"Good afternoon!" Amos was bright and cheery as ever. His office today contained no tea, but there was a jar of biscuits on the table. They were assorted ginger biscuits, almond biscuits, and shortbreads. They looked quite delicious. John nibbled one idly. The crumbs were building up in his lap.
"Excuse me, tutor, I would like to ask a question and clarify something."
"Why, aren't we forward today Laura? Whatever happened to make you so much more direct and serious? Permission to ask a question granted, by the way."
Must he always be so roundabout and tangential?
"How is our proposed partnership beneficial to me? I can see how this presents an advantage to John, certainly by way of protection, but I can only regard him as a hindrance to my own plans."
Amos' eyes narrowed a little.
"I see we are abandoning the quiet and humble girl act. That's good, that's good. It saves me having to coax you into trusting me."
And he's serious all of a sudden. Serious and with a menacing look in his eye. I wouldn't trust him at all, if I had the choice.
"I decided that it would be best not to hide things from my personal tutor. In any case, it seems you rather had the measure of me beforehand."
"Right you are!" He said, jolly and vigorous again... "No, it would be both futile and counter-productive to attempt to deceive me, of course. But it is a good strategy, it is. I expected nothing less from our little honour student."
Actually, in some ways, I'd trust this man more with my life than I would most other people. It's better that he's extremely dangerous than extremely useless. Which brings me nicely onto-
"Back to the point. I want to clarify what I gain from teaming up with John. In the first place, there isn't any precedent for operating in teams in the university structure is there? I would like you to also clarify how our hypothetical 'team' would operate."
"Ah, but Laura, you've asked more than one question where you only had permission for one. You must pay closer attention to what I say. Nonetheless, I will answer both, this was the primary point of the whole meeting today. Let me start by saying this. This is not like school, you cannot progress and be successful by using the same strategies, particularly given the rather meteoric start to your university career."
He began pacing up and down the small office space. He held his finger in the air and rapped it against an imaginary surface as if to stab the emphasis into his points.
"Your whole plan relies on remaining invisible, mythical, ghostly. You aim to be transparent in a most literal sense, to have all potential threats and challengers look at you and see nothing, to treat you as they would a wisp of vapour on their breath and brush you aside without even considering your consequence. Then, like the Antarctic night, you freeze that breath in their throat before they can know, and are gone again, as if it were a fluke, a wild chance, a natural quirk of the landscape. How am I doing so far?" It was easy to imagine a his teeth glinting as he smiled. Not so much like a wolf. Wolves are wild and feral and fierce. No, he was more a sadistic sort of predator.
"I would agree your account is accurate." Said Laura.
John smirked sidelong, another biscuit half-eaten in his hand.
"You don't need to grin about it, you were fooled as much as anyone." Laura's words weren't said to John, but rather spoken to the air in front of him, as if he didn't quite deserve her direct attention. A couple of crumbs fell from his mouth. He scowled.
"Well, she's right, you were completely fooled," added Amos. "However, I'm afraid that will not work any longer."
"Why is that? If I just-"
"Oh Laura, Laura, I heard you were intelligent! Please don't be so naive, it hurts me to think I won't be able to help you if only for your pride."
Pride? That hurts.
John smirked again, but quickly hid it. It appeared he did not want another verbal beating. He seemed to be getting used to escaping from routine embarrassment.
"As all the tutors have access to your school records, you can't simply hide the fact that you're top ranked in both academics and in your battle record. You are undefeated after all."
The crumbs piled up in John's lap. His mouth opened a little in surprise. Laura smiled a bit at that.
"The number of your fights is few compared to those who are more the combat-maniac type, this is true, but after your performance yesterday, you definitely won't be able to pass your success off as chance or luck. I'm sure you've heard the talk. In staff quarters I promise you there's as much hype about you as anywhere else, though admittedly a little less exaggerated. You're famous. I'm bombarded by enquiries about the vaunted seventeen-year old girl who seems to be a natural first-year genius. This makes my position rather difficult as well, as you can imagine."
Of course, challenges happen between the staff members as well. For promotion, for position, and for possession of the best students. Most often more peaceful negotiations can be worked out for tutees, but sometimes it comes down to battle.
"And stacked against Laura's fame, is yours John, just as great, but for an entirely different reason."
"Me?" John brushed the crumbs off his jeans and sat forward in his seat.
"Oh yes, you John. My fellow tutors and professors say they don't know whether to envy me or pity me, since I have both the most enviable and the most pitiable student in amongst my charges."
Pfft. Laura stifled a snigger.
John was halfway to his feet but Amos spoke over him. It was a tone that gave John no choice but to sit right back down. Slowly.
"So, half of them want to challenge me for you, Laura, and the other half are telling all their students to kill you, John. They're much more vicious here than your schoolteachers. Which brings us back neatly to your partnership."
He paused as if to ask; any questions? John and Laura were silent.
"In short, you will protect each other. Don't interrupt. You will protect each other." Amos rapped his finger on the air to punctuate his syllables. "Naturally, I will not relinquish you to my colleagues, Laura. Setting your skill aside, I like you. I think you'd probably have given even me a run for my money, if we took experience out of it. But you're only seventeen after all. As for you John, what can I say, I like you too. Your defeat was ignominious and frankly one of the worst technical demolitions I've seen, but you certainly have spirit and more potential than should be sniffed at."
He paused again to let things sink in.
What, he's a bit of a nice guy after all...
"Since I will not give Laura up, I am not open to negotiation. Combat this early between tutors is unheard of, so most likely, the others will instruct their students to eliminate you instead. And of course, they already think of John as an easy target. What better than to take apart two of my tutees at once hrm? I would certainly send my tutees after the both of you in their positions. Which is exactly why you two will operate as partners. Anyone looking for an easy win from John will think twice with Laura standing by. Laura, famous as you are, you will likely be challenged frequently and repeatedly by strong opponents. You can't keep yourself under the radar, and even with your skill level, you will be ground down fast with the weight of all those challengers. But, with John to support you, it suddenly becomes a whole different equation. He's not nearly as hapless as you led everyone to believe, in truth. If we operate this way, John will overcome the perception of being an easy target, and Laura will no longer be considered a lone-wolf fighter open to all challengers. If you both follow my instructions, this plan should provide the best chances of success for both of you."
A long pause.
It does make sense. I don't really want to have to rely on John, but I can't find much of a fault with this plan. And the advantages for John are obvious, so he should have no objections either. Now all that's left is...
"How do we form a team?"
Amos looked from Laura to John and back. Their expressions were equally blank and expectant. He sighed.
"Well, it does not surprise me that neither of you ever thought about working in a team before. And you can get away with that at school I suppose. Things here are different though, alliances and enmities form everywhere, so you always need a friend or two around. In short, you know how the challenging etiquette works?"
"Yes, thirty seconds grace between challenge and combat."
"You know about weapons?"
"The challenger may not attack with a weapon unless the challenged first takes up a weapon themselves."
"And about asking for help?"
"The challenger may not receive assistance unless the challenged first requests it and invites another combatant to join. The challenger may not invite more combatants than the challenged."
"And there you have the gist of operating as a team," said Amos.
"But there was nothing there about formally becoming a team," said Laura, bemused.
"You don't formally become a team. There's no such thing. You just stick together and whenever one of you is challenged, you invite the other to join in and help you out. You're aware a challenger can withdraw their challenge before the 30 seconds grace is up? If you make it a two on one before that time, most often they'll pull out and it'll spare you having to waste your energy on them."
"Wait, wait." John spoke. "So, are you saying we have to spend all our time together?"
"As much as possible, yes. That's why I had you allocated neighbouring rooms."
What a nerve... He has no qualms about going ahead and doing whatever he wants with us does he?
"One other thing." Laura spoke this time. "The challenger may not invite another participant unless the challenged does so, correct? Does that mean that we may only accept challenges and not make any?"
"Yes, in short."
"So we're hiding?" said John.
"I prefer to say you're playing defensively, but in a manner of speaking, yes."
Another pause. Then-
"That's total bull! That just makes us look weak. Makes me look weak. Wouldn't it be better for me to take out some stronger opponents straightaway? Laura doesn't need to help me for that." John was on his feet remonstrating.
"I already told you you can't play by your old plans. I meant that for you too John. You thought you'd make an impression by taking on Laura as soon as you met her, before you had any idea of what you were getting into and look what happened. I thought you'd taken in some of what I said when I took you to the infirmary yesterday."
"I did, but you didn't tell me that I'd basically be cowering behind her to survive!"
"I, too don't like the idea of having to use John to survive. I thought this would be more like a relationship of cooperation than one of enforced reliance."
"Well, you are seventeen and eighteen respectively. I did not expect you to agree to it easily in the end. Anyway, that concludes the meeting. You know my instructions, follow them if you want to survive. Or don't, it'll make for some exciting battles either way!"
And there's that eerie switch to that cheerful carelessness again. Ugh, I don't like this. Not at all.
John did not, it seemed, think that the meeting was over.
"That's it? What the hell? Hey, what if I don't agree to going along with this? What if I've got other plans of my own, huh?"
"By all means, if your own plan is better than mine, do go ahead! But, for now, the meeting is over, I would like to request you leave my office, I do have an academic career as well, you know, and work is always calling!"
Amos sat down at his desk and began tapping away at his keyboard. He put a pair of earphones, large, expensive ones, with not-inconsiderable noise suppression, on his head. He hummed to himself as he worked and his feet tapped in rhythm. John stood there bristling.
"John, let's go. We won't get any more out of him." I tugged his sleeve. Looking back with a hint of disgust, he turned, flung the door open and marched out. I followed him and shut the door behind us quietly. Amos stayed at his desk, humming and tapping. As if we barely existed anymore.
* * *
"What an arsehole! I'm going to be a laughing stock with a strategy like that! At best it looks like I'm being protected out of pity..." John fumed. We were eating lunch in the refectory. We were quite late for the sitting because of the meeting, so it was quiet. John hacked at his food with knife and fork. It was quite savage to see. He was getting specks of gravy to fly over the table. People had stared to start with but quickly lost interest. In short, he was throwing a tantrum. Justified in a way, but no better for it.
"And it'll make you look weak as well for pitying me in the first place. This is total garbage!"
Stab stab. Gravy. Lovely. A speck of it sprayed onto my hand. I wiped it off with my sleeve.
"It's true that it makes us look like we're weak."
John looked up from his food.
"But, unfortunately, it makes sense. We need to consolidate and rebuild our positions. We're too exposed alone, and he's right about us both being widely targeted. People will come after us and it'll be hard to stand alone."
John was incredulous.
"Are you saying we should go along with this plan?"
Laura appraised him. She was in her dispassionate mode, things were easier that way.
"We don't seem to have a choice. We won't survive alone. Well, I might, but you won't. And it'll take too long to find you another person willing to look after you."
"What the fuck is that? Are you saying-"
"I know what I said, and so do you." Laura talked him down. "And it's true. As it stands, I'll survive longer than you alone. But we'll both survive longer together. So it's the best option. There's not much choice at all really. I wonder if we'll be alright like this."
Sigh. What a troublesome situation. I almost wish I'd let him beat me yesterday, it would've saved me so much trouble... He's right, my tutor. I was too proud. I wanted to put John in his place. I made a spectacle of myself. I was too proud.
"You seriously want to go along with this stupid plan?"
"As I just said. We have no choice."
"Fuck that. I have a choice, and I choose not to do this bullshit."
John stood up abruptly, swiping up his food tray as he went. More gravy flicked over the table. The polished wood was getting rather greasy.
"John, wait. Wait, I said!"
What's he doing, walking off on his own like that? It's ok to be angry, but don't be stupid!
John left the refectory.
He walked straight into a crowd of boys.
From the look of them, either rugby team or rowing crew. Oh, please, no.
"Hey, we found him."
"Who gets first dibs?"
"Doesn't matter, so long as we fuck him up."
"Then, I'll go first."
A taller boy, squarish head, probably could have been handsome, if he didn't look so obnoxious. Is it just Cambridge boys or cocky types in general? Or perhaps it's that lots of Cambridge boys are cocky and therefore end up ruining what would otherwise be perfectly attractive faces by sneering and jeering and looking relatively gormless in between. Or maybe that's got nothing to do with Cambridge or boys. Maybe that's just what stuck up people the world over look like...
"Your name's John right? Consider yourself challenged." The rowing crew boy started rolling up his sleeves. He grinned at his mates. What a moron.
"John, the plan."
John didn't take his eyes off the big man squaring up to him.
"John, invite me as a combatant. You're running out of time."
John said nothing.
"Hey, will one of you take care of the long-haired girl here?"
Oh, for fuck's sake. What will they call me if I cut my hair?
"Mate, she's the one who beat this guy the other day."
"So what, you gonna pussy out of beating her just 'cause she took apart a nobody?"
This isn't good. If we're both challenged simultaneously, it'll turn out badly. We'll end up doubling our opponents as well, even if we ask each other for help. This is a troublesome situation.
"John." Laura's voice didn't quaver, didn't even raise. But she did make it sound like a warning.
"Your thirty seconds are up buddy." The big man closed in on John.
"Hey, girl. I'm challenging you. No hard feelings, but we have instructions, so I'm gonna have to take you out."
Shit, now things are bad.
Laura's challenger was a thick-necked stocky lad. He had a bit of a belly, but was strong.
John faced down his man. He looked serious. Laura was just a little impressed. He looked much more dangerous than he had against her. He was fighting with a point to prove after all. Stupid, but not without merit.
"John, feel free to ask me for help anytime," said Laura. She focused on her challenger. "And, if I need your help, please be ready to lend a hand."
"You ready, boy?" said big man to John.
"Again, no hard feelings," said thick-neck to Laura.
This is a very, very bad, troublesome situation. Thought Laura.
"Bring it." Said John.