Check Your Work (Love at Knockdown #3)

Release Date: November 1, 2022
Cover Artist: Laya Rose
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One month. No feelings. They’ve totally got this fake dating thing under control.

Bisexual ex-barista Oliver is finally a high school math teacher, and it’s everything he ever wanted. Until he stumbles across the mysterious customer he crushed on back when he worked at Knockdown Coffee… and kinda sorta accidentally tells his Vice Principal that he’s dating her. Oops?

Octavia, a bi programmer, didn’t expect to run into the cute blue-haired barista again. Certainly not while volunteering at a local arts high school. He’s much too young and much too nice for her—but when she discovers he’s told people they’re dating, it’s a stroke of luck. She needs a fake relationship to stick it to her nemesis, and Oliver’s the perfect fit.

Their assignment is simple: one month of a convincing charade, and after the company gala, everything between them is absolutely and completely over.

Sometimes, though, the homework is harder than you expect.

A high heat contemporary queer M/F romance novel with a guaranteed HEA.

Tropes: fake dating, age gap (she’s older), nerds in love, cinnamon roll hero, bisexual romance.


Preview

Chapter 1

“Mr. Kimble?” Winona asked. “When are we ever going to use differential equations in real life?”

Oliver Kimble had wanted to be a math teacher since his own high school days. He’d gotten to October in his first year of living his dream before one of his students had finally asked this question. He’d been waiting. He was ready.

“Shark attack,” he said, somehow managing to keep a straight face. “It’ll save your life.”
Winona snickered, their hazel eyes sparkling with amusement. “Guess I should do the homework, then.”

If they’d been asking seriously, Oliver would have given a serious answer. He wanted students to feel welcome to ask questions, or even challenge him if he said something that seemed wrong. How else were they all supposed to learn, him included?

“With that settled,” he said to the class, “does everyone understand tonight’s homework and which questions they personally need to do?” Some students learned better doing a few problems, really thinking them through and explaining all their steps, rather than being forced to find the answers to a whole page’s worth.

“It’s all in the e-classroom,” Miguel pointed out, because Miguel adored the e-classroom. Oliver didn’t put much credence in astrology but that kid was a serious Virgo.

“Yeah,” Leslie said with an eyeroll, “but how many of y’all already looked at the assignment so you could be ready to ask questions now, and how many of y’all are going to be messaging Mr. K at ten o’clock tonight all confused while he’s trying to dust his calculator collection?”

Oliver couldn’t help laughing along with the class. “I’m happy to answer homework questions in between calculators,” he said. “Any time before midnight is okay. If you’re stuck after that, we can look at it together tomorrow.”

Although he often did check his work email after midnight. This was his first year at The Moore School. He’d been extraordinarily lucky to land a position at a gloriously diverse private arts high school which supported at least half the students with need-based scholarships. He didn’t want to give the administration one single reason to regret taking a chance on him. Not after how his student teaching had gone, as a queer man at a school with an unexpectedly homophobic interim principal.

After hearing murmurs of assent about the homework situation and glancing at the big clock over the door, he released the class. Leslie and another student scurried over to the back wall to further decorate a whiteboard that had become a collaborative mural over the past few weeks. Students from various classes were adding buildings, streets, and extremely artistic stick figures to some kind of small town. Oliver had intended to use that board for students to work in pairs, but he’d changed his plans after seeing how much fun they were having. The other kids packed up and headed out into the hall.

Bliss Reyes, who taught Spanish and Arabic next door, stuck her head in once the crowd had exited. “You still okay to take my study hall last period?”

“Looking forward to it!” He didn’t have an eighth period on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and he’d always cover for one of his fellow teachers if at all possible. It was… collegial. He had colleagues now. Oliver did his best at an appropriately professional smile instead of the dizzy grin he’d end up with if he thought too much more about that.

Bliss stepped into his classroom. “Thank you so much. I will totally swap you back sometime.”

The artists at the board finished their contributions and gathered up their things to leave. The thriving community on the whiteboard now had a green space with a little gazebo next to the town hall. Oliver approved.

“Did you hear?” Bliss asked once they were gone. “They’re supposed to be done with the roof in the theater by Friday. I can’t believe they’re donating all that work. I was afraid we’d have buckets on the stage during dress rehearsals again this fall.”

That didn’t sound like fun. “How many times did they get kicked over?”

Bliss let out an aggrieved sigh. “There were hoop skirts involved, you have no idea. Sebastián saved my life by taking over and promoting Tabby to have her tackle some of this. It’s about time somebody started getting resources in the door before the place falls down around our ears.”

Principal Sebastián Rosado was new this year. Tabitha Lowry had been the guidance counselor and was now the vice principal. Oliver hadn’t asked anyone why the leadership team had changed a week before the start of his orientation. When he’d gotten the email about it, he’d had to go splash water on his face, remembering showing up to his student teaching to find out things there had changed with no warning. Luckily, the situation at Moore had so far proved a zillion times more accepting than his old school.

He did have to agree, however, that the former church building had seen better days.

“Is fundraising difficult?” he asked, hoping it didn’t sound rude.

Bliss shrugged. “Principal Worley is going to be far better as a teacher trainer than he ever was an administrator, and our vice principal last year looked good on paper but was totally useless. Here’s hoping we’re back to heading in the right direction.”

At least Principal Rosado didn’t look faintly disgusted every time he saw Oliver. He pushed those memories away and turned to wipe diagrams and equations from the whiteboard that wasn’t currently a community art project.

“I heard Tabby found someone to get the grade system sorted out, too,” he said. MooreScore had been Worley’s big project — the last straw, possibly — and Oliver knew from hearing other teachers chat that disliking it was a popular topic. “I could probably have put something better together in a weekend by googling.”

“I bet I could have made something better with materials from the art studio,” Bliss agreed, and Oliver felt a little burst of happiness that he’d succeeded at colleague bonding. “Come over as soon as you’re ready and I’ll get you set up for the study hall.”

She waved and headed back next door. Oliver sipped from his water bottle as his students filtered in. Algebra. Ninth graders. A small group clustered around someone’s phone in the last couple of minutes before class started, breaking into fits of giggles about whatever they were watching.

“That dog!” one of them finally howled. “With the hat, oh my GOD!”

Oliver’s heart swelled with joy.

He loved ninth graders.

He loved his job.

* * *

Study hall ran half an hour long while Oliver helped two students stuck on chemistry. It took the textbook, his memories of college chem, and buying the PDF of a manga guide to the subject to work through the trouble spots, but he left feeling satisfied everyone was on the right track.

He was also starving, and he’d forgotten to pick up a new jar of cashews to throw in his desk drawer. There were two drive-throughs within a few blocks of the school. Or, he could see if there were any cookies left from the batch one of the vocal teachers had brought in that morning.

The building was laid out like a rabbit warren, with two different hallways wrapping around the main classroom block to the cramped teachers’ lounge before heading off elsewhere. Oliver chose the south option. When he turned the final corner, he saw Tabby and the treasurer of the board of trustees standing a few doors down from the lounge, conferring about something.

Oliver doubled back before they could notice him. Tabby wasn’t the problem. He liked his vice principal so far. She was about his mother’s age, with shoulder-length brown hair starting to show strands of silver. Tabby had hosted him and the other new teacher for brunch in her office the day before orientation to reassure them about the coming year. Her sweet disposition was at least half of why Oliver had been able to calm down and focus on setting up his classroom, which he now loved.

Board treasurer Helen Van Horn, on the other hand, was intimidating. She came to the school often, and Oliver had never seen her in less than a suit, full makeup, and an unmissable collection of expensive jewelry. Or maybe the jewelry was fake, but the massive Cadillac SUV she drove was real.

Around her, Oliver always felt self-conscious about his clothes and almost grateful he hadn’t dyed his hair back to blue or tried wearing any jewelry to school beyond the clear retainer for his labret piercing. He’d only put a Progress pride flag on his door after seeing two returning teachers do the same, and he’d gone with a smaller one even though he knew his being bi wasn’t an issue here. Still, something about Van Horn’s vibe made him uneasy.

He didn’t even know why she was around so much. His mom was on the board of a cat rescue nonprofit, and she wasn’t at the animal shelter twice a week. Maybe Van Horn was involved with the donations Tabby was organizing?

Oliver considered simply getting his stuff and heading home, but it was a long drive. It was probably worth checking the main office at the other end of the building before he gave up and succumbed to the lure of drive-through fries. Tabby often had snacks out. Maybe she understood the burden of student loans.

He headed down the other hall towards the office, a big square meeting room that had been subdivided into a central open area with a few chairs, a couple of desks, and several perimeter offices. Principal Rosado had the big office to the right. He was on a call, but he waved through the open blinds in his glass window. Vincent, the school’s admin, had the office next to his, but he wasn’t at his desk. Tabby’s office was straight ahead with a dog gate in the doorway for her little Papillon-Chihuahua mix, Ginger, and to the left, next to Tabby’s was—

What the…?

Sitting in the small conference room, typing on a laptop with geeky and bi pride stickers Oliver had memorized, was the gorgeous blond white woman who used to come to Knockdown Coffee two afternoons a week and sit at the red corner table. In the year and a half he’d worked at Knockdown while he was in school, he’d served her approximately one hundred and forty blueberry, banana, and pineapple smoothies, and he’d never seen a single thing about her that he didn’t find wonderful. Her long, wavy hair, which always had a few colored streaks in it. (Today they were pink.) Her serious expression while she was working. Her quiet thanks whenever he handed her a drink.

Oliver felt a touch light-headed. His friend Allie, whose sister co-owned Knockdown, had told him that this woman still came by occasionally. He didn’t even know her name, since she’d used many different ones for her drink orders. Leia, Aeryn, Shane. Honestly, even the pronouns were an assumption since she always picked female characters. Between the names and her laptop stickers, he’d ended up googling Farscape, The X-Files, The Expanse, Space: Above and Beyond, and quite a few others. Oliver was more of a fantasy and mystery reader than a science fiction watcher, but he’d just… wanted to know more about her.

Now she was right here, wearing a dress instead of her usual Knockdown attire of jeans and a t-shirt. She hadn’t seen him yet because she was absorbed in whatever she was working on, like always. Oliver tried to get ready to speak. They knew each other, right? At least on sight? And this might be his chance to finally talk to her.

He opened his mouth to speak… and he couldn’t do it. He knew her on sight. But for all he knew, she wouldn’t recognize him at all.

Oliver slipped back out of the main office and headed back towards safety. Two dance students sped by him, probably late to a practice and moving as fast as he was back to his classroom. He wrestled the door firmly closed before he fumbled his phone out of his pocket.

Oliver: SHE IS HERE

He put his back against the classroom wall and waited for Allie to respond. Hopefully she wasn’t stuck in a meeting, in which case Oliver would hear back from her in an hour or two and by then she’d be pretending she was going to kill half her coworkers.

Allie: SHE WHO

Her response was reassuring, since he’d done his best to persuade her that he was not still hung up on this woman. He just hadn’t thought it was working.

Allie: Oh fuck, you mean HER?

Apparently it hadn’t been working after all.

Allie: WHAT IS SHE DOING AT YOUR SCHOOL?

He had no fucking idea. He’d have heard about a new staff member already.

Oliver: i don’t know
Oliver: she was alone so probably not enrolling her kid
Oliver: wait maybe the volunteer program
Allie: What would she be doing as a volunteer?
Oliver: i don’t know?? she had her laptop and she was in an office.

He didn’t have a clue what the woman did for a living. She’d never talked to anyone beyond placing her order and thanking him when she retrieved it, and she’d barely looked him in the eye while doing so. Which was fine. Some people weren’t into eye contact for any of a number of reasons. But without any opening for casual conversation, he’d never managed to find out anything about her. The most substantive thing he knew was that she never acted impatient if her order took longer than normal.

Allie: Oliver listen to me very carefully.
Allie: THIS IS YOUR CHANCE!!!
Allie: Talk to her. Talk to her right now. You can ask her what project she’s working on.

Right. He was a teacher here. Oliver Kimble, math teacher. That gave him a legitimate professional reason to start a conversation beyond asking if she needed anything else with her drink and giving her a total for her order.

He took a deep breath and tried to imagine it, but someone else making the first move was the only way he’d ever successfully dated, in either the romantic or the casual sex meaning of dated. He had zero nerves anymore in front of a classroom, but talking to someone he thought was pretty and intriguing? That was a recipe for stammering and blushing, which a significant number of people did not find terribly appealing. Serving her drinks for a year and a half had been way more comfortable than that alternative.

Oliver: i should just let this go
Oliver: i’m terrible at this. i always have been i don’t know why.
Allie: at Knockdown you talked to people FOR A LIVING
Oliver: that’s totally different
Allie: Because you want to fuck her
Oliver: NO

Well, yes, if she’d be into that. Oliver had proof points from his past that he could be romantically drawn to someone without sexual attraction too, but that was very much not the case here. He’d mostly kept a lid on any sexy imagining until after she’d disappeared from his life, but once she’d been a memory, it had seemed safe to use that memory as fantasy inspiration. Often. Mostly about going down on her, though there were other variations. Quite a few of them, actually, since Oliver had wide-ranging tastes.

Dammit, how could he have expected her to turn up at his workplace? Oliver thunked the back of his head against the wall.

Allie: Go ask what she’s doing. You were meant to get a second chance.
Allie: Okay, hundredth chance but who’s counting?
Oliver: i guarantee that she will tell me what she’s doing and then i won’t have the first clue what to say back
Allie: Oh stop. You can talk about how you used to see her at Knockdown. Talk about getting her number and taking her to dinner and then if it goes well you can talk about taking her enthusiastically on the floor of your living room.
Allie: Okay maybe not your living room because you live with dudebros. Maybe she doesn’t. Her living room would probably be nicer than yours anyway, she looks like she’s my age.

Now he was thinking about settings for sex. Not helpful.

Allie: I’m giving you 24 hours to figure this out and then I’m coming over there myself.

She wouldn’t. Would she? Oliver walked over to his desk and flopped down into his chair. Now that he was recovering from the surprise, he was starting to realize he was making too big of a deal about this.

Oliver: won’t work, you need a visitor pass to be in the building haha
Allie: I’d even sign up to volunteer if it means hooking you up with the geek love of your life.
Allie: I can take a PTO day tomorrow.

Oh fuck, she totally would. He shouldn’t have used all caps when he texted her.

Oliver had to start using his brain instead of a combination of lust and startled nerves. The mystery woman could be here for a one-time meeting. The thought took some of the pressure off, but he’d better not mention it or Allie would insist he go back immediately and no way in hell was that happening. If she wasn’t only here today, though… maybe it was being in his classroom that was giving him a dose of bravery, but he thought he might want to try.

Allie: Tomorrow I will meet you in the parking lot fifteen minutes before your first class with whatever drink she ordered most often. You will walk in there and give it to her, say you saw her in passing yesterday but she looked busy, and thanks for volunteering. I’ll even bring you two, so it doesn’t look suspicious like you made an extra trip.

Hand her a drink. That he could do. He’d done it hundreds of times before. If she wasn’t there, he could give it to Bliss.

Wait, back up. He could first verify with Vincent in the main office that she actually was volunteering, and if so, find out when she’d be back. If she was working in the afternoons only, Allie’s plan was a bust and he’d have to just go talk to her.

Surely it was worth at least one shot, after all this time.

Oliver: you’re giving strangely good advice for someone whose experience with actual dating only started in march of this year
Allie: I may not have romantically dated, but I have always known how to get a woman’s attention.
Oliver: fair enough. wait until i text you to confirm.
Allie: Noted.
Allie: I have two geeks of my own. They are very cute when they burble about all their favorite geek things.
Allie: I believe you can get this geek, Oliver.
Allie: And you deserve this.
Oliver: at least I have a decent reason to ask her non-drink-related questions now
Allie: That’s the spirit!

It probably wouldn’t be a total disaster. He had approached cute people before, though not for several years because of how little free time he’d had around classes and his job. Worst case scenario, he’d stand there holding a smoothie that she didn’t want and find out that awkward small talk was the best either of them could offer the other. If she was volunteering at Moore, she probably wasn’t a Republican or something equally scary, but there were plenty of people who just didn’t click. Even as casual acquaintances.

Okay. Good. Assuming the woman was coming back to Moore, Oliver was going to do what he should have done a couple of years ago instead of building this up in his head for far too long. He was going to talk to his beautiful mystery customer.

Also, he was getting fries from P. Terry’s for his drive home.

Chapter 2

Octavia Laughlin arrived for her second set of meetings at The Moore School wondering why she’d let her best friend sign her up for another volunteer gig. On-site meetings were a necessary evil for the first couple days of most projects, but at least when they were job-related, sometimes there was paid travel. That was worth the tension headache she always had at the end of any day spent mostly talking to people instead of coding.

This volunteer project didn’t require travel. Instead, it came with epic disorganization of computer records and a depressing patchwork of outdated software and insecure network connections. She could probably corrupt everything in the building within fifteen minutes, including the students’ phones if they were connected to the school’s Wi-Fi, and make every screen play that video of a kitten trying to grab cake off a fork on an endless loop.

Not that she would. She was a database programmer, not a hacker. Also, Shilpa would be extremely annoyed with her.

Octavia: Remind me again why you, an alumna of this fine institution, are in Seattle instead of volunteering here yourself.
Shilpa: Because I have a sculpture residency and you are my wonderful best friend with a computer science degree.
Rin: Two degrees.

Clearly having Rin in a group chat was useful for accuracy purposes, among other things. Octavia had been skeptical a while back when Shilpa had said, You have to meet the bookkeeper for my co-op, you’ll love him, he’s just like you!! But he’d turned out to be quite entertaining.

Shilpa: TWO degrees. See how qualified you are?! You’re also the one whose employer will donate to the scholarship fund as the result of your volunteering.

Aglow Consulting was good about community support. Granted, their donations technically came out of her potential salary, but she was well-compensated and at least this way she could direct where some of their donations went.

Octavia: And what do I get out of all this?
Shilpa: My undying gratitude and the satisfaction of supporting students in their pursuit of the arts, a fundamental component of a healthy society!!

Yesterday, contributing to a healthy society had meant Octavia listening to someone practicing a saxophone solo down the hall all afternoon. Over and over and over. Didn’t they have soundproofed practice rooms at this school?

Maybe they were out of order in some way. In just the walk from the front door to this office, Octavia had seen too much that needed fixing. Missing ceiling tiles, damage from a water leak, and more than one student locker lacking its door. How did that even happen? Were teenage ballet dancers tackling each other in the hallways and causing property damage? And why wasn’t it all getting repaired? Lack of funds?

Quite possible. The school didn’t have a dedicated staff member handling development, which was suboptimal. The vice principal had mentioned her difficulties with their donor management system and Octavia had made a mildly sympathetic noise to be polite, since Shilpa had only signed her up to unfuck the grade database. Unfortunately, Tabby had taken the sympathetic noise as a cue to show Octavia the baffling reports that were supposed to display in-kind donations so Tabby could do a writeup for the board. Five minutes into looking at the garbage reports, Octavia had been so professionally offended that she’d committed to fixing them and the data issues she could already tell were lurking underneath.

Basically, she’d scope creeped herself, and the saxophone was one of the consequences.

The saxophonist in question had seemingly not yet arrived at school as Octavia opened her laptop for her second day on site. Or perhaps they had other classes in the morning. She’d brought her noise-canceling headphones just in case.

Today she didn’t even get the conference room she’d been working in yesterday — the one with a door, not that it had muffled the saxophone entirely — because it was needed for a parent-teacher meeting. So here she was at one of the two freestanding desks in the middle of the main office. In the last fifteen minutes, half a dozen students and teachers had walked in and out for some reason or another, and now two teenagers were using the other spare desk for a collage. Which might be in the process of getting glued to the desk.

Octavia: Your undying gratitude had better extend to some baked goods when you get back.
Rin: Get a dozen of those white chocolate lime cupcakes. They freeze well.
Shilpa: She’s already agreed to do the work!
Shilpa: Also, are we pretending you’re not secretly ecstatic to rub it in Kara’s face next month that you’re helping save a nonprofit arts high school in your spare time?

Fair point about the Kara Haines factor. Anything Octavia could do to needle her horrible California-based coworker was worth maximizing the flexibility of her work schedule to fit in. Especially with the Izaya Corporation holiday party coming up, where Octavia would have to see Kara in person.

Honestly, Octavia would rather throw herself out of a window. A first floor one, anyway. She’d tolerated Kara’s competitiveness, grandstanding, and condescension all through high school and then again in grad school. She’d believed herself free, finally, until Kara got herself hired at the San Jose office of Aglow two years after Octavia was recruited to the Austin office. Then six months ago, Kara had been approved as a developer on a piece of the open source climate change project that Octavia was already a committer on. No matter where Octavia went, she couldn’t get away.

Now Kara would be at the party, because Izaya Corporation sponsored ClimateTrack and all ClimateTrack volunteers were invited to their corporate fête so Izaya could show off their pet project and encourage their other high-profile guests to donate. Maybe Octavia could come up with a schedule conflict for that night, such as her database reconstruction and repair expertise being urgently required in Antarctica.

Attending the party, however, meant she could casually mention the work she was doing for Moore. The sketchy gallery Kara had bought into last year as a self-styled “patron of the arts” had gone down in flames due to rumored mismanagement, and the alumni grapevine said her East Coast old money parents had refused her the cash to start a small foundation with her name on it. Octavia rescuing a nonprofit arts high school would really get under Kara’s skin.

That wasn’t why she was here at Moore, but Octavia had to take the wins where she could get them when it came to Kara. Especially since nobody else in their mutual professional sphere seemed to notice how obnoxious the woman was.

Octavia: In light of the Kara factor I will forgo the baked goods.
Rin: I admire your petty.
Octavia: I would never describe myself otherwise.
Shilpa: Whatever the reason, I am SO grateful you’re doing this. I’ll bake you something anyway. Whatever you want.
Octavia: Acceptable. Now both of you leave me alone, I need to finish writing the project plan for the grades part of this debacle.

Except as Octavia minimized the chat screen, someone walked into the office. She almost didn’t recognize him at first, out of context. Especially because—

“Your hair!” she blurted out.

The cute young barista from Knockdown, whose name was Oliver, froze almost mid-stride and put a hand up to his not-blue-anymore brown hair. His lip ring and his black cord necklace were missing too, along with his earrings, the little silver triangle outline studs. Instead of a t-shirt and jeans, he was wearing a lilac short-sleeved dress shirt and dark slacks.

“Uh,” he said. “Yeah. I dyed it back. For work. Not this work. Last year.” Then he smiled, tentatively. “Hey. Hi?”

Octavia was prepared to talk to Moore School staff about databases. She wasn’t here to talk to anyone else about anything else, and especially not to the adorable college student who she’d ordered drinks from for a year and a half.

Wait. He had a badge clipped to his belt. For this school.

“You… work here?” Maybe he’d gotten a part-time admin job here. Hopefully it paid better than whatever that grumpy-sunshine couple who owned Knockdown could probably pay him. She didn’t imagine coffee shops had great margins.

“I teach here,” Oliver said, a touch defensively. “I started this fall. Math.”

Teacher. Huh. Octavia took a minute to update her mental image. She’d seen a textbook propped up behind the counter sometimes and overheard someone asking him about finals once; in her mind he’d gotten frozen in time as the sunny, cute barista. But people did graduate from college and get new jobs. It had just been over a decade since she’d done it herself.

“That’s great,” she said. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

Octavia had rarely seen someone so obviously bolster their own courage before, but the man standing in front of her borrowed desk took a moment to do just that.

“I saw you here yesterday,” he said rapidly, holding up two clear plastic cups of familiar purple smoothie. She hadn’t even noticed them because of his wrong-colored hair. “Vincent said you were volunteering, and we really appreciate our volunteers, so I brought you one. Of these. But if you don’t want it that’s okay too. I’ll leave you alone. Because you’re busy.”

That was a lot of words very quickly. Also, if Octavia wasn’t mistaken, he was starting to blush. She must be doing something to make him uncomfortable. Fuck, had she been ogling him by accident? He was far too young for her, and even if he hadn’t been, he was too cheery and sweet. He probably got along great with Tabby, who’d already brought in home-baked muffins this morning and encouraged Octavia to help herself.

Before she could try to repair the situation, voices and footsteps approached, and two more people walked into the office. Tabby first, which was fine. Between her and Shilpa, they’d gotten quite a bit of Octavia’s expensive time without paying for any of it, and Octavia had to respect that. She also approved of Tabby’s enthusiasm for clipboards, one of which she was carrying right now.

The woman who followed her in, however, had already made Octavia idly contemplate fabricating an excuse to escape — and that was only from ten minutes within her presence yesterday. Helen Van Horn, the board treasurer, a huge snob who’d spent all ten of those minutes transparently trying (in a very Rich White Lady way) to find out if Octavia knew anyone important. Tabby seemed to like her. Tabby was wrong.

The former Knockdown barista who now taught math here didn’t seem to care for Van Horn either, judging by how he froze when he saw her behind Tabby.

“Oliver!” Tabby said brightly. “Good morning, how are you?”

“Hi, good morning,” he said, but his usually friendly voice was brittle. He was straightening up, too, as if he was afraid someone was about to judge his posture.

Van Horn gave him a look that managed to be both quizzical and condescending, and seemed to be readying herself to speak.

“Which one’s mine?” Octavia interrupted, nodding to the smoothie Oliver was holding. She’d tried to make those at home after she’d broken her ankle and couldn’t go out much, but the texture had come out wrong. His replacement at Knockdown didn’t have the magic touch either. “I don’t want to make you late.”

Oliver took the cue and stepped forward to put a cup in her hand.

“Thanks,” she said, trying to sound extra friendly because he looked so uncomfortable. “You realize you’ve spoiled me for any other smoothies, right?”

His shoulders sagged with relief. Apparently she’d thrown him the correct conversational rope. “I can show you how I do it. Anytime.”

That seemed a bit extra, but maybe he could write out the recipe for her. “Get to class. We can talk about it later.” Surely it wouldn’t be too hard for her to find him; the school wasn’t that big.

“Sure,” he said, starting to smile. “Okay. Sounds good.”

The bell rang. Octavia recognized it as the three minute warning. It was excessively shrill and Tabby had apologized yesterday for not having the service company out yet to fix it.

Oliver nodded to Van Horn and his boss and made a quick exit. Tabby watched him go, then turned back to Octavia with an expression far too pleased for someone about to discuss the organization’s shambles that masqueraded as financial records.

“Octavia,” she said warmly. “Mrs. Van Horn heard you were going to be working on the donor management system in addition to replacing MooreScore, and she wanted to sit in on our meeting. I thought that would be helpful, since she’s the one with real fundraising experience around here. I hope we’re not interrupting your process.”

They were, but Octavia had been on a board herself, albeit for a much smaller nonprofit. She’d also worked with a few large nonprofit clients for Aglow. If a board member thought they had to be involved, they’d be involved. It was an annoyance, but also a possible opportunity to untangle why Van Horn bugged Octavia (and apparently Oliver, too) aside from her parading around in ostentatious outfits at a school where half the students were on need-based scholarships.

“No problem,” Octavia said, trying to sound more gracious than calculating, even though it wasn’t her strong suit. “We’re still in the requirements gathering phase, after all.”

Van Horn turned one of those fake Rich White Lady smiles on Octavia. “Wonderful, dear. Let’s get settled in Tabitha’s office, then. Oh, Tabitha, is your little dog here again? Maybe we should meet somewhere else. The shedding, you know.”

Yesterday, Tabby had made a point of asking Octavia to call her Tabby. Octavia wondered if Van Horn wasn’t given the same privilege, or if she simply couldn’t be bothered to remember. Also, the dog didn’t get on anyone without being invited.

“Wherever you prefer,” Octavia said as she closed her laptop.

She didn’t forget to bring the smoothie. If she was going to put up with people, at least she could get some blueberry deliciousness out of it.

* * *

It was the most unproductive hour of talking to people that Octavia had been trapped in for a long time.

Van Horn monopolized the entire meeting without providing more than five minutes of true content. Octavia had no idea what Tabby had written in the notes she’d taken, but at least they were color coded. When it was over, Octavia had finally gotten to spend a little time directly in the donor management database, after yesterday’s spelunking in the one for grades. Neither was any prettier under the hood.

She left Moore to drive back to her office well before lunch feeling judgmental. Her list included whoever had set up the databases originally, whoever had kludged them badly multiple times, and whoever had decided it was okay to run a nonprofit using the Frankenstein’s monsters resulting from all those bad decisions. They might not have wanted to pay a subscription fee to use one of the perfectly acceptable commercial services that existed for either or both of the functions they were supposed to perform, but that wasn’t an excuse.

Octavia tried to let the judgy thoughts go as she parked in the office garage and locked her car. Not everyone understood how software was supposed to work, so they didn’t always realize when annoying and difficult meant seriously broken and should be fixed or replaced. Many people assumed they simply weren’t smart enough to make the program do its job.

From how Tabby had talked about her experience with the fundraising database, she’d gotten caught in that trap. Of course she also didn’t seem that confident about her ability to raise funds to record in said database. I don’t have any real experience with this, she’d said, looking somewhat embarrassed. I’m just helping out.

But Octavia had deciphered several entries about in-kind donations that were listed as Tabby’s work: paint (for the seemingly unending hallways?), a fair quantity of art supplies, and even a new roof for the theater which was in the former sanctuary. Somewhere along her route from teacher to guidance counselor to vice principal, she’d picked up some skills that were useful in cultivating donors.

If Octavia were a potential donor, she’d far rather talk to Tabby Lowry than Helen Van Horn. Then again, everyone but her seemed impressed by Kara.

She rode the elevator to the third floor and badged into the Aglow offices. When she turned down the hall that led to her own office, the office manager was hustling the other direction. Nyla Flores had been here since Aglow’s founding, and they also knew Rin from back in high school. (It had taken Octavia two months after meeting Rin for all of them to figure that out.)

Nyla stopped when they saw Octavia, checking their clipboard. “You’re going to the Izaya party, right?” Nyla would be there, since they kept the project’s social media accounts updated and handled new volunteer intake.

“I will,” Octavia confirmed, since Antarctica hadn’t called yet.

They smiled broadly. “Every U.S. volunteer is going to make it, and a few from Mexico and one from Senegal who just got involved last week. They’re in Houston for a fellowship. We can get a team picture. I’ve gotta run! You look nice, by the way!”

Octavia tried to smile. Every U.S. volunteer. “Thanks!” Her last chance of a reprieve from Kara attending the party was gone, but at least she was wearing a cute dress today.

She went into her office and shut the door, all on autopilot, and stowed her laptop bag in the locking desk drawer. It could be worse. Kara didn’t bully her, sabotage her work, or do anything that was actionable with a manager or Human Resources. Sometimes Octavia wondered if she was the one seeing it all wrong, biased from the years of Kara alternately sniping at her or pointedly overlooking her existence.

Oh, Octavia, do you need help? I’d have thought you’d want to get it done right instead of getting it done fast.

It’s crucial for tech companies to hire women who are strong role models, and I’m grateful to be part of a new era starting at Aglow.

Back in high school, she’d let it get to her, but she was an adult now and a successful professional. She’d read dozens of articles about how to disengage from annoying coworkers, and had developed a list of strategies. Ignore, if possible. If directly asked to comment, be bland and change the subject. Sometimes it all seemed so unfair. Octavia had to do all this work figuring out how to coexist with Kara, and Kara just rampaged around doing whatever she wanted and taking shots at Octavia whenever she got a chance. All Octavia wanted was to be left alone.

Especially after the snide comment Kara had made in the last committer video call.

I guess some of us just have extra time on our hands since we don’t have anyone special in our lives.

First of all, devaluing non-romantic relationships sucked. Second, Octavia had plenty of people in her life. Was being single the reason Octavia had so much time to work on the project? In a sense, but it also wasn’t fucking relevant. She’d gotten the work done because she’d promised to get the work done. And it was right, not just fast, because Octavia did good work.

Kara had apparently broken up with her latest amazing boyfriend with long hair or tattoos or whatever a week later. Octavia had tried not to take a small measure of enjoyment from that bit of gossip, and had almost succeeded.

What she’d really enjoy would be if just once, someone else saw what was happening. Octavia would settle for a single eyeroll after a meeting. But no one seemed to notice, and she wasn’t going to bring it up. There was nothing to be gained by trash-talking another woman in tech. Being a woman in this field was hard enough, even at this fairly progressive and diverse company, without anyone saying the dreaded word catfighting.

Octavia slumped back in her chair and stared at her collection of desk toys. The Beverly Crusher action figure, the miniature Tachikoma, and all of their friends stayed silent rather than offering any sage advice. Ah well. She entered the password on her workstation, held the chip in her badge over the reader, and decided to focus on her job. Surely she could find a way for Kara’s presence not to suck all the potential joy out of the Izaya party even though Shilpa and Rin were both unavailable. She’d think about it more after basking in some Python and Bash.

Unfortunately, she only enjoyed a few hours of basking before she got cold after lunch and realized she’d taken off her cardigan at Moore and left it there. That meant driving back over, and she’d probably run into Tabby. Octavia liked Tabby, but she was peopled out right now.

Today just wouldn’t stop being annoying.


Content warnings

These are as spoiler-free as possible, but to the author it’s more important that folks who need content details can get them.

On-page or significant discussion:

  • Explicit sex (Chapter 22)
  • Past queerphobia at a job resulting in present anxiety
  • Social drinking

Off-page or brief mention:

  • Student injured at school, positive outcome
  • Grandparents’ queerphobia