Ioan Bălan — 2349
How has this become my life? Ioan thought — as ey always did — when stepping away from home to the now familiar café.
May had — as she always did — dotted her nose against eir cheek, licked over eir nose a little too wetly, and said, “Good luck, have fun, and do not die,” and then ey stepped from home to arrive in front of the squat wood paneled coffee shop. The same sign proclaiming “Open 24 hours” fading in the sun. The same chipper baristas. The same sparklingly clean espresso machine. The same couch in the corner.
The same thing, month after month: step into the coffee shop to order the same coffee — delicious as always — and wait for the same True Name to arrive.
Their standard greeting would be for Ioan to stand and bow — ey was always there too early — set up a cone of silence and share a bit of chit-chat, however many little nothings felt appropriate for the day, for the month since they’d last seen each other, before settling back down on the L-shaped couch, each to work on their own projects.
Then, as ever, one or the other of them would call an end to the meeting, if meeting it was, and they’d stand once more, bow, and each would step back home.
Or, at least, ey would always step back home, where May would — as she always did — congratulate em on not dying. Ey didn’t know where True Name left to.
The only thing that seemed to change was the topics they talked about — the this-or-thats of life — and True Name herself.
She was always smartly dressed, she always smiled brightly to em, always ordered the same mocha with extra whipped cream, and would always seem to get dabs of it on her nose-tip; but over time, the skunk had slowly picked up some ineffable quality about her that Ioan could only ever describe as ‘harried’. It wasn’t in her grooming, for her whiskers were always neat and orderly, the longer fur atop her head well brushed, and her claws neatly trimmed. It wasn’t in the things she talked about, for she always had some interesting bit of news about any of the three — four, if one counted Artemis — Systems out there.
It was, ey decided, something to do with her eyes, her cheeks, the way her hands moved. It was in her voice, in her mien, in her bearing.
Once a month, ey’d meet True Name for coffee, and each time, she seemed that much more worn down, carrying that much more tension in her features, looking just that much older.
When ey first described this to May, the skunk had spent a silent minute staring out into the yard — or at least the corner visible from her beanbag — then stretched out on her belly, draping over the outsized cushion. “Have you asked her, my dear?”
Ioan had shaken eir head. “It never felt polite to.”
“Some day you should,” she had said. “Though it is my suspicion that she is, as you have said, losing her easy confidence. She is struggling with the fact that she must constantly dump energy into keeping up the appearance of always being so in control.”
Ioan had leaned back in eir chair and stared up at the ceiling. “That certainly tallies with what she’s said in the past.”
“She is the type of person who will always take more upon herself, more and more and more until she cracks,” May had murmured, quiet enough that Ioan had to strain to hear. “That she has been at this for more than two and a quarter centuries and the strain is only now showing is, if anything, a testament to her perseverance. Or obstinance, perhaps.”
Ever since that day, that conversation would rise to the fore of eir memory whenever ey met up with True Name for coffee. They would have their conversation, sip their drinks, and then get to whatever projects they were working on — but there would always be a small portion of eir mind dedicated to squaring what ey knew of her with just how old she was.
What ey’d strategically left out of that conversation with May, however, was that eir fascination seemed to be driven by an almost pathological need to help. Somehow. Ey wanted to find what it was that was wearing so much on True Name and find a way to ease it. There was a problem there, and problems were made for solving, yes?
It was something about em that May knew, ey was sure, but which ey’d never shared with her, as ey knew that her response would either be the gentle teasing that she was so good at heaping on em or the gentle inquisition that she was equally adept at conducting. She’d ask em where the feeling stemmed from: was it from within eir mind, or within eir heart? Was it related to all problems? Was it because True Name looked so much like her, eir partner? When had it started? Launch? Convergence? Never mind if it were a problem that ey could not solve, as was almost certainly the case, what would ey do if it was a problem she did not want solved?
Ey knew she’d ask em those questions because whenever ey asked them of emself, ey heard them in her voice. Even when ey’d asked Sarah, eir therapist (or, well, all three of their therapists), there was some subconscious overlay of the skunk’s lilting voice floating above the question, and ey’d find emself dropping contractions and leaning on the anaphora that all Odists seemed stuck with.
“You seem particularly lost in thought today, Ioan.”
Ey jolted at the sudden intrusion of a voice on eir thoughts, then smiled sheepishly at True Name. “Sorry about that. I hope I wasn’t mumbling to myself.”
She grinned. “Not this time, no, though your lips were moving, so I suspect you were not far off.”
Shaking eir head, ey capped eir pen, tucking it into a pocket and closing eir notebook on one of the place-marker ribbons. “I don’t doubt it.”
“What was on your mind, if I may ask?”
Ey hesitated, considering eir options. The desire to fix, to help, to aid and assist, still hung around em, but it’d be impertinent for em to just offer that out of nowhere. Instead, ey said, “Something May said. About you, I mean. Hopefully that’s not weird.”
The skunk laughed. “It depends on what she said, does it not? Though I am flattered to have been in your thoughts. What did she have to say?”
“That you’re the type of person to take on whatever’s in front of you, even if your docket’s already full. I was trying to piece together how much of that applies to the rest of the clade, too.” After a moment, ey shrugged and added, “And myself, for that matter.”
True Name looked up to the ceiling, head tilted thoughtfully. “I do not think there is any disputing that I will load myself up with responsibilities, often to the point of overloading. I remember some of that from before I was forked, though I do not think Michelle was of quite the same temperament. She took on more than she could handle more out of a sense of social obligation than…whatever it is that drives me.”
She shrugged. “Perhaps. What is it that Dear says so often? ‘I do not make art because I know why; if I knew why, I would not need to make art’? It is like that for me. I do not strive because I know what drives me. If I knew what that was, who knows if I would continue to strive?”
Ey marveled, as ey so often did, at just how many of the Odists seem to speak in well structured paragraphs. Thesis, hypothesis, synthesis.
“It seems like it’s wearing on you,” ey said. Realizing that it had been nearly five minutes of em trying to psych emself up to say so, ey added, “All that you’ve got going on, I mean.”
She frowned, leaned forward to pick up her coffee, and took a lapping sip. “Does it? I am feeling increasingly overloaded, yes, but that is not new. How is it visible?”
“You just seem more tired every time I see you.”
She nodded. “I am, yes.”
“Is there–” Ey caught emself up short, forcibly tamped down the urge to offer to help, and instead said, “I mean, what all are you working on? I can never tell with you and May. It just looks like thinking.”
“It is perhaps a problem with doing all of one’s work in one’s head.” she said. “We are not blessed with your affinity for paper.”
She chuckled. “Your words, not mine. But, well…with the understanding that I cannot tell you everything that I am working on, I will say that there is much to be done when it comes to shaping sys-side sentiment around all of the various new tech.”
“The expanded ACLs on cones of silence, for example. It is nice to be able to obscure the occupants, yes? No more hiding one’s mouth or expression. Limiting sensorium messages into or out of them by individual or clade is also quite nice for guaranteeing information security. Your interlocutor cannot be used to spy on you, yes? Ditto the refinements on sweeping unwanted occupants. We may shape our interactions more exactly with this tech. But how does one pass on the knowledge of the upgrades to the System? There are various feeds, yes, but even something as small as that requires some thought put into how to announce it. Do we hail it as a technological advancement, or do we put a tone of resignation on it, as though we have been given something no one wanted? Perhaps we announce it with a resounding chorus of ‘fucking finally’.”
“It seems to have gone over well, at least.”
“It did, yes.” Then, with a tilt of her head, ey felt the ACL-scape of the cone they were within shift, and there was a subtle blurring to the world around them as she opaqued the cone from the outside. “Now consider the effects of audio/visual transmission between sys- and phys-side.”
Ey blinked and sat up straighter. “Wait, what?”
“You see? Much thought must be put into managing expectations.”
“Back up a moment. Are we going to actually get that?”
“It is already enabled in a select few locked-down sims, yes. AVEC, we are calling it. Audio/Visual Extrasystem Communication. A faint hope to foster a sense of connection between our two worlds with a pithy name.”
She laughed. “Holy shit, indeed. I have no clue as to the tech that goes into it, which is made all the more complicated from it being inspired by our dear Artemisian friends, but what I do know is that this will shift many of the plans in place around stability. When I sit here in silence, drinking my coffee and looking deep in thought, I am working on that. I write my speeches or talk with my cocladists or other versions of myself, and fill out the exo I have dedicated to the topic.”
“And that wears you out?” Ey hastened to add, “Not to say that it isn’t work, of course.”
The skunk gave a hint of a bow in acknowledgement. “It is part of a larger work landscape in progress, yes. So much to keep in my head, so many conversations to be had, so many tiny social interactions to monitor, both in person and over the text of the perisystem feeds.”
Ey nodded. There was so much to process in just the new tech, not to mention the reminder that, even if ey’d long since started thinking of True Name as a complete and complex person and not some shady, two-dimensional villain, she still had her fingers in just about every political pie that could possibly exist on the three incarnations of the System.
“Does writing not wear you out, Ioan?”
“Well, sometimes,” ey hedged. “I guess it depends on what all is going into whatever it is that I’m writing. The History wore me out at some points, particularly during research, but for the most part, writing was just…what I did. It didn’t wear me out any more than breathing might.”
“Oh, that definitely wears me out.”
“I remember that, yes. Even just standing backstage, waiting for one’s moment to enter felt exhausting sometimes. I would get all worn out and want nothing more than to go home and fall over, afterwards.”
“Didn’t you go get shitty diner food or whatever?”
“Oh, nearly every time,” she said, grinning. “I would never let so sacred a ritual be spoiled by something as silly as sleep.”
Ey nodded. “A Finger Pointing certainly holds to it like a ritual, yeah. It’s a toss up whether or not she drinks us all under the table.”
“Of course.” The skunk grinned and finished her coffee, setting the mug down on the table. “We studied long and hard to build up such a tolerance.”
“Doesn’t sound super healthy.”
“I suppose not. At least, not back phys-side.”
“I noticed that seems to be unevenly distributed,” ey observed. “May and I rarely drink unless it’s with someone else, but Dear and its partners seem to drink quite a bit.”
“So I have heard. There are a few aspects of our past life that were only picked up by a few of us, beyond the obvious interests. Drinking, theatre and art, furry, that sort of thing. I have never figured out whether there is any rhyme or reason to it.”
Ey nodded. “Makes me wonder if I might’ve done the same if I were more of a dispersionista.”
“Perhaps,” she said, shrugging. “Codrin has diverged quite a bit from you. They both have. You can put at least some of that on us, though. May Then My Name and Dear, I mean.”
“Right,” ey said, laughing. “May’s fond of saying that it’s the Odists' job to fuck with us until we loosen up.”
True Name folded her paws in her lap primly, grinning to em.
This is it, ey thought. This is why I keep coming back. Even if she is consciously turning up the friendliness to maintain some weird status quo, or even if she’s naturally like that, she’s still nice to be around.
Ey considered letting the topic continue, but the thought was intriguing enough to voice out loud. “Why do you do this, True Name? Get coffee with me, I mean.”
“There is nothing nefarious about it, if that is what you are asking,” she said, pausing briefly. “In confidence?”
“Of course. I imagine most of what you say is in confidence.”
“Indeed. I trust that you will not share the news about AVEC yet.”
“Right. Then I suppose it is just nice to have a friend, for lack of a better term.”
A conversation from years back wafted up through eir memory. “You said back during convergence, ‘We will never be close, you and I.’ Has that changed?”
“I do not know. Has it?”
“That is why I say ‘for lack of a better term’. We are on good terms, are we not? We are able to co-exist, to talk about news and nonsense, yes? To chat?” She shrugged, smiled to em. “That is perilously close to friendship, I think. If you do not feel that the label fits, I understand, but I stand by what I said: it is nice to have a friend. Someone who is not another me.”
“Aren’t you friends with Jonas?”
The hesitation was brief, but still notable for just how tense it was. “We make pretty good colleagues, and we have a mode of interaction that is comfortable for us, but the dynamic that you and I have is far closer to friendship than that of mine and his.”
Ey tilted eir head, asking, “Was that always the case?”
The skunk’s expression never changed, but her tone grew far more careful as she bowed her head politely and said, “I am not comfortable with this topic, my dear.”
“Of course. Sorry, True Name.”
She nodded once more, the relief in her expression as plain as the exhaustion that came with it. “Thank you for being understanding. All of that to say that I enjoy our coffee and co-working sessions because there is a sense of friendship to them, and even I need that sometimes.”
“Well, I’m happy to provide,” ey said. The Bălan clade seemed to have undergone a collective reevaluation of True Name over the last few years, but even so, the plain earnestness led to a moment of tamping down suspicion that ey was simply being played. “And for what it’s worth, that lines up with my thoughts. Glad we have the chance to do so.”
She raised her cup in acknowledgment. “Thank you, Ioan. That is perhaps a good note to end on, as I would like to reconcile memories across my instances.”
Ey nodded. “Sure. Until next time?”
The skunk stood and bowed. “Yes. Until next time. Enjoy the rest of your day, my dear.”
The cone of silence dropped, letting in a jolt of noise, and the skunk stepped from the sim. Ey finished eir coffee, then stepped back home.
“I am pleased to see that you did not die,” May said, looking up from her notebook.
Ey kicked off eir shoes and set down eir own notebook on eir desk before walking over to give the skunk a kiss between the ears. “Nope, not this time. Stuck with me for a while yet.”
She set her pen down and stretched before leaning up to dot her nose against eirs, arms draped up around eir shoulders. “Good, I am not finished wringing all I can out of you. One day, you will be left a broken husk of a Bălan and I will move on to my next victim.”
Shaking eir head, ey returned that nose-press before straightening up. “You’re doing a crap job of it, May. You keep adding to my life rather than taking away from it.”
She laughed. “Even when you are joking, you are adorable. Love you too, my dear. How was True Name?”
“Oh, fine. Much the same, I guess. We just worked and chatted and drank coffee. Nothing unusual.”
“Well, that can be good, right?”
“Yeah, comfort in familiarity. She did at least confirm your hypothesis that she’s just been overloading herself.”
May nodded, stood, padded to her beanbag, flopped down. “Of all of us, she is most prone to that, I suspect.”
“I don’t think the Artemis dump is helping out, there. They’re pulling all sorts of stuff from it.”
“You are as well, are you not?”
Ey laughed. “I suppose I am, at that.”
She reached out and snagged one of eir hands, pulling em down onto the beanbag beside her. Ey lay back and let her rest her head against eir shoulder before settling eir arm around her. Comfortable, familiar.
“She said something else that was interesting I’d like to discuss, but I don’t want to keep talking about her if you’re uncomfortable with it. It can be later.”
She shrugged, doodling a dull claw lazily over eir stomach through eir shirt and vest, sitting just shy of ticklish. “I do not mind. You know that I have been working on it.”
“Sure, I just didn’t want to–”
“I will tell you if I would like to drop the topic, I promise,” she said, then laughed. “Sorry, Ioan. I did not mean to interrupt.”
“No, it’s okay. She actually did that quite well today.” Ey leaned eir head back on the beanbag. “I asked why she kept up with me with the coffee meetings, and she said that it’s just nice to have a friend.”
May tilted her head up, enough to bump her nose against the underside of eir chin. “Are you? Friends, I mean.”
“That’s what we talked about. Neither of us could really decide on anything beyond ‘friends for lack of a better term’.” Ey hesitated, feeling incredibly conscious of eir partner resting against em, her stated resentment of her down-tree instance, how that had veered for so long into hatred over all that she had done. Ey continued, speaking carefully, “I like having interesting people to talk to and she’s been pretty good company. She likes having someone to just be around and talk with that isn’t herself or Jonas.”
“Are they still not getting along?”
“Worse, maybe. That’s where she requested that I drop the topic. She said that they made good coworkers, but not necessarily friends, and I asked if that was always the case, and she said she wasn’t comfortable having that conversation. Very politely, of course, but it looked like it took a lot of effort.”
“Mm.” The skunk lowered her muzzle, letting em peek down at her again. “I have been working on how I define myself in relation to True Name. I do not like that I spent so long hating her. I do not want that to be a part of who I am. I am May, who loves, yes? I hold no such compunctions about Jonas, though, and I am sorry that she still feels she must engage with him. He was a piece of shit then and I imagine that he is far worse now.”
“Huh?” Ey shook eir head as ey pieced together what she meant. “Oh right, sorry. I guess you were forked off after he and True Name started working together.”
“Yes. I remember that from when I was her. We were not friends then, and I am glad that she is not his friend now.”
“I only met him those few times years back, and yeah, I’m glad she isn’t, either. He was definitely a piece of shit.”
She laughed and poked em in the belly. “Mx. Ioan Bălan, you watch your language.”
“Hey, I curse!”
“Not well, Ionuț.”
“Yeah, well, fuck you too,” ey said, smirking at the teasingly diminutive form of eir name.
The skunk sat up and gave em an exaggerated frown. “I am warning you, young man.”
Ey rolled eir eyes. “‘Young man’?”
Ey grinned, shook eir head. “Try again.”
Ey laughed. “I don’t know what your hang-up is, you nut. I learned it from you.”
“What, ‘fuck you too’?” May shook her head. “It just sounds so strange coming from your mouth.”
“I’m not as good at the well placed profanity as all of you.”
“It is an art we have perfected. It increases the impact when they do show up. Even True Name does it, I am sure.”
“She has once or twice, yeah. You two still sound similar enough in terms of your voices, so I feel like I’m used to it.”
May nodded, leaned down, and licked em squarely across the nose before settling down against eir front again. “Yes, I suppose we do. Here is where we drop the topic, however.”
“Alright,” ey said, wiping eir face. “What should we do for dinner?”
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