Mrs. Lewis stared at Steve, then said what Steve thought was, “Thank you, Miss Anderson,” but also closely resembled “shut up” in tone and intent.
“Michael tells us that you’re a gunsmith, Stephen?” Mike’s father said with a tone of apology in his voice.
“An apprentice,” Steve said.
“Ah,” Mike’s father said. “To, ah, which company?”
“Er, to an artisan gunsmith, actually,” Steve said. “Grover Messianic.”
“I’ve never heard of a Grover Messianic,” Mrs. Lewis sneered.
Steve bristled, but said nothing.
“We ensure that Michael buys only from major companies,” Mrs. Lewis continued. “It ensures a quality weapon.”
“This pasta is very good, Mrs. Lewis,” Steve lied through clenched teeth.
“Yes,” Mrs. Lewis agreed. “So. Stephen. You have a peculiar name, don’t you?”
“Stephen?” Steve said, a little surprised. “Er—no, it’s a very old name.”
“Traditionally a male one,” Mrs. Lewis replied.
“It’s been gender-neutral for several generations,” Steve said. “Just like Peter and Etienne. And Mason.”
“Mmm,” Mrs. Lewis said. “We’re a very traditional family.”
“But … you’re Etherists,” Steve said, confused. She stole a glance at Mike, who was staring intently at his pasta.
“What of it, young lady?” Mrs. Lewis said acidly. “Etherism has its roots in many ancient monotheistic religions. We believe in following their traditions without their limp-wristed attitude. What religion are you?”
“My family is American Catholic…” Steve began.
“Miss Stephen,” Mike’s father cut in. “It’s our understanding that you and Michael met at the Securemarket™ Retreat.”
“Yes, we did.”
“And how did your store do at the Kekkai exercises?” Mrs. Lewis asked.
“We won both of them,” Steve said, deciding not to mention that one had been against Mike’s store.
Mrs. Lewis raised her eyebrows. “With you on the team, even?”
Steve’s ears rang as she felt blood rush to her face. Pushing her rage down, she swallowed and replied, “I understand your surprise, but they actually forgot to apply a handicap to offset my high skill.”
Mrs. Lewis stared at Steve.
Steve stormed away from the condominium as fast as her little legs would carry her. As she expected, Mike interrupted her departure by calling from its entrance. “Steve, wait!”
Steve whirled. Her face expressed a mixture of indignation and hope as she shouted at Mike. She did not lower her voice even as he halted about two meters away from her. “Mike, I want an apology and a promise and I want them right now,” she said. “I want you to apologize for not warning me about your mother, and I want a promise that I will never have to see her again!”
Mike shifted from one foot to the other. “I … can give you an apology and a promise.”
Steve waited a few seconds for his reply, then threw her hands forward. “Waiting!”
Mike scratched the back of his head. “Steve, my family is really important to me, you’ve got to understand.”
Steve stared at Mike, then dropped her hands.
“My mother seems really harsh, I know, but—”
“She insulted me, Mike!” Steve shouted. “She insulted my breeding, my skill, my store, my friends, my employer…” she gesticulated wildly, trailing off.
“She just doesn’t want me to settle for somebody who doesn’t deserve me,” Mike said. “And you rubbed her the wrong way.”
“I don’t care how I rubbed her,” Steve said. “I care how I rub you. Please, Mike. An apology and a promise.”
Mike looked at Steve a few moments, then averted his eyes. “I promise you will never have to see my mother again, Steve.”
Steve’s stomach dropped a meter at his tone.
“And I’m sorry,” he continued, “because this isn’t going to work out. I’m sorry.”
Steve stared wide-eyed at Mike. He did not return her gaze.
“What?” Steve finally asked, incredulous.
“This isn’t going to work out,” Mike said. “I can’t be with … it’s … my family is very important to me. I’m sorry.”
Without looking up to meet Steve’s eyes, he turned and walked away.
It wasn’t until he was nearly halfway to the condo entrance that Steve found her voice. “You—you aren’t doing this to me!”
Mike kept walking.
“You can’t be that spineless!” Steve shouted. “It’s not possible! You’re twenty-two; leave the womb!”
Mike ducked his head further, but did not slow his approach to the building’s entrance.
Steve watched him go, tears in her eyes. When he reached the door, she screamed, “Fine! Fuck you, you son of a fuck! I hope that you find somebody who deserves you, because what an icy bitch she’s going to be!”
Steve turned and ran full-tilt away from the hulking monolith of the condominium building.
“Can we kill him, maybe?” Zap asked. “I’m for murdering him in an alley.”
“Yes!” Steve sobbed. “Yes, please do!”
“No,” Nalley said firmly, “no killing. No death.”
Steve went back to sobbing, crouched between Alan and Nalley while Zap paced the floor of the apartment. Nalley gently stroked Steve’s back as she cried.
“You really didn’t date him for very long—” Alan began gently.
“Shh!” Nalley shushed. Alan quieted, clearly out of his element.
“Maiming?” Zap asked. “Maybe we could maim him?”
“Yes!” Steve said.
“No.” Nalley corrected. “No killing or maiming or hurting.”
Zap let out an explosive breath and resumed pacing.
The sound of a key in the door caught everyone’s attention. When it opened and Roger stepped through it, he found everyone’s attention on him. His crimson-flushed eyes flickered to Steve’s, which were nearly as red from weeping.
“I’ll just go to my room then,” Roger said. Alan nodded. Roger slipped past the group and disappeared down the hallway.
There was an awkward silence for a minute.
“I’d like to reopen the consideration for killing and/or maiming,” Zap said.
“I second the motion,” Steve said.
Pazi sat on the bed of her dorm room and hugged herself fiercely. Her dog-dragon familiar snaked around her body, making concerned noises as he did so. She unclenched and reached out a hand to pet him. The creature made more noises of worry.
“Inryu,” she asked the familiar, “I really thought that Zap was doing better. Why does one missed date bother me so much?”
Inryu headbutted her hand.
“If he called first, does that make it okay that he canceled?” she asked. “If so, why do I feel so bad?”
Pazi fell back onto the bed. “Is it because I know without asking that this is about Steve?”
Inryu snaked up to her face and lapped it with affection and concern.
“And because I assume that because it’s probably about Steve, does that mean that I’m jealous of her?” she asked.
She sighed. “And is that because I believe that Zap is in love with her and not with me?”
She looked at her familiar, running her hand down his long, winding back.
“Should I break up with Zap, Inryu?” she asked.
There was a long pause.
“When I become a better Summoner, will I be able to Call familiars that speak English?” she asked.
“Graow,” Inryu replied.