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Dear Alma Mater

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Nobody expected Tobias to be anything. No one really thought about him at all, beyond passing glances and various ‘oh, he’s in your lab group?’s. No one expected he’d rise to the challenge of being a full-blown professor. Especially not at a university like this.

The Guardian Sea University was not one to be overlooked or under-appreciated, not that anyone would think of doing such a thing upon even just seeing pictures. The university lies just shy of a cliff face overlooking a vast and bright blue sea where the sun rose every morning over its cold reflection below. The once spiny rocks at the bottom of the cliff have long been leveled out by the salt water’s constant ebb and flow, leaving an absolutely perfect place for any wandering student with a beach towel and a need for a getaway. Though because of the university’s northern location, the sea is always a bit chilly no matter the weather, and there are never any palm trees to be found. The lecture halls, lab buildings, and dormitories are entrenched in a voluptuous pine tree forest, their evergreen shade always giving the campus a gold-speckled image. A perfect postcard college.

It’s been years since Tobias dropped out of school and pursued a much more affordable online education where he could go at his own pace. Did it take him until his forties to actually find a serious job due to his record? Sure. Did he have to practically beg on his hands and knees for even a chance at being considered? Yeah. Was he going to have to live with that shame for the rest of his natural born life?

What are you, a cop?

Lucky for him, a history professor had set up his retirement last-minute over the summer break, and so there were several core classes left open to those who could apply. The news came to Tobias just as he ran out of hope, like a beacon in the dark. It wasn’t a great job, but a pretty significant start to what he hoped would be a promising career. It was enough for a rinky-dink little apartment just a couple miles away from campus, in a cozy little forest clearing closer to the main highway. It was all a man accused of several accounts of petty theft (never charged, of course) could ask for in a fresh start.

He has to practically swim through the throng of students looking for their classes; freshmen hunched over printouts with pens making notes of directions, sophomores going based off of instinct and vague memory alone, and the upperclassmen standing in circles and chuckling to themselves about the harried freshmen. Their apprehension fills the courtyard with a contagious, buzzing energy. It’s palpable enough that Tobias can almost taste it as he takes in a deep breath of the crisp late summer air. Folder of papers carefully protected under his arm, he makes his way confidently from building to building, checking each name as he passes by. The College of Arts, the Media Center, Van Heimerdinger Hall… Each name gets more complicated from the last.

But none of them were what he was looking for. He was sure that the Center of Science building was on this side of the campus, since this is where the cliff faced the ocean. He’d gotten word specifically from the Dean of the science college that it was to the west part of the campus.

He almost misses it with how distracted he’d gotten by the College of Art’s looming sculptures. He stops, forcing a grumbling freshman to stomp around him. The College of Science was a petite, but elegant building — each of its walls was a fair off-white, with gleaming blue windows and a peculiar white dome top. Must be an observatory. No matter, Tobias would never have to step foot in there. The spring returned to his step, he opens the narrow double doors and enters the grand hall of science.

He realized quickly that this was not where history classes were meant to be held. Even before classes officially began, there were already projects hung up on cork boards and awards shaped like polygons in plexiglass showcases. Tobias could feel hives breaking out across his skin — of course this was where all the math happened. The one drawback to the building that faced the beautiful seaside part of campus. Memories of dozing off in algebra and using plastic protractors to pick at cuticles float through his brain, as if to haunt him in his adult life. Only nerds won trophies for math, he thinks. Whoever won these must be a total nerd. He approaches the glass showcase in hopes the name engraved on these would prove his point.

Heimerdinger, Burke, some Russian name he couldn’t even begin to pronounce… and Graves.

Funny. That one sounded familiar. But no matter, he’d proven his point. Math geeks, all of them.

History students were not nerds, he’d decided a while back. Nerd -y, perhaps, but not nerds. History students learned history at a college level to learn about the past and about what made the world how it is today. A lot of them were actually pretty normal people, if not insatiably curious. Not like math freaks. Perish the thought, someone who liked history enough to enter tournaments based entirely on historical knowledge like a math person would … Yikes.

Finally leaving the trophies be, Tobias turns a corner down a narrow hallway that he figures is big enough to hold the building’s lecture hall. He locates his keys from his pocket and slides one of three into the knob on the door. The door opens smoothly, and interjects Tobias smack-dab in the middle of an argument.

“--d’you mean, ain’t my classroom right now?”

“I mean, from nine to ten-thirty there’s a different class in here.”

Tobias halts in the doorway as a stocky gentleman and a tough-looking woman stand nearly toe to toe at the front of the lecture hall. Neither of them notice as he creeps in and makes his way down the aisle.

“I was told that this’d be my room again this semester. Where the hell is my class?” the man growls, hooking his hand into his belt and rolling his shoulders back. His hair is short but not carefully manicured, with his rugged sideburns coming into a thick mustache. His bushy eyebrows pull his face into an impressive, wrinkled glower. He reminds Tobias of an old, grumpy bulldog, with the underbite and all.

The woman didn’t have to do half as much to seem twice as intimidating. She simply narrows her eyes — carefully made up, it seems, with a subtle shadow and eyeliner — and taps her fingers on her crossed arms. She’s far taller than the man is, with fiery red hair pulled into a loose but practical braid.

“Check the system. Or, better yet,” she says, and points a finger into the man’s chest. Her nails are painted red. Tobias assumes it’s the blood of her enemies. “Maybe check your emails for once, hm? Seems like it’d be a good use of your time.”

“You wouldn’t know a good use of your time if it bit you on your—”

Tobias clears his throat. They both turn to him, one like an angry dog chasing his tail, and the other very sternly. He can feel the fire and the ice in the man and woman’s respective stare.

He smiles and waves.

“Mornin’, folks. Hope I’m not interruptin’ your, ah… Discussion.” he says.

“Who are you.” the woman snaps. “Why are you in here.”

“Professor Foxtrot.” Tobias says cooly. He puts his key back into his pocket and keeps his hand there nonchalantly. “I’m teaching History 103 this semester. At around-” he checks his wristwatch, noticing how his words and actions seemed to rile the man up more. “-oh, twenty minutes from now.”

The woman relaxes a little. She lets out a soft sigh and nods.

You’re in the right place.” she says. She extends her hands. Her fingers are almost as long as Tobias’. “Dr. Fortune.”

“Ah, the Dean.” Tobias offers. He meets her hand with a firm shake. She squeezes hard and Tobias barely bites back a grimace. “Pleasure to meet you.”

The woman smiles, but it lacks true warmth. Of course Tobias had done his homework — Dr. Fortune was the Dean of Criminology and ran a tight ship. He’d been told to keep an eye out for her in the very few emails he’d shared with his other coworkers.  

He turns to the man. Seems like he didn’t get the memo. He looks different, though. His rage has turned quiet, like he’s waiting.

Scary...

“This is Professor Graves.” Fortune says, nodding to her colleague.

Graves barely even grumbles in reply.

“Charming one, aren’t you?” Tobias prompts, flashing a smile. Graves does not return it.

“Could be, if you wanted.”

“I do want that.”

“Hm.” Graves does not break their maintained eye contact, but now it seems remarkably weaker, nearly sheepish. Tobias notes how his arms are now stiff at his sides, like he’s ready to throw something, whether it be a punch or a textbook. And yet, despite the underlying danger in the situation, Tobias cannot help his wandering eyes.

Professor Graves is not exactly a well-built man. His torso gets soft around his stomach, protruding a little over his belt. Maybe he used to have a more solid bulk that has loosened in his age? He couldn’t be much older than Tobias, though. The crow’s feet around his eyes are deep, but not cavernous. He has a thick, wide frame to support his girth, with square-set shoulders and almost comically short legs. His hands are broad and flat-palmed, calloused for whatever reason. Maybe writing? What did he teach? The callouses lay on the outside of his forefinger. Did he play an instrument? He looked like a guitar kind of guy, if only from how easy it is to imagine him with a piece of wheat in his teeth and a cowboy hat over his eyes. His wrists are sturdy, covered in a layer of dark hair that curls all the way up his arms until his skin disappears under his rolled-up sleeves. And it might be the way the fabric folds, but his arms are huge. Like, pure, grass-fed beef. One-way tickets to the guns show.

Tobias could use a friend like that.

He keeps his smile up as Graves notices his stare and takes a small pace back. He briefly loses his balance and stumbles. Tobias lets out a short, quiet laugh. Graves’ ears immediately begin to burn, and he angrily starts to gather up his things into a large leather shoulder bag. He snatches a long, thin case (glasses, Tobias figures from the brief glance he got) off the desk at the front and shoves it into his bag. For a moment, it looks like he’s about to bolt, but he just stands there and stares back at Tobias.

A huff from Dr. Fortune makes both men jump. She begins to head back up the stairs, the carpeting doing surprisingly little to hide the stomp in her walk.

“I suggest you start finding that classroom of yours, Malcolm.” Fortune says. “Wouldn’t want to miss your first class.”

She gives Tobias a wave that he returns, gives Graves another cold look that he returns, and leaves.

Tobias continues to grin at Graves, who looks like he wishes he were dead.

“I look forward to workin’ with you.” he says, absolutely meaning it.  

Graves snorts, shouldering his bag and pushing past Tobias. He supposes he’ll just have to take that as a ‘same to you’.