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A Lesson in Talking to Strangers

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“This is… the science hall?”

The building in front of Jude is huge and relatively new-looking, compared to some of the campus’s other structures. The windows reflect the glare of the setting sun, but as far as Jude can tell, most of the blinds on the other sides are closed. There’s hardly a student in sight at this hour; Jude stands alone.

Despite the university being hardly more than a few blocks away from his high school, he’s almost never been here. Maybe a few times for interesting lectures or workshops, or to visit the campus library for a text his own school didn’t have – but those are different buildings. He’s never been inside this one.

Which is why he has no idea where to start looking for Professor Haus.

Jude’s mentor was supposed to be giving a demonstration today, borrowing the university’s facilities because the high school doesn’t have quite the right equipment, so of course today is the day Jude realized he needs Haus’s signature on these documents as soon as possible. He can’t submit his thesis proposal without his advisor’s approval, and it’s supposed to be in by tomorrow morning.

So it would really help if he could find Haus tonight… but now that he’s here, staring down the main doors, he’s not sure this was a good idea. Is anyone even here anymore? He’d thought Haus might still be cleaning up, or talking to the students who always hang around to ask questions after these kinds of events, but maybe Jude overestimated how long the demonstration would take. Or maybe he’s just running late, as usual.

He sighs as he approaches the double doors in the entryway. Even if the place seems deserted, he ought to at least have a look around, since he came all this way. But when he pulls on the door, it resists. He tries again, and the interior lock thuds against the door frame.

Locked, at this hour? It seems odd for it to be closed so early… But then again, this is a university. Maybe it’s not like his own school. Maybe there’s restricted access to all the buildings after class hours?

If that’s the case, maybe all he needs is a student or staff member to let him in. He takes off along the edge of the building, idly flapping the papers in his hand and glancing in through the few uncovered windows. All the classroom lights seem to be off.

About ready to give up hope, he rounds a corner and nearly jumps when he sees another moving body. It’s a person, crouched on the concrete outside a side door, peering at the lock.

For a long moment, Jude can only stare. He supposes she must be a student here; she looks about that age, and she’s wearing the uniform… he thinks? He can’t be entirely sure, since her socks don’t look like they belong, her skirt can’t possibly be within regulation, and… is that a spiked collar around her neck??

It seems she still hasn’t noticed him, and he considers turning around and walking away while that’s still the case, but something propels him onward. As he gets closer, he can see that she’s jiggling something around in her hands, and – oh, god, she’s trying to pick the lock, isn’t she?

But it’s too late to back out now. Her head snaps up at the sound of his last step, and both of them freeze.

“Um. Hi?”

Jude’s voice resounds across the stretch of pavement between them. The woman places a finger against her lips.

“Sorry to, uh… interrupt,” he tries, a little more quietly. Is this really okay? Maybe he should just go…

“What are you doing here?” the girl asks, and Jude blinks several times before answering. What is he doing here?

He holds out the papers in his hand. “I’m looking for a professor who was working here today… I need him to sign these forms. I, uh, don’t suppose you’ve seen him? Gray hair, glasses…?”

The woman shakes her head and, amazingly, goes right back to messing with the lock. Feeling a little braver now that she’s not staring him down – and with little idea of what else to do – Jude asks, “What are you doing here?”

“Is that not obvious?” She doesn’t look up. “You should go, before anyone sees you. They might think you’re with me.“

That sounds like a solid plan. But still, something tugs at the corners of Jude’s mind. He’s just about to keep talking when something clicks and the woman’s expression lights up. When she stands and pulls on the door, it opens easily. Without another glance at him, she steps inside, and Jude hurries to catch the door before it shuts.

At least the lights are still on in the hallway. The woman turns around. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“W-Well, I’m just going to have a look around,” Jude says. “To see if the professor is still here. If not, I’ll leave. No harm no foul, right?”

She looks at him for a moment more before turning her gaze down the hallway. He could just leave it at that… but of course he always has to open his big mouth.

“Why? Are you up to no good?”

The look she gives him makes him step back a pace. Dressed in that outfit, and picking a lock to sneak into a closed building… maybe this isn’t really the kind of person he should be tagging along with?

But she remains impassive. “I’m here to finish my business and then leave, just like you.”

She walks away then, her boots clicking against the tile floor, and for some reason Jude scrambles after her.

“Wait! Are you, uh, a student here?”

“Yes,” she answers without turning around.

“Then you know your way around, right?”

The girl stops, frowning and looking at the nameplates on the nearby doors.

“No, not particularly. I’ve only been here a few times, myself.”

Jude approaches her with cautious steps. “Well, then you still know more than me. Do you mind if I… stick with you for a while? My advisor is a health sciences teacher, so if there’s any sort of medical wing…”

The woman only shrugs and continues onward.

It doesn’t take long before Jude starts to find the atmosphere eerie. There’s no sound but for the echo of their footsteps in the empty corridor and the soft buzzing of the lights above them. Occasionally they pass by a window, and rays of orange sunlight streak the tile floor, but the walls are largely lined with doors – classrooms interspersed with offices, storage rooms, and labs, probably.

Yet none of those doors are open, and all the interior windows show nothing but pulled shades or darkness. All the way down the hall and around a corner, and there’s no sign of anyone else in the building.

Jude scans the labels as they go – room numbers on classrooms and closets, occasionally the name of a professor he doesn’t recognize. Nothing points him any closer to Professor Haus, and he’s thinking so intently about what to do next that he almost doesn’t realize when the woman stops.

Stepping back a hair’s breadth before he runs into her, Jude directs his gaze to the door she’s looking at. It bears another name he’s never seen, but one that evidently she has, because she immediately tries the handle.

He’s not sure what she does this time - he doesn’t get a good look at what she jams into the keyhole, whether it’s a key or another pick. Either way, within moments the door swings open, inviting them inside.

The only light in the new room is the faint glow around the shutters over the window and the bright rectangle of light shining in through the door. Without bothering to look for a light switch, the woman crosses the room to the desk in the far corner and begins to sift through everything on top of it.

Jude leans through the doorway, keeping his feet firmly planted on the tiled floor of the hallway, and looks around. Judging by the rows of tables, this is a classroom rather than an office - one wide enough that the next door down the hall is probably connected to it, too. Shelves and counters around the walls are covered in an array of objects, difficult to make out in the dark.

Wood scrapes against wood as the girl pulls open one of the drawers on the inside of the desk.

“What are you doing?” Jude whispers, taking a hesitant step into the room. He’s almost not sure if she can hear him; another drawer rattles as she pulls it open and rummages through the contents.

Eventually she says, “Taking back something the staff was never meant to have.”

Jude’s brow furrows, but despite his concerns, curiosity drives him forward.

“What exactly is it?” he asks, stopping by the desk. When the girl shoots him a sharp glance, he adds, “I mean, I could help you look. If it’s… something that belongs to you anyway?” One finger scratches at his cheek. “You’re being really vague, so…”

“You shouldn’t get involved,” she says. “Just find your professor and go home.”

Jude glances at the light coming in from the hallway. “I don’t think he’s here anymore.”

“Then you can skip straight to going home.”

Still, Jude frowns. His desire to help her wars with his desire to do the right thing - report her, probably, though he’s already sure he won’t go that far. She’s right that the best thing for him to do would be to leave, but something makes him stay beside her, watching her hands rove through another drawer.

He’s almost compelled to open the last drawer himself to help out, but that’s when the security guard comes in.

The sound of the door opening is the loudest thing Jude has heard in a long time, and immediately makes him jump. He whips around to see the officer standing in the doorway, backlit by the light in the hallway, but illuminated just enough for Jude to see that he looks as startled as they are.

“Hey, what are–” he starts, but at the same time the woman curses under her breath and barks, “Run!” Not a moment later she’s taken off toward the other door without a second glance.

Either it was left unlocked, or the doors don’t lock from the inside, or she has even more of a knack for breaking and exiting than entering – in any case, she barely pauses before barreling through the doorway. The security guard is obviously conflicted, taking a step back into the hallway to shout something, then immediately turning back to Jude.

Jude still hesitates. Surely he can explain? Surely if he tells the guard he had nothing to do with this, that he just happened upon the scene – but that’s a lie, he willingly came with her, he’s complicit at the least. He doesn’t even go to this school, but that might just be justification for them to turn him over to the police instead, and if his parents find out he’ll be grounded for the rest of his life, and –

Before he knows what he’s doing, his feet are pounding along after the other student. He has no idea where he’s going, but he’s not so far behind that he can’t trace her path, and he catches up to her in the courtyard outside. By the time the guard crashes through the hallway doors they’ve already escaped through a side gate.

Fearful that he might have seen them turn that last corner, they don’t stop there, and keep running down the alley and onto the sidewalk. Jude thinks they must be at least a block or two away by the time they slow down.

Both of them lean against the wall, gasping for breath. There are people staring, but Jude is too exhausted to care. None of them have campus security badges; that’s all that matters to him right now.

The streetlights are coming on overhead by the time Jude stops panting. His heart is still pounding, and it’s only when he thinks to wipe his sweaty palms off that he realizes one of them is still clutching his thesis forms. They’re crinkled up where his fist was clenching the edges too tight.

“…I never did find Professor Haus,” he says.

“As you said, I imagine he wasn’t there.” The girl already looks more composed than Jude feels. “The building seemed pretty well deserted.”

“I guess…” Jude says, but can’t suppress a sigh. Now he’s going to have to get up early and go look for him tomorrow morning… and maybe get a new copy of these forms, so he doesn’t have to turn in anything that looks like he just picked it up off the ground.

“Hey.” The student’s voice gets his attention. She’s looking down the street at nothing in particular. “Do you know how to get to the station from here?”

Jude follows her gaze, then finds the closest street sign. “Yeah. Do you… not? We’re only a few blocks from the school.”

“Yes, but it’s on the other side of campus, and…” She crosses her arms, looking rather more troubled than the situation deserves, Jude thinks.

“What,” he says, a hint of laughter edging his voice, “you only know the route directly from the station to the school and nothing else?“

To his dismay, the woman nods. “Exactly.” She seems pleased that he understands her predicament, but while her smile grows, his fades.

“…Seriously? You never… Well, whatever. I, uh, I can take you there if you want. It’s not far. Though you’re right, it’s in the other direction, so we’ll have to skirt around campus a bit…”

“I would appreciate that.”

Jude picks a street and starts walking, the woman following at his side. His legs are still a little shaky, but he seems to have caught his breath now, and when he casts a glance at his tagalong he notices that she doesn’t look rattled at all.

“So, uh,” he starts as they turn the next corner. “What was this thing you were after, anyway? You’re not going to get in trouble, are you…?”

Just the thought makes his chest tighten. He’s fairly certain the security officer couldn’t have gotten that good of a look at him, at least, so even if it’s important enough to be pursued he’ll probably be safe. Probably. Plenty of dark-haired boys in high school uniforms in Fennmont.

But this woman is… well, a bit more distinctive, and she’s a student at the university, so she’ll probably be a lot easier to identify than him.

She only shrugs. “I ended up not finding it. I’ll just have to try again later.”

Jude nearly stops in his tracks. That close to being caught, and she wants to go back for more? Now he’s more curious than ever to know what she’s attempting to do, but, figuring that if she hasn’t explained by now she isn’t going to, he lets the matter drop.

Their footsteps against the pavement and the moderate traffic on the street next to them are the only sound that accompanies them for the next block. With the sun setting, most of the day’s foot traffic has died down, and they have long stretches of the sidewalk to themselves. Jude shifts his hand against his papers and glances at the woman again.

“I, um…” he starts, and then pushes forward before he can regret it. “Can I ask your name?”

“My name?”

The woman seems surprised at the question, but not displeased. Still, Jude hastily looks away, cheeks starting to burn. What does it matter, anyway? This was a chance encounter, and now it’s almost over. After ten minutes he’ll probably never see her again.

He’s about to tell her to forget it, when her voice startles him into looking up.

“Milla,” she says, “Milla Maxwell.”

She smiles at him then, and he can’t help but notice that she’s actually… really gorgeous.

“Oh, uh, I’m Jude. Mathis.”

He stops to hold out his hand; Milla pauses for a minute, looking at it blankly, before she shakes it. For some reason her confusion almost makes Jude laugh.

What a strange person. Suddenly Jude thinks that he wouldn’t mind getting to know a little more about her. He’s hardly a thrill-seeker, but this is more excitement than he’s had in ages - maybe even enough to make the fear and frustration of the last hour worth it.

At the least, he doesn’t think he’s ever going to forget this day.