AUTHOR'S NOTE: Short chapter, sorry. Things are beginning to get to the tricky bit, plus I had to take a little hiatus in order to get my final exams out of the way. The next chapter will likely be longer and more interesting.
She'd been avoiding him.
It had taken Ponder an embarrassingly long time to figure out, but realization had arrived along with the insipid little note on his desk, tucked inside a book he'd lent her weeks ago. He surveyed the text again, penned in a cautious hand and containing, very carefully, absolutely nothing of substance.
He frowned, remembering Kat's scribbled sigils on the blackboard. Someone who scrawled thaumic signatures with such indifference would not, he surmised, sit down to write senseless letters with perfectly rounded "o"s. Ponder wasn't entirely sure why it bothered him, but the note had been nagging at the back of his since the book's appearance that morning. He'd walked into the HEM to find it resting on the corner of his desk—a suspicious location, as he vigilantly locked his office door each night.
She had been questionably absent from the HEM—if she'd been using the facility at all, it was when Ponder wasn't there—and he hadn't seen her in the dining hall. He'd interrupted her students' dice game—he was no longer sure if it was a game or schoolwork, not that it mattered—to inquire after her, but they didn't seem to be aware of any problems. The entire business had gone on too long to be coincidental, and the arrival of the note had caused Ponder to become suddenly and somewhat painfully aware of her disappearance.
It would be ludicrous to say that he missed her. He hadn't known her long enough to miss her, and besides, she hadn't actually gone anywhere. It must be, he supposed, that he wasn't used to being avoided. His students were, for the most part, clever enough that his presence didn't trouble them, and Ponder went out of his way to escape attention from Ridcully, not the other way around. Yes, it was definitely that he wasn't used to being evaded—or maybe it was that he'd rather enjoyed her company, in which case he was missing her.
It was a small thing, really. He'd quite liked the ability to have a conversation with Kat that didn't involve stopping himself every few minutes to explain long words or bits of theory. She'd never given him the blank stare he was used to seeing on the face of undergraduate students or the confused yet furious glare of the senior wizards. If anything, she'd simply roll her eyes or make some other overdramatic gesture when she thought he was being an idiot. That was the other thing, his original cohort had graduated and scattered. He caught names published here and there—Adrian's more than he'd like to admit—and there were letters and things, but there was no one around to point out when he was being stupid.
He looked back down at the note, mentally cursing the neat lines of perfect letters before tucking it back into the cover of the book. The late afternoon sun shone through the open window, and Ponder guessed there were a few hours yet before dinner. It was the perfect time, in fact, for afternoon classes...
There was a similar note tacked to the door, except the handwriting was nowhere near as neat.
Professor Smith's class has been cancelled today. No reason given as to why. Ponder wrinkled his nose slightly, surprisingly irritated to see that the "o"s pinned to the door were lopsided circles that didn't quite close. Dotting of the "i" took place over the "m". The crosses of the "t"s were not level, and the period seemed to have been an afterthought.
It was, in short, everything that his note was not.
He turned away from the door and meandered slowly down the hallway, resigning himself to yet another dinner with Ridcully shouting in his ear. It was early, but the sooner Ponder arrived at the dining hall, the sooner he could escape the Archchancellor's booming voice.
There was a small lounge at the end of the hallway, containing a couple of tables and a coffeepot. Ponder had, in some vague way, been aware of its existence for some time, but he had never ventured in. He'd never actually seen anyone use it, actually. That was how most of the University operated—you knew things were there, but you never actually saw them, used them, recognized them until some unknown force compelled you to need them.
Unknown forces were acting now, the sound of pouring coffee emanating from the open door. Not thinking much of it, he had almost walked past the room before Ponder caught a shock of red out of the corner of his eye.
She was leaning against the counter, back to the door, mug in one hand.
"Miss Smith," he said casually, noting the tensing of her shoulders as he walked into the lounge. She turned slowly, apparently out of regard for the cup of hot liquid she was holding, teeth worrying her bottom lip.
The strange quiver in Kat's voice matched the subtle shakiness in her hands. She looked... tired, exhausted even, the shadows under her eyes underscored by an uncharacteristic paleness in her face.
Ponder frowned. "Are you ill?"
"No," she replied, managing a small smile. "I just stayed up a bit late, that's all. I'm tired." She brought her free hand underneath the mug, trying to steady it.
He relaxed slightly. "Looks like more than a 'bit late', if you ask me."
"I didn't," she snapped, wincing slightly as the coffee sloshed over the edge of the cup, onto her fingers. Realizing the look of shock on Ponder's face, she mumbled an apology. "I'm just tired. That's all, really. Sorry."
"That's, er... that's fine," he said, shifting uneasily and looking, very intently, at the floor. "I haven't seen you around recently."
Absentmindedly wiping her fingers on her robe, Kat's gaze dropped to the countertop. "I've been... um, busy. Sorry. Again."
There was a long, pregnant pause, during which they very carefully avoided looking at one another.
"D'you need help with anything?" Ponder mumbled, examining the cracks in the tile.
"No," she whispered, "it's okay. Really." She stopped and cleared her through before continuing, "I just fell a... um, a little behind, with midterms. I'll catch up."
He didn't now how he was supposed to respond. "Ah. Good luck."
"I should be going," he said, shuffling back towards the door.
"Um, thank you for returning the book," he said. Mentally, he added, though I'm not quite sure how you got it into my office..."
She flushed slightly, toying with the coffee mug. "You're welcome. Thanks for lending it to me, anyway."
He paused in the doorway, looking back over his shoulder to where Kat was busily examining the rim of the mug. "Anytime. I, er, don't have many friends to lend things to. I'll, uh, see you around, I guess." With that, Ponder hurriedly left the room.
Halfway down the hall, he suddenly turned back, intending to ask if she was going to dinner. The door was still open, but with the exception of the steaming mug on the counter, the lounge was empty.