History Buffs

by Alicia McKenzie

DISCLAIMER: I belong to myself, the Pontifical Institute belongs to...well, the University of Toronto, I suppose. Cable is Marvel's, used without permission. This is an answer to the Self-Insertion Challenge on OTL, where you write yourself into a 'real-life' meeting with your favorite character.

Damn it, I hate being short.

The slender, blue-bound volume of the Orations of Libanius sat there on the top shelf, laughing at me. Tentatively, I tried standing on the bottom shelf to give myself those few extra centimetres I needed, but jumped off hurriedly when the entire row of shelves creaked ominously. Oh, that would have been cute, I thought, taking a cautious step away. Crushed to death beneath a pile of books--what a poetic end.

I ground my teeth, looking around for one of those handy little black stools I was always tripping over on my mad caffeine-fueled rush through the stacks before canon law class on Wednesday morning. I couldn't see one anywhere. Why was I even bothering to look? I thought in exasperation. Of course there wouldn't be a stool. And of course this had to happen when I was alone in the library--well, there was probably someone over in the palaeography room, but I could hardly walk in there and say, 'hello, could you kindly tear yourself away from that riveting Beneventan manuscript and come get this book down for me, please?', could I? I had a LITTLE pride.

Damn it. And I HAD to see that bit about the Antioch curia with my own eyes. No way was I going to get away with someone else's citation of it. Damn, damn, damn. Teach me to leave it until the last minute. My professor was going to have my head. 'Well, sir, I DID find the book, but I didn't find the passage. Why? Umm---well, you see, I couldn't REACH the book.' I sighed, leaning back against the opposite set of shelves. Do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars--

"Need a hand?" someone asked, out of the blue. I yelped, nearly jumping out of my skin, and the tall, silver-haired man who'd suddenly appeared at the end of the row gave me an apologetic look. "I didn't mean to scare you," he continued in that deep, rough voice, his rather harsh-featured face softened by a faint, apologetic smile as he stepped out of the shadows into the soft glow cast by the stack lights.

"It's all right," I said, laying a hand against my chest and trying not to wheeze. Stupid asthma--always flared right up whenever I got nervous. "I just thought I was alone over on this side, that's all." I gave him a measuring look, realizing he would be more than able to reach the book. Crap, he's tall. Not just tall, but BIG. He was built like your average oak tree, actually. Not the type you usually saw wandering the stacks in the Pontifical Institute's library. "Actually, you could give me a hand," I said, boldly. Might as well, I reasoned.

"What are you trying to reach?" he asked, inclining his head towards the top shelf, and I blushed. Was I that transparent?

"The little blue Libanius," I admitted sheepishly, indicating the volume. He came over, slid the book out from where it had been sandwiched between two volumes twice its size--which was why I hadn't been able to grab the edge of it to pull it down--and handed it to me. I made a little sound of glee as I actually got the book in my hands. "You better be worth it," I told it sternly. "All the trouble you put me through, you stupid thing--"

My rescuer raised an eyebrow. "Do you talk to books often?" he asked mildly, as if bemused.

I grinned at him. "Only when they give me grief." I flipped open the book, just to check and make sure I had the right edition. Never trust the computer catalogue, that was my motto. Had been since about the second time I'd walked into a University of Toronto library. When you got different search results depending on where you logged in from, you learned pretty quickly that the best way was still the old-fashioned way. "I've been chasing after this all day. First the computer gave me the wrong call number, then it gave me the wrong LIBRARY. Now I get here and spend half an hour trying to get the damned thing off the shelf." I realized that I was rambling, and that I hadn't thanked him yet. Manners, McKenzie. Mom'd be going medieval on your butt at the moment, girl. "Thanks a lot, by the way," I said sincerely. "I appreciate it."

"Not a problem," he said calmly. "Glad I could help." I craned my neck to get a better look at him. He was wearing sunglasses. Inside. That was interesting. I filed it away with all of the other little oddities. He certainly didn't look like your average medievalist. "I'm not," he said suddenly, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

"Not w-what?" I asked a little nervously.

"From around here, obviously." His smile reappeared, grew a little. It was a really nice smile, actually. A little sardonic, but sincere. "You had this expression that suggested you were trying to categorize me and not having much luck."

"I'm sorry," I said meekly. "I hope I didn't offend--"

"Believe me, if you had, I would have told you," he said, his expression turning decidedly ironic for a minute. Before I could say anything, he changed the subject. "So--if you don't mind me asking, what are you studying? Looks a little--obscure." He raised an eyebrow, glancing around the library. "Not that the entire contents of this place wouldn't class as obscure by most people's definition."

"You don't know the half of it--and yeah, my research is about as obscure as it gets," I said with a sigh. "I'm researching the decurionate in the late Roman Empire--um, this class of landowners that was responsible for collecting taxes." He nodded, not giving me that uncomprehending look I usually got, and I continued, encouraged. "The topic hasn't been touched substantially since the twenties. So there's LOTS of room for a new interpretation, like my prof keeps telling me, but I still feel like I'm flying by the seat of my pants." I closed the Orations and sighed. "I've got the big sources, the law codes--but there's nothing in them about how these decurions really worked. So I'm chasing down bits and pieces here and there--Libanius and Salvian and this one-line reference from a Merovingian saint's life that could really mean ANYTHING--" I winced, reminding myself that 'The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire' was on a nearby shelf just waiting for me, too. "And I need to try and figure out where the Praetorian Prefects mentioned in the codes were stationed, so I can see if the problems with the decurions were Empire-wide or not--"

"In other words, you're looking for patterns," he said, cutting me off before I could go any further.

I blinked. "Yeah, that's pretty much it." Nice, incisive summary, I reflected. The sort of thing I wished I could manage on some of my papers.

He chuckled softly. "I'm sure you'll find them," he said easily. It didn't sound like a platitude coming from him, which was a nice change. I got patted on the head and told not to fret far too often as it was. I suppose it was my fault for acting like a kicked puppy whenever a research angle didn't pan out. "From the way you're slinging around names, I'd say you seem to have a pretty good grounding in the subject."

"I like to think I do," I muttered. "But it just won't seem to come together." I sounded petulant, I knew it, but I'd been at this for eight months now, and it was getting frustrating.

"Maybe you're trying too hard," he suggested. "Take a step back from it, let it come on its own."

"See, I know that, and that's the problem," I said seriously. "My mind's not ready to make the Leap yet. All I can do is keep reading until it does."

"The Leap?" He sounded honestly curious.

"I don't know how else to explain it." Even thinking about it, I felt a twinge of the old excitement. "It's as if I hit this--point where everything spontaneously starts to make sense. All the patterns form in my head, all the puzzle pieces fall into place--" I trailed off, feeling suddenly dismal. No Leaps this year, not even one. Everything had been a struggle, every paper and assignment a battle to pull together. It had been so long since I'd been happy with ANY of my work--I gave an embarassed little laugh. "I must sound pretty silly."

He shook his head. "You sound like a scholar," he said, his voice oddly wistful all of a sudden. "Must be nice. Tell me, do you get these moments of revelation often?"

"Not as often as I used to," I said, trying very hard to keep that depressed edge out of my voice. "Everything's so much more--intense, this year. I just started my Ph.D, and I keep feeling like I'm in over my head." I shrugged as he tilted his head, regarding me more closely. "I sometimes wonder if I'm really cut out for this. Actually, scratch that--I wonder it a lot, lately."

He smiled faintly. "Doubt's part of life," he pointed out. "Somehow, I don't really get the sense that you expect it to be easy, do you?"

"No," I admitted grudgingly. "It wouldn't be worth having if it was EASY." He raised an eyebrow, and I snorted. "I'm really not as masochistic as I sound--"

"What's worth having is worth fighting for?" He didn't give me a chance to answer. "Tell me," he said thoughtfully. "Are these 'Leaps' of yours the only thing you enjoy about what you're doing?"

Heh. I hadn't asked myself that question in a LONG time. I'd been too busy DOING what I was doing--the pace of the program here didn't allow you much time for navel-gazing. "No," I said forthrightly. "What I really love is reading between the lines."

Oddly enough, he looked puzzled. "I'm familiar with the expression, but I suspect you mean something a little more than the standard definition."

"Um--yeah," I said, blushing. "Just trying to be succinct." I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to pull what I was going to say together, so I didn't ramble like usual. "Reading between the lines--finding the little flashes of humanity," I said slowly, lines of text floating by on the insides of my eyelids, my mind reviewing the passages that had burned themselves into my memory over the years. "The mother writing about burying six of her children in one grave during the Black Death, or the Emperor's sister tickling his feet to wake him up when the Nicaeans retook Constantinople in 1261. Those sorts of things. The things that remind me that I'm studying people--real people--not just names in a history book."

I opened my eyes, feeling heat rising in my cheeks again. What was I doing? Spilling my guts to someone I didn't know--what was next?

But he was smiling again. I wished he'd take his sunglasses off so I could see his eyes. Something told me they'd be very interesting eyes, indeed. "Staring across the gulf of time and seeing a human face looking back at you," he murmured, his voice curiously distant. "Spanning the distance--making that connection."

"Yeah," I said, surprised that he understood. Everyone always told me I was romanticizing, whenever I talked about stuff like this. "Exactly."

"Oh, I understand," he said. "Better than you'd think, probably." He looked around, almost as if buying himself a moment to think of a change of subject. "Like I said," he continued smoothly. "I'm--visiting, and I'm not familiar with the library. Maybe you could help me. I'm looking for a certain, very old book on early medieval Egypt. It's got some information I need, and apparently this is the only place in North America that has a copy."

"Oh, I know the Egyptian section!" I said eagerly, glad that there was some way to help him in return. "I've done some work on Egypt this year--want me to show you?"

"I'd appreciate it," he said, with a rueful smile. "The call numbers are confusing, to say the least."

"Tell me about it--I've been here for two years now, and I STILL get lost in the BQV section!" I chuckled as I led him towards the right shelves. "It's because of the folio section. It's split off from the rest of the library--messes up the whole layout, really."

He grunted thoughtfully. "You study Egypt too?" he asked me as we wove through the maze of carrels.

"I dabble," I said with a sigh. "That's the problem when you don't have your thesis topic pinned down yet."

"Nothing wrong with being a generalist," he said. "You could always think of yourself as a Renaissance woman."

"Renaissance? Ick, no," I joked. "Anything after 1500 is boring."

For some reason, he seemed to find that hugely amusing. "Eclectic, then?" he finally said, in a voice full of suppressed laughter.

"That sounds good. Eclectic. I think I like that."

"Eclectic it is, then." He reached out to steady me as I nearly tripped over one of the little black stools that had been so conspicuous by their absence earlier. "Careful, there. Don't want to fall."

"Oh, I'm always having accidents," I admitted sheepishly. "Dyed-in-the-wool klutz, and I'm getting worse as I get older. My mom calls me the Absent-Minded-Professor-In-Training. But I suppose falling over your feet every so often's the price you pay for having your mind in another century all the time."

This time, the smile was a grin. "I can relate to that."


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