By the time Cassian made it to the cafeteria, the line was already halfway to the back of the room and Kay was glowering at him.
“Sorry, calculus ran late.”
Kay snorted. “Likely story.”
“You realize Dr. Ewing is my advisor, correct? And I’ve taken three classes with him? His lectures are always perfectly timed.”
“He had an off day.” Cassian shrugged and dumped his bag on a chair to claim a table as they walked to the back of the line.
Kay shook his head. “You’re becoming a worse liar the longer I know you.”
“What’s more likely is that you spent five of the ten minutes you had to get here waiting outside the classroom for Jyn From Calculus to finish arguing with the TA.”
“No I didn’t.”
Kay let out a mournful sigh. “And now we’re stuck at the end of the cafeteria line on mac and cheese day. You’re going to make me late for real analysis.”
“Sorry,” Cassian muttered, staring intensely at a random game on his phone.
“Perhaps if you had her number, you wouldn’t have to wait awkwardly outside the one class you share every time you wanted to see her.”
Cassian sighed and shoved his phone into his pocket. He thought it said a lot about his friendship with Kay that he didn’t just walk away right then. “Yeah, well, I don’t.”
“You could ask for it.” Kay looked at him as if this was completely obvious.
“It’s not that simple.” Cassian felt himself blushing at the thought.
“It just isn’t.”
“I find that answer vague and unconvincing.”
Cassian didn’t bother responding to that. Kay would never understand. He couldn’t just ask for Jyn From Calculus’s number. It made him sweat just thinking about it. How would that conversation even begin?
Hi, I’m Cassian, and I stare at your back for 50 minutes every day in calculus and I’d like to talk to you any time, about anything, really.
He shook his head. That conversation would never even begin because every time he had even the slightest opportunity to talk to her, all coherent thoughts seemed to fly out of his brain and he ended up saying stupid, unmemorable things like,
“Wow, it’s raining hard today, isn’t it?”
And, “Don’t you hate finding limits?”
And, “Can I borrow a pencil?”
That last one was the last time he tried to be cool, and greeted her as she sat at the desk in front of him. Except then she turned around and looked like she was waiting for him to say something else. So of course he completely blanked and asked the most unassuming thing he could think of, knowing full well he had three pencils in his bag.
(That day he also learned she did math in pen, which he found equally horrifying and impressive.)
Anyway, it was rapidly becoming clear he was never going to get anywhere with her, so he could save himself a lot of time and mental energy if he just tried to get over this stupid crush (yes, he could admit it was a crush).
Except that was turning out to be fucking impossible. So many things reminded him of her. Brown ponytails, for one. He felt like an idiot walking around campus recently, eyes snapping to any brown ponytail in his field of view, just in case it was her and maybe if he saw her outside class he’d finally find the wherewithal to say something.
But the worst and strangest thing was math homework. Which now took twice as long as it should for him to complete, both because the association between her and calculus was so distracting and also because he was… not always great at paying attention in class and his notes tended to be patchy.
“This wouldn’t be a problem,” Kay said that night, as he showed Cassian how to find the equations of tangent and normal lines. “If you just listened to the professor.”
“I do listen,” Cassian said as he punched numbers into his calculator.
“Clearly.” Kay peered over his shoulder. “Did you just check 36 + 7 on that?”
Cassian cleared the screen. “Shut up. You’re distracting me.”
“Not as much as Jyn evidently distracts you in class.”
“That’s not– she has nothing to do– I’m just not good at this stuff, okay?”
“No, you’re not,” Kay said.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“But you could be, if you paid attention.”
Cassian closed his notebook. “This isn’t working.”
“You’re right. Is it too late to transfer to another section?”
“Ha ha.” Cassian stood up and collapsed on his bed, staring at the ceiling in silence. He was tempted to put some depressing music on his bluetooth speaker, but Kay was sitting right there and really didn’t need more ammo.
So there was silence for a few minutes, until Kay spoke up.
“I’ve been invited to a party on Friday.”
“I’ve been invited–”
“I heard you. What does that have to do with anything?”
“You need a distraction.”
Cassian frowned. “Isn’t that the main problem here?”
“I mean a distraction from your current distraction.”
“Fine. What kind of party is it? And how did you get invited?”
“Bodhi Rook is throwing the twenty-third annual Robotics Club’s Night of Games and Debauchery,” Kay said.
“It’s a costume party.” Kay sighed. “And while I normally eschew all such social functions, I will make an exception for you this Friday.”
Cassian blinked, feeling oddly touched. “Thanks, Kay.”
“Only because I’m tired of re-teaching you calculus.”
Cassian grinned. Kay loved teaching him basic math. “I know.”
There was only one hiccup in Kay’s plan, which Cassian didn’t realize until Friday at dinner, mere hours before he and Kay were supposed to be at the robotics club’s campus house.
“So,” Kay said as they sat in the cafeteria eating lasagna and over-boiled greens. “What do you plan to wear to tonight’s social gathering?”
Cassian looked down at his clothes, a dark green sweater and jeans. “What’s wrong with this?”
Kay looked at him like he was missing something extremely obvious. “It’s a costume party, Cassian. How is that a costume?”
Crap. He’d forgotten. “Is anyone really going to care?”
“I have a costume.”
“You do?” Cassian tried to picture it, but couldn’t imagine Kay wearing anything less than his usual range of grey business casual.
“I will be attending as a caricature of a ‘nerd,’” Kay said. “I will wear a button-down, place a range of writing utensils in the breast pocket with a pocket protector, round glasses, and will be carrying a calculator.”
“…You already do almost all of those things.”
“Which makes it an extremely cost-effective costume. Do you know how much Americans spend on Halloween costumes each year? On an outfit they wear on average once?”
“Fine.” Cassian crossed his arms. “Where does that leave me?”
“Wear that,” Kay said, “and say you’re a spy, and that you’re going undercover as an extremely average college student.”
“Or take the bus to Spirit Halloween and pay $30 for an anatomically incorrect skeleton costume that probably cost 80 cents to make.”
“Why can’t I just say I don’t have a costume? Is Bodhi not going to let me in or something?”
“No, but he will deem you, in his words, a giant bummer.”
“You have to wear a sign.” Kay grimaced, and Cassian wondered if he spoke from experience.
“Undercover spy it is.”
They walked up to the house exactly forty-five minutes after the party was supposed to start (“I’ve deduced this is the optimal time to arrive at these sorts of functions”), and both their costumes received an eye roll but they were allowed entry sans a humiliating sign.
They pushed their way back to the kitchen, where Kay, being Kay, opted for a can of Sprite, while Cassian took a chance on the bright red punch in the cooler.
“If you drink that,” Kay shouted over the noise. “There is a 76% chance you will be intoxicated before midnight.”
Cassian tossed half of it back in one go, almost savoring the burn in his throat. “That’s kind of the point, isn’t it?”
“You’ll regret it tomorrow morning.”
Cassian shrugged. “Sounds like a tomorrow morning problem.”
“It’ll inevitably be my ‘tomorrow morning problem’ when–”
Cassian decided he’d heard enough and left the kitchen for the main room, where music was blasting from two sets of speakers and three disco balls were scattered on sticky side tables. He sipped his drink and tried to absorb the atmosphere, hopeful that by the end of the night, his thoughts would be as far from Jyn From Calculus as possible.
The range of costumes was actually impressive. While there were the usual overtly sexual outfits (Bodhi, for instance, appeared to be a sexy fighter pilot), some of them were actually pretty cool. Leia Organa, who he recognized from some of his econ seminars, was wearing a shockingly accurate version of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, and her boyfriend was an impressive Mal Reynolds from Firefly.
But the most remarkable costume, in Cassian’s opinion, was someone dressed in full-on plague doctor gear, complete with a wide-brimmed hat, cane, and mask. He assumed they were one of Leia’s friends, as they’d entered together, and made a guess that it was a girl, based on the fact that they were almost the same height. Although he couldn’t say for sure, because literally every part of her(?) was covered by the costume.
Almost unconsciously, he tried to follow the group to the kitchen, assuming the Plague Doctor would take off her mask to drink, but was effectively crowded out by Han and Leia’s entourage, and could only listen to the cheers as drinks were poured, then the sound of plastic shot glasses slammed onto the counter.
The Plague Doctor returned to the party with her mask on again and Cassian gave in to his curiosity. As soon as Han and Leia left her side for the dance floor, he approached and tried to get her attention.
Her head turned the second time he nudged her arm and he said, “Hey.”
“Hey.” Her voice was muffled, but he could hear her. And confirm with 90% confidence that it was in fact a girl.
“I like your costume.”
“Where’d you get the mask?” It definitely wasn’t some cheap prop from the costume store.
“Vacation in Germany,” she said. The beak dipped as she gave him a once-over. “And you’re… a narc undercover at a college party?”
He scoffed in faux offense. “I’m actually a spy with the CIA… undercover at a college party.”
“Oh yeah, that’s way cooler.” She made a sound that could’ve been a laugh, and Cassian thought she was smiling when she said that.
He smiled too, and thanked the alcohol for helping him relax. He couldn’t imagine being this smooth in any other situation. Speaking of which– “Can I get you a drink?”
She shook her head. “I had some shots earlier.”
He raised his empty solo cup. “I’m going to get some more. I’ll be right back.” God, he hoped she’d stay there.
“Okay.” She leaned against the windowsill behind them. “Be careful with that, Bodhi’s punch is glorified paint thinner.”
He chuckled. “I think I’ll be fine.”
Two drinks later, Cassian was rather more than pleasantly buzzed and was starting to think he should’ve had more to eat before coming here. Or maybe the Plague Doctor was right about Bodhi’s punch.
By some miracle, she was still talking to him, and by an even greater miracle he hadn’t run out of interesting things to say, or gotten nervous and clammed up. They had to basically yell to communicate at all, and lean close to hear, but Cassian wasn’t complaining. Up close, he could see the eye holes in her mask were actually tiny portals and he kept wondering if he got close enough he could see her eyes and maybe recognize her.
But it was too dark, or there was a glare that always got in the way. Then his hand slipped on the windowsill and he almost fell into her, his equilibrium farther off than he thought.
He tried to jerk back before he could really invade her personal space, blushing furiously and stammering an apology, but she just laughed and steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” she said. She took away his empty cup. “Hey, why don’t we get soft pretzels from the Cantina?”
Cassian felt a wide smile spread across his face. Nothing in the world sounded better right now than the crappy soft pretzels sold by the only campus cafe open this late at night. “Yes.”
She took his hand and they wove through the crowd to the back door. He held tight, suddenly afraid he’d lose her in the horde, but they made it out together, her hand warm through her glove.
“Come on.” She tugged him in the direction of the Cantina, and they set off jogging through the light rain, jumping with unnecessary dramatics over puddles that had formed while they were inside.
It must’ve poured earlier. In the light of the street lamps Cassian could see the ground on both sides of the pavement slick with mud, and murky water pooled at the bottom of the steep embankment to his right.
The rain started coming down harder and they picked up their pace, laughing as Cassian tripped over the uneven sidewalk and the Plague Doctor’s cape got tangled in her legs. Soon, Cassian was panting and sweating through his jacket despite the rain.
It was three blocks to the Cantina, and halfway there Cassian gave in and stopped them, reluctantly extracting his hand from hers so he could take off his rain coat.
She waited, impatiently bouncing on her heels, then grabbed his hand again (which set a thrill through his heart he couldn’t bear to repress) and they took off running.
“Aren’t you hot under there?” he said, breathless from laughing and running and more than a little giddy.
She shrugged without stopping, and as he watched reached up and took off her hat, then pushed back her hood to reveal a brown ponytail.
Cassian stumbled and leaned back a bit, trying to see the side of her face behind her mask.
“I guess so,” she said, then pulled her hand from his mid-stride, and took off her mask.
Jyn. Cassian’s throat went dry and he careened to a stop, heart pounding as he realized it was her, Jyn From Calculus, all along. He stared at her with wide eyes, searching desperately for something to say as she stared back at him.
He didn’t realize how far he’d stepped backwards until his foot slipped and he tumbled into the ditch by the side of the road.
It was like the ground literally dropped from beneath him and he let out an undignified yelp as he slid helplessly into the mud. It wasn’t far, and nothing hurt but his pride, but honestly he felt like that was worse, because he had to face Jyn From Calculus after crawling out of a ditch, covered in mud.
“Cass– Cassian?” she said, squinting through the dark and the rain from the sidewalk. “That’s your name, right?”
“Y-yeah,” he muttered, taking the hand she offered to help him up.
“Sorry, I wasn’t– are you hurt?” she looked him up and down and he shifted uncomfortably.
“I’m fine.” The rain was still coming down, plus he was ready to pretend this whole thing never happened, so he made to keep walking.
“Wait.” Jyn caught his elbow.
He swallowed and turned around. God, this was it. She was going to let him down easy. She’d realized she’d been flirting with a huge dork who practically dove off the fucking sidewalk when he learned it was her under that mask.
But she untied something around her neck and pulled the cloak off her shoulders. “Take this, you’re soaking wet.”
He took it gingerly, feeling the weight of it in his hands. “Are you sure?” It would get covered in mud if he put it on.
“Of course.” She shrugged and gestured for them to keep walking. “I’ll just wash it later.”
Not sure what else to do, he tugged it over his shoulders and they kept walking, this time at a more sensible pace. The cloak was much shorter on him than it was on her, but it was heavy and warm and kept him from getting wetter than he already was.
He wondered if they would get any strange looks as they entered the Cantina, but then remembered it was Halloweekend on a college campus, so their outfits were actually some of the most tame. No one spared them a second glance.
Jyn walked him back to his dorm afterwards, insisting it was on her way back, even though he lived at the far end of the residential quad. He swiped them in and then hesitated in the lobby, wondering how on earth to say goodnight to her.
He started by pulling off her cloak, its interior now damp and stained with mud. “Thanks for the, uh, loan.”
“No problem.” She took it back and folded it in her arms, but made no move to leave, chewing her lip and staring over one of his shoulders.
“And I’m sorry for–” being really awkward around you. Wait, no, that was also awkward. For getting your cloak all muddy. Fuck, that was so lame. But she was waiting for him to finish his sentence so he just waved vaguely in front of him. “You know.”
She looked confused. “Uh, okay.
Crap, that wasn’t better. “I mean…” He ran a hand through his hair. Might as well get to the point. “Sorry for being weird. I’m just, um, kind of nervous.”
Blood rushed to his face and all his instincts told him to flee up the stairs to his room, but at the same time he felt rooted to the spot, hanging on to whatever she was going to say next.
“It’s okay,” she said.
He braced himself. This was where the rejection was coming. It’s okay, I’m just not into you like that. It’s oaky, lots of guys are nervous around me.
“I’m kind of nervous, too.”
All the air rushed out of him in a whoosh and he almost felt dizzy. He was sure at first he misheard her.
“That’s why I kept the mask on,” she said, fiddling with the beak in her hand. “It was… easier to talk to you if you didn’t know who I was.”
He almost laughed and smiled weakly. “Well, now I know…”
She nodded. “Now you know.”
There was a long silence, until Cassian felt like he couldn’t stand it anymore. “Do you want to–”
Jyn said at the same time, “So I was thinking we could–”
“–go out sometime?” he finished lamely, flushing again at the awkwardness of it all.
She blushed too, which he actually thought made her even cuter, and smiled an open-toothed grin. “Yes, I do.”
He smiled too, a ridiculous, sappy smile he couldn’t suppress if he wanted to, and fumbled for his phone. “So I’ll just– I’ll just text you, then?”
She took it from his hands before it fell on the floor and entered her number. “You can text me whenever.”
“I will.” He stared at the new contact in open wonder. Jyn Erso. So much better than Jyn From Calculus.
She turned and headed for the door. “Just don’t wait too long,” she said over her shoulder.
“I won’t.” He’d probably text her that night. That hour, if he was really honest with himself. It wasn’t smooth, or cool, or what Kay would advise, but after tonight, he didn’t think Jyn would really care.