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Part Three of three. *collapses*



For some reason, ever since my afternoon with the vampire people and the fan I still thought of as Lily, I’d been banging my elbows off doorframes and tripping over my own feet. It was as if I’d caught something off them. This afternoon was no exception. I was standing in the stacks of the archive, hoping I was concealed by the brimming shelves of fanfic and etc. as I tried to get a look at what was going on in Arc’s office. Her door was partly open, and I could see Xena sitting in there, lounging to the point of almost lying down in her chair and with her feet propped daringly on Arc’s desk. Less daringly, but still more daringly than I personally could pull off, she was wearing black leather pants and an ivory silk blouse that appeared to be unbuttoned more or less down to her navel. I couldn’t see Arc, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying without ranging into the wide-open plains of the archive, but I was still so intently focussed that when one of the grad assistants, Monica, spoke to me, I leapt sideways and fell over. I was as graceful as a ninja, really, supposing you got the ninja very very drunk and then tied his shoelaces together when he wasn’t looking.

Luckily I landed on something soft: Seldom. ‘I said,’ Monica was repeating patiently, ‘they seem to have made up, if that’s what you were wondering.’

‘Oh, have they?’ I said, struggling to my feet. ‘Because they did seem to have a slight falling out over what may have been something to do with racism, possibly.’

‘That’s what I was coming to tell you as well,’ Seldom said. ‘Not the racism thing,’ he added, making a dubious face. ‘The making up part. Whatever it was they were acting chilly about, Xena ended it yesterday. She showed up with a bottle of red wine, and I heard her offer to let Arc in on one of her secret sources of income, as a sign of trust. And then Arc shut the door,’ he added, looking unabashed at this clear admission he’d been eavesdropping. But, really, I’d have been eavesdropping myself if only their voices carried a bit better, so I couldn’t afford to be critical. I thanked him, and Monica, for the info.

‘It’s no problem,’ Seldom said. ‘I owed you, really, for that introduction.’ I must say, that was putting a generous complexion on the thing. A hint of dubious had entered his voice as well as his face when he thanked me, but really, it was still damned gentlemanly of him to thank me at all. If our positions had been reversed and he’d done me the ‘favour’ of an introduction to Josh, I don’t know that I’d have been being that gracious about it. More likely I’d have been casting blame and forwarding my therapist’s bills.

And the information they’d given me was intriguing. I’d gathered, mostly from things PrinceC has said, that Xena’s income was both considerable and highly mysterious; even her oldest friends, he’d implied, were variously baffled and slightly alarmed with regards to its sources. If Arc was truly the first to experience unbaffling on this point, even a partial unbaffling, the slight chill between them must have well and truly heated up. There was no point in pretending, even to myself, that I was incurious. I brushed off my clothes and headed boldly for Arc’s office, tripping over some lint in the carpet along the way.

When I reached the doorway Arc and Xena were arguing. I turned my head to glare over my shoulder at Seldom, feeling misled, but he shrugged and looked as confused as I was, so I guessed this was a spontaneous renewal of hostilities. ‘It’s using an atom bomb to kill a bug,’ Arc was saying. ‘A harmless bug. A beneficial insect, even.’

‘Why should I care, as long as it kills him?’ Xena retorted. Arc started to answer, but Xena cut her off. ‘No, Judy darling, stop. I know your opinion on these things. And in the abstract I might agree with you, but in this specific instance the ‘transformative’ line holds no charm for me. The little bastard is flat-out defying the author’s clearly stated wishes. At this point he’s lucky to be breathing, let alone publishing.’ And in an instant I knew exactly what they were discussing: Unlocking the Tortured Tutor. Which, by an interesting coincidence, was why I’d come to the archive today myself. I’d discovered something unsettling about Evan V. Darkerest, his forthcoming book, and his putative staff. Especially that last bit, about the staff—the staff that had, supposedly willingly, contributed to said book.

I’m not sure what image is conjured to your minds when you think about Evan’s staff. Probably you don’t spend a lot of time actually trying to imagine it. But I had had a vague sort of notion his crowd were probably casual fandom-scholar types: not actually acafen, but the sort of ‘other professional’ category of fans, schoolteachers and clerks and things, who wrote Tortured Tutor essays in their spare time to keep their minds sharp. Doubtless they’d all gravitated to Evan, my assumption had run, since he was the most devoted and energetic example of their type of fan; doubtless, too, they’d been quite pleased that he’d included their essays in his book.

All of which pleasant assumptions had been quite brutally dashed upon the Scylla, or possibly the Charybdis, of his Table of Contents. I’d cast my eye over it the minute it surfaced on the web, feeling I should at least know what it was Lily and co. had persuaded me to be supportive of, and was left gasping and sputtering at the unexpected revelation that my name was there amongst his staffers, and my essay was to be included in his book. It was the first I’d bloody heard of it.

This was the sort of Situation that wanted careful handling. Obviously my first impulse was to howl my indignation from one end of the web to the other, but BNFs can’t afford to act on impulse. He could, after all, have a lot of supporters and sympathizers, who’d be offended that I’d taken offense.

And it could, after all, actually work in my favour to have my essay included; nothing wrong with spreading the old pseud to new corners of fandom, who might then feel inspired to go read one’s fanfiction or, better yet, one’s original fic. On the non-essay front, I was feeling thoroughly chuffed about my writing. I’d just done a bit of fanfiction guaranteed to thrill the Sector Door people, whose nerves were a bit frayed right now, and who were, I felt, in need of some light, regenerative—or perhaps I mean restorative—amusement. I’d set my story amid the opium-smoke-draped hustle and bustle of the Victorian-era version of Paddington station, and was eagerly looking forward to the reviews. Perhaps having my name linked to Evan’s staff would draw in new readers.

I’d already tried explaining all this to Liz via email, but she hadn’t yet replied, and after all, even a trusted employee and friend can’t offer insights that compare to the wisdom to be gleaned by finding a quiet moment to consult a Higher Power. So I’d come to ask Arc about it all. And I did, though Xena’s presence was more than usually distracting (which is saying something). She snorted, groaned, held her head in both hands, leapt to her feet and paced Arc’s office, and finally uttered an expletive and stormed out of the office, leaving me staring after her in astonishment. Seldom et. al. were all staring in at us, equally astonished. I mimed perplexity using only my eyebrows, and then shut the office door.

'Uh...is something bothering Xena?’ I asked Arc cautiously. She looked amused.

‘She’s just realized she’s going to have to do the gallant thing, and is upset that it’s also the thing I wanted her to do,’ she said mysteriously.

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘Quite. Yes.’ It both fascinated and unnerved me to have these little glimpses into their relationship. I moved awkwardly back to my own problem. ‘So, d’you think I should be acting pleased or outraged about this thing with Lexicon Evan?’

‘Pleased,’ she said firmly. ‘Letting people see you’re upset won’t achieve anything except the satisfaction of your enemies. Don’t dwell on it at all. Put it out of your mind entirely, and when people start congratulating you, act unsurprised.’

I blushed, flattered that she thought my little essay would garner so much praise, and after I’d thanked her for the advice she more or less kicked me out of her office—graciously, though—so I headed to a convenient computer to find things to distract myself with.

I had had a baffling communiqué from Liz. ‘Opiates act as depressants on the Central Nervous System,’ she’d seen fit to inform me, ‘which is why opium dens featured people lying down.’ All well and good, but why was she telling me? I don’t write fic for House M.D. There are, really, no words adequate to express my lack of interest in the Central Nervous System.

More promisingly, I’d had an offer from Darla to meet her for coffee in, oops, half an hour from now. I sent her a quick ‘Y’ and dashed off to the caffeinery specified, which luckily was within dashing range. I tripped on my way through the doorway, causing Darla to look up from a nearby table and wave me over.

‘What on earth is going on with Lily?’ I asked immediately. Gossip, or more particularly an expressed willingness to hear gossip, is an almost universally accepted social currency, and fandom is no exception to that rule.

‘She’s gone off her beloved Dark Schoolmaster,’ Darla whispered confidentially. ‘She’s fallen for another’—a non-fannish conversation would have the word ‘person,’ or maybe ‘man,’ here, but I already sensed this conversation wouldn’t—‘vampire.’

‘Oh, dear,’ I said, carefully not specifying what I found alarming about this. ‘And does he return her affections?’

‘She says yes,’ Darla said seriously, ‘and I think she’s right to trust him, because no one so perfect would ever lie. How could anyone made out of imagination and wishing and glitter ever lie? But a lot of horrible, unworthy women are claiming he belongs to them.’

‘Ah,’ I said, remembering the glittering brunette Lily had seen fit to douse with coffee.

Darla opened her mouth to continue, but at this point Lily herself burst into the coffeeshop, looked around excitedly for us, and then tripped over the pattern of the linoleum as she attempted to reach us. I winced in empathy, but she pulled herself together quickly, and completed her headlong rush to our table.

‘Have you heard?!’ she said, and went on without waiting for an answer, ‘The copyright holder on the Tortured Tutor series’—it took me a moment to realize she was referring to the author--‘isn’t going to oppose publication of Unlocking the Tortured Tutor. And Mina,’ Lily said, giving me a reverential look, ‘Evan says she mentioned your connection with the project as a reason for not quashing it.’

What?’ I said.

‘Wait, what exactly did she say?’ Darla asked. ‘She really approves of the project? She said so?’

‘Well, not exactly,’ Lily admitted. ‘According to the update on Evan’s site, the phone call from her lawyer was extremely hurtful, and he thinks the follow-up letter will be as well. He said she’d said she thought his book was a shoddy, ill-conceived, project and that it completely missed the point of her series. But he says he was also told the author was reluctant to cause any further distress to any of the idiots involved, and Mina, your name was mentioned.’

That didn’t sound like an entirely flattering context in which to be mentioned, but knowing the Tortured Tutor fandom as I do, I was relatively certain they’d be impressed and agog. Close readings for nuance are not one of the things for which they are noted. ‘How wonderful,’ I said, recalling Arc’s advice and trying for a note of unsurprised pleased-ness. ‘He must be so relieved.’

‘He’s ecstatic,’ Lily confirmed. ‘He’s going to throw a private party, just him and his staff, to celebrate the news.’ I tried not to picture even a little bit of that. ‘But Mina,’ she went on, ‘I have even better news. Better for you personally, I mean.’ She reached across the table and grasped one of my hands in both of hers, pressing something into it.

It was a small plastic vial of black glitter. ‘Thank you,’ I said finally, having tried and failed to come up with any insight into why she’d think I wanted such a thing. She smiled, and dropped her voice to a confidential whisper.

‘He said to tell you he likes you,’ she hissed. ‘Likes you likes you.’

Who said?’ I said, panicking a bit.

‘My Beloved Dark Schoolmaster, of course,’ she said, giving me a look so coy and meaningful I nearly swallowed my tongue. ‘Or perhaps I should say your beloved Dark Schoolmaster.’ She and Darla giggled happily, and I had a sudden vivid memory of what it had felt like to be in junior high. I extricated myself after another twenty minutes or so of this, and they let me leave their company unopposed, making merrily suggestive remarks as to why I might want to be alone right now. Well, Arc had been firmly right on one point: this was proving entirely effective in distracting me from Sanguinity. In fact, I can’t remember when I last felt so utterly distracted.

When I headed back to my room and unlocked the door I was several kinds of dismayed to find Josh lying on my bed, arms folded behind his head. ‘If I’m the one with a key to your room, why are you here in mine?’ I asked, trying to sound calmer than I felt.

He sat up, shrugging. ‘It’s all a glorious mystery,’ he said, and reached down to the floor, producing a dusty bottle and two glasses. ‘I came to apologize.’

By this point the list of things I felt Josh should be apologizing for was rather extensive, so I waited cautiously to hear which thing this was going to be about. He poured up two glasses of whatever and handed it to me. I sipped. It tasted of alcohol, licorice, and burning. ‘It’s the Tortured Tutor guide,’ he explained, managing to startle me. ‘I persuaded Evan to include all the contributor’s essays—I just thought it would lend some credibility to the project, I didn’t look to see who exactly had contributed. Sorry, Cara Mina.’ He grinned, not looking sorry at all, and I indignantly gulped some more of his alcoholic offering, which was beginning to grow on me. ‘It all worked out so well, though,’ he said, shaking his head and looking astonished by his own luck. ‘Who’d have guessed you had so much pull in fandom?’

‘I have enormous pull in fandom,’ I said with dignity, though in point of fact I didn’t know exactly what he was talking about. Obviously he'd heard I was somehow tied to things working out so well—which I hadn’t even made up my mind they had; was I really happy with the author's abandonment of a potential court case?—but how had he heard? And why exactly had my name been brought into this at all? How had the TT author even heard of me? I couldn’t ask, so I sat cross-legged at the foot of my bed and sipped thoughtfully at the refill he’d poured me.

The whole thing was very strange, and made less and less sense the more I pondered it, but then, everything about Josh was very strange. I giggled suddenly, remembering something. He looked at me quizzically.

‘Back when I heard about your hosting the strip poker game at KawaiiKon,’ I confessed, ‘I couldn’t work out how you were going to manage that. How Jen was going to manage, I mean.’

He smiled oddly. ‘I was going to undress below the waist first,’ he said calmly, watching me closely.

I was slightly baffled. ‘What difference would that have made?’ I asked.

Instead of answering he stood up and crossed to the door, locking it. I felt a thrill of foreboding, although actually things were moving so fast it wasn’t very fore at all. More like concurrent-boding, really. And then Josh pulled off his sweatshirt.

Footnotes

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