“Good morning, you two.” Lukas greeted them with an easy smile and a jovial tone; he was excited to get started and, as always, teaching science gave him a buzz that danced below his skin. Bethany and Loxley stood in front of the man and once again Lox found himself distracted, trying to place the strange twisting accent in the scientist’s words.
Next to him stood a woman who was cleaning her glasses on the end of her lab coat, one side of which was splattered with a blue pigment that had been washed into scruffy patches but still refused to fade.
“This is Febe Vervloet. She’s studying here for her postgrad so will be supervising you in the lab as part of her job.” Lukas reached over and clapped the woman on her shoulder.
“She’s there to help you, so use and abuse her.”
“Please don’t,” Febe said, her English with a smooth accent but still well spoken. She laughed, her head tilting forward as she replaced her glasses. “Though I’m happy to have company while I run my experiments.”
“No rest for the wicked,” Lukas said, mirth making his words light. “You can only use the lab when she’s here to supervise you. She won’t need to be with you every second, but she certainly needs to be at the uni. You’ll have to organise your time with her.”
Bethany and Loxley nodded eagerly, hoping to get to the interesting part next.
“For the first month, you’ll need to carry out some simple experiments to become familiar with the lab and our techniques. You might have already done this at school -” Lukas broke off as Bethany and Loxley shook their heads in unison. He sighed. “I suppose it would have been too much to hope that schools would put their funding into science.
Anyway, that means you won’t be repeating the exercises.” He twisted around to slide a wad of stapled paper from the lab bench behind him, gleaming white and smelling of alcohol. Lox took the brief lapse in conversation to cast his gaze over the small room. There wasn’t a lot of space, but he supposed with only two or three people working around him there didn’t need to be.
Lukas cleared his throat and lifted the paper up to catch their attention. “We’ve made up a booklet from first year courses that you’ll work through before you can start taking on experiments from me. That’ll be donkey work, but will free up my time and be a huge help, plus it’ll all be new things for you. Your progress will be monitored, and I’ll choose one of you to become more of a formal research assistant, including a wage, at the end of the year.”
Lox didn’t much care about money. He was here to learn, not earn. Beside him, Bethany lifted and dropped a shoulder. Money wasn’t an incentive to her, either.
Behind them, the windows were smudged from fingerprints on the inside and bird droppings on the outside; Loxley recalled seeing a window cleaner on his way in, dutifully working his way around the university buildings which all seemed overly abundant in glass. He had his work cut out for him.
“You’re welcome to discuss our research if you’d like, but if you want to speak to other lecturers in the department best ask me first so I can give them a head’s up.”
“They can be busy people but are generally helpful,” Febe added, fiddling with a few hairs that had sneaked out of her bun. There was a slight redness to her cheeks, almost impossible to miss underneath her dark skin, but Lox was perceptive. He huffed a quiet laugh.
“Any questions?” Lukas asked, his gaze sliding between the two eager pupils. It gave him a warm feeling, deep in his chest, to see the passion for learning gleaming in their eyes; he had been like that at their age, but there had been few people to foster such excitement.
They asked whatever came to their minds, which wasn’t much, and Lukas soon left them to the tutelage of Febe, who tucked loose strands of hair behind her ears and passed them the booklets.
Febe announced, in her mellifluous voice, that she was on the hunt for clean lab coats for them, and also to locate the right pipette tips. She left by a different door than they had entered, her splotchy lab coat flying out behind her like a cape. Loxley watched her leave, inwardly remarking about the trust the scientists had in their young students.
His eyes slid to Bethany who was investigating the items on the main work bench. No one had yet commented on his age, something that Loxley was feeling strangely self conscious about. He had won his place fair and square, but he had been at high school for fewer years than Bethany had left.
“Febe seems nice,” Bethany commented. An absent observation, made as her intelligent eyes assessed the rest of the room. It was still pointless small talk. Loxley rolled his eyes. She didn’t notice. “I wonder where she’s from.”
“Narrows it down,” Bethany laughed. It was then that he noticed how loud she was; her laugh had echoed around the room. It wasn’t obnoxious. It was just full and free. “I guess we’re competing, huh?”
“And working together,” he reminded her. He wasn’t about to shy away from competition, and she seemed redoubtable, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t strike up a friendship. With all the time they would spent together, and with the strange space in his life where Liam’s company used to be, Lox hoped that they could.
She turned to him and smiled, the expression easy and familiar to her. “Friendly competition, then. Nothing wrong with that, right?”
Loxley certainly couldn’t disagree.
Returning to school after a long summer break was always arduous and made worse by the glorious weather that deserved to be appreciated, especially since it was a rarity to have the sky so blue for so long.
As Skye walked home, meandering her way through the park, she tried to keep her mind off Joshua. A new year luckily meant new classes and new seating plans; she hadn’t ended up next to him but every so often would catch him looking at her. He would avert his gaze faster than she could.
If she didn’t think about Joshua, she thought about the misfortune this morning involving her school trousers and a puddle of muddy water, forcing her to borrow one of Faye’s horrendously short skirts. Skye had spent the entire day feeling more timid than usual, tugging the material down with burning ears as people muttered and giggled around her. She would love to be bold enough to wear the clothes she liked, and that certainly didn’t involve a skirt that showed her knickers with every gust of wind.
So preoccupied with the awkward thoughts swirling through her, Skye missed the distinctive flash of red sandwiched between lush green grass and the sparkling aquamarine of the pond. It caught her eye at the last minute and she swung around, turning her body sharply to the left to see him nestled between tall reeds.
If Skye hadn’t recognised Felix by his red fleece, she would have by his wild hair, always sticking up at angles and defying gravity. She saw him run his hand through his hair, tugging at it absently – his favourite habit when he was deep in thought. She was surprised at how quickly a smile blossomed.
“Felix,” she said softly, tugging at her skirt, hoping a gust of wind wouldn’t take the opportune moment presented to it now.
His head perked up but he didn’t turn, instead shaking at what he assumed was a misheard voice. She tried again, louder, and was rewarded by Felix twisting around. He brightened immediately; his concentration evaporated and his smile broke out, like the sun appearing from behind clouds.
“Skye!” he exclaimed, grabbing his tiny notepad and stuffing it into his pockets as he stood. Strands of cut grass stuck to his trousers. Either he didn’t realise or he didn’t care enough to brush them off. He frowned then, withdrawing into himself, and fiddled with the zip on his fleece. “Are you feeling better?”
Skye realised she hadn’t seen him since he had walked her home a week before, distraught from the words she had said to Joshua, without any explanation. She flicked her hand towards one of the benches on the bridge. “Shall we sit down first?”
The bench was sun warmed and Skye felt the hard grains of the wood dig into her exposed thighs. She tugged the material down in the hopes that it would grow miraculously. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. Skye wanted to keep her eyes trained on her shoes but couldn’t help but watch Felix. His eyebrows drew down.
“For…” Skye gestured aimlessly. Her hands cast erratic shadows on the bridge. “Crying.”
“Oh.” Felix’s frown remained. In fact, it deepened. He was so easy to read, or at least every other time they’d run into each other, his face betrayed all of his thoughts and emotions. He was expressive. Skye had learned to keep a careful veil over her expressions from school. “I thought – I mean, I wondered why you didn’t tell me you broke up with your boyfriend?”
“It’s a random thing to bring up in front of a stranger,” Skye muttered, instantly regretting her words when hurt flashed over Felix’s features. “No, I mean -”
“We spoke about him when we first met,” Felix interrupted, sounding defensive. “But I guess you’re right. Being home schooled gives me a funny idea what a stranger is.” His mouth twisted and his eyes narrowed, but the flush to his cheeks betrayed how hurt he was.
“No, no, Felix, I mean -” All the people at school that had muttered snide comments about her skirt (and bulky, unsuitable shoes) hadn’t made her feel this bad. She surprised herself to realise she cared about Felix’s opinion of her more than her school peers’.
Despite that, he was a stranger. They had seen each other a total of three times. Two of those had been wonderful and entirely because of Felix’s convivial attitude; Skye wouldn’t have usually given into such whimsical adventures, and was not about to initiate them. He had convinced her to break away from the shy mold she was so attached to.
The silence stretched and spread, until it was so thin that it was shattered by a gull screaming overhead. Felix looked away.
“I mean that it would have been awkward to bring up,” Skye said quietly.
“Because we’re not friends.” Felix’s shoulders curled in.
“No, it’s, I mean, it’s not that I don’t want to be, it’s just, it’s just I don’t know you that well.” Why did her brain lose the ability to formulate decent sentences when she found herself in awkward conversations? She squeezed her eyes shut, opened them, and tried again. “I-”
“No, it’s fine,” Felix answered dully. “I don’t always get normal social stuff because of the whole… avoiding proper school.” He stood up. Grass fluttered down from his trousers. Most leaves stuck to the drying mud on the back of his jeans. “Probably a good thing.” He did not look at her as he said it.
Felix began to walk away and Skye’s eyes widened. “F-Felix, wait, let me-” He didn’t stop and didn’t look back. She watched him, mouth agape, as he left. The ends of his jeans were torn and muddied – in fact, he had bits of mud all over him, and Skye noticed that he had a thin twig in his hair. He didn’t care about any of it, and here Skye was tugging down her skirt and trying to make her appearance as unassuming and unremarkable as possible. And yet, he was the one usually so sanguine and she was trapped within her self-made invisibility.
Felix was the kind of friend Skye wanted. He was so open, so readable – how could she think of him as a stranger? The other girls at school were strangers. Faye was almost a stranger. She knew more about Felix than she did about her classmates.
Skye lowered her gaze to the wooden slats of the bridge. A bee investigated the sweet nectar of a white flower head next to her. She thought of Faye, so determined to cultivate her image that she had pushed away her childhood friend. Her hands fisted around the hem of her skirt. Skye aspired to be many things, but her sister was not one of them.
The bookshop – in Summer’s mind, it was Uma’s bookshop, despite the girl only working there on weekends – was alarmingly stuffy when she walked in, without much of a temperature change from inside and out. She shouldn’t have been surprised; hot summer days were inescapable, because nowhere had bothered to invest in AC. It wasn’t usually necessary in Scotland.
Uma was focused on the old computer which served as the till, tapping on the heavy keys and concentrating entirely on the screen. Summer paused and admired her simple beauty. Eventually she cleared her throat and took a few steps further into the shop, her steps softened by the thick blue carpet underneath. Uma’s eyes flickered up and a broad grin spread over her lips.
“Have you come to claim your book?”
Summer nodded, feeling too nervous to say much else. Uma had promised her a book in return for helping her in English, but she still felt bad about asking for it. She would spend all the time in the world with Uma for free.
“Have something in mind or just browsing?”
“Just browsing, I think.”
Summer approached the desk, hoping to catch some precious time with Uma before finding a book and leaving. It was always too awkward to talk to her in school; Sum was used to Faye’s look of disdain if she tried to speak with her sister, and couldn’t bear to see a similar look on Uma’s face. Here, at least, Uma had always been happy to see her.
“I’d offer you a coffee, but the machine broke. The boss is dragging his feet trying to fix it. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get it back,” she said, making a show of rolling her eyes. Summer had noted the lack of coffee smell as she had stepped inside. Before, it had overpowered the smell of new books, but now Summer could close her eyes and enjoy it all the more. She had never been much of a fan of caffeine, though Uma had probably taken full advantage of the machine while working here.
“Don’t worry about it.” Too late, Sum realised that Uma had been waiting for a reply. She rubbed at a pen mark on her arm. When had she managed to give herself that? Her eyes flicked to Uma, taking a second to admire the way the light shone on her smooth skin and brightened the natural blonde highlights in her hair. Summer could imagine tracing her fingers down the curve of her cheeks, over her lips – she ripped her gaze away and stared at the bookshelf instead. “I’ll find a book,” she said, voice strangled.
Summer wandered around to the back of the store, hoping it was cooler away from the glass doors. She rubbed at her sweaty neck and lifted her hair up to help herself cool. Why had she been the only one to get frizzy hair in the family? Skye and Faye and wonderfully straight and silky hair, something out of a hair product advert. Probably it would be tamer if she had all those fancy hair creams and sprays, but Summer would much rather spend her money on books and her time writing.
She scanned the shelves in the hope that something would jump out at her. Of course there was a pile of books to read at home, a rather precarious tower that leaned to one side but hadn’t yet toppled.
“Can I recommend anything?” Uma asked. Summer jumped and twisted around; the girl had trailed her around to the back and was leaning against a sturdy bookcase. She was wearing her favourite shorts, and now there was no desk to hide her legs. Summer forced herself to look at the books again. It felt far too warm in here.
Almost, she asked if there was any lgbt+ fiction. Summer pressed her lips tight together. What if Uma told people at school? She imagined the whispers that would stalk her along the corridors and the looks she’d get in class. “Anything fantasy, or action,” Summer requested instead.
Uma pulled out a plump book, the cover beautiful and old. “Ever read Feist? The Riftwar Saga is great.”
“I’ll take it,” Summer said, mesmerised by Uma’s golden smile.
Uma busied herself with paying for the book. “It’s good,” she said, half distracted with the till. “Proper old fantasy, kind of Tolkein-esque I suppose. But I still enjoyed it. More than Brooks, anyway.”
Summer didn’t want to admit that most of the fantasy she had read was modern, young adult, and usually urban fantasy to boot. She hadn’t heard of Brooks or Feist. At least she knew Lord of the Rings. Her father watched the films every year at Christmas. It was a weird tradition. “I look forward to reading it,” Summer mumbled, fingers twining together.
“It’s part of a trilogy, though the saga has way more books. Even I haven’t read them all.” She gave a little laugh. “I’m reading one of Jim Butcher’s right now though.” Uma gestured to the book sitting on the edge of the nearest shelf with one hand, while the other passed over the bag. Summer felt a jolt of recognisation at the name but wasn’t sure if she was overstaying her welcome by talking about it. In the end she played it safe.
“Thank you.” Summer picked up the bag and smiled politely, rewarded with a magnanimous grin from Uma.
“Let me know what you think.”
Summer wondered if there really was something hopeful in Uma’s tone, or if she was just trying to trick herself into believing that.