|Rumor Propagation I: A Sequence of Coincidences
Author: Guede Mazaka
Gawain was just about ready to go when two students walked in with armfuls of books. He started to sigh, then took a second look, blinking hard.
Jack looked just as surprised. “I didn’t know you were—well, you said you were a Philosophy major, but I didn’t know you were GSI for this class.”
“Are you taking this class? I…let me check my roster…” Of course, that was deep at the bottom of Gawain’s bag that he’d just packed, crumpled beneath binders and books and that guide to getting a dual-degree in Education that basically was a fucking book all by itself. After about twenty seconds of his hand getting mauled, Gawain just resigned himself and upended his bag onto the table. He sucked at a couple papercuts on his hand as he rummaged through the mess. “It doesn’t really matter too much, but since it’s the first week of hours, we’re supposed to mark off who showed up so we can see how many waitlisted students can get in.”
“Well…I’d be still waitlisted, probably,” Jack sheepishly said. He dug around in his backpack, then came up with a paper that he handed to Gawain. “I just got a message saying there was room for me. Printed it off and hurried down to see if I could catch anybody.”
Gawain glanced over the sheet, then passed it back. Everything looked okay, so he picked out a pen from his pile of stuff and wrote in Jack’s name at the bottom of his discussion list. “I do remember you, though. Jess, right?” he said.
Startled pause. “Oh! Yes, right,” Jess replied, sounding a bit flustered. She and Jack both had pretty uncommon accents for Avalon, so it was hard to forget them. “I just had a couple questions on the readings for next week. I’m sorry I’m late; I’m a transfer and I just got here about a week ago. Don’t quite know where everything is yet.”
“Oh, no, it’s okay. Go ahead and have a seat.” Well, there went getting home early and starting dinner so Tristan could eat something good on his day off. Then again, if Gawain couldn’t put up with this kind of thing, he might as well give up on the Education degree. He did his best to smile at the obviously nervous pair, and after a moment his mouth didn’t feel so stiff. “I’m pretty impressed. You only got here a week ago, but you’re already ahead on the readings?”
“Eh, well, I’m on the women’s soccer team. You learn pretty fast to stay ahead or else you end up trying to write a paper on the psychological implications of oh, I don’t know, Mrs. Dalloway on the feminist movement on the night bus back from an out-of-towner.” Jess plopped herself down and began taking her stack of books and notebooks apart. She paused to scoot over for Jack, who shyly grinned a thanks, then pulled out a page covered in miniscule scribblings.
For a moment, Gawain was reminded of Galahad back when the other man had been working on his natural sciences credits in undergrad. Galahad could do things with obscure math formulas that Gawain couldn’t have understood if he’d worked on them his whole life, but for some reason, basic chemistry had nearly car-wrecked him. He’d managed to scrape through mostly because he literally wrote down everything the professor said and got all the irrelevant concept questions thrown in just to mix things up a little. It’d taken him three weeks to get back to normal, and his handwriting was still recovering.
“The first one’s an easy—oh, I’m sorry, did you have one? You should go first,” Jess said, turning towards Jack. She seemed pretty easygoing, so maybe the whole handwriting thing wasn’t a bad omen.
She knocked her pencil with her hand as she did and sent it onto the floor. If she hadn’t done that, she wouldn’t have had to go diving after it with a muffled snort about how clumsy she was and she wouldn’t have missed the way Jack went red and shook his head a little too hard. He tried to say something, got it stuck in his throat and coughed into his hand. “Oh, no, you first. I can wait.”
“But you already helped me find this place! No, really, you first.” Jess smiled at Jack and even gave him a little encouraging wave.
Poor guy really was too pale to even bother trying not to look like he wasn’t blushing. His saving grace was that Jess seemed to be just as clueless as he was. “Well…I just was wondering about our study questions. I don’t really understand what the third one is asking for.”
“Okay…” Luckily, that sheet was right on top. Gawain checked out the question, thanking God he read pretty fast so they wouldn’t notice he actually hadn’t looked at them yet. “Well, what do you think it’s asking? We’ll just take it from there.”
“Um…” Jack riffled his copy between his fingers, then put his arm up on the table and pushed at his hair. “That we’re supposed to be summarizing Kuhn’s theory?”
Jess flipped open her notebook, then stopped and squinted a little at her notes. “I thought we were supposed to pick a scientific discovery and talk about how Kuhn’s theory describes it.”
Technically, Gawain was off in ten minutes, but this was going to take a bit longer than that. He suppressed another sigh and picked up his pencil. “You’re both pretty close…”
* * *
About twenty minutes later, it looked like Gawain had managed to get everything straightened out for Jess, but Jack was taking a little more work. He seemed smart enough to understand things, but he wasn’t exactly paying attention. And even though philosophy of science was a lot less abstract and easier to grasp than most branches of philosophy, it still required someone to have a short-term memory. Which Jack apparently didn’t have if it didn’t involve Jess.
“I probably have it somewhere in here,” Jack was currently saying. He held his notes up to his nose in a way that completely didn’t keep him from staring at Jess, who was busily packing up. “I just need to read through it all—sorry, I’m just not concentrating today.”
Well, at least he admitted it, said a little snarky voice in Gawain’s head. Though honestly, it was funny and kind of cute to watch the two of them. Kind of reminded Gawain of a fifteen-year-old Galahad back in L. A., trying to pick up girls before he filled out enough to get them to buy into the ego-tripping. “Well, feel free to email if you think of any other questions. Or, you know, bug Galahad. He’ll help, so just ignore the bitching. He usually stops after a minute.”
Jack laughed a little, and for the first time since he’d walked into the room, he didn’t sound nervous. Probably because he wasn’t paying attention to Jess, and that was a shame because she was grinning along…not like she was really digging him yet, but at least she didn’t look like she wanted to pet him reassuringly on the head. Which in Gawain’s experience dinged up pride more than a flat turn-down did.
Gawain still had to get his stuff together, so he stayed behind while the other two went out. He could hear Jess asking Jack in a nice, friendly-kidding tone, “So what was that about? You’ve got a secret line into the teaching staff or something?”
“Oh, no, not really. I’m just sharing a flat with his friend, who’s also a Philosophy major. I think. Galahad’s doing some kind of double with Econ.”
“That…sounds really hard, but kind of cool. It’d take so long, though. Hey…do you know how to get to here? This is where I’m supposed to pick up my gear.”
“Sure. Actually, I could—ah, show you. It’s not that far out of my way…didn’t you used to play for Santa Clara, by the way?”
“Oh, my God.” Jess’ blush came through her voice loud and clear. “How’d you know that?”
Once everything was in his bag, Gawain slung it over his shoulder. He kicked the chairs back into position while sorting through his keys, then stepped outside and nearly ran into Jack. He mumbled an apology that Jack absently waved off and turned around to lock up. This semester he’d gotten assigned to an actual library meeting room for office hours and it was really nice to not have to fight for a table in the main rooms, or try to jam in students in the office he and Galahad shared, so he was going to try to stay on the librarians’ good side about it.
“I came over here and I was desperate to keep up with football, so I worked on the school paper for a year as a sports columnist. The girls’ teams in America usually put on a better game, I’ve noticed,” Jack grinned. The tops of his cheekbones were red again and his eyes were sparkling. He shrugged, moving like he had last thoughts about every motion so he ended up looking as jerky as the Tinman. “You were—are really good! I heard the rumors, but I didn’t think Santa Clara would ever give you up.”
Gawain had a hard time trying not to laugh under his breath. What had Galahad called the kid? A puppy? Not quite, since Jack had enough balls to actually strike up a conversation with the girl he liked even if he looked like he was half-dying of shyness through the whole thing. The soccer fanatic part was definitely right, though.
“Oh, yeah.” A shadow passed over Jess’ face. She smiled after a moment, but it only pulled at about three-quarters of her mouth. “Thanks. Look, really, I wouldn’t want to put you out of your way, and I’ve got to figure out how to get around this place myself…”
Jack blinked, then visibly deflated. He shook himself a couple times and from behind the polite expression he threw up, looked sort of like he didn’t know what had gone wrong, but like he was going to go bang himself up over it anyway, and never mind where the fault actually was. “No, really, it’s on my way—is that Professor Kernyw?”
He leaned in front of Gawain, trying to peer around the corner as the sound of voices began to filter down to them. It sounded like a pretty involved discussion…well, that was being nice. Gawain was pretty sure he’d caught a couple fragments of curses, and the tempo of each speaker was still rising, each of them trying to get in before the other did. The first one was Kernyw, and the other person sounded familiar, too…
…not Philosophy, though. Anyway, it was not a great idea for anyone lower than, say, assistant professor to hang around when the faculty started to fight. Tenured people could be right jackasses about taking out their losses on the nearest person, and never mind whether said student was actually in their department or not. “I think we’d better leave. Believe me, that kind of thing? Not fun to watch.”
“Good point…I can always ask him about the readings next week since he’s got two more lectures,” Jack muttered. He started to turn around. “Oh, thanks again, Gawain. Sorry we kept you so late.”
“No problem.” Gawain nodded to each of them as he stepped away. It looked like they were going to cut back through shelves to a side-hall.
Kernyw and whoever he was arguing with sounded like they were drifting towards the small private conference rooms, so Gawain decided he’d round the reference book stacks. That’d take him into the same hall as Jack and Jess, but about twenty yards further down, and it’d neatly avoid the whole professor issue.
He passed Dagonet checking the shelves on his way and gave the other man a hesitant smile, to which Dagonet solemnly inclined his head, then got held up for a second by a group of freshmen girls slowly leaving their table.
“You’ve got such pretty highlights!” one of them said. Unlike Jack, she didn’t look at all embarrassed about saying stupid stuff, though she was pulling her shoulders forward so her breasts scrunched up. “Hi, I’m Angela.”
“Hi. Sorry, I’m late for a…” God, it got worse and worse every year. At least Tristan hadn’t been around to see this one, Gawain thought as he hurried away. It’d been getting really hard to explain to Arthur why so many girls in his discussion groups managed to step in dog shit or got squirrels falling out of trees onto them.
Come to think of it, Gawain wondered how Arthur was doing without Tristan to lurk around and help discourage some of the crazy students who went after him. This was…yeah, it’d be the first year Tristan wasn’t also on campus. Arthur probably was going to have to go beyond just holding his office hours in extremely public places and start getting bodyguards to stand by.
Then again, he’d cut down on his teaching load a lot to concentrate on what he said was the new sub-department; he was hoping to get the guidelines for its major approved by the end of the year, he said. And that was probably true, but that didn’t talk about why Tristan had started getting nervous every time Arthur went out of town for a conference, or why when Lancelot or Guinevere showed up at Arthur’s office now, they always grabbed his arm like they were afraid he’d disappear on them. Especially Lancelot: he did a lot of innuendo, but actual public displays of affection weren’t too common.
“Oh, my God, don’t—Christ!”
Gawain stopped. Or at least he tried to, but the hallway floor had been newly waxed and he ended up skidding a few feet. He threw out his hand and pushed off the wall, using that to his advantage, but whatever was going on was happening just around the corner.
“Professor Ker—c’mon, don’t! Don’t!”
“You jealous little bitch! I know why you’re bringing this up! I know!”
Okay…Kernyw and Jack, and a girl whose shout had been too high-pitched to recognize, but whom Gawain was betting was Jess. Fuck.
And then Gawain heard someone getting punched. Fuck.
He ran around the corner, tossing his bookbag to the side as he did, and grabbed the nearest person. He didn’t stop to see who it was, but just pushed them as far away as he could, and then moved on to the next person. When getting into a fight that you didn’t know the history of, the best bet was just to shove everybody apart and figure things out later, when you were sure nobody had weapons or anything.
“Stop it! Stop it!” Jess was yelling. She briefly dodged into Gawain’s view and he began to turn to her, but she kept on going to grab someone: long dark hair flew past Gawain as Jess hauled another woman back.
“Holy shit…” Jack was slumped against the wall, holding his shoulder and looking shell-shocked.
Gawain turned around and just glimpsed Kernyw flat on his ass on the floor before a furious growling shriek blasted his ear. He instinctively threw up his arms, then hissed as nails stabbed into one side of his left arm. “Jesus goddamn—”
He pushed back, then belatedly grabbed for the woman when he realized that that was just about to send her and Jess—still trying to hold her back—off their feet. Not that the lady was looking like she was going to thank Gawain for it. And Jesus Christ, it was Dr. Fay.
“You hypocritical piece of shit! You call yourself a head of the department! You’re a fucking disgrace!” she hissed at Kernyw.
He flushed red and threw up his leg to rise to one knee. At that point, Gawain decided he’d better get in there again and slid between them. “Hey! Dr. Kernyw! Dr. Fay! For God’s sake, don’t do this here!”
Both of their gazes snapped to him, and for a moment, all was silent. Kernyw slowly dropped back, the anger in his face draining away to bewilderment as he stared about. “What—how—”
“Ooooh, God,” Fay mumbled, dropping her face into her hand.
After a moment, Jess let go of Fay’s other arm, which immediately came around so Dr. Fay could rub at her temples. Jess warily backed off, looking at Jack. “Are you…okay?”
Which set Kernyw guiltily staring at Jack, who cautiously pressed at his shoulder. He winced a little, but it didn’t look like he needed a hospital or anything.
“I think I need an icepack,” Jack said.
Gawain just sort of stood there. He had a feeling he should be yelling his head off, but he didn’t know who to call for and as disgusting and awful as Fay and Kernyw had just been, Gawain still didn’t exactly feel comfortable bitching them out.
This really hadn’t been covered in the grad student manual.
A rattle suddenly echoed down the hall and everyone jumped. They didn’t get a chance to relax, since it quickly became clear that the rattle was due to somebody walking really fast towards them and none of them were going to have time to get away. Though Dr. Fay at least made an attempt to fix her hair, which had half-fallen out of her bun; Dr. Kernyw just sat on the floor, looking as if somebody had smacked him hard on the skull.
About twenty seconds later, Arthur rounded the corner. He was buried deep in some folder and so he didn’t notice them right away, but his head came long before most people’s would have. He stared uncomprehendingly for a moment before his gaze slowly, disbelievingly started to sharpen; he’d already come to a stop and flipped the folder beneath his arm. After a moment, he turned to Gawain. “What on earth just happened here?”
Dr. Fay opened her mouth, but was interrupted by someone calling out in the hall, “Is anything the matter?”
“It’s fine, Fulcinia,” Arthur called back. “I’ve got it. Just…keep the hallway clear for a few minutes, please. There’s been a bit of a spill.”
“I don’t suppose we could leave it at that?” Kernyw didn’t sound like he was even convincing himself. His head was down and his shoulders hunched, and his expression was that of a man who knew nothing was going to keep him from being bounced out.
Arthur looked sharply at him, then at Dr. Fay, who’d opened her mouth. She immediately shut it, then seemed a little puzzled at herself.
“You’re obviously upset,” Arthur said. “I suggest we adjourn to somewhere less public…the general offices for your department probably are closest.”
“Um.” Jess timidly raised her hand. “I have to—”
The look Arthur gave her was softer, but not any less giving. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you’ll have to accompany us till we all figure out what just happened here. Now, if it’s really an emergency, I can make sure a note’s sent, or that it’s taken care of somehow. Don’t worry—we don’t judge before we hear the evidence.”
“It’s just…picking up some stuff. I’m on the fo—soccer team here and I’m supposed to have my gear by tomorrow morning,” Jess muttered, staring at the floor.
“If you can give me an address and a list, I can send someone to do that for you. I’ll let the athletic department know you’re held up as well—no, this won’t be a black mark on your record. I promise.” Arthur smiled, which usually took care of things.
It pretty much did with Jess, though she was nothing like the usual airhead who went drooling after Arthur. She probably wasn’t either in the long run, but for right now, she was completely in Arthur’s pocket. If he smiled more, he probably would have a much easier time of it.
“Thank you for your discretion,” Dr. Fay quietly said to Arthur.
The smile dropped off his face. “It’s in kind. Don’t force me to be undiplomatic,” he muttered right back. “All right, can everyone stand?”
* * *
Gawain had punctuated his story with a lot of long pauses and embarrassed side-long looks at Tristan, so about half-way through, Lancelot had wandered down the hall and charmed some coffee out of the nearest passing secretary. He’d brought some back to Guin so she’d only bitched at him a little for missing some of the story. Whereupon he’d mentioned that Gawain’s voice carried quite well and he’d heard everything, so Gawain didn’t have to stop and repeat for his behalf. She’d looked rather preciously annoyed at that.
“Arthur’s pretty good at showing up just in time to save the day,” Galahad commented, shifting his knees around. He put his hands on Mariette’s waist and lifted her a bit, then tucked her back into his left arm.
“Whatever. All I know was, I was fucking happy to see him. I seriously wouldn’t have known what to do. And even if I had, I’m not sure I’m qualified to do it—I mean, Kernyw’s got tenure already, doesn’t he?” Tristan and Gawain had semi-swapped places so now Gawain was squeezed into the couch next to Galahad and sagging with relief into the cushions. He stared at the ceiling, as if thanking God for Arthur again.
Well, God should be thanked for some of it, but most of the time, Lancelot felt like marching up there and asking if His Almighty Lord could’ve gone just a smidge lighter on the guilt and duty.
And anyway, serendipity played a much smaller part in Arthur’s life than most people ever knew. “Reading a folder, huh?”
Something pointy smashed into Lancelot’s foot, sending him jerking straight up in his chair and nearly making him spill his coffee. He started to swear, then noticed everyone staring. So instead he smiled half-heartedly and sipped at the coffee, and made plans to break every single one of Guin’s damn heels whenever they did get back home.
“It was kind of weird that he was there when he was, though. I thought he was in meetings over at the Dean’s office all day—he had to cancel a meeting with me for those—and that’s across campus.” After a moment, Gawain sat up and snapped his fingers. He briefly grinned with the unfettered joy of a man who’d just remembered a piece of random trivia the one time in a million he needed to remember it. “Oh, right. No, that makes sense. He emailed me earlier if I could bring a book by his office, but I told him I was going to be busy then and he said it was all right, he’d just try to run over and get it himself. I guess he got a moment.”
It was on the tip of Lancelot’s tongue to ask what book, but even to him, that seemed a little obvious. And when he glanced at Guin, she made it clear she thought that’d be ridiculously suspicious.
“Mark got tenure just before he was promoted to head up the department,” Tristan thoughtfully said. He was watching the conference room door, which probably was why he’d moved to the table in the first place: clearer line of sight. “Three years ago? Dr. Fay’s about six months from getting it, last I heard.”
Lancelot could tell Guinevere was dying to ask for more along that line, but she restrained herself. Good thing, because as much as they disliked Fay for flirting with Arthur every single damn time she saw him, she had been one of Tristan’s favorite professors. And Tristan would know exactly how much of their interest was due to plain possessiveness, and he’d do that damn blank-face that was really a hidden smirk, and he was Arthur’s pseudo-adopted son so they weren’t allowed to hurt him.
“Oh, so she’s in the forensic science department, too?” Jack asked. His hand wandered towards his shoulder. “She’s got a terrific right.”
Gawain paused, then turned to look incredulously at him. “Fay’s the one who hit you?”
“Well, yes, but she wasn’t actually trying to hit me—”
“Wait, wait, start at the beginning,” Guin said. “Best way to keep from getting confused.”
Of course, strictly speaking, she and Lancelot probably shouldn’t even be worrying about getting confused because they shouldn’t be getting involved…this certainly wasn’t the time for Lancelot to be developing advanced moral scruples. He rolled his eyes at himself and pricked up his ears.