- 1 -
"I don't accept slipshod reasoning," he told her, without looking up from the chessboard centered on his desk. "Nor do I find it acceptable when students still have not prepared their schedules by the third day of classes."
She tightened her hand around her purse-strap and trapped the tip of her tongue between her teeth. This man was unbelievable, like something out of a bygone era; his office was done in dark, heavy textures, every book perfectly aligned with the edge of the shelf, every paper filed in a folder—in fact, the only thing that seemed out of place was the picture frame resting face-down on a corner of his desk. His person was equally formal, his suit razor-crisp, his mien rigid enough that she wanted to strike him to see if he'd shatter. He had an ageless face, and could have been twenty as easily as forty.
"Yeah," she said, "well, the Dean gave me permission to transfer, so it doesn't matter whether you find it acceptable or not."
His lips contorted, and he gave her a look that could have soured milk. "Miss Penelope," he said. "That will be all."
"You still haven't given me the syllabus," she pointed out.
He flicked open a file-folder and extracted a quarter-inch stack of paper, neatly stapled in the corner. "I expect you'll arrive Monday with all of this week's assignments completed to my satisfaction," he said, attention again on the chessboard, and stretched his hand to her. He held the packet with only his first three fingers; the other two were twisted oddly, and Penny could just make out a line of scar tissue snaking across his palm and disappearing beneath his shirt cuff. When he looked up he caught her staring, traced the line of her gaze to his malformed fingers, and practically flung the syllabus at her. "Some of us have more important matters demanding our attention, novel though the idea may seem to the undergraduate cretins of the world," he snapped.
She crumpled the packet in one fist and did something she'd never dared before: She gave a teacher the finger. Then she fled.
- 2 -
Retaliation never came.
Two weeks later, she called him out in class.
- 3 -
She would have written him off entirely, spent extra time pouring over supplementary material and going to a teacher's aide with questions, if it weren't for one thing: He seemed largely unaware of the effects of his careless remarks. Most of the time he didn't even intend to be insulting, Penny realized; he was simply stating the facts as he saw them. I am smarter than you. I find this concept simple, and do not understand why you do not. I've explained this already, and have neither the time nor the patience to revisit the material.
His behavior was curiously childlike, as if he'd missed out on Social Conventions 101 and skipped straight to Advanced String Theory (knowledge of human interaction not a prerequisite). The blend of naivety, forthrightness, and total arrogance stayed most of the students from confronting or even approaching him.
Most of the students. Not Penny.
"Sir," she said, and it was the first time she'd opened her mouth in his presence since he'd handed her the syllabus. "I think Josh needs you to go over momentum again."
His eyes bulged, and he cut off his tirade with a noise like a cat being strangled. "Excuse me, Miss—"
"Penny." He hadn't even remembered her?
"I fail to see how Josh needs me to review an idea so simple as momentum, when I clearly explained—"
"No, you didn't."
"I beg your pardon."
"No," she repeated, "you didn't explain it clearly."
"Look." Penny reached over and tugged Josh's notebook free from under his elbow. "He did the homework. We all did the homework. The only reason I understood the homework is because I spent two hours with a remedial textbook in the library. Your explanation—"
The bell rang, and the class froze, torn between the instinctual need to escape and paralyzed fascination with the brewing encounter.
"Go," the professor said, and there was a mad scramble to collect books and be the first out the door. "Except for you, Miss Penny."
She tucked her pencil back into her purse, flipped Josh's notebook shut—she'd have to track him down and return it tomorrow—and waited.
He didn't disappoint, but he did surprise. After a long moment of studying her, he circled around the mammoth desk at the front of the room and hovered next to her table. "Explain what you meant. Please," he added.
"Professor...you don't teach a lot of undergrad courses, do you?"
"No. This is a—favor, for a colleague of mine."
"You're teaching like you'd teach grad students, or like you'd talk to a bunch of other professors. Most of us know squat about momentum and vectors, and your explanation goes right over our heads. I don't even know what calculus is, much less how it relates to acceleration."
He frowned, but she could see the wheels turning. "You haven't taken calculus?"
"No. I doubt any of us have. The only requirement is advanced algebra."
"Interesting. I'd have thought that a grounding in higher mathematics would be crucial for the understanding of classical physics." One of his fingers tapped idly against the tabletop. "This is...a considerable detriment."
Penny opened her mouth, shut it, and shrugged. "And...maybe you could try being a little nicer?"
His eyebrows climbed to his hairline. "The new data you've provided me will be noted, Miss Penny, but what my degree of niceness has to do with the curriculum I don't comprehend."
She sighed. "No. I guess not." He'd already dismissed her, his eyes tracking over the white board. She hefted her backpack and slid past him, headed for the door, and her hip and shoulder brushed his side.
The resulting buzz lingered for the rest of the day.
- 4 -
He didn't take her criticisms as well as the first time.
- 5 -
And still he never smiled, and still he didn't banish her.
- 6 -
What do you know, she thought. Apparently the way to Doctor Doom's heart is to tell him he's wrong.
She had no idea how right she was.
- 7 -
"Fascinating," he said. "I always thought that academic success was motivated by very straightforward causes."
"Not a chance. I mean, look at me—my mom's a waitress, I'm a waitress, and I don't want to be a waitress anymore. I don't care about grades or the purity of the subject or whatever, I just want a decent job."
He steepled his fingers. "And what is your major?"
"Business," she said. "My fast-track out of Nebraskan diners."
"Nn. I'm from Texas," he said, and she started; he'd never offered personal information before.
It occurred to her that he was lonely.
- 8 -
Little things, little brushes; he'd lean a touch too close when he bent over to examine her problem set, she'd take her time picking up the calculator dropped on her way past him. His eyes might linger on her legs, hers might flutter shut at the sound of his voice.
And the sparks between them built.
- 9 -
"Oh my God," Keisha said. "Seriously. You guys do not have any idea. He is so freaking hot."
"This is your anthro teacher, right?" Amy asked. "The one who's hung like a horse?"
"Oh yeah," Keisha said. "And he's got this chest that's all like, chiseled, like Hugh Jackman chiseled—"
"Keisha, how do you even know all this?" Lita jabbed her nail file in the air. "Are you screwing him, or something?"
"Oh my God. Oh my God." Amy bolted upright and her polish tipped onto her lap. "Shit! But oh my God. You are, aren't you? You are! Are you?"
"Maaaybe," Keisha said, although her smile gave the game away. "So what if I am?"
Amy shrugged. "Isn't it, like, against school policy?"
There was a pause, as all three considered.
"Whatever. I'd do it if he was hot enough," Lita said.
Amy shrugged again. "I'd only do it for a grade."
"I am doing it," said Keisha, "and I have no regrets. Hey, Penny, how 'bout you?"
Penny jerked, startled out of her textbook. "Sorry, guys. How about me what?"
"Would you sleep with a professor?"
"Would you," Keisha said, slowly, "do the nasty...with a teacher?"
"Oh," Penny said, and blinked. "Um. I don't know? ...I mean, if Brad Pitt ever decides to come teach a management course, I'm not gonna turn him down."
Her friends laughed. Amy flicked drops of nail polish at Keisha.
Penny did not think of long fingers and blue eyes.
- 10 -
"Because it originates in the rotation of the frame of reference," he said, "that's correct."
"Huh." Penny tucked a leg underneath her. "Physics is weird."
"It may seem less than logical at times, at least to the unfamiliar eye," he agreed. He was toying with a chess piece, turning it over and over, and as she watched he brought it to a rest between his thumb and middle finger, his hand hovering over an empty space on the ever-present chessboard. "Penny? Would you like to play?"
"Oh," she said, and smiled awkwardly. "I don't know anything about chess. But thanks."
He hesitated, then set the piece down. "I play a variant."
He lifted his eyes skyward, an expression she'd learned to recognize as a supplication for patience. "A variant. An altered game in which the equipment and basic concept are the same, but which differs in execution and other specifics. It's called suicide chess."
"Yes. The goal is not, as in normal chess, to capture your opponent's king, but rather to lose all of your pieces to your opponent as quickly as possible."
"No," he said, and cleared his throat. "Well. Let me know if you have any further questions on mechanics."
"Sure." Her notes were scattered over two chairs and a stool; she shuffled them into order, and found she was missing her annotated photocopies from the section on optics. "Professor Cooper? Could you hand me those papers—the ones under your laptop?"
"Of course," he said, and reached out to hand her the papers—
And their fingers touched.
- Coda -