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Of Beauty and Terror

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A resonant toll emanating from the grand bell-tower resounds across the campus and sees the flight of crows past the ancient, brick-walled buildings of Cobalus University. Faded browns and rusted oranges color Sarah’s path as she makes her way to the science building. In her hands, she holds a leather-bound book whose edges are frayed and papers are yellowed from being handled and read so many times—she can easily recite any passage from it upon given the command, its familiarity inspiring in her an abstract sort of kinship rather than boredom.

Her lips form the shapes of words as she reads, but the only sound that can be heard is the crunch of fallen leaves under her shoes, soft yet inspiring, bringing forth images of her father’s apple pie and of evenings spent in a nook adorned with lanterns and books. The warmth of summer lingers, if not by its tangible heat, then by nostalgic impressions, yet the breeze that ruffles her hair promises of shortening days and cold, wintry nights.

Sarah much prefers it this way.

Nothing interesting dares to unfold in the light of day, she decides, and the hastened descent of darkness only would spur her imagination into wakefulness sooner than otherwise. She has always been a night owl, much to her stepmother’s dismay.

Lifting her eyes from her book, she heaves a sigh just before her sight registers a change in the monotony of autumnal colors to accommodate a sad shade of pink, darkened and decayed. She bends to pick up the lone flower, and though it speaks only of death, her lips rise in a smile anyway, secretive and faint. It now sits in her satchel, trapped by a metallic zipper and knitted fabric.

This break from the literary world retrieves her to reality, if belatedly, and she turns her head at once to look at the large clock whose face reads 8:25, and she draws in a breath.

“God, I’m gonna be late…” she mutters to herself, her hand absently depositing the small book into her bag. A leisurely pace could only take her so far, and thus she widens her steps before breaking into a light run, dark hair beating about in the wind.

In her haste, Sarah collides with a figure; a man, though she doesn’t truly spare a moment to examine him thoroughly, and only against the shoulder. It is enough for both of them to falter momentarily, but not lose footing.

“Sorry!” she says, resuming her jog and inclining her head in his direction to see that he has stopped dead in his tracks, a displeased frown marring an otherwise handsome face. He looks at her with a condescending, lofty gaze, but again she discards this to the back of her mind and focuses on arriving to her lecture on time.

Her pace slows as she ascends the few steps leading to the science building. The construction is a paradox of old and new, as if to pose as a physical timeline of humanity’s greatest inventions. Its walls are rich mahogany, decorated by portraits of prominent scientists and neat posters, extending throughout the hallways and differing in content as subdivisions of departments intersect. Upon entry, an intricate model of the solar system, enticed into characteristic rotation by the delicate differences in magnetic strengths at the cores of its sun and planets, is the first thing to be noted, hanging from the very center of the ceiling much like a chandelier—a telltale sign that one is in the physics department.

Sarah admires it only fleetingly, but aware of the scarcity of time, makes haste to climb the stairs to the department of chemistry, and then climbs yet another flight of stairs, stepping into the department of biological sciences.

A lovingly drawn portrait of Darwin adorns the far-left end of one wall. He stares solemnly and wisely into the spectator’s eyes, his theories laid in blatant explanation as drawings as well. She looks at the magnificent tree detailing a history of kinship and evolution, walking along to see Mendel with his peas; Miescher with his nuclein; Rosalind Franklin with her x-ray photograph of the double helix.

A sense of excitement and odd pride tug at her heart and she draws in a breath, the corners of her mouth stretching in a grin.

She reaches the subdivision of modern biological sciences and glances at her schedule to make sure she remembers the number of the lecture hall correctly.

“B322…” she mutters, scanning the plaques near the halls and quickly finding her designated one. She opens the door and is immediately met with loud chatter. Being a newly transferred students, all faces are alien to her, but clearly many of the students are already well-acquainted.

Finding a seat isn’t a straightforward undertaking, it appears, but amongst the dismissive faces she finds a welcoming one, belonging to a girl with chin-length blonde hair and a sympathetic smile. Sarah returns the smile and sits beside her, placing her satchel on the ground after retrieving a pen and a notebook.

“I’m Anne,” the girl says, extending a hand.

“Sarah,” she returns, shaking Anne’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Anne.”

“You too,” the blonde says, scanning her with an amused gaze. “Let me guess, a new student?”

Sarah’s lips rise in a sheepish smile. “Is it that obvious?”

“Mhm,” she voices with a single nod. “You seem excited. Veterans of this university gave up on excitement long ago.”

But a chance to reply is promptly stolen when the doors open again and send the hall into a deafening silence. The only sound that follows is the measured footfall of the intruder, and she recognizes him immediately.

“I bumped into him on my way here…” she mutters, more to herself than to anyone.

“You bumped into Professor Jareth?” exclaims Anne in a hushed tone, and a few students look at the two chatting girls warily. “Let’s pray he was in a good mood, or that’s a goodbye to your future career.”

A light frown settles on Sarah’s face but it is quickly cleared. “You’re probably exaggerating.”

One or two students take it upon themselves to issue a sharp “shh!” in their direction, just before the professor clears his throat. He has dispensed with his jacket and rolled the cuffs of his white shirt to his elbows. The way he holds himself speaks of confidence—neatly-stylized blonde hair, relaxed stance, straightened back, hands in pockets—and he scans the hall with a calculating gaze from behind horn-rimmed glasses, his eyes unmistakably intense even from a distance, but there is no telling what thoughts run through his mind. His face is blank and inscrutable.

Eventually, he speaks.

“I trust everyone here is aware that this is a course in synthetic biology. If you believe it to be anything otherwise, I suggest you leave before I proceed.” There is a bored quality to his voice, and he stops to wait for a reduction in numbers with a raised, expectant brow. The lecture hall remains static. “No one?” he says. “Well, I hope to remedy this by the end of this lecture.”

At that, Sarah quirks an eyebrow, but smoothes her expression before he catches it.

“I won’t be starting with the course material today, but rather I shall provide an introduction of sorts.” Professor Jareth begins to stroll, and the students hold their breath whenever he passes by them, exhaling at length when he gives them his back. “Every one of you has finished courses that aimed to supply you with the necessary knowledge to comprehend this one; and supposedly, the fact that you passed your examinations is a testament to a successful endeavor, no?”

A few grunt and murmur in agreement.

He stops in the middle of the hall and says, “Well then surely you can tell me what is meant by synthetic biology. Who would like to contribute with an opinion?”

Again, static silence.

Professor Jareth’s mouth twists in a lazy smirk. “I’m aware the question implied some form of democracy, but, and for future reference, it is entirely false. If no one participates by will, I shall force and likely embarrass you.”

Still no one raises their hand.

He cocks his head in a manner that says, As you wish, and singles out a very nervous young man. “What’s your name?” he demands.

“P-Paul, sir,” stammers the student, “Paul Blaylock.”

“Well, Mr. Blaylock? What is synthetic biology?”

“Um…” he starts, shifting in his seat and wetting his lips. “Well—it can be said… that it’s the… opposite of… natural biology?”

Indistinct laughter issues from here and there, and Sarah frowns.

The professor silences the noise with a single gesture, his eyes never leaving the now-sweating Paul. “In what way?” he says.

“In… w-well… um…”

Presently Professor Jareth grows bored with the stammering and looks away from Paul with such disinterest, such dismissiveness, that he might as well have expelled him from the course altogether.

A girl raises her hand, but Sarah can’t see her face from where she is sitting, and Professor Jareth gestures towards her in allowance to speak.

She clears her throat and starts in a clear voice, “Synthetic biology is a science that involves redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new properties.”

There is a clear sense of triumph in her intonation, but it takes the professor a moment to respond, and when he does, it is with boredom—though there is a mirthful quality to his voice, as if he can’t decide whether to roll his eyes at the answer or be amused that she thinks it to be impressive.

“Hm. Yes, that is how your book would define it. And ironically, repeating what already exists is the exact antithesis to what you just defined.”

Sighing, and uncaring of her affronted protests, he continues, “Take a look around you.” He spreads his arms to both sides, and the students heed his words. “Everyone you see is the product of mutations; infinitesimal changes that touched the simplest forms of organisms billions of years ago and led to the vast complexity that you see in yourself. It all seems so radical, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is when viewed so reductively and stated in a single sentence.” He passes each row as he ascends, still gauging his students with an analytical gaze. “The genetic difference between you and bacteria is immense, I’m sure you know. But what of the difference between you and your friend? Can you give me a number for the percentage difference in your DNA?”

He points at a succession of students, who answer with 25%, 15%, 20%…

He shakes his head and lets his arm drop. “0.1%. That is the difference between you and every human on this earth.” A murmur rises but dies quickly. “If such a relatively small number of mutations is what it takes to generate this massive diversity, can you imagine what could be achieved if we harnessed the power to induce mutations? Now we are getting closer to what synthetic biology really is.”

As he descends the steps, his eyes lock with Sarah’s, and there is an instant flash of recognition on his face, quite fast and transient, but she has a knack for noticing fine details. The thinning lips and hardened eyes tell her that she is indeed not in his favor, but, and perhaps against her better judgement, she holds his gaze, defiance belying inquisitiveness in her green eyes. He raises an eyebrow at this before looking away and widening his field of view to accommodate the majority of students.

“Close your eyes,” comes the odd command, but everyone does as instructed. “Imagine any entity you want, and think of a problem. Now imagine how this entity can be used to solve that problem.”

If Sarah opened her eyes, she would see furrowed brows that speak of confusion all around her, but that is far from her being her concern right now. Her mind brings forth an image of the flower in her satchel, but instead, it is alive and thriving in a lovely pot, perhaps sitting on the windowsill in her kitchen. She remembers the foul odor of gasoline that often disturbs her when she boils water for her herbal teas and imagines the plant breaking down the benzene in the air. Unwittingly, her visage relaxes in a pleased smile and she feels her nerves tingling.

But her instructor’s voice brings her back to reality. She opens her eyes, which are now glistening with excitement, to find him looking at her with his signature condescending look. She doesn’t let it bother her.

“I’m sure most of you only managed to draw two dots but couldn’t connect them. Or perhaps you did so with a fantastical line that has no business existing in reality. And this is exactly what makes this course challenging. Synthetic biology is not a rigid science, but it’s not a playground for imagination either. It is an intersection of logic and creativity. Fact and intuition. And if you find yourself lacking in any of those qualities then I encourage you entirely to leave this course from the very start.”

Anne mouths a ‘wow’ and rolls her eyes, but Sarah is admittedly too riveted to notice.

Professor Jareth smiles, but in a way that makes him seem caustic and unfeeling. She wonders how he manages such a cold presence. His aura has to be the most imposing yet the most chilling she has ever encountered. But more than anything, this only manages to stir a curiosity in her.

She scans him and decides that she has no idea how to feel about him.

“It is evident I expect a lot from you,” he says. “And I’m not kind to those who disappoint me. Throughout the course, you will be subjected to a rigorous selection process that guarantees that only the best get to remain. Survival of the fittest, you may wish to call it,” he finishes with a drawl, smirking to himself, before looking at them again.

“You see, those who master the art of mutation, master the art of creation. And not everyone is worthy of a skill that could very well be used to take control of the world. Or wouldn’t you agree?”

Anne’s eyebrows rise to the top of her forehead, and Sarah leans closer, much like she does when she locates a particularly taxing puzzle.

The professor strides to the board and takes a chalk into his hand. Every written letter is like a strike, forming his name.

As soon as he finishes, he spins on his heel to face them. “To those who wish to stay, my name is Professor Jareth G. King. Welcome to principles of synthetic biology.”

He grabs his jacket and his briefcase and promptly exits. At once, the hall erupts in loud chatter.

“What a nut job!” exclaims Anne, throwing her head back and stretching her arms above her head. “Didn’t even give us the syllabus!” She cracks her knuckles. “Or discuss the lab arrangements! Or even talk about grade distributions!”

Sarah hums, too distracted and confused to contribute with a substantial opinion.

Anne eventually slumps against her seat. “You’re right, at least he’s hot. Hey, what do you have now?”

“A break, then I have biochemistry.” She offers her schedule to her new friend, who scrunches her face and returns it to her after inspection.

“Guess we only have this lecture in common for today. See you in the dorms, then?”

The dark haired girl nods. “Sure. Maybe you can give me a campus tour sometime? I still haven’t figured out all the places.”

Anne laughs. “Oh, that’ll take you the better half of the semester. But yeah sure, I’ll give you a tour. I’ll even show you my favorite hangout spots and take you to parties—best way to get acquainted with just about everyone here.”

But Sarah considers with a hum and says, “Can you promise me that there’ll be no frat boys who grope around and try to sneak drugs into my drink?”

“Mm nope, can’t promise that,” says Anne, rocking back and forth with her arms interlaced behind her back, “but I can promise that I’ll break the hand of any frat boy who dares to try.”

“Deal, then,” grins Sarah.

A group of girls approach Anne and inquire whether she is ready to leave, and so she and Sarah wave at each other with a simple “see you later.”

The hall begins to clear when she decides that she should go too, but as she passes by the teacher’s desk, she notices an envelope, still sealed, lying on the surface. Professor Jareth must have forgotten it here.

A pang of nervousness strikes her as she realizes she will have to go to his office and return it, and she briefly considers leaving it here, but eventually decides against it.

Maybe she can use this as an opportunity to remedy their bad start?

Encouraged by the thought, she takes the envelope into her grasp, and proceeds.

 

Chapter Text

Professors’ offices are located on the last floor of the science building, at just a high enough altitude to offer a vantage point of the northern side of the campus from a terrace at the very end of the hallway, near the staircase from which Sarah came. Its glass doors, clothed by sheer curtains, are purposely left ajar to allow a gentle breeze to drift inside. Sunlight streams in and fades out as the curtains dance to the cadence of the wind, throwing patterned shadows onto the floor.

For a while, Sarah appraises the long hallway in its mahogany-walled, golden-framed splendor and doesn’t move. Her hands are inexplicably clammy, and she clenches them around the strap of her satchel upon noticing their tremor.

“Come on, Sarah, he may be a pretentious professor who gets off on mocking and humiliating students, but really he’s just a man in the end…” she mumbles to herself.

And perhaps his caustic mannerism can be attributed to a persona that is meant solely for lecture halls and classrooms—the no-nonsense teacher whose presence must be respected and his word obeyed. After all, who would enjoy the friendless life promised to those who are incapable of exercising civility? Not many, if anyone at all.

Soothed by her reasoning, she moves onward and distracts herself from her frantic heartbeat with the portraits and achievement boards hung on the walls—testaments to the esteemed professors of the science faculty.

She peers into the few opened doors and sees indications of all kinds of personalities. Some offices are light-hearted with subtle decorations and personal memorabilia, and some are grim and foreboding; all dark timber and towering bookshelves. She hears light chatter and laughter from one direction, and incessant typing on keyboards from another.

Her eyes pass over the names on golden plaques before at last finding the one she intends. Prof. Jareth G. King. The door is closed, and she gently presses her ear against it, but there is not a sound. Sarah heaves a sigh, tracing the envelope in her bag with shaking fingers. Her fist rises so as to knock, but stops short of doing so at the last moment.

Perhaps this is a bad idea after all. Perhaps in a few minutes’ time, she will be regretting her decision to come here. It’s not too late to turn back now; she can simply place the envelope back where she found it and pretend that she never saw it to begin with. Maybe if she is lucky, the semester would elapse with hardly any collisions with that unpleasant professor and she can move on to other courses.

But another voice in her head loudly protests the idea and scorns her cowardice. Does she truly want to be just another face in a sea of faces? What of acknowledgment; the prideful feeling of knowing that she is capable of making even the most cynical of them impressed? Maybe he would grow to respect her, and her schedule would have to accommodate daily debates and interesting discussions about the wildest ideas her mind can conjure up. She is almost made giddy at the thought.

It is also very likely that she is an incorrigible dreamer with ridiculously high hopes.

Oh, just knock already!

She closes her eyes, draws in a breath, and—

“How long do you plan on standing there, pray tell?” comes an unexpected, silken voice that is made taunting by an ironic lilt, and Sarah jumps in her spot with a sharp intake of breath. She turns around, only to find herself face to face with the very man she is seeking, appraising her from beneath his glasses with a tilted head and slightly raised brows. And an inopportune time though it may be, Sarah finds herself fixated on his eyes.

They have different colors…

“I’d like to enter my office, if you don’t mind.”

At that, her face flushes with embarrassment. “Oh! Yes—sorry…” Sarah shifts to the side, but Professor Jareth hardly waits for her to be completely out of the way before he unlocks his door. The intrusion upon her personal space causes her to tense and hold her breath, though he hardly seems to notice.

Too accustomed to making people feel uncomfortable, I bet…

And soon enough, his presence shifts away, and the air around her feels light again. The professor steps into his office and promptly sits behind his desk, depositing his brief case and retrieving his laptop. He hardly spares her another glance as he types on the keyboard, and, shifting awkwardly, Sarah wonders if he managed to forget about her presence so quickly.

Eventually, he speaks, although his eyes never look up from the screen. “I realize you quite favor that spot you’re standing in, but if you came here for the express reason of contemplating your life decisions there, I would appreciate it if you at least closed the door.”

And just like that, all notions of having pleasant conversations and interesting debates with him wither away.

“I actually came for you, professor,” she says tentatively, unsure of how to proceed.

“Yes, I figured.” With his glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, he looks up at her before adjusting them with a finger. “Well? Won’t you come in?”

And Sarah does indeed come in, but not without a measure of irked sensibility, though she masks it well enough. She sits on an admittedly comfortable leather armchair and faces him, and miraculously, he closes his laptop to direct his attention at her, a hand supporting his jaw in a manner that speaks of boredom. This falls in complete contradiction with the intensity his gaze exudes; a potent reminder of the shrewd mind behind it.

“With what can I help you, Miss…?”

“Williams,” she readily supplies. “Sarah Williams.”

“Miss Williams,” he nods at her to continue.

Sarah thinks for a moment, deciding on how to begin. At length, she says, “I wanted to properly apologize,” at his inquisitive look, she continues, “for bumping into you earlier this morning. I should’ve been more mindful of where I was going.”

“Ah,” he voices, leaning back against his chair with the impression of a smirk. “I admit I found it very rude that you continued to speed away even after hitting me. But now I find I must excuse you—it’s not manners that you’re in want of, it’s something else entirely.”

Somehow his pardon manages to sound more insulting than relieving, and after a confused, piqued pause, she says, “And what’s that?”

“A grasp on reality,” he says simply. “It’s very evident you live in a world of your own making. One that predisposes you to running into unwitting pedestrians and spacing out in front of doorframes.”

Her mouth opens and closes indignantly. “I wasn’t spacing out!”

“No? I had to expressly voice my desire to enter my own office, if I might remind you.”

“I was—” Sarah pauses briefly as she skims a vocabulary list of respectable actions in her mind, and eventually decides on, “thinking!”

Professor Jareth quirks a brow. “Thinking?”

How adamant is she on digging herself an early grave, she wonders.

“Yes—I noticed your eyes have different colors.” Very adamant, it seems. She notices how puzzlement and amusement mix in his visage, but having begun talking, she finishes her observation anyway, her voice falling faint at the last syllable, “I figured it must be heterochromia.”

“Already assigned me a genetic disease, I see.” The very eyes in question are glittering now, though the cause strays far from being impressed with her deductive prowess and borders more closely on that aggravating mocking quality she so wished to evade. “But I’m afraid you’re incorrect in your assumption.”

Sarah frowns. “I am?”

“You would have known this had you observed more closely.”

The insinuation is clear in his words, but rather than riling her up, it stirs within her a curiosity to comprehend exactly what he means. Unfortunately, close observation mandates that she nears him again, and a socially acceptable way to do so completely eludes her.

After he entertains her by holding her gaze for thirty long seconds, Sarah realizes that she has been unabashedly staring at her professor and looks away instantly.

“Given up?” he drawls teasingly.

But Sarah is adamant on preserving the last remnants of her pride, and so she assumes the calm demeanor that has shaped her general disposition for years now and says, “No. I just don’t think it’s right of me to continue to speculate about a condition of yours, professor.” But she is still so very curious… “It’d make more sense if you told me yourself.”

“It would indeed,” he concedes with a nod. “However, you don’t really need to know, do you?”

She scowls at him internally.

“No, I suppose not,” she responds with the same light tone he used.

“In any case,” his voice now is serious, and his visage clears itself from any residual humor. “This all brings to attention a matter that is very important to me. As you have probably gleaned from today’s lecture, I don’t believe that just anyone should be able to continue in the biotechnological specializations. Dare I say, those are the most important—and potentially most devastating—of sciences today. I’ve taken it upon myself to filter out the students according to a list of criteria that I’ve made. I won’t be sharing my selection process with you, of course, but it would suffice for you to know that I have very high standards regarding how a biotechnologist should be.”

He pauses so as to collect his thoughts, and Sarah can only wait in uncertain anticipation for him to continue.

Looking at her again earnestly, he says, “A biotechnologist must be astute. They must be hyper-vigilant to not only fluctuations in the scientific thought and experimentation, but also the societal mentality. This is directly related to being a visionary. You see, a socially-unaware person, even if a genius with a vision, is inevitably wasted if they share their thoughts prematurely or incorrectly, and this is especially correct when dealing with a science that bases itself on changing properties of living beings. It gets people scared, and rightfully so at times.”

Sarah listens diligently, but not without an inkling of foreboding, and says, “What’s your point, professor?”

“My point,” he says, “is that most people enter this department based on childish fancies and without having a concrete idea about what is required of them. I steer them in another direction if I see that they lack what it takes to be successful—save their time, really.”

The insinuation behind his words begins to crystallize clearly in her head, and when he gives her a rueful smile, the frown on her face deepens.

“I’m sure that a wild imagination and a detachment from reality will do you wonders in some other department, Miss Williams. But I’m not sure I can say the same about this one. Say, have you considered literature? Or the theatre?”

And that is all it takes for her to vanish any ounce of desire to give him a chance.

With just barely contained indignation, she says, “I assure you, professor, that I came into this department based on an informed decision. I know my strengths and my weaknesses, and I think I can much better decide how they will play a role in my progress. And I don’t think it’s fair at all that you just decided my merit based on a brief interaction. So I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m not changing my major.”

For all her angry wording and flashing green eyes, the smile never really leaves his face.

“I never told you to change your major.”

“You implied it. Very plainly, might I add.”

He shakes his head. “I offered you some perspective, that is all.”

“And how do you have a role in who gets to stay anyway? You’re not the dean.”

“I’m not,” he agrees. “But don’t forget that a successful completion of this course is mandated to graduate with a degree. I’m the only one who teaches it, and I certainly don’t let just anyone pass.” Smirking with a head tilt, he says, “This gives me indirect control in student selection. Students tend to give up after repeating the course four or five times.”

Her jaw slackens before she exclaims, “Four or five times! What about not wanting to waste their time?”

“Really, Miss Williams, two or three extra wasted years are nothing compared to a wasted life.”

“And this is a course taken by juniors—so combined with the years they spend repeating this course, those are five wasted years!”

“I repeat what I said a few moments ago.”

His icy calm is gasoline to her fiery disbelief, which she allows to slip only in the form of microexpressions.

“This is hardly fair at all,” she deadpans resolutely.

“I think you’ll find that you and I have very different views on what constitutes fair and unfair, Miss Williams.” Professor Jareth shrugs indifferently, his eyes never leaving hers. “But as it were, only my view will bear any effect. Perhaps you can change this if you become the university president and force me into an early retirement.”

Sarah releases an incredulous scoff and shakes her head.

He regards her disposition for a second. “Regretting your choice to come and apologize, I assume?”

She looks up at him again. “I didn’t come only for that. It was an afterthought, really.” She stands, opens her satchel to search it impatiently, and retrieves the envelope, which she places pointedly on his desk. “You forgot this. I guess it’s good I paid attention to my surroundings.”

Caught up in bitter irony, she only has a split moment to catch the change in his expression. The amusement disappears only to be replaced by something alert and grave once he recognizes the object before him. He snatches the envelope quickly and places it in a drawer, and she doesn’t wait for him to make any sort of remark before storming out of the office.

She is already moving down the hallway, preoccupied with thoughts of murder by proxy, when she hears him call, “The staircase is on the other way, Miss Williams!”

Cursing softly, she spins on her heel and resumes her stride, not sparing a single glance into his office. Though all the same, she sees his wicked grin clearly in her mind and she curses him again for good measures. Behind her, his door clicks softly as he closes it.

Her descent down a flight of stairs is a blur as she makes her way to the biochemistry lecture hall and sits in a nondescript location. It has always been difficult to stop her thinking process once it has begun—a quirk that now bears an especially embittered taste—and she finds herself replaying her exchange with Professor Jareth during the entirety of the lecture.

Now that she is free to dissect his every remark and comeback, she becomes even more appalled at the casual ruthlessness he displayed.

And to think he believes it’s justified!

His undermining her aptitude resonates with a distinct twist of her insides. A part of her naturally vies to be liked and respected by her professors—it gives her motivation to press forward and become even better; gives her hope for a future where she can actually contribute with something substantial. But to be disparaged so plainly by someone whom she begrudgingly admits to be very intelligent? It should crush her morale and enthusiasm entirely.

But it does anything but that.

Sarah feels an itching beneath her skin. A strong impulse to get up and head to the library at the soonest opportunity and devour books upon books and show him, oh I will show him!

She will become the best student he has ever had. She will make him swallow his words and apologize to her. And perhaps, she will even find a way to compromise his ludicrous regime and have it fall onto its face.

Just as soon as this lecture ends.

Sarah sighs impatiently and taps her foot. Hasn’t the professor been talking for three hours now? She looks at the clock. No, it has only been thirty minutes. Fifteen minutes, and she will be out.

The minutes crawl by and she attempts to take notes, but she finds that this professor’s teaching style is at odds with how she comprehends new information. There is hardly a logical sequence to his trail of thoughts, and listening to him only serves to make her frustrated.

A self-study course it is.

At least he doesn’t threaten to displace students from their departments.

And at long last, the lecture ends and she rises from her seat at once. Outside, the wind has been gradually picking up speed as the early hours of the day went by, and Sarah’s dark hair flows and tumbles around her as she strides, occasionally picking up stray leaves of orange and brown.

A cloud of warmth envelopes her when she enters the library, and she absently smoothes her hair with her fingers as she looks around her. The building is large—much larger than the one in her old university—and she can almost instantly swear that she will get lost navigating its many swerves and hallways.

Its architecture is gothic in design, and the warm lights of beautifully embroidered table lamps give a sense of cosiness that puts her at ease. Students are huddled together on divans with books in their laps, or seated in front of long tables having quiet discussions, the collective sound of their murmurs combining in a tranquil lullaby as she scans the aisles in search of books on synthetic biology.

After a silent effort, she finds her intended aisle and releases a breath in relief. Many titles catch her interest and render the process of choosing a starting material difficult. It also doesn’t help that Professor Jareth didn’t hand out the syllabus.

Unable to make a choice, she ends up balancing a precariously large pile of books in her arms with her chin resting on the one at the top. Her every step is now labored, and she prays she doesn’t drop her load on the way to her dorm.

“Need some help with that?”

Sarah whips her head in the direction of the unfamiliar voice and finds a young man, her age or a year older, leaning against a bookcase with folded arms and a boyish grin. His hair is dark and messy in a way that is fashionably favored nowadays, and his blue eyes are perpetually hooded, giving them a glazed-over, if not drunken, look. Handsome in his own way, but not her type.

“No thanks, I’ve got this,” she replies. However, her uneven gait betrays her, and he takes half of the books from her with a chuckle.

“Hey, no need to break your back so early on in the semester. Suicidal intentions are only acceptable when the exam season begins.”

His tactless joke hangs awkwardly in the air as the two walk side by side, with Sarah’s hair obscuring her peripheral vision so that she could pretend not to notice him staring at her.

“I’m Doug, by the way.”

“Sarah,” she responds, eyes seeking the checkout counter.

“Sarah,” he repeats, nodding once as though to commit her name to memory. “Well, Sarah, I thought I knew everyone here on campus. I don’t think I’ve seen your face before—and I’d know, I’ve got a strong memory for faces, you see. Especially when it’s a face as pretty as yours,” he finishes on a suggestive, flirty note.

Not one to be swayed by such tactics, she keeps her tone neutral and disinterested. “Right, this is actually my first semester here.”

His eyebrows rise in surprise. “Oh, don’t tell me you’re a freshman!”

“No, I’m not,” she replies absently, having located a counter. “Hey, I need to check these out before we go.”

“Right, right.” And he changes directions in a sudden swerve to continue walking by her side.

Sarah hands in the books and her library card, and after receiving the receipt, she voices a polite ‘thank you’ to the woman behind the desk and takes the books again.

She and Doug leave the library, a gust of wind hitting them immediately upon their exit, and they walk on the cobblestoned road leading to the girls’ dormitories.

“So like,” says Doug, “you’re new here, but not a freshman.” He sounds extremely confused. “How can that be?”

Turning her head marginally to give him a sheepish smile complete with the quirk of a brow, she explains, “I’m a transfer student.”

“Oh!” he exclaims. “Okay, that makes sense.”

Sarah voices a soft ‘mhm’, wishing silently for the road to magically shorten.

“What’s the name of your previous university?”

“Oh, it’s not one you’d know. A small community college in a small town.”

This seems to humor him for an obscure reason. His eyes light up with a hidden meaning, and he says, “A small town girl, huh? Bet you didn’t have a good culture shock in this city just yet.”

“Do you intend to give me a culture shock?”

The question was posed sarcastically, but perhaps her tone was too soft for such intent, as he says, “You bet! I’m having a party this Saturday night, and I’d like you,” he moves closer to her until she is tempted to step back, but he finishes in hushed flirtation, “to come. It’s gonna be unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”

Sarah falters. “Oh, I don’t—”

“Sarah!” a voice calls her, and looking behind her, she sees Anne jogging towards her with a grin and wind-disheveled hair. When she reaches her, she releases a few heavy breaths and says, “Got a boyfriend already?” She looks at Doug with comical distaste. “Gotta say, you could do much better. This one’s a playboy.”

Before Sarah can so much as open her mouth to deny, Doug responds with amused affront, “A playboy?”

Anne nods resolutely, arms crossed over her chest. However, her disposition is one of playfulness rather than actual antipathy, as is proven by her sticking her tongue at him.

“Don’t listen to her, Sarah,” he says, though his gaze, challenging in its nature, never leaves the blonde. “Anne is just jealous because I never showed interest in her.”

This warrants him an indignant scoff. “Why’d I care? I’m a million leagues above you!”

“Keep saying this, darling, but even you gotta admit you've got nothing on Sarah.” Doug grins cheekily as he nods at the brunette with a triumphant air.

And now that she has been turned into an unwilling blade in a verbal match, Sarah is especially eager to go.

“Hey, Anne,” she interrupts her friend’s comeback before it exits her mouth. “How about you take my books from Doug and we can go back to our dorms?”

Thankfully, Anne’s attention is easily diverted. “Oh, so these are yours? I was wondering, ‘cause I know Doug doesn’t know what a book is, let alone how to read.” She takes them, but not without issuing a huff at their weight.

Sarah begins to walk away, hooking an arm with Anne’s.

“I’ll have you know, I’m a straight A student!” Doug exclaims.

“Only when A stands for asshole!”

It is merely the tug on her arm that prevents Anne from turning back and resuming their spat.

Still, Doug calls as they speed away, “Just make sure Sarah comes to the party on Saturday!”

And to Sarah’s mortification, Anne gives a wicked giggle.