|Rumor Propagation II: Half-Baked Planning
Author: Guede Mazaka
Galahad poked at the sidewalk crack with his toe, his face all screwed up like he was thinking hard. Or like he was thinking about smacking Jack, but fighting it because they were outside on public grounds. “So lemme get this straight—your favorite female soccer player just transferred here, and you like, talked your way into one of the most popular philosophy classes so you could be in the same two-hundred-plus lecture hall with her, but you don’t want help getting into the athletic department to see her?”
“How do you know you could get us into the dorms or the practice areas, anyway?” Jack asked. He could feel his cheeks burning and he scrubbed at his right one for a couple seconds before giving up. It wasn’t going to do any good; he’d been hopelessly pasty all his life, so it wasn’t as if he was going to be able to hide a blush now.
“I dated a couple girls on the…let’s see…track…swimming…tennis…golf…lacrosse…”
Jack blinked. “This was…before Mariette, right?”
“Well, yeah,” Galahad said, looking offended. “Jesus—”
“Sorry, sorry, foot in mouth. I’m just…look, don’t you think I should, I don’t know, meet her and talk to her before I go jumping fences or anything. I know you’re trying to help, and I really do appreciate it.” Especially since like an ass, Jack had spent their first week rooming together in a World Cup daze, and even after that, Galahad still was trying to be friendly. And he was a second-year grad student, at that—he hardly needed to be wasting his time with an idiot like Jack. “I just want to make a good impression on her.”
Galahad sighed, then checked his watch. “Look, I’ve got to run. Just let me know if the talking thing doesn’t work out, okay? I mean, you’re skinny enough so that we could probably just slip you through a window.”
“Ah…thanks. Will do,” Jack slowly replied. He backed up a bit and watched Galahad start off towards the Econ offices.
His roommate clearly had an interesting background, and even more interesting personal morals. Of course, Jack’s father would have chalked that up to Galahad being partially a liberal arts major and partially a ‘bean-counting’ major. If the Admiralty couldn’t use it on a warship, then it didn’t exist for his dad.
Thankfully, Jack’s mother thought medicine was a perfectly respectable field and for once had harangued for Jack. Hopefully she wouldn’t be too shocked once she found out he was planning to go the sports and not the hospital route with that.
Someone jostled Jack, then rushed on with a quick muttered apology. He wasn’t hurt, but that did remind him that he needed to get moving himself. The first philosophy of science lecture was in ten minutes, and he’d wanted to get there early to find a seat where he could hide from the lecturer and hopefully spot Jess Bhamra before the end of class.
Jack pulled his backpack strap higher up on his shoulder and headed off. Was he acting ridiculously pathetic over this? Yes. But by God, if he had to be a geek about it then he was going to be an orderly, forward-thinking one.
* * *
The lecture hall was a lot bigger than Jack had been expecting. His freshmen year philosophy seminar had had even more people, but then, one of the primary lecturers for that class had been Professor Pendragon and anyone with eyes could understand why he’d draw so many people. He’d been one of the best teachers Jack had had, too…when all the bloody girls hadn’t been drowning him out with their giggling.
After noticing how the overhead projector had been aimed, Jack ended up picking a seat in the far left corner. Whenever Professor Kernyw turned to point out something on the screen, he’d have to put his back to Jack, which was ideal since Jack spent about ten seconds of every minute madly copying the notes and the other fifty seconds searching the auditorium.
No luck. He was still looking when the lights suddenly came up, their brightness like a clap of thunder, and class was over. Jack groaned in disappointment before he could help himself, but he did have a spot of luck there because Kernyw belatedly assigned homework and everyone else moaned at the exact same moment. Frankly, Jack couldn’t have cared less; he only needed this class for distribution, so he wasn’t even taking it graded. As long as he turned in every third homework assignment, showed up and wrote coherently on the exams, he was free to…fail at even being a stalker, apparently.
He only had this one class today, so he took his time stuffing his things into his backpack. Then he remembered that he also had to show up to someone’s office hours in order to officially get on the class rosters and hurried it up a bit; by then the hall had more or less emptied out so he had no problem making his way to the doors. He paused there to pull out his listing of GSIs so he could figure out which one would be easiest.
“Um, excuse me?”
“Yes—” Jack looked up with a pleasant, absentminded smile on his face and froze that way. Well. Maybe somebody was looking out for him today.
Jess Bhamra held up a campus map and a GSI listing rather similar to Jack’s, looking a bit distressed. “I’m so sorry, but I’m trying to get to here and I have no idea how to read this map. Could you—”
“Oh. Oh, sure! Actually, I was going the same way,” Jack said, praying he didn’t sound too creepy. “Jack Hammond.”
He must have come off a little too excited, because Jess blinked and leaned back a little, but after a moment she smiled. She was…well, shorter than she’d looked on the field, but just as pretty. “Thanks. I’m Jess Bhamra.”
And that was about all Jack really recalled of their conversation on the way over to the u-brary. He thought he said some inane things about where other things on campus were, and he made her laugh once, but he had no idea whether it was at him or with him.
Actually, he was rather glad the GSI in question ended up being Gawain, because the insides of his head had been getting truly twisted up in nerves and he could feel he was on the verge of blurting out something incredibly stupid. But Gawain was there, and instead Jack got to let off pressure by acting an idiot about that; now that he thought about it, he should’ve recognized the name on the list. The GSIs were all by their family name, but still, Gawain’s wasn’t that common.
Jack blundered through making up on the spot some questions about the class, then gratefully let Jess take over the session. Unlike him, she’d clearly been paying attention to the lecture…which probably ruled out offering to help tutor her. She’d always come off as quite bright in the pre- and post-game interviews…
“Thanks for staying after,” Jess said, and Jack came back to the world with a thump.
Gawain glanced at him, but it was too quick for Jack to tell whether the other man had really noticed what was up with him. “Oh, it’s no big deal. And how about you? Anything else?”
“No—well, yes, but I’m pretty sure I’d be repeating myself.” Jack looked down at his notebook and was pleasantly surprised to see that he’d in fact been taking notes. They even looked like they might be related to the class. “I probably have all the answers somewhere in here. I just need to read through it all—sorry, I’m just not concentrating today.”
Yeah, Gawain had definitely noticed what was going on, but he seemed more amused by it than anything else. He just laughed and told Jack to email, or pester Galahad, and started to pack up. He was kind of like a less profane, more laidback version of Galahad with the way he seemed to approach the world.
Jack didn’t really have any plans for now, so he walked slowly and let himself fall into step with Jess. She didn’t seem to find it too weird, thank God. “So what was that all about? You’ve got a secret line into the teaching staff?”
“Oh, no, not really. I’m just sharing a flat with his friend, who’s another Philosophy major. I think. Galahad’s doubling up with Econ too,” Jack said. He watched Jess dig around in her notebook, then pull out one of the free sheets stuck in it and took a wild guess.
Sure enough, she asked for help getting around campus again, and he didn’t completely make a hash of turning that into a longer conversation and an excuse to keep walking with her. They were interrupted by the sound of Dr. Kernyw arguing with someone, but Gawain sensibly told them to walk around it and Jack sensibly managed to take his advice. It looked like Jack’s mind wasn’t a complete loss. Maybe it was even recovering.
He led Jess towards one of the side-halls, which was going to be a bit long but which should nicely circumvent the issue. “So…I’m sorry if this is prying, but can I ask why you decided to transfer here? I mean, I love Avalon, and the women’s football team is pretty good, but in terms of football, if you’re comparing New York to California…”
“Ah, I think the East Coast teams are going to have a good year. They’ve really been coming up,” Jess said. She lightened her words with a grin, but didn’t soften the argument.
“Well, true. College-level, we’re definitely getting better. But ugh—I’m sorry, I just can’t stand the Red Bulls.” Jack grimaced. Actually, he found MLS incredibly dull compared to back home, but he was in America for at least four years, so mooning over what he was missing obviously wasn’t a viable option. He just wished coping was easier.
Jess had a quirky half-smile on her face. “D. C. United?”
“Chivas, thank you,” Jack sniffed. “Though this is all because it’s so hard to watch an EPL game here.”
After a moment, Jess laughed and shook her head. Her braid started to slip over her shoulder and she pushed it back as they turned a corner. “I miss English footie too,” she admitted. “It’s such a long flight from L. A. to London—that’s where my family is—that I got really lonely. Even though my friend Jules…well, a few hours’ difference in flight time doesn’t sound like much, but it can be.”
“No, I—what the hell?” Jack pushed on ahead, trying to get a good look. A big cart of books was blocking off half the hallway, and beyond that were the sounds of…oh, it was Kernyw and whoever else was arguing with him. They’d reversed direction and were coming back the opposite way.
Well, in that case Jack and Jess would have to take the really long way. He turned and was lifting his hand to point where they’d have to go when woman cried out.
“Don’t touch me!” Kernyw said, voice edged with violence.
Beside Jack, Jess sucked in her breath and grabbed for her bookbag strap, starting to push it down. “I think—”
Kernyw inhaled, loudly and sharply. When a man breathed like that, sounding like a maddened bull, it never was a good sign. They couldn’t leave now—they couldn’t leave this alone, Jack decided, but he didn’t know what to do, really. He couldn’t see what was going on—he dropped his bag and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey!”
He was hoping just a shout might remind the others they were in a public area, and for a moment, everything was quiet so Jack thought it might have worked.
“I’m going to see the Dean right now,” said a woman’s voice. There was the click of a heel as she took a step.
“Oh, my God—Christ!” Kernyw suddenly scrambled towards her. “Morgan!” he hissed.
Jess was standing where she could see better and she abruptly tossed off her backpack to run forward. “Hey, don’t!”
Of course, Jack was hot on her heels. Then she dodged left and he got a clear view of what was happening: Kernyw had a woman by the arm and was trying to pull her back, while she was doing everything short of punching him to try and get free. She raised her arm and her face was set in a truly frightening snarl. Kernyw’s back was to Jack; he cursed and arched, lifting his free arm.
Jack hit him right about then and wrapped his arms around the other man’s waist, pulling hard and pleading with him to stop. He’d caught Kernyw off-guard, and it looked like Jess had tackled down the woman’s arm, so they started to split into two groups. But Kernyw was putting up a hell of a fight. “You jealous little bitch! I know why you’re bringing this up! I know!”
“You know how to put us in the shit!” the woman snapped. She suddenly lunged, and though Jess tried her best, the other woman topped her by several inches and outreached the block Jess threw with one elbow.
At the same time, Kernyw slipped so he and Jack twisted. The woman’s fist came at Jack and he ducked right as something smashed into his shoulder. He let go of Kernyw and went staggering back till he hit the wall; it didn’t hurt too badly, but the sheer shock just flattened him anyway.
“Stop it! Stop it!” Jess was crying, near tears now. She let the other woman slip away and had to jump after her as she went for Kernyw, who’d fallen on the floor.
Jack stepped forward to help, but got pushed out of the way from behind. He whirled, then winced as his shoulder acted up. And then he noticed it’d suddenly quieted down, and looked up to see Gawain standing in the middle of the whole mess, staring in horror at everyone. At least it looked like he’d managed to get everyone separated, which was better than Jack had done.
It just went…rather pear-shaped from there. Professor Pendragon came on the scene about a minute later and immediately took charge, for which Jack—and Gawain, for that matter—was very relieved. Finding out that they’d have to go over to the forensic science department and probably have to spend at least the afternoon there being interviewed and talking to the Dean wasn’t quite so nice, no matter how much Arthur kept reassuring Jack and Jess that it wasn’t going on their academic record.
“Wonder how he knows we weren’t part of it,” Jess muttered, walking dejectedly alongside Jack. She’d taken things pretty well, agreeing to let someone else pick up her gear, but she didn’t seem thrilled.
Understandable, if she’d only been here a week. Jack had been here two years and he was dragging his feet. “Well, it’s—right, you probably haven’t heard all the rumors about Professor Pendragon yet. He’s really popular.”
“I’ve heard my hallmates moaning about running out of classes to take with him.” Jess tilted her head and looked ahead of them to where Arthur was escorting Kernyw and the other woman. She grinned a little. “Okay, I can see that. What, did he used to be a model or something?”
“Only the sororities tell that one, and they’re all idiots,” Jack snorted. “No, it’s more like Sherlock Holmes, a bit. He’s helped break up fights and solve little mysteries on campus before, and even in class it’s always like he knows what you’re thinking just from looking at you. Some people think he must be like James Bond or something.”
They shared an eye-roll. “Because of the accent. Oh, my God. Americans get such funny ideas whenever I open my mouth,” Jess said. “Like, in California my friend Jules used to get boys asking her all the time whether she was related to Twiggy because she came over with me, and she’s kind of tall and blonde.”
“Juliette Paxton, right? You two made the best pair of strikers.” Jack smiled, but Jess flicked her eyes away. Kicking himself, he smushed his icepack harder down on his shoulder.
Somebody coughed behind them, and he turned around to see a concerned-looking Gawain. “Hey, careful with your shoulder, okay? I think I know where we’re going here—take a left and then…” Gawain heard something behind him and turned around, then stiffened “…Tristan? What are you doing here?”
“I got a call from the forensic department. What are you doing here?” Tristan asked. He stepped up so he and Gawain pretty much crowded Jack the rest of the way into the building.
It didn’t exactly look like the two of them were going to follow any time soon, so Jack kept on going. He caught Jess looking and nodded. “Boyfriend,” he whispered. “Also, Arthur’s foster-son or something like that. He graduated this May, and I hear he does crime scene things for the NYPD. You should hear the stories about him…”
“He doesn’t look that scary,” Jess said, shrugging. She’d lagged a bit and now she hurried up to Jack. “Sorry about…a moment ago. Jules and I, we’re best friends, but she stayed at Santa Clara.”
“Oh.” Jack decided not to pry there, since it was obvious Jess really didn’t want to talk about it. He lifted his icepack to shake off some of the condensation, then put it back on. “I guess all I can say is foot, meet mouth? Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
Jess shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I’m just a little…I really missed home. Really, really missed it, and I talked to Avalon and since the flight time’s not so long, I get to go back more often. Jules and I kind of fought about my transfer, so I’m just feeling that a little. It’s nothing to do with you. My fault, actually—you were just complimenting me. Thanks, by the way.”
“You’re very welcome,” Jack said, grinning.
* * *
“And after that, they just had us in there one after the other for an interview. You know, basically what I just told—well, was it the same for you?” Jack turned to Jess.
She shrugged and nodded. “Yeah, just about.”
She seemed fairly levelheaded so far, though Guinevere was automatically editing out the obvious adoring glow from Jack’s version of her. At least she didn’t seem to overreact like Mariette sometimes did, and her I. Q. hadn’t dropped about fifteen points when Arthur or Lancelot had walked near her. On the other hand, she clearly had no idea why Jack was being so nice to her, and as well-bred a young man as he seemed to be, that still was probably going to cause problems later. He wasn’t scamming her, but neither were the two of them dealing with each other on the same level of understanding.
“Fay really took a swing at you? Damn,” Galahad said. He dodged, then caught Mariette’s hand without even looking. “What? I’m not commenting on the physical differences between the sexes or whatever the fuck, okay? It’s just, well, she’s not called the Ice Bitch for no reason. I never would’ve figured her for a fistfight in the library.”
Tristan had gone quiet again. He had his elbows propped up on his knees and his hands folded together so he could press his nose and mouth into the edge of them. After a moment, Gawain noticed, but didn’t reach over and pat Tristan’s shoulder or anything. He just sat there with a patiently worried expression on his face, like he’d be perfectly fine with doing that for the next few days or so.
“She always seemed very friendly to me. Though granted, I’ve only met her a few times at parties.” Lancelot spoke thoughtfully, and for once he remembered to keep the calculation out of his eyes as well as his voice. The dead give-away was how he’d angled himself so that he didn’t have to turn his head to keep an eye on Tristan, but no one besides Guinevere and Tristan were going to notice that.
Galahad raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, well, you don’t work here.”
“You haven’t met her often either,” Tristan suddenly said. He wasn’t exactly defensive, but there was something in his tone that made Gawain sit up straighter, and that was a pretty good barometer of Tristan’s mood.
“No, but I’ve talked to enough other grad students who’ve walked in on her freezing out some other professor. And the secretaries don’t like her, either. You should hear Vanora go on about her…or about Kernyw’s girlfriend, for that matter,” Galahad retorted. He turned his head and just caught Gawain death-glaring the hell out of him. Then he flicked a glance at Mariette, only to find her frowning at him as well. “Oh, what?”
Guinevere had finished her coffee a few minutes ago, but had kept the cup just in case she needed an excuse. Which she did now, so she leaned forward and set it on the table. “Were there previous problems?”
“Hey, I told you what her nickname was. She was mean, but she never did it in a way that you could—”
“A little,” Tristan said. He put his hands down and cocked his head, staring at some detail of his palms. “That girlfriend of Mark’s…she was making suggestions about how to run the department. I think Dr. Fay was disappointed she wasn’t chosen to head the department three years ago, but she respected Mark enough not to argue about it.”
Lancelot absently pulled at his tie. “Till recently? Who’s the girlfriend again?”
Tristan shot him a cool, knowing look. “I didn’t mention the name.”
Jack and Jess just were sitting and looking rather confused by this whole conversation, but they were obviously sensing some of the undercurrents, even if they didn’t understand them. And the older ones definitely had more than half an idea of what was going on—Galahad in particular looked like he was about to say something carelessly perceptive and tactless. It was a shame Lancelot had scooted too far away for Guinevere to discreetly stomp his toes again.
“How’s work, Tristan?” Guinevere interrupted. It was clumsy, but she was trading speed for finesse here. “Arthur tells me you’ve already contributed to a few significant cases.”
“It’s fine. In a month they’re going to start staggering my shifts so I’m not working every night,” Tristan said. He seemed to think a minute, then shrugged. “At least, before. I’m not sure how my boss will take what’s going down here—I got into his lab on a strong recommendation from Mark.”
Lancelot did a reasonable job of seeming merely surprised and not at all like he was about ready to jump into full interrogation mode. “Well, it’s not like you faked anything on your résumé and you’ve been working there long enough for them to see Mark wasn’t just fluffing you up. Why would anything happening here be a problem?”
After another moment, Tristan apparently came to a decision. “It probably won’t because this came to a head after I graduated. But it’ll still be hard to explain.”
Guinevere glanced at the meeting room door, which was still closed. “Well, it doesn’t sound like Arthur’s going to be out any time soon. Did you talk to them already?”
“I told Arthur. He’ll tell the Dean. I’d rather not talk to Mark right now,” Tristan said, and he actually sounded a little bitter there. With his experiences, he couldn’t have run across many people he admired, but apparently he had felt a little of that towards Dr. Kernyw. “I don’t know much, anyway. I never paid a lot of attention to Isabel—his girlfriend. I think he met her at an equipment fair.”
“What’s that?” Mariette asked.
“It’s just when they invite vendors to bring samples of lab equipment for the professors to look at and possibly order. Isabel was working for one of the companies…”