A/N: There's some English major concentrating in medieval literature who's going to be laughing so hard at the title and various references, I swear.
Ahem. So, this fic is a product of a few things: a) Jimmy is not particularly good at English (see: "Return of the Nanobots"), b) Cindy is good at English, c) as a former TA, I'm familiar with the lengths certain types of students will go to in order to get a perfect grade, and d) I was that medieval-concentrating English major for a good part of my undergrad years.
I'm estimating this fic at four chapters of decent length, maybe five/six at the outside — I've already got it fully outlined, and I'm about halfway through the drafting process (there won't be anything to justify the rating for a few more chapters, but it'll be there). Like I said in the notes to my previous one-shots, I'm still learning the ropes of the JN fandom, and it's been eons since I've written a multichaptered fic, so any and all feedback would be wonderful.
Now, on with the show! …or as Geoffrey Chaucer would say, "heere begynneth the tale of James and she yclept Kynthía, fulle of rivylitee, angre, and secrette affeccioun."
Roman de la Rivality
Chapter One: "A Minus State of Mind"
"Very well-written and well-researched, but also a bit formulaic and creatively unremarkable. Dig deeper next time."
Jimmy closed his eyes. Opened them. Closed them again. Opened them again. The words remained, indelible on the page.
Well-written and well-researched… well, he'd written the essay, so those were kind of a given. Formulaic he could almost, with some mental acrobatics (the only kind at which he excelled, truth be told), twist into a compliment — formulae were his life's blood, after all, the logical spine of his experiments and inventions — but if there was one thing James Isaac Neutron was not, it was unremarkable. Even in English class, which was, if he could possibly have such a thing, his worst subject.
But unremarkable was not the current cause of the insistent throbbing at his temple.
No, that he could attribute to the unfamiliar mark beside the A, his A, one of his oldest and dearest friends. Well hi there, A, lovely to see you again. Lookin' great there, ol' buddy. Oh no, don't worry, you've got plenty of friends at home.
His As were beautiful, unblemished works of art. Loving tributes to the letter. Excellent in every way, shape, and form.
They did not come with a hideous, mocking dash beside them.
"An A… minus?" Jimmy whispered to himself, voice strangled with horror and disbelief.
It would have been unbearable enough all on its own. It would have been enough of an irreversible blemish on his previously perfect academic record just by existing… if only Ms. Birch hadn't still been distributing papers to the rest of his classmates in AP English III, permitting just enough downtime before the day's lesson for Cindy to raise an inquisitive eyebrow at his horrified expression and lean slightly over her desk, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of his paper.
Jimmy clutched it jealously to his chest and shot her a dark look, but the slowly-spreading grin across her pert features told him that she had seen all she needed to see. As did the way she wordlessly slid her paper across her desk so he could clearly see the bright-red "A" written across the top. There were comments written next to it in Ms. Birch's clean, flowing hand, but they didn't matter. Nothing did except the slow build of anger and humiliation rising within him.
Just say it, Vortex, he thought venomously. You know you want to, and you've probably got the time. Just. Say it. Well, well, well, what have we here, NERDTRON? Is it actually possible that The Great One has (gasp) NOT gotten the highest grade on an assignment? Is that giant freak brain of yours finally shorting out? I guess it's aaaallll downhill from here, Neutron, hope you enjoy going to a state school!
He narrowed his eyes at her, a series of witty comebacks to her imagined retorts just waiting to spring from his tongue… but she didn't even give him the satisfaction of spirited verbal warfare. She just settled back into her seat with an impossibly self-satisfied smirk tilting at the corners of her lips, one hand resting lightly on her paper.
There had to be a mistake. That was all there was to it. All right, Cindy got an A — big deal. She was (he was forced to admit) very intelligent, and arguably more well-rounded in her (steady, boy, you can do this) academic pursuits, excelling in both the humanities and sciences. She got As all the time. They weren't as good as his As, of course, not as astounding, but still. Cindy was perfectly capable of earning an A on an essay assignment.
But there was no way in heaven, hell, or Euclidean geometry that she could get an A if he didn't.
Just you wait, Vortex, Jimmy thought. When this gets straightened out—
"All right, does everyone have their papers back?" Ms. Birch's voice interrupted his thoughts. Hearing no protest from the class, she said, "Good. Now, if any of you have any questions about your grades, feel free to see me after class to—"
Jimmy's hand shot up in the front row, his eyes narrowed accusingly at Cindy.
"After class, James," Ms. Birch said firmly.
"But Ms. Birch—!"
Her pointed look clearly brooked no argument, and he slumped down in his seat, defeated.
"Okay then. Now I'm sure you've all had your fill of courtly love by now, but we're going to spend just a few more days studying medieval poetry. If you'll all pull out the packet from yesterday's class on troubadours, we can…"
Only half-listening, Jimmy numbly flipped open his notebook and retrieved the neatly-stapled packet from the portfolio pocket in front.
This is gonna be a long day.
Jimmy's notes were little more than an assortment of terse phrases written in a heavy hand when the period bell finally sounded at 11:15.
"All right, now don't forget, tonight you're going to be reading the selection from The Wife of Bath's Tale in your textbook — I know the modern English translation is on the opposite page, but try to get through the Middle English first, okay? It might surprise you. See you all tomorrow."
The familiar sounds of shuffling notebooks and idle chatter surrounded him as his classmates began to file out of the room, but Jimmy remained rooted to his desk, staring purposefully ahead at Ms. Birch as she began to wipe down the board.
"Something troubling you, James?" Ms. Birch asked without turning around.
"I… was hoping I could discuss my grade on our latest term paper."
"You're an excellent teacher, Ms. Birch, so please don't take this as a criticism of your job performance—"
"Oh, I'm sure I won't," she said mildly, setting down the eraser and sitting on the edge of her desk at the front of the classroom.
"—but you seem to have made a slight error with my grade," Jimmy said, grinding his teeth a bit as he rose from his desk and stood before her.
"I'll double-check my gradebook — would you hand that up here, please, James?"
Jimmy extracted the paper from his notebook and eyed her expectantly as she peered at the grade and her comments over her square-framed glasses, then glanced at her gradebook. Back. And forth.
As the seconds passed, he somehow knew that the chances of her exclaiming that of course she'd made a mistake, everyone knew Jimmy Neutron never got anything less than an A on an assignment were becoming increasingly remote.
"Hmm… nope, no mistake. It was a very well-written essay on the idealization of courtly love and beauty. You clearly did a great deal of research. Good work, James."
Good work. Not absolutely breathtaking, James! Or a testament to the potential beauty and eloquence of the English language, Mr. Neutron! Just… good work?
Attempting to regulate his breathing, he carefully said, "Thank you, Ms. Birch. I appreciate that. But…" He swallowed with some difficulty. "…an A-minus, ma'am?"
"And… you say there was no mistake?"
"I'm afraid not, no," Ms. Birch said blandly, handing his paper back to him.
And maybe it was her calm, even tone. Maybe it was the memory of Cindy's impossibly self-satisfied grin. Or maybe he was just really, really tired of seeing that goddamn mocking dash beside his perfect A.
But that was the moment where Jimmy lost it.
"That can't be!" he yelled, tossing his notebook back onto his desk. "You said it yourself! It was well-written, it was well-researched, it was 'good work,' remember? How does that fail to merit an A?!"
"James," Ms. Birch said, "I've had you in my class for several months now. I know your reputation in this town and this school district. We all do. And I know you're accustomed to perfection in yourself and your schoolwork. But to get an A in my class, you have to demonstrate more than perfection."
Jimmy stared at her for a long moment. "…Ms. Birch," he began slowly, "you'll forgive me for being pedantic, but as a teacher who specializes in the proper usage of the English language, surely you understand that surpassing perfection is by definition—"
"James," Ms. Birch sighed. "Look. I know English isn't your best subject." She held up a hand at his sputtering protest. "And I know that you'd rather be devoting your time and energy to Mr. MacCulley's AP Physics class. But the fact is, you elected to take Advanced Placement English, and in a class that can count for college credit, I try to teach my students as though they are receiving college credit."
"I appreciate your level of respect, ma'am, but—"
"It's easy to write a straightforward term paper, James," Ms. Birch continued as if he hadn't spoken. "And you're right — there are rules. Your essay was well-written and well-researched. Not a single syntax error in sight, perfect structure, perfect citations. But this was a creative assignment — the idea was to get you thinking beyond research and poetic meter and historical context. I wanted to see you interact with the text on a more personal level — what it means to you, what emotions it stirs, what parallels you can see between it and modern life. It's not enough to just interpret what it says — I wanted to see you explore what it does."
Ms. Birch smiled at him, just a bit sympathetically. "You did a very good job with your paper, James. And it certainly was interesting. But you didn't reach that extra level. And that's why you lost points."
She stood from her desk and smoothed a stray wrinkle from her crisp pencil skirt. "If it makes you feel any better, I'm not sure the rest of the class understood the assignment entirely, either. There was only one A out of the sixteen of you."
It probably would have made him feel a little better, he silently admitted to himself as Ms. Birch began to straighten her papers and pack up her things… if it had been absolutely anyone else in the class. If it'd been Oleander, or Nissa, or Stacy, or anyone that he could just write off as a vague fluke, just a lucky assignment, maybe even Ms. Birch staying out a little too late the night before grading (well, maybe not that, he amended, observing her wiry, greying hair and the crisp lines of her skirt and blouse). But if it had been anyone, anyone other than Cindy… maybe the rest of the class failing to perform to expectations as well would grant him some small measure of schadenfreude.
But it was Cindy.
So all bets were off.
"Ms. Birch, I have to say that I completely fail to see the merit of utilizing a creative assignment option," Jimmy said. Ms. Birch looked up at him sharply, one eyebrow quirked, and even though a little voice in his head was telling him very pointedly to stand down, he continued. "Any class such as this designed to be a survey of literature surely benefits more from a hermeneutic pedagogical approach than any kind of emotion-based reaction to the text!"
"And when you've obtained your doctorate in education, James," Ms. Birch said, eyeing him over her glasses, "I'll be more than happy to discuss pedagogical theory with you." She snapped her briefcase closed with a meaningful 'click' and set it down in the desk in front of her, effectively ending the discussion.
"Oh, a doctorate in the humanities," Jimmy scoffed as he shuffled irritably back to his desk and collected his books. "Let me get back to you in two weeks. Then I'll just grade my own damn papers. At least I'll know an A when I see one."
"Mm. One last thing before you go, James."
"Yes, Ms. Birch?"
She slid a sheet of paper to the front of her desk and eyed him neutrally.
Jimmy's eyes widened as he saw the words in bold typeface across the top margin. "Detention?" he said in disbelief. "For… disrespecting faculty?"
Ms. Birch handed him her pen with a pointed look.
Pretty sure this is the worst day I've had since the toilet in a briefcase malfunctioned, Jimmy thought sullenly as the thumbprint scanner on his locker confirmed his identity.
"Lovely weather we're having, isn't it, Neutron?" a syrupy-sweet female voice called.
…yep, I think that pretty much clinches it. "What do you want, Vortex?" he ground out, pulling his locker open with a fraction more force than necessary as Cindy appeared beside him, the portrait of innocent contentment.
"Oh, well," she began, leaning up against the locker next to his, her green eyes fairly shining with excitement, "I just had a few questions about our term paper in Ms. Birch's class. Do you mind if I look at yours for a minute?"
"Knock it off, Vortex. I'm not in the mood."
"It was the weirdest thing — when we were in class I caught a glimpse of your paper and I thought I saw some kind of smudge next to your A, almost like a minus or something and I thought, Wow, that can't be right…"
"And, you know, I was waiting outside the classroom for a little while after class, you know, just hanging around, and I thought I heard Ms. Birch say that only one student in class got an A on the assignment. And I kept thinking, well, I know I got an A, so that's one…"
"I'm warning you, Cindy…"
"And I thought, oh no, that must have been what I saw, and this couldn't possibly be the end of James Isaac Neutron, the Enshrined Boy Genius, could it?" Cindy asked in mock horror, placing a hand to her chest. "Such a dark day in the history of Retroville! How will we ever—"
Jimmy threw his books into his locker with a resounding metallic thud. Several nearby students turned to stare at him, but when they noticed the slender blonde girl beside him, collectively rolled their eyes in understanding and turned away.
"All right," he said, retrieving his calculus textbook from the top shelf and shoving it into his backpack. "All right. You want me to get down on my knees and proclaim your everlasting superiority, Vortex? Want me to pretend like suddenly you're the smartest kid in town again?"
"Well, if we really want to be accurate, today…" she smiled at him and shrugged a fraction too innocently.
"Yeah. Right." Jimmy zipped up his backpack with a violent jerk and slammed his locker door shut. "Fine, Vortex," he said. "Fine. You got an A. I didn't. You're the paragon of intellect at Retroville High. Because you got one A on one term paper. Ignore all the times I've beaten you. Ignore every single time I've smoked you in science fairs and essay contests and every single goddamn academic competition we've ever both entered."
At seventeen, he'd gained some length and sinew in his bone structure — not enough to be daunting or impressive, but enough that he could bore down into Cindy's furious eyes with his own as he moved to stand within a few inches of her. "Congratulations, Vortex," he said, offering her a humorless smile. "You must be so proud. You beat me. Once. In seven years."
Cindy stared up at him, expression unreadable. After a long moment, she shifted her books to one arm and took a step away from him.
"Really sucks being second-best, doesn't it, Neutron?" she said flatly. Her eyes burned into his for a long moment before she turned and walked away, her shoulders tense.
Jimmy watched her go, his backpack slung awkwardly over one shoulder and a deep, gnawing feeling of discomfort beginning to grow within him that he wasn't entirely sure he could attribute to the events of Ms. Birch's class.
Fifteen minutes, Jimmy thought, stretching his legs and eyeing the analog clock above the doorframe. Despite the obvious black mark on his record, he'd been rather pleased to discover that detention hadn't been an endless academic horror so much as a brief spell of uninterrupted tedium.
"You're a new face here, aren't you?" the small-framed detention monitor — he was one of the remedial teachers, Mr. Maltesta or something like that — had said in a kind voice when Jimmy had shown up at room 238, looking for all the world like a man condemned. "Just need you to sign the attendance sheet for me. Have to keep track of everyone, you know."
Jimmy had looked at him, then around the empty classroom, before sighing and reaching to take the battered clipboard from the smiling man. "How long do I have to stay here?" he had asked wearily as he signed his name in his familiar messy scrawl.
"Just until 4:30. You can do your homework if you like. Just no talking to the other students."
Again eyeing the abundance of empty desks around him, Jimmy had flatly stated, "…I think I can manage that," before thumping his backpack down beside a desk in the front row and slouching into the seat.
Two hours now. Only fifteen minutes left. At least he hadn't been forced to spend the time with any of the underachieving slackers that pelted him with rubber bands (and, on one particularly unpleasant occasion, thumbtacks) at every single school assembly.
Jimmy rolled his neck, attempting to work out the lingering stiffness, before glancing at his watch, then at the empty desk at the front of the classroom. Mr. Maltesta had told him he was going to the bathroom and then down to the main office to make copies, but to keep an eye on everyone else for him while he was gone. Ha, ha.
Fifteen minutes really wasn't too unreasonable a time to cut out, he thought, leaning forward and slowly placing the rough schematic he'd been drafting into his backpack. Not if no one was watching, anyway…
"Wow, Neutron, trapped in the shame room, too?" a female voice called from the hallway. "Guess when the mighty start to fall they just hit escape velocity right out of the gate."
"Intellect in no way correlates to the terminal velocity of the human body, Vortex," Jimmy said flatly, zipping up his backpack and lifting his head to look at Cindy as she came to stand in the classroom doorway. Her damp hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail, and she was clad in a simple pair of shorts and a well-worn T-shirt. On her way home from track practice, no doubt — ever since entering Retroville High, Cindy'd made a name for herself as a sprinter on the varsity track team, in addition to karate, and the honor society, and her position as class secretary, and, well, anything else she could fit into her schedule.
Although, if Jimmy were pressed, under absolute, screaming torture, he'd admit that he liked her best in her track uniform. The loudmouthed girl he'd argued with over the years had somehow slowly transformed into a rather striking young woman, and there was something very… appealing to watching her lithe frame stretching as she warmed up by the track, all shapely calves and curving shoulders and…
"Something wrong with your eyes, Neutron?" Cindy asked, raising an eyebrow and leaning against the doorframe.
"Sorry," Jimmy mumbled, dropping his attention back to his backpack. "It's… just been kind of a bad day."
"Yeah, I got that when you decided to act like a complete jackass earlier," she said frankly, crossing the room to sit at the desk beside him. "Also the fact that you mouthed off enough to Ms. Birch to end up here."
"How'd you know Ms. Birch was the one who gave me detention?"
"I told you, I was listening after class. You really are slipping, aren't you, brainiac?" She smirked and leaned back in her seat. "Ah, it's gonna be nice being the town genius again. Think I can get them to retroactively add my name to all of those stupid banners and trophies of yours back at Lindbergh? I mean, you did almost destroy the town, like, a hundred times, you'd think that'd count for something…"
"Oh yeah," Jimmy rolled his eyes. "Like more than my getting highest test scores in the history of the state or the fact that I curved the entire school's ranking high enough to get us listed as one of the best in the country or all of the extra funding my inventions brought in to the science departmentor the fact that I saved the town, like, a hundred times…"
"Yeah, yeah, everyone in the world knows about your accomplishments, you're so amazing for being a complete idiot," Cindy said, stretching her arms above her head. "Look, I'm not here for a social call, and definitely not with you, freak-brain."
"Always the charmer, aren't you, Vortex."
"Oh, like you're one to talk." She sighed and tapped the heels of her well-worn sneakers against the linoleum floor. "Look. I was talking to Stacy after school and she said Ms. Birch is letting her turn in some revisions for a higher grade. I know she got a B and you got an A-minus…" She smiled at his pained grimace. "…but if you sweet-talk Ms. Birch, maybe she'll let you try to up your grade, too."
"It should have been an A in the first place," Jimmy sighed, setting his backpack at his feet. "She even said it was well-written and well-researched, and I know I delved into the various thematic elements of the text. It doesn't make any sense." He ran a hand through his thick brown hair. "It's just… completely illogical. In science, it's easy — there's one right answer, no shades for interpretation. The gravitational constant is always G, the atomic number of radium is always 88, and the measurement of a mole always corresponds to the Avogadro constant. There's no… 'transcendent level' or 'personal connection' or whatever the hell kind of enlightenment Ms. Birch thinks I'm supposed to get."
"That's what makes English fun for the rest of us, Neutron," Cindy said with a small smile. "There's no one right answer. You can interpret and analyze and come to a thousand different conclusions, so you're not always the only one who's right." Her smile grew wider. "Plus, it's always fun to see you actually suck at something for once."
"An A-minus equates to 'sucking' now, Vortex?" Saying the grade out loud left a bitter taste in his mouth, and he grimaced.
Cindy laughed in response. "You're so predictable, Neutron," she said, turning in her seat and propping her feet up against his chair. "Guess you'll just have to get used to being fallible and mortal like the rest of us."
"Yeah, you have fun with that, Cindy. I'm talking to Ms. Birch about a revised grade first thing tomorrow morning."
"Yeah, I figure I might try that, too. I don't know if they're technically allowed to give out A-pluses, but it might be worth the extra effort…"
Jimmy stood and slammed his backpack onto his chair, narrowly missing Cindy's toes. "Don't you ever stop talking?"
Cindy stood and glared at him, her teasing smile gone. "Like you wouldn't be doing the exact same thing if our positions were reversed, Nerdtron," she bit out.
"Newsflash, Vortex, our positions have been reversed a hundred times, but one A isn't some kind of miraculous event to me like it apparently is to you!"
"It sure as hell is when you're not the one who gets it!"
"I wouldn't get too comfortable in your sad little genius fantasy world, Vortex," Jimmy said, glaring down at her, "because my paper's going to make yours look like an unedited submission to a non-peer-reviewed journal."
Cindy gasped and stared at him.
Jimmy slung his backpack over his shoulder and brought his face close to hers. "From a nonaccredited institution," he whispered.
"You son of a bitch!" Cindy yelled, pressing her palms hard against his chest. "Well good luck, Neutron, because remember, you're writing about people, and more importantly, courtly love and women, something we both know you don't have the slightest clue about!"
"Well if even a fraction of them are like you, can you blame me?"
"I can blame you for anything!"
"I know, and you usually do!"
"That's because you're an idiot!"
Jimmy and Cindy stared at each other, eyes burning, hearts pounding, inches apart, the air between them crackling with angry tension.
"You know," Cindy started, poking him hard in the chest with one finger, "despite you having the interpersonal skills of a neurally-impaired monkey and insulting me just because your precious ego took a few hits today, I came here to offer you my notes just in case you wanted to revise your paper, but now you can just do it yourself!"
"Fine!" Jimmy yelled back, grasping her finger and tossing her hand aside. "I will!"
With one last pointed glare, Cindy turned on her heel and stormed from the room, her fists clenched at her sides as she passed a bewildered Mr. Maltesta, his arms laden with copies.
The teacher shook his head. "I swear," he sighed, "this always happens whenever there are so many of you teenagers in one place."
CONTINUED IN CHAPTER TWO: "A PARLIAMENT OF FOOLS"