Ian sneezed, and the pile—wall—of clippings running along the back of the desk finally gave in to gravity, avalanching down onto the floor with a reproachful hiss. After holding his breath for a moment to make sure none of the room’s other, similarly precarious piles would follow suit, he groaned, laying his head down on the desk with gentleness born of ever-growing despair. That was most of the afternoon’s work spoiled, and he was already more than a week behind—almost five, actually, now that Professor Gerhall seemed to have gone on an unofficial sabbatical, leaving the entire backlogged project in Ian’s over-full hands.
...Didn’t he have an essay due sometime next week? Maybe no one would notice if he just turned in a copy of the article on Colonel Bramwell Mulligan Oakley IV. If he finished it on schedule.
If he didn’t have a nervous breakdown.
Really, the only important thing he’d learned at university so far was to read all the paperwork before signing it, because otherwise you could wind up as an indentured servant without noticing. And he couldn’t get rid of this nagging feeling that he’d forgotten something terrifically important. Like the time.
Or more exactly, that he was supposed to pick someone up from the train station about an hour and a half ago.
He made the nastiest face he could manage without a mirror to practice in, then sighed and lifted his head off the desk. Gabe’s sister stood resplendent in the office doorway, nose and cheeks quite red, lips painfully chapped, and radiantly unselfconscious. She looked as though she’d just come in from having more fun than money could ever hope to buy.
“Hello, Penny.” Ian managed to smile as if he actually meant it, and then was startled to find that he actually did. “Sorry, I—”
“Oh, don’t bother apologizing,” she cut in, dropping her suitcase with a cheerful bang. Clippings fluttered in the momentary gust of air; Ian only half-managed to suppress his wince. “I got off at the wrong station anyway, so if you had come to fetch me, you would’ve wound up just standing around for an hour and a half, in utter, utter vain.”
“I might have done and only just got back,” he pointed out, more because he wanted to hear her response than out of hope or desire to deceive her. She dimpled at him in a way that would have been distracting under a completely different set of circumstances.
“You’re falling asleep and half-buried in paper, Ian. And I know you were about to say that you’d forgotten I was coming. Which is quite all right, as I did too, up until Mum shoved a suitcase at me and all but threw me onto the train.”
Ian tried and utterly failed to imagine his placid aunt doing anything so violent as to throw a person onto a train. “Really,” he said rather weakly, wondering if perhaps Penny expected sympathy of him.
“Well, all right. She walked me onto the train and asked if I wanted pocket money for food. Which I did.” Apparently not, then. “What exactly are you supposed to be doing with all this paper, anyway?” She reached a curious and incautious hand toward one of the surviving piles on the desk and Ian found himself leaping in slow motion, desperate to somehow stop her without causing further damage in the process. The movement ended with him clutching the papers to his chest, leaving her startled into stillness, hand outstretched. “You could have just said ‘don’t touch’.” But again, she looked and sounded more amused than hurt; like her mother, she possessed a seemingly-limitless good temper, although one expressed rather more energetically.
“Has anyone pointed out that you apologize too much?” She sat down on her suitcase, which creaked unhappily. “You can put everything back down, I’ll be good. It’s no fun to tease someone who’s already panicked.”
I’m not panicked, Ian wanted to say, but he was, so he kept his mouth shut and set the papers down on the desk again. “It’s a fifteen minute walk to the apartment,” he said instead. Penny groaned cheerfully, something Ian hadn’t known was possible.
“Can we take a taxi? I’m pretty sure I have three and a half blisters from the trek over here, and I’d really not make them worse or more numerous.”
Ian leaned forward over the desk to get a look at her shoes—they appeared sturdy and comfortable enough, so she must have done an awful lot of walking to get even one blister. “Which station did you wind up at?”
“Fourth Cross, I think.”
“But that’s on the other side of the apartment from here! Why didn’t you just go straight there? The wards and everything are keyed for you.”
“Well,” Penny began, cheer subsiding into sheepishness, “I forgot to bring a map and I couldn’t remember your address anyway, so I wound up doing a ‘point me’ with one of the pairs of socks mum mended for you. It’s about the only spell I can get to work reliably, but it works really well. So don’t think you can lose me in the dinner crowds.”
“Right,” Ian said, because he couldn’t think of a better response. Gabe’s entire family was insane. “You walked four and a half miles because all you had to go on was a pair of socks. So. Taxi. You’re paying.”
“Would you believe me if I told you I spent all my money on cream puffs in the dining car?”
Absolutely insane. “Yes, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m broke.”
“Oh.” She thought about that for a moment. “I don’t suppose you have any sticking plaster somewhere in this mess?”
Which was how Ian found himself trying to pick the ancient (and unwarded) lock on the next office over with only a very old hairpin and a deformed paperclip. Five minutes—five minutes with his cousin and already indentured servitude seemed like the most wonderful thing in the world in comparison. Not that he didn’t love her dearly, but still....
He tried to wiggle the hairpin loose and heard something go snap. The hairpin refused to move any further.
“Never mind,” Penny called from his Professor Gerhall’s office. “Mum packed me some.”
Insane, he thought again, and wasn’t sure whether he meant her or himself.