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You Can’t Win Because You Don’t Really Want To

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BL glared at the door to the Dean’s office. They would never admit to being nervous, but why not take a few deep breaths before knocking? It had been two years since their last meeting with the Dean, when they’d been summoned here as a freshman after breaking nearly every rule in the dorms and releasing maggots in the hall kitchen for an art project. The photographs had come out beautifully, but the Dean turned out to have no sense of aesthetics. She’d kicked BL out of campus housing and sentenced them to an ungodly number of community service hours.

Those hours still sat unserved on their student record, since BL’s idea of “community service” had been to move into the notorious off-campus house known as the Den of Iniquity and ensure that every party they hosted was more debaucherous than the one before.

Fortunately for BL’s academic future, at least one art professor had appreciated the creativity and talent behind their “Spontaneous Generation” project. Professor Lucier hung one of BL’s photos outside his office, invited them to an advanced symposium, and found them studio space even though the art department was so cramped that studios were usually reserved for upperclassmen.

With Lucier’s help, BL had hoped to make it all the way through graduation without ever again encountering the Dean. But that plan was scuttled at the beginning of their junior year by the announcement that Tadfield House was finally going to be renovated for student use, and the Dean welcomed proposals for exactly what to do with it.

Never let it be said that BL didn’t serve their community. Recalling their own good fortune in acquiring studio space as a freshman, and full of sympathy for the incoming crop of art students, they immediately fired off a proposal to convert the empty old building into studios. Then they sent daily follow-up e-mails, making an absolute pest of themselves until the Dean finally agreed to a meeting.

So. Here they were. BL tugged their red sash into a more casual position, shook back their artistically uneven black hair, took one more deep breath, and knocked.

“Come in,” sounded the Dean’s pleasant voice.

She sat behind her desk, looking as elegant and ageless as BL remembered, swan-white hair swept back from her smooth face, almost-invisible rimless glasses resting on her nose. She smiled at BL as though she’d forgotten the circumstances of their last meeting, which was unnerving enough that BL slid into a chair before noticing the other person in the room.

“Uh. Gabriel?”

BL would have been hard pressed to think of anyone they wanted to see less at that moment. Not that Gabriel was unpleasant to look at. In fact, that was part of the problem. He was tall and pretty, clean-cut and well-dressed, and because they’d lived in the same freshman dorm and they’d seen him walking to and from the shower, they knew that a small cross hung from the thin gold chain that disappeared behind his collar. He was exactly as sanctimonious as he looked, which was the rest of the problem. Gabriel had been the one to file a complaint about BL’s behavior.

Then, instead of ignoring them for the rest of their time at university like any reasonable person would do, he went on to look offensively happy to see BL whenever their paths crossed. He was doing it right now, eyes crinkling in pleasure as he exclaimed, “Bee, this is a surprise! What are you—”

“I have a meeting,” they bit out.

Gabriel ignored their antipathy. “That’s funny! I have a meeting, too.”

BL turned accusingly to the Dean. “You double-booked us.”

“It seemed more efficient this way,” she said, wholly unapologetic. “You see, your two proposals for Tadfield House are by far the most compelling that we’ve received. You each provided detailed plans and gathered an impressive number of student signatures, and your letters of faculty support are positively glowing.” She grimaced slightly, reminding BL that Professor Lucier and the Dean were not on the best of terms. BL wondered who had written Gabriel’s letter. He was an RA now and a golden child of the university; surely any professor would have been delighted to gush over his proposal.

“So, what then?” asked BL, trying not to sound as combative as they felt. “Are we meant to take turns trying to convince you? I’m not some silver-tongued lawyer.” They glowered at Gabriel, who had the decency to turn pink.

“I’m not a lawyer yet, Bee. What on earth do you want the building for, anyway? It’s obviously meant to be a library.”

“That’s stupid; this campus is lousy with libraries.” BL was pleased to see Gabriel frowning now; that was much easier to handle than his smile. “Meanwhile the art department has to shove five or six students in each studio, and that’s just upperclassmen. We need more space.”

Gabriel scoffed. “What do you even use studios for? The whole campus is your studio. Every time I turn around there’s a new mural going up, or some weird performance art in the quad.” He didn’t say or maggots in the hall kitchen, but BL’s photographs seemed to ghost through the room.

BL's fists clenched on their thighs. “I didn’t know you ever looked up from your books long enough to—”

“Down, you two.” The Dean took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “I thought you might come up with a good plan together, but I see that was too much to hope for. I suppose we could leave Tadfield House empty until you graduate—”

“No!” exclaimed BL and Gabriel at the same time.

“Then talk to each other,” the Dean said, enunciating each word. When they both opened their mouths, she raised her hand. “Not here, please. Come back if and when you have a plan.”

Her stare became so severe that both students stood up rather quickly. Gabriel pasted his smile back on and said, “Will do!” before crowding BL out into the hall. BL slammed the door shut, and Gabriel let out a sigh.

They were standing so close that BL could feel his breath as well as hear it. Their gaze was caught by the rise and fall of his chest. The scent of his lavender cologne seeped into their nostrils, and that was just one sensory assault too many. Snarling something unintelligible, they stomped off down the hall.

“Want to go out for coffee?” Gabriel kept pace with them easily, long legs swinging. “You know, so we can talk?”

They glanced at him suspiciously. “You drink coffee now?”

“Well, no.” He looked almost shyly pleased, like he was surprised BL had remembered that. As if they’d ever forget how damn wholesome he was. “But I could have an herbal tea.”

They’d reached the end of the hall. Gabriel's arm stretched over BL’s head to push open one of the double doors, and they stepped out into a gray autumn day. The clouds hung low, too lazy to rain, and an indecisive breeze hurried the leaves from one side of the path to the other.

The cool air made BL’s face itch. They scratched, looked at their nails, and saw flecks of green and blue. Shit, had there really been paint on their cheek for the whole meeting? They wouldn’t expect the Dean to mention it, but Gabriel could have said something.

“Tea and coffee, then?” he asked, oblivious.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” snapped BL. “Turning Tadfield House into a library is beyond ridiculous. I’m going to look at a map, and add up all the square footage of the existing libraries to show—”

“Libraries aren’t all the same, Bee. The giant science and engineering library on the other side of campus doesn’t do the humanities much good, does it? The history library is so tiny it doesn’t even have a Middle East section. We have all these amazing texts, originals and translations, just sitting in boxes because there’s nowhere to put them.”

“More dusty old books written by dead guys, just what the world needs.” BL rolled their eyes. “Meanwhile, in the art department we’re trying to make something new, something relevant, and we have nowhere to do it.”

“You’re just as impossible as ever, Bee.”

BL was absolutely done talking with Gabriel about Tadfield House. They wanted to report back to Lucier and come up with a new strategy. They also wanted to race to their studio and work out some frustration by tearing the wings off the box of dead flies they'd collected from the biology department.

Luckily Gabriel was nothing if not easy to distract. “You know you’re the only person on this whole campus who can’t be bothered to say both my initials?”

“I thought you liked it,” he said, smiling again. “You’ve never told me to stop.”

“You’ve never told me to stop inviting your freshmen to Den parties,” BL pointed out. “And I’m pretty sure you don’t like that.”

The smile dimmed. “Actually, I have told you to stop. Several times.”

“Oh, I must’ve missed that.” In fact, BL remembered quite clearly how cross Gabriel had been after half his students had bailed on “Board Game Bonding Night!!!” to play beer pong and get high at the Den of Iniquity instead. “Anyway, I’m not the only corrupting influence. Anthony’s decided to lay siege to that sweet little blonde on your hall.”

“I’m well aware,” said Gabriel through gritted teeth. “But Ezra’s too smart to fall for a kid who stole marijuana from the campus garden on his first day of college. And then tried to deal it.”

“I’m told Anthony can be quite charming.”

“Charming or not, he’s an idiot.” Gabriel sighed. “Honestly, I was surprised a freshman even knew the garden had . . .”

He trailed off, looking at BL. They didn’t say anything, didn’t even smile, just met Gabriel’s eyes with a slight tilt of their head. It was enough. He groaned. “Bee! You told him about the pot?”

“Well, what else could I do?” Their lips twitched into a smile. “First day, he shows up to the art mixer in his pretentious sunglasses, swaggering around, practically begging for trouble. So I offered him some. He’s the one who was clumsy enough to get caught—it’s not like I turned him in.”

BL hadn’t planned to speak that last bit aloud, hadn’t meant to leak so much bitter hurt into their voice. They pressed their lips together and looked away, watching the wind strip the last leaves from the sycamores.

For a long quiet moment, neither spoke. Then Gabriel cleared his throat, and BL was sure he was going to explain himself, again, and if he started in with that patronizing tone of voice they were definitely going to hit him. So they filled the silence first. “Anyway, I’ve taken Anthony under my wing now, taught him how to avoid the authorities. You don’t have to worry about him getting your little angel in trouble.”

“I don’t have to worry, because Ezra won’t get involved with him in the first place.” Gabriel sounded stiff.

“Keep dreaming, sunshine,” said BL with a hint of smugness. “If Anthony is half as determined to get that kid as I am to get Tadfield House, he doesn’t stand a chance.”