Monday, September 6
The dining hall was buzzing with more conversation than usual last night. Nobody turned to stare as I walked in, though, and I thought a silent prayer of thanks to whoever today's unfortunate gossip target was. I didn't try to listen - very pro-myob these days, that's me - but still heard "Sofia" and "not coming back" two or three times before getting my food to the corner table where Ellen was sitting by herself.
"Are you all right?" Ellen leaned over and put her hands on mine as soon as I put the tray down. "We were so worried about you last night, and then you didn't come to sports club today..." She did look as though she hadn't slept very well.
I squeezed her hands. "It's all right. Truly it is. I'm sorry to have made you worry, I was worried myself, but - it's going to work out, I think. At least that part of things."
"That part? There's more?"
"Well, it's complicated. And, um, you probably don't want to hear some of the details anyway."
"No," she agreed fervently. "Well... if you're all right with it, I guess you know what you're doing. Just ask us for help if you need it."
I did want to talk to someone about all of this, but was getting the distinct impression Ellen was happier not knowing. Virginia would want to charge into a parliament meeting and start punching wizards in the face until the problem was resolved (not that that didn't sound appealing right now). And there really wasn't anyone else my age I could trust. I shouldn't overburden the friends I did still have.
"No meatloaf for you?" I pointed at her plate to change the subject.
"I'm thinking of becoming a vegetarian anyway."
"Suit yourself." I took a bite. Not bad, if a little bland. Some of the students helped out with cooking to help pay their tuition. The result was at least better than the mushy peas and mystery meat at my old school, but you had to be prepared for the occasional Experiment. Let's just say there's a reason why four pages of the yearbook were devoted to artistic works on the theme of "Pumpkin Curry Nightmare".
"I'm worried about Sofia, too." Ellen was pushing her vegetables around with her fork.
"What did happen?" Does it still count as gossip if you're not the one to bring it up? Too late. "I don't remember seeing her this term yet, actually."
"They expelled her. For displaying magic outside of school."
"Oh my god, why? She always seemed sensible, I didn't know her very well, but...why would anyone do that?" She must have known what would happen. They'd made the rules very, very clear to us wildseed.
"I don't know. She was going to help me with my thesis and now she's gone and I can't even write to her. She won't remember who I am or anything."
We both sat and stared at our food for a while. "Do you think she was being bullied or something, at home?" I asked eventually. Would I fight back using magic, knowing what would happen? I don't think so...but anyone can do wrong things when they're desperate.
"Do you think...you could find out? Ask the Professor, I mean?"
I thought about it. "Maybe. Not right away, though, probably, I'd have to catch him in a good mood."
"Actually...there was something else I wanted to ask if you could find out. And if you could do me a favor."
Uh-oh. "I can't get special favors and information out of him, you know he's not that kind of person. It doesn't work like that." He would be so witheringly disappointed that I would die on the spot.
Ellen waved her hands about. "Not anything big or wrong! Just...you know what I've been working on. "
"Didn't he already agree to be your advisor?" Ellen wants to study magic scientifically, but the teachers completely freaked out at the idea. So she's calling it "Magical Philosophy".
"Yes, but there are so many things I can't ask him. I'm doing experiments like Archimedes and that's okay, it's important to start with first principles. But not knowing why magic and technology don't mix is driving me crazy. Everything I'm doing could be completely invalid and I wouldn't know because they won't explain!"
All technology on campus is stuck in the 70s or older - we have rotary phones, they must be the last ones in the country - and nothing modern can be brought in. No phones, TV, media players, video games, cameras, anything. The music for the May Day ball has to be retro because all we have is a turntable. I guess we're lucky it's not a gramophone.
"It is weird that they won't explain," I agreed. "But it doesn't make your experiments invalid, does it? I mean...Newton didn't know about relativity or any modern physics, but that didn't stop him from discovering gravity with the apple."
"That's a myth." She sighed. "But you're right. But still." She reached out and took my hand again. "Will you help me next Saturday? It takes two people to do the measurements, and Sofia's gone, and Professor Grabiner just says he is not a lab assistant, Miss Middleton." She wrinkled up her nose and looked at me severely, just like him. I snickered.
I couldn't turn her down, even if there are more fun things to do with a Saturday than taking scientific measurements. Like watching paint dry. "All right, but in return, promise me you won't break the rules again, even if they're stupid. Even if you're sure you won't get caught. I don't want you to disappear too."
Her face lit up. Ellen's really pretty when she smiles, though she doesn't believe it. "Thank you! Donald tries but he really isn't interested, I can tell, and Virginia's just hopeless."
"Speaking of which... you haven't told me everything about your summer. Staying at his house. Soo?" I waved my fork at her.
She turned pink and was about to launch into her usual no-really-it-wasn't-like-that denials when I heard someone say "Um, sorry, excuse me!" behind me.
Minnie Cochran, current and probably forever class president, smiled nervously and handed me an envelope. "Professor Grabiner asked me to give this to you."
"Thanks." I smiled back at her, trying to make it genuine. "How've you been?"
"Fine." She looked down at the envelope in my hand. "I didn't open it. In case you were wondering."
"I wasn't," I lied.
"Okay I'll see you later don't forget I'm still doing study sessions, hi Ellen nice to see you, bye!" She edged her way back out between the tables.
"Are you ever going to forgive her?" asked Ellen.
I sighed. "I'm not mad at her, really. People do dumb things when they're desperate. It's just... hard to trust, you know?"
"She really might not have done it on purpose."
"Sure. It was just really, really convenient to accidentally mention my wedding right when she wanted the whole school to stop talking about her scandal."
"Mmm," said Ellen, and ate her asparagus.
The envelope held a room key and a small map drawn with spidery lines of black ink. No words, but I recognized the u-shape of a corridor in the teachers' wing. There was a tiny black dot at the far end.
"Looks like you're getting your own room," said Virginia. We were back in our room again by this time, just before lights out.
"Looks that way." I held the key in my hand and cast a detect charm spell, just in case. Nothing.
"How long do you have to keep-?" Ellen was the only one of us getting any studying done. (I'm fairly sure she could study during an earthquake.) But every now and then I caught her staring at me with a puzzled frown. She looked away every time I noticed, and I didn't want to make a big deal of it.
"Oh, "have to" is not how it is, trust me. You didn't see her expression this afternoon." Virginia had been giving me funny looks too.
I waited till my hand was on the doorknob before answering, in case this didn't go well. "Virginia, would you think better of me if I came back crying and miserable?"
She actually thought about it seriously, twining one of her frizzy curls around her finger. Then she lifted her chin and looked me in the eye as though facing a duel challenge. "Yes, actually. A little."
"Because he's old and icky and evil and it's gross, that's why! I don't understand how you can like him." Virginia shrugged. "But you know, I'd also think it was kinda gross and weird if you liked sleeping with Balthasar Mulch-Boy. Or Pastel. Or just about anyone, really. I don't get the sex thing."
I bit back the urge to point out that her little brother was dating Ellen, who was sitting right here listening, and what did she think had been going on in her house this summer? "Thank you for your honesty," I just said, distantly, and opened the door.
"Wait! That didn't really come out right." She had the grace to look embarrassed, at least. "What I mean is...it's me, not you. You do what's right for you. And we're still friends, right?"
The halls were just as deserted this time, which was good because I really didn't want to meet anybody.
I never noticed it before, you know how there are lots of insulting words for girls who have sex? I can't think of any words like that for guys. Well, I guess there are insults for old guys who pick up on young girls. When they bring that motion up in parliament, some people are going to be calling the Professor those names. And they'll call me the other ones.
Right now everybody at school thinks the idea of us having sex is a funny joke. If they ever find out it's true, the jokes will get a lot meaner. Most people aren't as upfront and honest about their feelings as Virginia, either. What would I have called a student and professor couple, back at my old highschool?
The door that matched the dot on the map looked just like all the others in the corridor, completely anonymous. I knocked and waited for a few minutes, but nothing happened, so I used the key.
An empty bedroom, with nice but boring furniture and a bathroom attached. Was I supposed to stay here? I looked around, noting the new crisp sheets on the bed and fluffy towels in ... the bathroom. Oh. He must have noticed that I hadn't dared use his shower, and so he was giving me a space of my own. What a him sort of gesture.
Should I change here? And then sneak across to his rooms in my nightgown, uh, no. I locked up my new guest room carefully and put the key in my pocket.
Just like before, his door unlocked and opened as I approached. I took off my shoes inside and tiptoed straight through into the bathroom, pausing to say "thank you" as I went past his desk. He didn't look up, but I know he heard me.
The bathroom didn't have a full-length mirror, but I could see most of me if I backed up against the door. I took all my clothes off and looked at myself, remembering how I'd been too scared to undress the night before. My heart was starting to beat faster. Even though so much had happened then, not much had actually happened. All the things I'd been trying to avoid thinking about all day were still waiting to be faced, in the bed on the other side of the door.
Was I going to be able to do this? Would it hurt? Would I be any good at it? Would he like it? Would I? If I did, what did that make me? And oh yes, a few key practical questions that really ought to get answered first. We could start with those. I felt a little better with a plan in hand.
The Professor Hieronymous My husband (why is that easier to use than his name??) put down his pen and looked up as I emerged from the bathroom. We eyed each other warily for a moment.
"I have questions," I said.
"My surprise knows no bounds." He gave me his little evil smile, but there was no malice in it. "Are these questions you would rather ask in the other room and fully clothed?"
"No, we may settle ourselves," I said airily, and flopped on the bed. "You can leave the light on, I promise not to peek." I closed my eyes and gave what I hoped was a little regal wave in his direction.
The sound of his dry chuckle, followed by the bathroom door closing, was my reward. Even if I'm ignorant and full of flaws, I'm someone who can make him laugh. That's not a small thing.
By the time we were both under the covers and I'd remembered to get back up and set the alarm clock, it was almost midnight. We lay facing each other across an empty stretch of bed. "I don't suppose there's a green spell you could cast to make us less tired?" I asked, yawning.
"There is. Typically one discovers it during the first round of postgraduate exams, sincerely vows to use it responsibly and only in moderation, and finds oneself in the infirmary two months later having collapsed from exhaustion. After that one swears it off altogether and learns to drink coffee." I giggled.
"Rats. Okay, first question." I took a deep breath. "What happens to me if I do get pregnant?"
The amusement in his eyes faded. "Earlier today Petunia and I discussed this at some length. We agreed that it would be inappropriate for you to remain here. Even if you were granted medical leave and allowed to audit classes, the other students and faculty would resent the exception to the rules. You would likely find yourself in an intolerable position."
He was right and I knew it, but it still hurt. This magical place that welcomed me in last year, full of friends and fun and things to learn, is the same as any other community. People don't want you around if you're too different. I don't want to be different, but I don't have a choice, ever since I ran into that pentagram.
"We have arranged a place for you to stay, in the event, where you will be securely warded and cared for." He paused. "If a child is born - a choice that is entirely yours to make - I will take full responsibility for its care. You know, I think, that it would want for nothing, and be more than welcomed by my father. You would be free to return here and resume your normal life."
This part I'd been expecting, pretty much, and I'd been thinking about how to word my answer. I wouldn't bring up a pet dog the way Professor Potsdam told me you were raised would not go over well. "I do know that," I said carefully. "And I'd be very grateful. But even though I'm not ready to be a parent, if I did become one I would want to stay with my child."
He frowned at me. "You will not abandon your education because of this...misadventure. Nor should you force yourself into an unwanted role out of a sense of duty." One of his hands reached out to brush my cheek, gently, then retreated. "There is no surer path to a bitter life. Nor would the child thank you, in the end."
I wondered if he was thinking of his own mother. It would probably never be okay to ask. "There must be things like private tutors for magic, and daycare or nannies or whatever English noble families do," I said. "It's not the life I would choose. I don't want the first option you gave me yesterday. But if things worked out that way in the end...I think I could be happy. Let's just hope it doesn't turn out to be necessary."
His mouth twisted a little. "On that point we are in fervent agreement, at least. Ah...naturally neither magical nor mundane preventatives are feasible, given that the object of this farce is to pretend to be trying to conceive an heir. But presumably you know your own body and its rhythms...some sort of scheduling?"
I think that was the most hesitant I'd ever heard him sound. It's a little odd that there's something important I know more about than he does. "Um, theoretically. But in health ed class at my old school they said there was a special medical term for couples who used the rhythm method for birth control."
He raised an eyebrow at me.
"Okay, second question," I started to say, only to be stopped by a finger on my lips.
"An answer for an answer. Did I injure you yesterday?"
If I said no he would know I was lying, "Only a little. It's all right, honestly. You were angry and scared and so was I. Just - don't do it again, okay?"
Instead of reassuring him, this seemed to have the opposite effect. He actually sat up and glared at me. "Every time I begin to think of you as an unusually intelligent young woman, you display some spectacular new evidence of imbecility."
"Hey!" I sat up too, tucking the blankets up around me protectively. "I'm trying to be mature and understanding here. Why are you insulting me?"
"Because," he said tightly, "it is anything but "all right". Twice now I have physically assaulted and terrorized you, above and beyond the verbal abuse all my students have become accustomed to -"
The sudden change from calm discussion to anger was unnerving, though you'd think I'd be starting to get used to it by now. "That's a little harsh. You didn't actually assault me -"
"You were not bruised?"
"The distinct memory I have of holding you up against a wall and choking you last year is incorrect?"
"You have a most remarkable definition of assault."
"You wouldn't really have -"
"You have told no one, clearly. Otherwise Miss Middleton or Miss Danson would have broken down my door yesterday, and even your uniquely tolerant headmistress would have cautioned me. Instead, twice now you have come to my bed and offered yourself to me with complete trust. Have you no regard for your own safety?"
I winced. Put that way, it did sound stupid. Was I like one of those women in news stories who stays with an abusive boyfriend until she ends up in the hospital? In addition to the other thing? I'd been trying to act like like his equal, and only proven that I wasn't. No wonder he was mad at me. "What should I do?", I whispered.
He sighed, and brushed back my hair again, leaving his hand this time to trail along my cheek. "You defended yourself adequately yesterday. It is your lack of follow-through that concerns me. I will not insult you with apologies or promises that you have no reason to trust; but if anyone attempts to harm you again, please tell someone. And a second someone, if necessary, until the matter is taken seriously. "
He looked so bleak that I wanted to hug him. He knows exactly what it's like to feel like a bad person, I realized suddenly. We both felt the same way for different reasons. I swallowed around the lump in my throat. "I will. Can I, can I ask you something really...can you be honest with me?"
"Am I - do you think less of me for choosing this? For offering myself to you, like you said. Am I a -" I couldn't say the word. "Bad?" I finished lamely.
His thumb brushed across my mouth. "I don't understand," he said quietly.
"Maybe, I get the feeling, a good girl wouldn't do that. Would have hated all of last night. Would rather be asleep and forget everything. Is that part of why you wanted to make me choose that way? I still don't want to, but maybe it'd be better than having you not respect me. That would be the worst, for you to think of me as...you know."
I was lying. I didn't tell him the worst part. The really, really worst part is the part of me that doesn't think it would be worst. There's a part of me that imagines his voice saying willing little slut and just squirms and wriggles inside. That wonders what would have happened if I'd said I dare you instead of pulling my face away yesterday afternoon. God, I'm really messed up, aren't I?
Suddenly he was right there instead of on the other side of the bed, kissing my eyelids and cheeks and nose and mouth and saying, "no, no," softly, and I felt myself starting to cry. He kissed the tears away and slid his arms around me, cradling me close.
"There is nothing wrong with having feelings, despite the ugly judgements the world can make," he whispered. "I was cruel to you yesterday because the thought of you miserably enduring my touch was too wretched to contemplate. You-" kiss "Are lovely- " kiss "-yes, I was lying yesterday-" kiss "-and courageous-" kiss "-and honorable." Kiss. "You honor me with your desire, more than words can express." His eyes were warm and dark and completely serious. "May I teach you?"
"Yes," I whispered back.
Some things I know that I didn't know yesterday:
-,--}@ Sex scenes in romance novels and movies and tv shows leave some very important, very awkward things out.
-,--}@ Parts of it aren't actually all that much fun. Not very comfortable. Okay, to be honest, it hurt. There was a certain amount of enduring that I tried not to let him notice. Hopefully it gets easier with practice.
-,---}@ Other parts are really, really, really, really, *really* okay.
-,---}@ Doing this on school nights is a bad idea. We were both really tired and I didn't take in a word of sociomagical history class today.
-,---}@ He snores.
-,---}@ I don't even mind.