A/N: Things that have happened in the past month that made this chapter super-late: 1) got a new job, 2) took up archery, 3) had to have my left arm in a sling for over a week because of #2 (arm guards are very, very important, kids), 4) adopted a pair of nine-week-old kittens that think my attempts to sleep at night are just adorable. So the kind-of-not-really-grand finale of RdlR is rather belated. Hopefully it's worth the wait. It is, if nothing else, very, VERY long.
I can't thank all of you enough for sticking with me through this story — it'd literally been nearly a decade since I'd attempted a multichaptered work when I started into it, and I thoroughly enjoyed every single minute of writing it. I hope you've all enjoyed it with me. As an aside, today is actually my birthday, so consider this my gift to all of you.
And now, without further ado, onto the finale!
(Note: the title of this chapter is [bad] Latin for "in language there is truth". Like Cindy, I'm way better at Middle French.)
Roman de la Rivality
Chapter Six: "In Lingua Veritas"
Monday morning dawned bright and cold, a brilliant winter sun rising over a dusty-pink sky. There was a brisk, pleasant chill to the air, and the sidewalks shone silver-white with a thick coat of morning frost. It was almost as though the essence of a perfect midwinter morning had been distilled and delivered, the landscape awash in pinks, golds, and silvers, a softly-romantic sunrise in deference to mankind's designated day of romance.
Jimmy, for his part, was completely oblivious to this, and to everything outside, and, at this point owing rather handsomely to a severe case of sleep deprivation, to what a sunrise even was anymore — that morning a flaming portal to hell could have opened up in his front yard, and he still would have been up to his elbows in wires and gears in the lab, with only the barest passing thought given to the sudden spike in temperature and sounds of wailing and gnashing teeth outside.
Down in the heart of said lab, Jimmy furrowed his brow and pressed a hand to his chin as he examined the tangle of written code on his computer screen, typing in a string of commands and glancing back at his towering matter substantiator. He'd rolled his T-shirt sleeves up onto his shoulders some time ago, his biceps smudged with soot and grease, his hair sweaty and disheveled. "Have to get this finished," he mumbled to himself, lightly pinching the back of one hand and attempting to keep his increasingly-heavy eyes from falling shut.
Jimmy was in no way a novice at the general methodology in which he was currently engrossed — he'd conducted any number of scientific research marathons over the years, and he usually took a kind of accomplished pride in his resulting exhaustion, in the countless hours spent researching and experimenting and tinkering and recording brilliant new observations until he finally collapsed onto the nearby couch, often with lab coat and goggles still in place.
But this… this was different. Those experiments had been just for his own pleasure.
This… this was for her.
Jimmy shook his head a little as he retrieved a sheet of graph paper from his desk and scribbled down a series of prompts, examining the construction of the programmed code with a practiced eye. Even after the lessons of courtly love had finally taken hold, Logic banished grumbling and irritable into the far recesses of his brain, it was still far beyond his comprehension that he even had a 'her,' and miles past even that when accounting for the identity of the 'her' both objectively and in relation to himself. But it seemed almost immaterial now that he'd been able to channel that confusion into science and mechanics, where he could subjugate the pronoun trouble of her and him and the very real possibility that there was now a them into something familiar, into lines of code and electrical engineering instead of evocative poetry and warm, lingering glances that seemed to wring his breath from his lungs, somehow painful and pleasant all at once.
It had been terrifying, at first, having to admit to himself that he was actually planning a grand romantic gesture, that said romantic gesture was intended for Cindy Vortex, and that he wanted, needed it to be absolutely perfect, breathtaking, the kind of thing that would immediately render all the poetry they'd examined in Ms. Birch's class quaint and obsolete in the face of it. For the past two days, Jimmy's world had been entirely contained within his workbench, the busily-whirring machines in his lab, and the memory of Cindy's soft, hesitant smile and her lips against his driving him to work harder, faster, to perfect and refine the pinnacle of courtly romance in a way that only someone with his astounding intellect ever could.
Or, well… that had been the plan, anyway.
"Goddard!" Jimmy called toward the back of the lab. "You've got the compiler running at full capacity, right?"
An affirmative bark echoed from behind a group of imposing machines, their metal cases glinting in the harsh fluorescent light, the sounds of grinding gears and electronic humming emanating from within them.
"Finally," Jimmy sighed, turning back to his computer and running a hand through his hair, grimacing slightly at the feel of dirt and grime against his skin. "I think we may be back on track here."
It'd taken a surprisingly short amount of time for him to formulate the initial plans for what he'd rather unimaginatively dubbed Operation Courtly Love, especially considering how long it had taken him to finally understand the named concept. After days of stubborn pushback and willful blindness, his research for his paper revisions (and Cindy's unexpected help therewith) had granted him at least a cursory grasp on what commonly constituted "love" in popular understanding. Flowers and chocolate would have certainly been enough to meet the standard listed romantic quotient for Valentine's Day, but why stop there when there were countless other traditional romantic symbols he could incorporate into his master plan?
Jimmy stretched his arms over his head and rose from his computer chair, casting an appraising eye over the various machines hard at work around the lab. Goddard was examining the compiler as it constructed the finest synthetic Belgian-style chocolates, carefully wrapping them in thin sheets of real gold. The Insta-Grow machine had already turned out dozens of perfectly-formed long-stemmed roses, their petals at peak bloom and free of any discoloration. A swell of soft classical music rose from the far corner, where the holographic string quartet he'd spent the better part of Saturday evening programming began to tune up.
"Make sure you start with Vivaldi, okay, guys?" Jimmy called to them. "He's Cindy's favorite. Or, well, he was at one point, I'm not sure about now. …tell you what, just run with it, and if she starts rolling her eyes or trying to hit you over the head with your bows, switch to Mozart and see what happens."
The cellist raised a holographic eyebrow at Jimmy before shrugging and giving him a thumbs up.
Jimmy allowed himself a pleased smile as he continued his inspection, features turning serious as they settled on the dressmaker's dummy he'd borrowed from his mother. "I'm taking a gamble with this one, huh, Goddard," he said, half to himself, reaching out to stroke his fingers over the shining metal plates.
Goddard barked, trotting over to Jimmy's side and nudging at his hand in a comforting gesture.
"It's just…" Jimmy sighed and leaned down to scratch Goddard behind one ear. "None of this would have happened if Ms. Birch hadn't given us that stupid assignment, and we've both been so inundated by all of this medieval courtly love stuff… I don't know." He frowned slightly at the dummy. "I mean… the last thing I want to do is embarrass her and have her yell at me or hit me or whatever disproportionate punishment she'd probably dole out for my not handling Valentine's Day to her lofty expectations."
Goddard whined and nuzzled his hand, offering up a short bark of encouragement.
"Well I know she's lucky to have me doing all of this for her, but this is Cindy we're talking about. If the slightest thing goes wrong, I'll be lucky if she doesn't…"
Goddard barked sternly at him.
"I am not being unfair to her! It's just…" He sighed and fell back into his computer chair, resting his head back and staring up at the ceiling. "I care about her, Goddard," he said finally, steadfastly avoiding the robotic dog's gaze. "Definitely not what I would have chosen, but it is what it is. And I've screwed up so many times that I just… I just want this one to be right. I want it to be right for her." He stared out towards the back of the lab, eyes clouded and serious.
Jimmy turned his head a fraction as the matter substantiator began emitting a short series of beeps. "Looks like my transportation's finally ready, at any rate," he said, hauling himself back to his feet. "Do me a favor and double-check on the string quartet's power source while I make sure this thing compiled correctly, okay, Goddard?"
Jimmy coughed as he neared the matter substantiator, a thick haze of smoke tumbling from the machine. It probably would have been easier to just rent a horse for the day from one of the nearby ranches, but this way, he could control its every movement without having to worry about being thrown… or, well, learning how to ride properly in the first place.
A set of polished hooves appeared beneath the smoke, and Jimmy smiled to himself, glancing back at the gleaming armor on the dressmaker's dummy. "You want romance, Cindy?" he said, grinning rakishly. "How's a shining knight on—"
A loud bleat sounded from the matter substantiator.
Jimmy turned slowly back to the output field, shoulders drooping as the smoke finally cleared.
"You," he said pointedly to the creature standing inside the machine, "were very specifically programmed to be a male American White Horse at precisely 16.2 hands with a reinforced capacity to carry two average-sized humans and one set of technologically-enhanced plate armor. Tell me, do you fit any of those criteria?"
The small white goat in the matter substantiator appeared entirely unconcerned, and bleated again.
Jimmy dropped his head into his hands. "Perfect," he muttered. "Just brilliant." He narrowed his eyes at the goat, which was attempting to eat the instrument panel on the substantiator. "Because plenty of romantic heroes have appeared before their ladies all resplendent on goatback!"
An unpleasant metallic grinding sound emanated from the computer behind him, and Jimmy knelt down to inspect it, grimacing as a shower of sparks shot out of the casing. "For the love of… Goddard! Scan for any abnormalities in this power circuit, would you?"
Goddard trotted over and carefully examined the computer, his own circuits whirring as his software scanned for problems. There was a strange, unfamiliar hum at the threshold of his upper-range hearing, and he whined at Jimmy in concern.
"I wouldn't worry about it, boy," Jimmy said. "We've put the systems under a much heavier load than all this. VOX is probably just a little overworked from all the new programming."
Goddard barked a question at him.
"Well, no, I'm not entirely sure about the total power output of all the machines working at once, but how bad could it be?"
Goddard barked again, and there was a note of discomfort in his tone.
"Don't worry so much, Goddard — we already repaired all of the circuits fried by the Poetry Analyzer, so it's just like any other heavy experiment day."
Jimmy started as the goat headbutted his hip, bleating irritably.
"Okay, not quite like every other day," Jimmy sighed. He scowled as the goat began to chew on the hem of his T-shirt. "Stop that, you mangy thing!"
Goddard turned away as Jimmy attempted to rescue his T-shirt from the goat, briefly entering into a bizarre tug-of-war with the creature in which the goat very quickly gained the upper hand.
The steady, high-pitched hum continued. Goddard analyzed its frequency and, determining that it was too high for Jimmy's weak human ears to detect, carefully began to sniff along the concrete floor, whining slightly as the smell of melting wire met his metallic nose. His nails clicked along the floor as he tracked the trail, moving faster and faster until he finally reached the Insta-Grow machine, snuffling his way through armfuls of roses as he made his way to the instrument panel, eyes growing wide as he observed the energy output meter.
He barked, loud and desperate, racing over to Jimmy's side.
"Give me back my shirt, you goddamn programming error!" Jimmy cursed, finally tugging the hem of his shirt away from the goat and reaching out to smack one of its horns, earning himself a solid headbutt to the stomach for his trouble.
Goddard was barking frantically as he reached a dazed Jimmy where he lay in a heap on the floor, coughing and clutching his stomach. "I'm starting to understand," he coughed again, "why goats are associated with the devil in popular culture." He shook his head, then frowned at Goddard's clearly agitated form. "What is it, boy? What's wrong?"
Goddard looked back to the Insta-Grow machine, where the steady hum had grown louder, smoke beginning to pour from its side vents.
Jimmy's eyes widened. "What in the…"
Goddard barely had time to leap in front of him and push him aside before the explosion tore through the lab. Shards of glass and singed wires rained down over them, and Goddard leapt up from his protective hunch over Jimmy, racing over to the twisted metal remains of the Insta-Grow machine and turning his internal fire extinguisher at the rising flames within it. Jimmy coughed and retrieved the standard extinguisher from near his computer and rushed to join him. Within moments, all that remained was the smell of burning metal and a haze of dissipating smoke.
Jimmy coughed into one hand. "That was a close one, eh, Goddard?" he said, reaching down to pet him and grimacing at the hot metal beneath his hand. "Thanks for saving me, boy."
Jimmy turned away from the wreckage to examine the rest of the lab. The holographic string quartet had disappeared, as had the goat. The dressmaker's dummy had tipped over, one side of the armor on it scorched black. Fortunately, the compiler and his computer seemed relatively undamaged, despite the severe power surge.
"Well," Jimmy sighed, running a hand through his hair, "looks like we'll have to nix the knight-on-horseback portion of today's entertainment." He glanced at the digital clock readout on his computer. "Five-thirty. At least we've got plenty of time to cobble what's left of the experiments together. Come on, Goddard — we're not dead yet." He walked over to his workbench and, retrieving a handful of tools, headed towards the back of the lab, Goddard trotting at his heels.
Neither of them noticed the frayed, sparking wires at the back of Jimmy's computer.
Or the clockface that remained stationary as the morning sun rose higher and higher.
Cindy ducked her chin into her scarf and blew on her fingers as she made her way through the double doors at the entrance to Retroville High, exhaling experimentally and frowning as her breath ghosted in the cold air. "You'd think they could keep it above fifty in here," she grumbled, tugging on the ends of her sweater sleeves. "At least when the outside temperature's somewhere between the ninth circle of hell and Christmas in Winnipeg."
"Oh, is that where you disappeared to?" a familiar female voice deadpanned from behind her. "Seriously, Cindy, I know you're the one with the black belt and all that ninja stuff and everything, but I was Invisible Sista, remember?"
Cindy laughed and tossed a friendly glance over her shoulder. "Hey, Libs," she greeted as Libby came up beside her, her textbooks perched on her hip. "Great weather we're having, huh?"
"I didn't even know it was legal for it to get this cold this far south," Libby groused, straightening the collar of her short wool coat. "Somebody needs to find that stupid groundhog and kick his little rodent ass, this is just killing my skin."
"Maybe Jimmy can make you some kind of ridiculously-advanced moisturizing cream," Cindy grinned as they reached her locker. "You'll probably glow in the dark for a few months, but hey, the days are still pretty short."
Libby raised a curious eyebrow at her. "Girl, what did you just say?"
"What?" Cindy said, reaching out to spin the combination to her locker. "I was just joking that Jimmy could…"
"That," Libby intoned, regarding Cindy curiously. "Friday afternoon I damn near had to hand that boy his own teeth for being his usual clueless jackass self and upsetting you, and today he's Jimmy? Not Nerdtron, not Freakbrain, not…"
"Oh, well, you know," Cindy said, a secretive smile pushing at the corners of her lips. "That was Friday."
"And, what, now you two are back to peacetime until you actually see each other again next period?"
"Maybe," Cindy said lightly, retrieving her literature textbook from the top shelf of her locker. "And maybe not."
Libby stared at her, carefully scrutinizing her face. "You're not telling me something," she said, narrowing her eyes slightly.
"Hm?" Cindy said, raising an eyebrow. "What makes you think that?"
"Well, first of all, you're currently rockin' the sappiest smile I've ever seen on your face…" She tilted her head and cast an appraising eye over Cindy's soft, fitted sweater and neatly-pressed skirt. "…and you're dressed up for something." She grinned mischievously. "You know, I was wondering where you were all weekend — I couldn't get ahold of you at all."
Cindy shrugged lightly, slotting her textbooks into her bag. "Well, I kind of slept in a little on Saturday. Just needed some time to myself to think about… some things." She absently swiped her thumb against her lips and smiled to herself.
"Mm-hm," Libby said, crossing her arms over her chest. "'Some things' that were more important than hearing about what happened at the dance?"
"Oh, right," Cindy said with a careless nod. "The dance was on Friday, wasn't it."
Libby stared at her. "Yes," she said slowly. "The dance. The dance that you wanted to go to. The dance that you did not go to because of some impotent loser whose stupid ass shall not even be named. That dance. Remember?"
"Mm-hm. Did you have fun?"
Libby rolled her eyes and leaned up against the locker next to Cindy's. "Girl, you didn't miss a damn thing," she sighed. "First of all, I don't know who they had workin' the DJ booth, but dude should be hauled up before the Libby Tribunal for crimes against music. Who the hell wants to hear jam band music during a dance? Or ever?"
"Ugh, gross. Did they at least play something danceable for you at some point?"
"Finally," Libby intoned, "after three guys threatened to strangle him with his headphones if he played one more Disco Biscuits song. But anyway, I was trying to tell you about Ashley and Reed. First of all, girl shows up in this hoochie-mama yellow chiffon thing — so ugly. Hair was a mess, some cheap-ass jewelry, just totally classless…"
"Libs," Cindy said gently, "I'm over it. Really, Genuinely. You don't have to trash her for me."
"So anyway," Libby continued as if she hadn't spoken, "she and Reed start dancin' up to me when I'm trying to get my groove on — with what little groove was to be had with that DJ — and Ashley asks where you are with that so-fake smile like she goddamn cares, but she doesn't see Sheen comin' up double-fisting Purple Flurp for us and damn if she doesn't turn around right into him and end up dousing her ugly-ass dress all over."
Libby laughed. "Dress is ruined, hair is ruined, and karma bites the fabulous Ms. Ashley right in her badly-dressed ass." She grinned wickedly. "Gotta say, she really did look better that way."
Cindy laughed, hoisting her bag over her shoulder. "Now that I wouldn't have minded seeing."
"That's why I was trying to get ahold of you all weekend to tell you," Libby sighed. "Figured it would cheer you up a little. Where did you end up going Friday night? I called you on your cell right after Sheen and I got home, just in case you wanted to come over for ice cream sundaes and bad movies, but you didn't answer. So I called your house, and your mom didn't even know where you were." She frowned a little at Cindy. "Please don't tell me you spent all of Friday night stuck at the library doing your homework, girl, 'cause I will personally kick Little Miss Ashley's ass from here to November."
"Well…" Cindy hesitated, closing her locker. "I mean… I was working on my homework. But I wasn't at the library."
"Where were you, then?"
"Oh, well," she said, trying and failing to stop the smile pushing at the corners of her lips. "I was at Jimmy's."
Libby's eyes widened slightly, and she grinned. "Oh?" she said knowingly. "And what did you do at Jimmy's?"
Cindy crossed her arms against her chest and schooled her features into a steady, nonchalant expression. "Well, mostly we worked on his paper for Ms. Birch's class," she said simply.
Libby stared at her for a moment, then sighed. "And let me guess," she said, rolling her eyes, "you two got into some huge sexually-charged argument, just like always, yelled a bunch of insults at each other, just like always, and you both stormed off in opposite directions, leaving the rest of us to just stand around and wonder when the hell—"
"He kissed me, Libs."
Libby's tirade stopped sharply as she stared at Cindy, eyes wide, mouth open.
Cindy grinned and wrapped her arms around herself. "He kissed me," she repeated, her voice bright with joy and warm affection.
Libby kept staring.
And kept staring.
Before suddenly shrieking loudly and throwing her arms around Cindy in girlfriendly excitement.
"Oh my God," Libby said in clear disbelief. "This is huge, girl. Huge. He actually kissed you?"
Cindy nodded, her cheeks flushing crimson as her smile grew even wider.
"What did he say?"
"He didn't really say too much in the beginning, just a whole bunch of confusing stuff about finally understanding romance and everything we've been studying in Ms. Birch's class, but… oh my God, Libs, you should have seen the look in his eyes." Cindy sighed and wrapped her arms more tightly around herself, still smiling.
Libby shook her head, grinning to herself. "Whaddya know," she said, laughing. "The idiot finally figured it out."
"We did work on our homework, but we also kind of, you know, kissed a lot…" Cindy blushed. "…and then after I went home he called my cell and I don't know what he's planning in that clueless brain of his, but he told me to make sure I got to school early and…" She took a deep breath. "He told me to come over to the lab after school with my dress."
Libby squealed again and leaned up against the lockers. "You know what that means, don't you?" she said. "Betcha anything he's spent all weekend puttin' together a replacement dance for just the two of you. Damn, it'll probably be better than the actual dance. Who'dve thought Bighead actually had it in him?"
"I know, right?" Cindy laughed.
Libby grinned and punched her lightly in the shoulder. "I am so happy for you right now, girl," she said. "You just have no idea."
"…yeah," Cindy said, voice growing soft. She absently toyed with the hem of her sweater.
Libby looked at her a bit curiously before shrugging. "Well," she said brightly, reaching out to straighten Cindy's bangs, "let's get you off to English class. Don't want to keep your Romeo waiting too long."
"I seem to remember Romeo being at the center of way fewer explosions than Neutron."
"Dude was an angsty as hell teenager with little to no common sense. Toss Jimmy in a doublet and give him a slight head injury and no one'll be able to tell the difference." Libby took Cindy by the hand and tugged on it lightly, frowning as Cindy resisted. "Cindy? What's up, girl?"
Cindy bit her lower lip, casting her eyes down at the floor. "…I was just thinking," she began hesitantly.
Libby sighed, dropping Cindy's hand to press her own to her forehead. "Because that alwaysworks so well when it comes to you two," she deadpanned.
"…what if…" Cindy hesitated, twisting the hem of her sweater in nervous fingers, "what if he was just… feeling sorry for me because of Reed and the dance and everything? Or maybe he was just caught up in the emotion of all the poetry he was reading. It can't be… it has to be something, Libs, there's just no way that he could ever actually—"
She started as Libby reached over and slapped her, very lightly.
"Now you listen to me, and you listen good," Libby said firmly, pressing her hands to Cindy's shoulders. "One, you and I both know the day Jimmy gets 'caught up in the emotion' of some poem is the day Sheen understands a poem that doesn't involve the word 'Nantucket'. And two, you and that boy have been droolin' over each other since the day you met, and every single time y'all actually do somethin' about it, one of you or both of you chicken out and run back to hiding behind your dumbass rivalry instead of just jumping each other and making out like normal people. We've all had to put up with you two arguing and sniping at each other and just generally making life miserable for everyone else for years, and if after finally figuring it out you decide it's too damn scary and go back to pretending to hate each other, someone's gettin' hurt, and even though you know I love you, girl, I'm not too particular about which one of you it is. Got it?"
Cindy smiled and laughed lightly, nodding. "So you really think he means it, then?" she asked as she and Libby started off towards AP English.
Libby rolled her eyes and laughed. "Cin, seriously," she said. "We both know that boy is as clueless as they come. You ask a question like that, you've gotta ask yourself if he's got the social savvy to fake it."
They stopped, a brief glance passing between them before they both burst into full-throated laughter. Libby reached over and wrapped a friendly arm around Cindy's shoulders. "See?" she said. "You're gonna be all right."
"Yeah," Cindy said, frowning slightly as they stopped in front of Ms. Birch's classroom.
Libby gave her a confident squeeze. "Go get 'im, girl."
Cindy took a deep breath. "Okay," she said firmly, forcing a note of confidence into her tone she didn't really feel. "Okay." She took a step towards the door before uneasily turning back to Libby. "How's my hair look?" she asked.
"Perfect, as always."
"And is this sweater too bright? Maybe I should have gone with something neutral instead of green…"
"Brings out your eyes. It's gorgeous. You look great."
"I knew I should have gone with my strawberry lipgloss today instead of the plain. Let me just run back to…"
"Get in there!" Libby shoved her hard between her shoulderblades, and she stumbled slightly into the classroom.
Please, please don't let Jimmy have seen that… Cindy thought, blushing as she regained her footing. Luckily, his seat was still empty, as was the rest of the room. Well, first one here, she thought to herself. At least she had time to make sure she looked just right for his arrival. She settled into her seat and crossed her legs, smoothing out her skirt and sitting up straight, staring ahead at the board.
…way too buttoned-up, she frowned. Thinking for a moment, she slouched a bit in her seat and cast a nonchalant glance at the doorway, carefully careless. Too obvious, she thought. After a moment, she retrieved her textbook and notebook from her bag and leaned back in her seat, a pleased and self-important smile tugging at the corner of her lips, and willed her heartbeat to settle as she waited.
Her smile slipped just a fraction as the first students entered the classroom, smiling and greeting her as they took their seats. Leave it to Neutron to tell me to be here early for his surprise and show up late, she thought to herself. It was just so, well, Jimmy to be that clueless that her smile returned, open and genuine.
As Cindy waited, her mind drifted to thoughts of just what it was Jimmy might have planned for the day, a thousand grand romantic visions dancing in her head. Maybe he'd show up bearing a unique species of rose he'd cultivated and named after her. Or wearing black-tie and escorting her around school all day like the date to the dance she'd so longed for him to be. Or in keeping with the theme of Ms. Birch's class and his essay revisions, maybe he'd even found himself a technologically-advanced flying horse and he'd literally sweep her off her feet and they'd ride off into the sunset together… or, well, at least to chemistry class.
Bet Ashley'll love that, Cindy thought with a darkly pleased smile. She'd told Libby the truth — she didn't care much about Ashley and Reed and Friday's betrayal anymore, but the slight sting of rejection still lingered, and she couldn't help but relish the thought of walking through the halls on Jimmy's arm, the whole school whispering in awe about them and how romantic it all was and maybe he'd even kiss her right there in front of everyone…
"Good morning, Cynthia," Ms. Birch smiled at her as she entered the classroom, setting her briefcase down on her desk. "Did you have a nice weekend?"
Cindy returned her smile. "You know," she said, "I did. I really did."
"Glad to hear it." Ms. Birch began pulling her lesson plans from her briefcase and setting up for class.
Cindy quickly assumed her previous self-satisfied look as footsteps approached the classroom, but it was just Oleander. He waved at her before settling into his seat at the far side of the room, followed by Nissa.
Cindy glanced up at the clock, a faint note of unease beginning to rise within her. You'd better not be doing this just to get the upper hand, Neutron, she thought, a bit irritably.
Students continued entering the classroom, until the bell sounded the start of the period and the only seat that remained glaringly empty was the one beside hers.
Cindy stared at it uneasily. What are you doing? she thought towards Jimmy's noticeably absent form. Maybe he was working on some last-minute revisions on his paper. That had to be it — Jimmy was a perfectionist through-and-through, and after everything he'd been through in his quest to understand what they'd learned in class, he was probably just making a few final adjustments in the library before turning it in.
Cindy frowned. It was definitely risky, though — he was already clearly on Ms. Birch's bad side, and after coming to class late on Friday, she probably wouldn't be too pleased at his showing up late again, especially on the day his revisions were due.
"All right, everyone," Ms. Birch said, coming to her feet, "before we get started, if any of you completed a revised draft of your last paper, hand those to the front, please."
Cindy mutely accepted the handful of papers that shuffled up her row, handing them to Ms. Birch. Ms. Birch took them from her, casting a curious glance at Jimmy's empty desk and raising an expectant eyebrow at Cindy, as if anticipating an explanation, but Cindy could only shrug in bafflement. Ms. Birch sighed and shook her head before moving on to collect the rest of the papers.
Jimmy, you idiot, Cindy thought, slouching down a bit in her seat. You're going to be lucky if she even lets you turn in your paper if you don't get here in the next minute or two. What the hell are you doing?
"Is that everyone?" Ms. Birch asked, setting the papers down on her desk. "Okay then. This week we're going to be moving forward to the Elizabethan era, which means, yes, Shakespeare. I promise it won't be nearly as painful as you think — you already made it through Middle English alive, you can handle the Bard. Now before we look at a few sonnets, let's get into a little historical background."
Cindy uneasily uncapped her pen and turned to a fresh sheet of notebook paper, her heart clenching painfully as Ms. Birch crossed the room and firmly pulled the door closed.
When the bell rang at 11:15, Cindy's notes were little more than a series of halfhearted squiggles, far from her usual neatly-written observations and insights.
Jimmy had never come to class.
Cindy started as Ms. Birch closed her textbook with a firm snap as the bell rang. "Okay, everyone," she said, "for those of you who turned in a revision, I should have those back to you by the end of the week. I know you all probably had a busy weekend working on them, so tonight just read the selected sonnets in the text and we'll talk about your reactions to them in class instead of having written responses. See you all tomorrow."
Cindy felt Ms. Birch's curious gaze on her as her classmates packed up their things around her, and she hurried to gather her books quickly enough to make it out of the classroom before Ms. Birch cornered her and asked her the question she didn't understand any more than she did.
"Cynthia," Ms. Birch said, slotting her papers into her briefcase, "you wouldn't happen to know where James is, would you?"
"Not a clue," Cindy said, her voice tight and carefully controlled. There was a heavy, constricting pain beginning to blossom deep within her chest, and she bit down on the inside of her lower lip.
Ms. Birch shook her head. "I must admit, I'm rather surprised he missed class today. I thought he'd have been beating a path to my door to turn in his revised paper before school even started."
"Yeah," Cindy said distantly, hoisting up her books and clutching them a bit more tightly than she meant to. "He… was supposed to be here early today. I was so sure he'd be here. He said…" She sighed, her shoulders slumping in defeat. "I have no idea why he didn't come to class," she said finally.
"Mm," Ms. Birch said noncommittally. "Shame. I informed the class multiple times that today was the last day I'd accept paper revisions. I was sure he'd submit a revision – he was clamoring louder than anyone about his grade, even though he got the second-highest in the class."
"Jimmy doesn't do well with second-best," Cindy said with a humorless smile.
Ms. Birch smiled sympathetically at her. "I think James has a lot of growing to do," she said. "But then we all do, I suppose. He's lucky to have a friend like you to help him along."
Friend. The word sounded hollow, mocking, meaningless. An hour earlier, she had been so sure that they'd gone so far beyond that, but… She glanced back at his empty desk, the pain in her chest growing sharper.
Ms. Birch closed her briefcase. "See you tomorrow, Cynthia," she said in a kind voice. "Try to enjoy the rest of your day."
"Thanks," Cindy said, attempting to offer up a grateful smile, but it was empty.
She clutched her books to her chest as she left the classroom, so caught up in her own thoughts that she nearly crashed into Libby where she stood waiting by the doorway.
"So, what did he do?" Libby asked excitedly, peering behind Cindy into the classroom. "Did he bail early or something? I didn't see him come out."
"He didn't come," Cindy said. Her voice sounded strangely hollow even to her own ears.
"What do you mean he didn't come? Wasn't that stupid paper of his due?"
"Yeah," Cindy said, casting a worried glance back at the classroom. "I hope nothing happened to him."
Libby scoffed. "Something's damn well gonna happen if he doesn't show up real quick. I should've known he'd manage to screw things up."
Cindy didn't answer as she hoisted her books and started towards the nearby staircase to the second floor.
"Aren't you going to your locker before next period?" Libby asked, raising an eyebrow at Cindy.
Cindy paused by the stairwell. "…I think I'm just going to go right to chem," she said. "You know how Neutron is, he's probably setting up whatever he's planning in the chem lab." She attempted a smile. "You may want to grab your coat from your locker for next period just in case the idiot manages to set off the fire alarm. Again."
Libby laughed and gave Cindy a quick hug. "Okay," she said. "I'll meet you after class and you can tell me all about Neutron's stupid Valentine's Day thing and how many people had to go to the hospital because of it."
"Deal. What's the over/under everyone's working with this week?"
"I heard it's at three — they're keeping it on the low end since everyone's gearing up for the big action at the science fair next week. Want me to take the over for you when I see Butch this period?"
"Probably a good idea. Put me down for my usual."
"You got it. Man, I am going to be rocking the Neutron Damage pool with his girlfriend as my best friend. It's almost like insider trading," Libby said, laughing to herself.
Cindy flushed. "I'm not really… I mean, we haven't talked about… we're not…"
"Yeah, yeah," Libby said with a knowing smirk. "See you after class, girl — tell your boyfriend I said hi."
Cindy smiled and waved as she climbed the stairs, making her way through the crowd of students to the gleaming white chem lab. There was a small group of students already in their seats, talking idly amongst themselves.
Jimmy wasn't with them.
Or anywhere in the room.
Cindy frowned as she took her familiar seat in the front, casting a glance around the classroom. There was no paraphernalia scattered around, no bottles of solvents and chemicals, none of the lingering unpleasant smells that usually resulted from whatever strange experiment Jimmy had concocted on a given day.
It was colder in the chemistry classroom than it had been even in the hallways. Cindy tugged at the ends of her sweater sleeves, wrapping her arms around herself, any attempt at adopting a schooled nonchalance fading in the face of gnawing fear and the looming specter of crushing disappointment.
The clock ticked closer to the start of the period. Cindy tugged her notebook out of her bag and set it on her desk, eyes never moving from the clock. More students slowly filed into the classroom. The teacher came in and pulled down the projection screen, setting up a Powerpoint presentation of several advanced formulas.
Cindy glanced from the clock to the doorway.
Make sure you get there early, he'd said.
The bell rang, and the chemistry teacher closed the door to the classroom. "Okay, let's get started," he said in a cheerful voice.
Cindy distantly heard the sound of students around her shifting, opening backpacks, clicking pens, turning notebook pages. The pain in her chest had grown so sharp and strong that she could barely breathe. She uncapped her pen and wrote the date at the top of her notes, her hand shaking, hot, angry tears pressing at the corners of her eyes.
She kept glancing at the doorway all through class, just in case. The teacher had to call her name three times before she realized he was asking her a question about the chemical composition of silver phosphate, and she'd barely been able to keep her voice steady as she answered.
As class wore on, the noises of the classroom and the teacher's voice faded around her. All that remained were the same memories that had so warmed her all weekend. You looked beautiful. I want you here. His lips warm and soft against hers. His admiring, affectionate glances at her as she worked on her homework, when he thought she didn't notice. The look in his eyes as he watched her model her dress.
Okay, Neutron, Cindy thought, teetering somewhere between anger and hurt. You want to have the upper hand, huh? Want to make this a power struggle? You'll be damn lucky if I don't throw your surprise back in your face whenever you do finally show up. She cast a glare at the doorway and began to take her notes in a heavy hand.
But Jimmy never came to chemistry class.
Or the class after that.
Or the class after that.
Jimmy wiped the back of his hand across his sweat-slicked forehead, hurriedly repairing the frayed wire in front of him, a screwdriver held between his teeth. "Is that one locked down, Goddard?" he yelled as best he could.
Goddard barked a negative from somewhere deep in the lab.
"Well get on it, dammit! I think I've got this one!" He connected the last wire, ignoring the sharp bite of broken glass against his arm as he lay prone on the floor, peering into the charred compiler in front of him. "Got it!"
Jimmy sighed and pulled himself to his feet, pressing his hand to the oozing wound across his forearm, sweat stinging against a smaller cut against his right temple, his mind torn somewhere between screaming and crying from frustration.
Things had been going so well after he and Goddard had managed to extinguish the Insta-Grow machine… or so they'd thought. Goddard's misgivings about the overloaded systems had proved painfully correct, as the compiler had exploded shortly thereafter as well, setting off a chain reaction that took out all but the emergency lights and backup power supplies. The sprinklers had activated as electrical fires tore through the lab, shorting out the few machines that hadn't been destroyed and drenching the colorful paper decorations Goddard had strung above the makeshift dance floor he'd constructed. The matter substantiator had malfunctioned, and the goat had recompiled and was currently running around the lab in merry circles.
Jimmy bit back an oath as he nudged a piece of broken glass with the toe of one sneaker and reached for the nearby first aid kit, tightly bandaging his forearm. You had to make everything 'perfect,' didn't you, Neutron, he thought angrily to himself, teeth clenched tight enough to break. Great job with that.
It wasn't even his fault, he thought as he tied off his bandage. This never would have even happened without Ms. Birch's goddamn assignment. The circuits wouldn't have been damaged by the Poetry Analyzer, he wouldn't have even had to use Poetry Analyzer if Ms. Birch hadn't decided to make his life miserable with her stupid courtly love module, and he never would have put so much strain on the lab's power systems if he hadn't had to enlist Cindy's help for that stupid assignment and ended up falling in love with her and her stupid pretty face and her stupid smart brain and her stupid girl-ness that overrode every bit of sense he'd ever possessed.
Jimmy thumped the broken compiler with his good hand, scowling as he took in the damage to his lab. It'd probably take him weeks to repair everything, and for what? For some kind of ridiculous romantic gesture for someone who probably wouldn't even appreciate it? Oh, thanks, Nerdtron, flowers and chocolate, how original. And a goat! Why, you shouldn't have!
And that was assuming that she wouldn't just brush him off as soon as she saw him, return to her usual cool, detached arrogance, and laugh at him for being so stupid as to think she would ever go out with someone like him.
Well fine, Vortex, he thought venomously. See if I care if…
Jimmy's dark thoughts ceased as he observed a single intact rose lying beneath a pile of broken stems and scattered petals. It was wilted, the edges of its petals slightly singed, the bottom of its stem crooked… but it was something. He knelt down and carefully retrieved it from the small puddle of water in which it rested, absently running his fingers over the petals, guilt beginning to rise within him.
It really wasn't Cindy's fault that everything had gone wrong, he thought to himself, sighing. It was supposed to be so perfect — Jimmy would be waiting for her when she got to school, a knight in shining technologically-advanced armor on holographic horseback, a rakish grin on his features. He'd take Cindy by the arm and swing her undoubtedly-stunned form up behind him, and they'd ride off to homeroom, which Goddard would have filled with beautifully-arranged long-stemmed roses. The string quartet would be there, and Jimmy would bow and present her with a selection of the finest synthesized Belgian chocolates the world had ever seen.
And after school… she'd change into her dress, and he'd activate the black-tie sequence he'd already programmed into VOX's wardrobe, and he'd cover her eyes as he led her into the lab — his way, the normal way — and then it'd be just like the dance she'd missed, only better, with twined roses and candlelight and classical music and just the two of them, and she'd take his hand and they'd dance together and he'd be absolutely terrible at it but it would just make her laugh and he'd lean in and kiss her like he'd wanted to from the moment he saw her in her dress…
Jimmy sighed and pressed a hand to his bandage. The horse was an ill-tempered goat chewing on a length of wire and eyeing him with aggressive disdain. Not all of the roses were on fire, but the ones that weren't by and large now required assembly. He'd initially questioned his decision to program a holographic string quartet rather than hiring a real one, but considering the holographic one was currently a melted thumb drive on the floor by his desk, he supposed he (and the musicians of Retroville) should be grateful. And as for the dance… well, between the water and smoke damage, the metallic debris scattered across the lab, and the harsh emergency lighting, even if by some miracle he did manage to get things up and running again, it'd probably be more romantic if he just found an abandoned parking lot and tried to dance with her there.
Jimmy turned the surviving rose over in his hand. It was such a small gesture, so insignificant… but it was all he had left.
"It's the thought that counts, right, Goddard?" he said with a long sigh, placing the rose on his desk. "Hopefully I'll at least have time to shower and change before school." He glanced at the digital clock on his computer screen, glowing dimly from the emergency power supply. "Five-thirty," he said to himself, running a hand through his hair. "Well, that's plenty of time to…"
Jimmy's voice trailed off, a chill running down his spine. "Five-thirty," he repeated. "It can't still be five-thirty." He glanced around the lab, looking for anything that would confirm or refute the time. His watch insisted it was five-thirty. So did the digital clock at the far end of the lab.
"Goddard!" he called as the robotic dog returned from the back of the lab, his casing covered in soot and grease. "Hey, boy, you weren't damaged by the power surge at all, were you?"
Goddard barked a negative, tilting his head.
Jimmy knelt down beside him. "Run a full scan on the electrical systems in the lab and give me a damage report, as quick as you can without you getting overloaded, too."
Goddard's circuits began to whirr as his viewscreen lit up with a number of digital schematics, all flashing red in multiple locations as he identified the extent of the damage, from his computer to the compiler to the charred shell of the Insta-Grow machine.
"It must have damaged the time circuits in the lab, too," Jimmy said quietly, an overwhelming sense of dread washing over him. "Goddard… your time circuits are still functioning, aren't they?"
Goddard barked an affirmative, then set aside the schematics long enough to pull up the correct time.
The lab was silent as Jimmy stared at Goddard's internal clock, watching numbly as it turned to 2:31. 2:32. 2:33.
He recalled his angry, frustrated thoughts toward Cindy from earlier, his exhaustion and irritation coalescing into the belief that nothing he could do would be enough for her.
He pictured her arriving at school — early, just like he'd told her to. She'd be smiling and beautiful, like she always was, nervous but too proud to show it, waiting for him to surprise her and solidify everything they'd only just begun to understand Friday night. Pictured that smile fading as the day wore on, into disappointment, anger, and blinding hurt.
In his frustration, he'd been so sure that nothing would be good enough for her.
And he'd managed to give her just that.
Jimmy felt strangely numb as he made his way wordlessly over to the couch, where the goat had begun chewing on a cushion. It eyed him with open irritation and spat out the cushion, offering up a full-throated bleat.
"Do me a favor," Jimmy said, his voice flat, eyes dead. "Just knock me clear across the lab so I'm at least warmed up for when Cindy does it later."
Cindy's shoulders were squared, her head held high, features schooled into a cool mask of indifference as the final bell rang. Her textbooks were perfectly aligned at her side, and she nodded tersely to Libby as she exited her last-period physics class.
Libby's eyes were soft and sad in the doorway to the classroom. She didn't say a word.
Cindy smiled at her, pained and venomous. "Like anyone would want to spend Valentine's Day with Freaktron in the first place," she scoffed, tossing her hair over one shoulder and hoisting her books to her chest. "I don't know what I was thinking. We'll just have to chalk this one up to temporary insanity, Libs. Sorry if I worried you."
Libby sighed and crossed her arms across her chest. "I knew Neutron would manage to screw it up," she said, shaking her head. "I'm so sorry, Cin. He doesn't deserve you."
Cindy laughed bitterly. "Tell me something I don't know, Libs. Can you imagine if we'd actually gone through with it?" She laughed again, frowning as a tear slipped down her cheek. "Looks like he did me a favor, huh?"
"Cindy, look, I know it's bad right now…"
"Seriously, can you believe I actually kissed him?" Cindy leaned up against a nearby locker, grinning at Libby. "Oh man, I almost believed him, you know? I never knew Neutron was such a good liar."
"Cindy…" Libby said uneasily.
"You know he told me I was beautiful?" Cindy said in a too-bright voice. "I was trying on my dress for the dance, and he saw it, and he told me I was beautiful." She laughed, her voice sounding strangely close to a sob, and another tear fell, then another. "He told me I was beautiful, Libby. He said..."
Her books fell limply to the floor, and she collapsed into Libby's arms, finally letting her tears fall in earnest.
"You'll be all right, girl. I promise."
Cindy sighed as she neared her house, her books feeling heavy at her side. Libby had said the same thing to her after Reed. At the time, it had felt like her heart was breaking in half, the cruel sting of rejection, of being replaced by someone else tearing into her.
But she didn't love Reed. So she could stand it.
Especially when she had…
Cindy clenched her teeth together as she started up the steps to her front porch, glancing across the street to Jimmy's clubhouse, heartbreak and disappointment beginning to fade in the face of the slow but fervent boil of anger rising up within her.
I'm trying to understand for my paper revisions, of course.
That's what Jimmy had said after he'd kissed her for the first time. At the time, she'd thought he was joking, but…
…but what if that's all he was using her for? Jimmy was first and foremost driven by academic excellence. The A-minus he'd received from Ms. Birch had clearly rattled him. What if… what if he really had just used her as a stepping stone for his paper revisions? As a source of knowledge he could bleed dry and vault over, so he could regain his storied position as the Smartest Kid in School and lord it over her that she'd never beat him, at anything, ever, that she was always going to languish in his shadow?
He'd held her. He'd kissed her. There had been so many beautiful, unspoken things in his eyes.
But that A-minus was still suspended between them.
And he hadn't come to school today.
Cindy glanced up at her bedroom window. Bring your dress, he'd said.
She looked back toward his clubhouse and scowled, setting her books down on the porch and making her way across the street.
Sorry, Neutron, she thought. I can kick your ass way better in street clothes.
Jimmy had managed to sweep up most of the broken glass and singed wires with Goddard's vacuum mode. He'd deposited the dead roses into the industrial trash bin at the back of the lab — he'd have to take those out later. Nothing like the smell of rotting vegetation to add to the bouquet of electrical burns and charred metal already wafting through the air.
Goddard stood at his heels, reaching forward to nuzzle his head against the back of his knees. Jimmy reached down to pet him absently before falling heavily into his computer chair.
"You know, Goddard," he said, voice hollow, "I thought I'd finally understood everything about courtly love and romance. I really did. But none of the poets bothered to mention how miserable it can be."
Goddard licked his hand comfortingly and curled up at his feet, staring up at him with concerned eyes.
Even Goddard couldn't break through the overwhelming wave of despondency washing over him, Jimmy thought, staring at his damaged computer with blank, empty eyes. He'd been so sure, so determined. He'd finally understood it, dammit — he'd finally understood. He loved Cindy, every impossible, frustrating, maddening inch of her. He wanted to make her happy. He wanted her to know.
And in the end, he knew he'd be lucky if she ever spoke to him again.
Goddard had managed to decompile the goat before it could oblige Jimmy and hurl him clear across the room, but there was still a deep, resonating ache in his chest, pressing painfully until it was everything he and his masculine pride could do not to cry.
VOX's emergency alert suddenly sounded, momentarily breaking him out of his misery.
"Neutron," a cold, tight female voice called as he activated the voice sensor. "You're a dead man."
"Hey, Cindy," Jimmy said, dropping his head against his keyboard, shoulders drooping.
There was a moment of silence from outside. "'Hey, Cindy,'" she repeated. "Would that be 'hey, Cindy, sorry I didn't bother to come to school on Valentine's Day after I told you to make sure you were there'? Or 'hey, Cindy, I'm a complete idiot and didn't bother to turn in a paper revision for Ms. Birch's class despite angsting over it for like a week and using up your Friday night to teach me everything I didn't understand'? Or 'hey, Cindy, I am an abject failure of humanity and have NO social—"
"No, 'hey, Cindy, watch your step,'" Jimmy said blandly, pressing a button on his keyboard.
"Watch my… what are you…?" Her question turned into a scream, then a resounding thud as she landed on the crash pad in the lab. Jimmy didn't lift his head from the keyboard to look at her.
"Be careful over there," he called over to her, closing his eyes. "We got up most of the broken glass, but it'll be dangerous until I can do a full clean-up later this week."
He heard Cindy gingerly picking her way over broken glass and scattered wires. "It looks like a flower shop exploded in here," he heard her say. "…literally."
"Yeah," Jimmy laughed mirthlessly, lifting his head and turning in his chair to look at her. "The Insta-Grow machine still needs a lot of work." He stood and wordlessly reached out to her with the one surviving rose, features still despondent. "This one made it through. I'm still not sure how, but, well... it's yours, if you want it."
Cindy's scowl melted into a frown as she reached out hesitantly to pluck the rose from his fingers, turning it over in her hands. Jimmy stared at her, taking in her neatly-arrayed appearance, her softly-flowing hair. "You were waiting for me, weren't you," he said quietly, and the words seemed to tear at his throat as he said them.
Cindy shot him a venomous glare, tossing the rose onto the couch behind her. "And what gives you that idea, Neutron?" she said tightly. "I've got better things to do than worry about you deciding to skip school for the hell of it."
"It wasn't for the hell of it," Jimmy said, reaching for her hand and sighing as she pulled it back violently. "Cindy, honestly, I had so many things planned…"
"It's fine," Cindy said carelessly, crossing her arms over her chest. "I've got to hand it to you, Neutron — you're more of a bastard than I ever could have imagined. And I've imagined a lot."
"You must have had so much fun down here today laughing at me, huh? 'Get to school early, Cindy,' 'bring your dress, Cindy,'" she laughed, harsh and bitter. "I have to say, though, even I didn't think you'd go that far after…" She stopped, pressing her lips together and swallowing hard. "Whatever," she muttered. "Thanks for the waking nightmare, Neutron. Glad you enjoyed yourself. Looks like it's back to the status quo for…"
Jimmy launched forward angrily, grasping her wrists in his hands and pressing her back against the couch, kissing her with all of the pain and frustration that had been burning inside him all day.
He yelped as Cindy wrenched herself from his grasp and punched him, right against his still-bruised cheek.
"Stop it," she spat, and there were angry tears running down her face. "You son of a bitch, stop doing this to me!"
"Doing what?" Jimmy yelled back. "Trying to do everything I possibly could to make you happy?" He flung his arms wide and gestured to the damaged lab. "For Christ's sake, Vortex, look at this place! Do you think I did this for myself?"
Cindy poked him hard in the chest. "Since when do you not do everything for yourself, Neutron?"
"Oh, real classy, Vortex," Jimmy rolled his eyes. "I'm so glad I fucking destroyed my lab trying to set up the perfect Valentine's Day for you."
"And thank you so much, I had the best Valentine's Day ever, all by myself!"
"Well I'm sure you'd have enjoyed yourself so much more if you could have spent the entire day screaming epithets at me, but unfortunately—"
Jimmy's words stopped as he found himself suddenly hurtling across the room, a sharp pain radiating from his side.
He faintly heard Cindy calling his name in a panic before everything went dark.
"Jimmy? Jimmy, can you hear me?"
Jimmy opened his eyes, blinking rapidly as he attempted to focus on Cindy and Goddard's worried faces hovering over him. "What happened?" he asked groggily, turning his head from his prone position on the floor.
Goddard barked, then showed Cindy his viewscreen.
"So according to Robo-dog here, your goat hadn't been fully decompiled," Cindy said, a question in her voice. "Your goat, Neutron?"
"It was supposed to be a horse," Jimmy said weakly, taking Cindy's hand and pulling himself to his feet. "A white horse." He held fast to Cindy's hand as she attempted to pull away. "No, you need to see."
He brought her to his singed armor, nudging it with his toes. "It was supposed to be… well." He blushed. "You know, the whole… knight-in-shining-armor thing."
Cindy glanced at the armor, then to him, features inscrutable.
Jimmy's shoulders slumped as he gestured to various parts of the lab. "String quartet, programmed for Vivaldi, because he was your favorite," he said listlessly.
"Still is," Cindy said quietly, still avoiding his gaze.
"Roses," he said, pointing to the charred remains of the Insta-Grow machine.
"There was… supposed to be so much," Jimmy sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Roses and chocolate and music and…" He gestured to the soggy crepe paper and paper decorations in the far corner. "I wanted you to have a chance to wear your dress for…" He fought to speak against the sudden lump in his throat. "…for someone who appreciates you. Just once."
He took Cindy's free hand in his, turning her to face him. "It was a mistake," he said earnestly. "Goddard and I hadn't repaired all of the circuits damaged by the Poetry Analyzer, and by the time we got everything under control and I realized that the power surge had damaged the time circuits, school was already over."
Cindy was silent, staring down at their joined hands.
"All this for me, huh," she said quietly. "Explosions, fires, and a weird pissed-off goat. Standard Neutron Valentine's Day, I guess."
"Yeah," Jimmy said, rubbing his thumbs against the backs of her hands, his mood lifting slightly when she didn't pull away. "Honestly, Cindy, I tried. It was supposed to be this whole… grand romantic gesture and everything was supposed to be perfect and… the whole thing just blew up in my face."
"Literally, from the look of things," Cindy said, tilting her head and frowning a little at his bandaged arm.
"I'm sorry I hurt you," Jimmy said, squeezing her hands. "I know it doesn't mean much, I've screwed up so many things, but…"
"Well," Cindy said, "just the fact that you went to so much trouble, even though you did completely ruin it like you always…" Her voice softened at the pained look on his face, and she pressed one hand to his bruised cheek. "Thank you," she said quietly.
She'd barely gotten the words out before Jimmy pulled her into a tight hug, resting his chin against the top of her head. "Forgive me for bailing on you?"
"…I'll forgive you," Cindy said, and he could feel the curve of her smile against his chest. "You know, you really could have just done all of this after school."
"Yeah, that thought occurred to me sometime around the third fire. Would you have been willing to wait that long?"
"No, not just for me." Cindy loosened herself from his embrace, looking up at him, eyes serious. "Today was the revision deadline in Ms. Birch's class," she reminded him quietly. "I talked to her after class and… it doesn't sound like she's going to give you an extension or anything."
"Doesn't surprise me," Jimmy said. "I'm not exactly her favorite person."
Cindy bit her lower lip. "I could try to negotiate an extension for you," she said finally. "I mean, I know it's a low bar, but Ms. Birch does like me more than you."
Jimmy shook his head. "It's okay, Cindy."
"No, it's not. You didn't skip school on purpose — she'll understand that."
"No, I mean… I decided not to turn in a revised paper."
Cindy raised her eyebrows as she stared at him. "What are you talking about?" she said, incredulous. "After all of that complaining? After all of the work we did? After you finally understood everything we were reading about, like, three weeks after a normal person would have?"
"It's not that," Jimmy said, shrugging. "It's just… well, I was almost done with my revisions on Saturday, and I was so sure that I'd finally gotten it down, I'd perfected my arguments, my references, everything. It was an A paper, no question."
He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "But the whole time I was writing… I couldn't stop thinking about you. And I've been knee-deep in all of this courtly love stuff for so long and I'm just starting to understand that you're the ideal, or, well, my ideal, anyway, and it's just so damn confusing and frustrating…"
Cindy raised a curious eyebrow at him, and Jimmy sighed. "Look… you're smart," he said. "And you're just… so beautiful, and God knows you're always going to distract me no matter what I do, and you went out of your way to help me after I was such a…"
"Complete and total jackass?" Cindy supplied helpfully.
"And while I was revising," Jimmy said pointedly, ignoring her, "I couldn't stop thinking about you. About what you said. How important that paper was to you, how much work you put into it, how much it meant. So I thought… you know." He shrugged. "My ego can take a backseat, just this once. You earned your A. So I figured… you could have it. This time."
He glanced down at Cindy, who was staring at him with wide, rounded eyes.
"But don't get used to it," he said firmly, familiar pride and arrogance threading through his tone. "This is the very definition of an anomaly. Tomorrow I'll be back to my usual enshrined position as—"
Cindy cut him off, surging forward to wrap her arms tightly around his neck, pulling him into a passionate kiss. Jimmy's eyes were opened in confusion at first, not entirely sure what Cindy was doing, but he finally settled his arms around her waist and leaned into her kiss, content to just enjoy it.
"You idiot," Cindy said, tears shining in her eyes as she finally pulled away, offering him a watery smile. "That…" She took a deep breath. "…that is the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me. Ever."
Jimmy pulled her close, still not entirely sure what had just happened but intelligent enough to know that whatever it was, it was good. "So, wait," he said carefully, "you're not mad about me missing Valentine's Day? About not getting flowers or chocolate or riding around on a white horse?"
Cindy laughed and kissed his cheek. "Idiot," she said again, affectionately. "Anyone could get me flowers. You taking a lower grade for me? That's… that's just crazy."
"Yeah, I can't believe it either," Jimmy shook his head.
"You sure there isn't a gas leak in here somewhere?" Cindy grinned at him, still teary-eyed.
Jimmy smiled at her awkwardly. "I wouldn't bet on it, with this much damage," he said. "But with this… it was important to you. And you…" He averted his gaze, cheeks warming. "You're important to me."
Cindy's fingertips lightly pressed to his cheek, turning him back to meet her gaze, suddenly very close. "Me too," she said, so quietly he could barely hear. He could feel her fingertips trembling against his skin. "Jimmy…" she began hesitantly. "I… I…"
Jimmy's heart clenched in his chest as Cindy closed her eyes and took a deep breath, clearly drawing up her courage.
He knew what she was going to say.
And he had just begun to realize that he wanted her to say it. Wanted it more than he'd ever wanted anything.
Jimmy reached forward and clamped his hand over her mouth, staring down at her with slightly narrowed eyes.
There's a competitive edge to saying it first.
"Not so fast, Vortex," he said, raising an eyebrow at her. "I sacrificed an A for you today. An A. You don't get to win twice."
Cindy narrowed her eyes and struggled against him, but Jimmy held his hand firmly over her mouth. "Not happening, Vortex," he said. "My turn."
His overconfident tone was directly at odds with the way he felt in that moment, his heart beating fit to burst out of his chest, a slow trickle of sweat between his shoulderblades as he wrapped his free arm around Cindy's waist, dropping his forehead against hers. His throat felt suddenly tight, constricted, the words strangling his vocal chords.
Logic angrily crashed to the front of his brain, wild-eyed and desperate. Don't you dare do this, Jimmy, it raged. It's completely illogical! It makes no sense! You'll never be able to take this back! Say it and you'll never be able to get away from her!
Jimmy smiled lightly to himself. He didn't need Strange Etherealness to show him the way anymore.
Cindy was still staring up at him, wide-eyed and fearful. Now or never, Jim.
"…I love you," he said.
Jimmy had meant it to sound final, victorious, self-assured, with the kind of easy arrogance he'd long since perfected, as though his knees weren't shaking and he wasn't entirely sure he wasn't two seconds away from a heart attack.
Instead, it sounded soft and warm, and as Cindy paled and went limp in his embrace, he decided that maybe it was better that way.
"Are you okay?" he asked, pulling his hand away from her mouth and eyeing her carefully.
Cindy surprised him by laughing, raising her eyes back to his so he could see the shine of her tears. "You idiot," she said, laughing and crying all at once, reaching out to touch his cheek. "You stupid, wonderful idiot. I was just going to say I think you finally understand it."
Jimmy blinked at her owlishly, his arm frozen around her waist.
"…oh," he said finally. "Um. …sorry about that." He extricated himself from their embrace and awkwardly made his way to his workbench, rummaging around in his toolbox. "Okay, um, so you just stay over there while I find my short-term memory disruptor…"
He started as Cindy wrapped her arms around his middle and rested her cheek between his shoulderblades. "You're the absolute worst, Neutron," she said, and he felt her smile curving against his skin. "Who said you got to say it first?"
Jimmy felt a hopeful grin beginning to spread across his face. "Well," he began, placing his hands over hers, "technically, you have an A and I don't, so I'd say we're even on this one, Vortex."
He turned in her hold and tugged at her ponytail. "By the way," he said with a smirk, "you're a terrible liar."
"And what did I lie about exactly?"
"I think you finally understand it," he repeated, laughing. "You were so going to say it. You just didn't want to give me the satisfaction of saying it before you."
Cindy huffed and halfheartedly attempted to pull away from him. "First of all," she said firmly, "I did no such thing, second, you'll never be able to prove it, and third, good luck getting me to say it now."
"I'll take the odds on that," Jimmy laughed, supporting her weight with his good arm, dipping her back and kissing her, twining the fingers of his free hand into her hair.
When he righted her again, Cindy's eyes were unfocused, a dopey smile spreading across her face. "Come on now," Jimmy said. "I didn't drop you, I didn't hit your head on anything, and I didn't set you on fire. That's got to be worth you actually saying it."
"I don't think so," Cindy said in a superior tone, raising an eyebrow at him. "You've got to do better than that."
"Look, Cin," he said, taking her hands in his. "In the past few hours, I've lost an A, had my lab all but destroyed, been attacked by a holographic goat, and managed to tell the extremely stubborn girl I love that I actually love her and she hasn't said it back. Want to work with me a little? I've had kind of a rough day here."
Cindy grasped his collar firmly in her hand and pulled him down to her, their faces close. "And I haven't?" she challenged. "The boy I love stood me up on Valentine's Day and managed to say that he loves me before I could say that I love him and he is absolutely going to lord that over me for the rest of our lives."
Cindy crossed her arms, the effect of her pointed glare muted somewhat by the fierce blush spreading across her cheeks.
"Well fine then," Jimmy said, mock-glaring back at her. "Like you wouldn't do the same thing."
"Well I would have," Cindy pointed out, "if someone hadn't cut me off!"
"Maybe you would have preferred if I hadn't said it at all!"
"Maybe I would have!"
Their noses were pressed together, eyes boring furiously into one another's, before they simultaneously burst into laughter.
"We're one hell of a pair, aren't we, Neutron?" Cindy said, grinning up at him.
Jimmy pulled her into a tight embrace. "Wouldn't have it any other way, Vortex," he said simply.
He leaned down to kiss her, her eyelashes fluttering against his cheek, her hands pressed tightly against his shoulders.
Oh yeah, I get it, he thought to himself, smiling slightly against Cindy's lips.
Courtly love was everything love was ostensibly supposed to be. It was soft, refined, chivalrous, restrained, all grace and beauty and elegance.
It was, in essence, everything he and Cindy weren't.
They were fiery where courtly love was gentle, conflicted where it was effortless, argumentative and passionate and tense. They'd never be the type to ride into the sunset astride a beautiful white horse. They weren't roses and chocolates and string quartets.
They were fires, explosions, and an angry goat irritably running into things.
But they loved each other.
And that, really, was all that mattered.
Jimmy broke the kiss gently, still staring down into Cindy's eyes. "So," he said amiably. "How'd I do for my first big romantic gesture?"
Cindy rolled her eyes and smirked at him. "A-minus, Neutron," she said, punching him lightly in the shoulder. "Your new favorite grade."
"Any chance for a revision?" Jimmy asked, leaning close to her.
Cindy smiled, soft and sweet.
"Always," she said, tilting her head to accept his kiss.