Dumpster Diving, Chapter Nineteen: Morgenstern's Ring

"Miss Fray, may I please have a word with you?" Professor Morgenstern's voice boomed Wednesday morning, over the cluttering noise of chairs pushing back and backpacks zipping. Class had just ended and the entire classroom of students were eager to escape the room, some with lingering stares as they wondered what our English professor wanted to ask me.

My eyes flickered to Jace, who shrugged his shoulders as if he had no idea what his biological father had to say to me.

"Alone, Miss Fray," the professor added, as he eyed his biological son with a certain level of carefulness. He must have somehow noticed my interactions with Jace, assuming we were dating. So was this going to be one of those awkward talks about dating? I wanted to scream that we weren't even together!

Jace, Isabelle, Alec, and the ever-intimidating Sebastian filed out of the room slowly, our normal routine of walking together having been interrupted by Professor Morgenstern's mysterious concerned look.

I walked to the front of the room, clutching my books to my chest, my backpack hanging haphazardly open on my shoulder. Morgenstern nodded his head at me, waiting for all the students to leave the room before he spoke.

"I wanted to speak with you about your recent academic performance," he said, his eyes darting in my direction to gauge my response.

"I, uh.." I trailed off, unsure of what to say. I thought at college professors didn't hassle you like in high school – you were just on your own to judge your own learning. Somehow, this seemed abnormal to me that I was being confronted. "Things just got busy," I mumbled, because it was none of his business.

He nodded, his hands appearing at his chest to straighten his tie. He adjusted his suit and leaned against his desk in the front of the room. "Miss Fray, your potential far exceeds this classroom of students. I worry that my son has had some effect on your learning-"

"It's not Jace," I said in a rush, effectively cutting him off. He stared at me with dismay, slightly irritated that I cut him off so disrespectfully.

Morgenstern made a noise, resembling a "hmmm", though from him it was more throaty, and slightly more intimidating. Was it like a requirement for professors to be so unapproachable?

"Your last essay was turned in a day late, and its quality was unlike your other pieces," he said, after a moment of silent thought, the direction of the conversation turning sour.

I shrugged, picking through my mind for the words so that my actual stressors didn't sound like an excuse to a professor. "It's been sort of stressful back at home, my stepdad was in an accident last week and his recovery has been difficult for my mom. And, well…for me, too."

He nodded in response, his thoughtful eyes searching my face for fallacies. He realized I wasn't making up some excuse like a lot of college students did when their work was subpar. "Yes, well family emergencies are understandable."

"Thank you," was all I could think of saying in response.

"Our next essay is a narrative piece. Why don't you consider writing about your family dynamics or dysfunction?" Morgenstern suggested.

I stared at him strangely, unsure of why he was picking my topic for me. "There's not much dysfunction," I corrected him.

"You said you had a stepdad, Miss Fray. Perhaps you have been curious about your biological father?" he questioned, his tone strangely over-caring.

"I'm not like Jace," I said quickly, heat rising in my cheeks. "I don't want to know about him if he left me." I felt guilty for sort of lying to a professor's face, but he really had no business questioning me about my personal life. If that was all he wanted to talk about, I didn't want to talk.

"Ah, but I see you wearing that ring around your necklace every day," Morgenstern said, as he pointedly stared at the long chain with my biological father's ring strung around my neck.

I grasped the ring in my hand, slipping my finger in and out of the ring out of habit, a sense of comfort arising from the motion. Granted, I never knew my biological father – and sometimes I never wanted to know him – but his ring remained around my neck, reminding me that in his place I had Luke. I wasn't ever sure if I wore the ring because I wanted to know him.

As Morgenstern stood silently watching me, I traced the tiny imprint of a star on the ring. "How did you know it was my father's ring?" I asked, avoiding why the ring had importance. I was more curious why Morgenstern was getting so nosey.

He sighed, long and deep. "I knew your father, Clarissa."

My jaw popped open slightly, the words Morgenstern spoke having a shocking effect on my body, every nerve firing off and every muscle tightening in response.

"Well did he tell you who?" Jace asked, his eyebrows furrowing across his forehead, an undeniable look of confusion as to how his biological father could have known my biological father. This was far beyond my comprehension for the day – I wasn't ready to admit to myself that Jace and I may have connections potentially dating back to before we were born. I shuddered at the thought.

Looking at Jace, I saw in his expression the same thoughts and feelings that I was experiencing. He was as dumbstruck as I was. "He said he was sworn to secrecy," I said, rolling my eyes. "I mean who tells someone that they know their father, but, oh! Can't tell you!" I guffawed. "He must have been lying."

Jace shrugged, looking around the hallway. "I don't know Clary, Valentine doesn't just go around saying things he doesn't mean."

Jace's sure response that his father wasn't lying earned a long sigh on my part. I felt frustrated, unable to do anything about it, but somehow desperately wanting to know. "So what do I do? Ask Jocelyn and Luke? Because that sure won't bring up bad memories," I said sarcastically, spitting the words out.

"I guess we'll need to do some digging," Jace suggested. "Valentine won't tell me outright, but maybe if I can snoop around his place just off campus – look at old pictures and stuff – maybe I'll find information on someone who has your last name."

I sighed again, harder. "The only problem is that I have my mom's last name, not my dad's. I don't even know his last name. She never told me." I shook my head. "I never needed to know, either. Luke was there, and that was all that mattered."

Something glinted in Jace's eyes, a curiosity I recognized in myself sometimes. He had searched high and low for Morgenstern himself, always wondering what it would be like to have his biological father in his life. He might have understood why I would want to know mine, despite the fact that I refused to acknowledge how I wanted to know. He somehow saw through me.

"Clary, you might not care about your biological father as much as I did when I was searching for Morgenstern, but I will help you find this out. It will help bring closure." Jace took my hand in his, as he glanced around to make sure no one was watching. "And maybe this will be enough to show you that I've been true to my word all week. I hope this earns an answer soon enough?"

With hesitance, I stared into Jace's eyes, falling into the depths of a green ocean of color. I nodded. "Maybe."

Thursday morning, I sighed as I kicked a rock on the sidewalk. I had escaped my room just barely before the barrage of people came to walk as a group to class. Today, the walk to class seemed longer, maybe knowing that Morgenstern was waiting across campus with a snide look on his face and a mysterious secret tucked into his cuffed sleeves.

A part of me regretted my walk alone, despite the peace and serenity it had given me for the first time in a while. There was a nagging sensation that told me that I wanted to see Jace and his perfect smile. This part of me set confusion in my brows, because as it was I had been confused about what he was to me, yet at the same time he had been nothing but kind to me lately.

In secrecy, as I slowed my steps, I realized I was also sort of scared to meet eyes with Jace. This small inkling of doubt inside of me hinted that maybe I wasn't ready to talk to Jace this morning, in case he had a sudden change in heart – maybe reverting back to his jerk-self or suddenly deciding he just wanted to be friends. I shook my head, wishing away the thought as soon as it had crossed my mine. Somehow, the thought of being just friends with Jace didn't sound nearly as frightening as being his girlfriend sounded.

Was teen love supposed to be this complicated? I wondered. As I sighed, I passed a large group of students I recognized. Tipping my chin to the ground was the only thing I could think of that might prevent their attention from landing on me. None of them so much as looked. Maybe, college was finally becoming realistic.

But then how come everything with Jace was just so unrealistic and strange? Teenage love was never supposed to be complicated, was it? And if it was, wasn't the point of it to just have fun? It wasn't like I was about to get into a committed relationship with Jace that would last forever – as it was I could hardly stand the guy sometimes.

It was just too bad that I couldn't turn my heart off. That would make everything much easier, I decided.

As I approached Morgenstern's classroom early, I had to muster a lot of confidence before I even considered turning the doorknob. Reaching for the handle, I felt my heart begin to beat much faster.

"Clary?" a familiar voice from behind echoed, my hand jerking away from the door at the sound. I spun around to see none other than Jace Wayland, the bane of my morning. I'd say existence, but I wasn't sure if he was even so much as that anymore.

"Oh, Jace," I breathed. "Hi." An awkward silence rested upon our shoulders. I sized Jace up, noticing he was wearing a sweatshirt that said "Institute Football" across the front. I realized I had never really seen Jace in anything but a nice shirt.

"What are you doing here so early?" he asked me, eyeing the door. "I thought I told you that I'd take care of it?"

I shrugged. "Impatience, maybe?" I had no real answer, so this one would have to suffice.

"I am somehow not surprised." He laughed slightly. "Come on, you're here early, you might as well join me for an office snoop." Jace began to walk down the hall, past the lecture classroom toward his father's office. I followed behind him slowly, almost unwillingly, until we reached the office.

"Empty," I breathed. "Why am I not surprised with your Jace Wayland luck that it's empty?"

He laughed, turning his body to look at me for a moment, before shaking his head and grabbing the doorknob. "It's the charm. Irresistible, albeit very useful."

Jace slipped into the office, which was also surprisingly – or unsurprisingly, remembering Jace's luck – unlocked. I slipped in behind him and watched as Jace ruffled through some of the files on the desk. In the corner, I noted Morgenstern's briefcase. "Jace," I whispered, eyeing the briefcase harder. "He's probably here, we're going to get caught."

He stopped what he was doing to look up at me. "If you're going to be so afraid to snoop, then why don't you just leave?" he suggested.

I shook my head. "I'm not afraid, just realistic."

He rolled his eyes. "Right, my mistake." With another almost inaudible laugh, Jace began to look again. This time I helped, scanning my eyes over pages, lifting folders, opening drawers.

"What were we looking for again?" I asked. My eyes landed on a falcon feather neatly tucked into his office supply drawer. "All I'm finding is weird things like a falcon feather, swatches of silk, and an old chalice. Either this guy is a creepy collector, or there's something really strange going on."

Jace shrugged. "I've never gone through his things before. He always expected me to have a sort of blind trust in him, but for some reason I always had. Maybe it was my intense want to find him, or maybe the memories I created in my head to accompany his image that kept me quiet. I just never thought to ask him any questions." He looked at me solemnly, though his composure stood tall and straight. "I'm fairly positive that he's hiding something – from one of us at least."

Though he sounded strong, I could hear in his voice a slight sense of hesitation. His tone betrayed how uneasy he felt, going through his father's things. Instantly, I felt guilty for dragging Jace into my mess.

Then, I sensed danger, as if I knew someone was coming. Tiny sounds of footsteps echoed outside the room, and I realized the danger was real. What would it look like if Morgenstern caught us snooping in his office? What would that mean for Jace?

I panicked. "Jace!" I tugged at his shoulder. "We need to get out of here!"

Jace tilted his head, waiting – listening, and his eyes widened when he confirmed my suspicions. We needed to escape. "Come on," he whispered, leading the way out, ducking into the next office over, dragging me behind him. He shut the office next to Morgenstern's, as we peaked out the tiny office window just in time to catch sight of a black suit disappearing into the office next to us – Morgenstern's office.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

Jace looked at me, his eyebrows knitting into a look of concern. "Clary, I found something in his drawer."

I looked at him curiously, my eyes landing on an object in his hands. My eyes almost couldn't believe what they were seeing. Instinctively, I reached toward my neck, trying to feel for the ring I wore every day on my necklace. It was gone.

Jace was holding it – because he had taken it from Morgenstern's office desk.

"All I'm saying is it looks kind of suspicious when you both sneak off separately and we catch you both together, hiding in a corner." Magnus flippantly shrugged his shoulders as he spoke, a careless whisp of sarcasm evident in his tone, as if he enjoyed using his words to his advantage. It almost reminded me of Jace.

Isabelle's nose wrinkled, as if completely disgusted by the idea. I wondered if she still held her grudge against me, her public show of disgust surely out of the ordinary – usually she seemed better at hiding it. Unless, I was just making all of this up because I was paranoid and Isabelle was actually just being playful.

"Anything you tell us about your little fling in the corner of the English building is TMI for me," Isabelle said, giggling. She stuck her tongue out.

"Mature," Simon said, unmoved by the group's jokes. "All of you, real mature. They weren't doing anything, Clary isn't like that."

I stared at Simon, unsure what his motivation behind his comments were. Was he trying to convince the group or himself? I kept quiet in response.

The group unharmoniously erupted into chatter amongst pairs, but I felt lost within the chatter, my eyes flickering around the lunch room. Once again, the table of doom was dragging me down with it.

My eyes averted from Jace, landing on Simon, curiously staring at him to decipher his actions. He didn't seem to be holding much of a grudge today, but yet his comment had left me with a sense of doubt.

"Simon," I said, trying to catch his attention. His eyes flickered toward me and paused, eyeing my expression.

"Yeah, Clary?" he asked. He reached up to touch his hair without much thought, as if it was something he did because he had a nervous energy about him. I hadn't noticed how much Simon had changed since we came to college – this being one of the things. He usually didn't have nerves when he looked my way; we were always those friends that created a sense of comfort for the other.

I frowned. "We hardly hang out anymore. What do you say to a movie night, just the two of us? Tonight?"

Simon frowned in return. "Sorry, Clary. Isabelle and I have movie plans at the theatre. Another time though, okay?"

I nodded my head, a sort of sadness enveloping my mood now. "That's okay." I looked away from Simon, toward Jace. "Jace and I will just make plans, then."

As if I had taken a steak knife and jabbed it into Simon's arm, he jerked back, frowning – almost pained. "Yeah," he mumbled. "Another time then." He looked away. "Have fun tonight."

Simon and I didn't meet eyes again after that. I looked toward Jace for guidance, noticing that he was smirking. He must have been excited knowing that we suddenly had plans. I shook my head, signifying to him that I didn't actually want to see him. He frowned, too.

I felt backed into a corner, the boundaries of my relationships clearly being drawn out in front of me, and I didn't like it. Simon and I were growing apart, while Jace and I were inevitably growing together. I wasn't ready for the amount of change that I was experiencing, but it didn't seem avoidable.

I felt my heart silently cracking, reaching its breaking point. As much as I was conflicted about my growing closeness to Jace, my distance from Simon felt heartbreaking. I wasn't sure what I would do from this point forward, but I knew that I needed to make a big decision about the direction of my relationships.

If I would ever be ready for this, I didn't know.