It had been quiet on campus until a few moments earlier, when the students had started to appear out of the dorms and pull up in their cars, many of them plastered with peace signs. There was an old stone lion at the foot of the stairs at the main building and Nina Sharp was perched against it, a book propped up on her legs, white gloves and a wooly hat pulled low against her wispy red bangs. Her attention had remained on the algorithms in the text book, but she looked up and smiled as a familiar slender form crossed the snow-laden yard.
"Lauren," she said, "you're back!"
"Good as new and fully prepared to do mischief," her roommate answered, removing the strap of her book bag from her shoulder and dumping the thing in front of Nina. "Considering I still have fourteen stitches in my stomach, would you mind carrying my books?"
Her nose wrinkled upward in an apologetic stance but Nina suspected she was not as helpless as she professed. Nevertheless, the redhead gathered up her own things and carried Lauren's too, walking with her up the steps. Faces turned to watch them, murmurs following them down the hall, Lauren basking in the attention. What had happened had shocked the school; on-campus stabbings were rare and there had been several in the last semester, but Lauren was the only one who had returned. She was surrounded by curious onlookers, reassuring them she didn't remember anything. It was the same story she had told the police and Nina in the hospital room. "I don't know what happened," she said. "I only remember waking up."
Brushing onward and tucking a strand of light blonde hair behind her ear, Lauren turned to Nina and said, "Had I known almost being stabbed to death would get me this much attention, I might have done it sooner."
"Good to have you back, Lauren," a voice said and both girls glanced around.
The faintest flush crept into her face and Lauren said, "Thank you, Garret." She smiled at him shyly and glanced at Nina as they approached their first class of the day. "What? He's cute, don't you think?"
Not one inclined to bounce around between men as if they were pom-poms, Nina answered, "I think it would tear your stitches."
Lauren laughed as they pushed into quantum physics and she made her way up to her usual seat. Nina went with her but could not help glancing at the professor as he prepared his notes for the day, recognizing his handwriting at a glance. William Bell refrained from looking back at her but she knew he sensed her presence. Outside the laboratory or the corner booth in the little pub where they congregated, he ignored her. It was better that way. She handed over her friend's books and settled in beside her, taking out her notebook and a pencil, for like him she was a laborious note-taker. Once of the more popular teachers in the school, he waited until everyone was content and then handed a stack of pages to his teaching assistant.
"You will be pleased to know that some of you turned in extraordinary ideas for your term papers," he said. "The rest of you I am disappointed in, for you lack the originality of thought that you have become known for in the past. If you intend to sleep through this semester in my class, you may want to consider changing your majors to something that does not involve rational thought."
There were a few cringes as the students he was speaking to flinched. Nina was unconcerned as she took her thesis presentation out of the stack and passed the rest on. Her eyes widened. On the front was written, "C."
Lauren happened to glance over and her eyebrows lifted. They looked at one another and she mouthed, "Ouch."
Sticking her tongue in one side of her mouth, Nina looked up at him and just for a moment caught his eye. Bell revealed nothing in his countenance, even though he must have been aware of her anger. She returned her attention to the thesis proposal and his notes, which were even more scathing than usual. An angry flush crept up her neck and she tugged on the top of her turtleneck, cramming the pages into her book bag. She would yell at him later. Working her sweater arms up over her palms, a habit she had whenever she was annoyed, she began to draw circles in her notebook.
"I found your answers to my challenge on whether or not it is possible to overstep the boundaries of morality when it comes to science fascinating," he continued. "Some of you disappoint me in your narrow-mindedness, for under your principles we would never have advanced as far as we have. Scientists must take risks, sometimes great ones. Yet others showed an almost chilling lack of scruples. Would it be fair to say the Holocaust was a scientific experiment that went too far? Most rational people would say yes, but several of you argued that although their methods were evil, their single-mindedness was admirable."
Several people shifted uneasily in their seats. Bell leaned against his desk and crossed his arms, regarding them with an unusually disapproving air. "What would you say would be a reasonable line for a scientist never to cross?"
No one answered and then, tentatively, a hand lifted into the air. "Doctors take an oath to do no harm," said a girl in the back. "Would that not be a reasonable oath for a responsible scientist as well?"
"An admirable goal, certainly, but if you are attempting to find a cure for killing cancer cells by experimenting on gerbils, you are still doing harm." Bell shrugged, inviting anyone to challenge him.
"Human beings, then," said someone else. "We should endeavor never to do harm to human beings. The Nazis may have made tremendous advancements in science with their attempt to create a master race, but their methods certainly caused an immense amount of harm."
Bell lifted his chin. "Yet there comes a point in science when human testing is inevitable."
"Children, then," said Lauren.
Everyone looked at her in surprise, for she rarely said two words in class. While she was fine being the center of attention outside of it, she was somewhat embarrassed to have his attention focused on her and turned pink.
"Interesting," said Bell, "explain."
Moving slightly in her seat and digging her fingernails into the orange and brown pattern of her long skirt, Lauren said, "Test subjects are volunteers. They know there is a risk but they are either willing or desperate to take a chance that a cure may be found or that their suffering might aid in advancements of science. Children are innocent. They do not understand. Whatever is done to them is beyond their control."
"Not all testing is invasive," said Bell. "That is what most of you failed to understand. You took my question to mean something controversial when in reality science is testing new theories each and every day. Right now, in a classroom not far from here, children are being shown flash cards in sequence, to determine which of them has the greater capacity for learning. You raise a valid point, Lauren, but what I want you to understand as a collective student body is that you must broaden your mind and consider the possibilities. Science is not all atoms and neurons, it is not pink eyedroppers and rodent-testing, it is about stretching the boundaries of what we know as far as it can, until it snaps and either sends us hurtling backwards or thrusts us into the unknown."
There was an understanding wave of nods and he asked, "Now, shall we continue in our lesson?"
For the next hour they listened to a lecture and he invited them to contradict him, to challenge him. Some did, others didn't, and Nina remained unusually quiet. She was slow in gathering her things when the bell rang and said, "Lauren, find a boy to carry your books. I want to talk to him."
"Oh, that should be fun," said her roommate airily, and smiled as she passed the bag off on the nearest student. He took it without complaint and she accompanied him down the stairs and out into the hallway. Nina watched as Garret exchanged heated words with the professor and stormed out. She had not been the only one to be severely chastised. Clutching the thesis proposal in her hand, she made her way down to him and put it on his podium. He turned around from cleaning off the blackboard and she said, "A C? You have got to be kidding."
The door shut behind the last of her classmates and he dusted off his hands. The morning light made his eyes even richer than usual, the color of dark chocolate. Nina had been drawn to him since their first meeting, but this time was more annoyed than enthralled. "I would have given you a C- if not for your presentation."
Her mouth dropped open. "What?"
Glancing in the direction of the door, he leaned slightly toward her, his finger resting on the typeset cover sheet. "This has Walter Bishop written all over it. You ran your thesis concept past him, didn't you?"
Slightly insulted, she answered, "Of course, he offered some suggestions, but…"
"That was more than apparent," Bell interrupted, as annoyed as she was. "He derailed your concept and changed your focus from its original direction to what he felt was important. Travel into alternate dimensions? Really?"
Now she was mad. Nina rounded the desk and followed him across the room, as he carried his notes to his office. The door swung shut behind him and she barged in regardless. "If you are implying that I let Walter—"
"I am not implying anything. I am saying if you expect a higher grade you need a better concept. Inspire me; don't bore me with things we have discussed a thousand times!"
"That is unfair. I spend hours with you two and I am not even allowed to use any of our discussions?"
He threw the pages in the general direction of his desk and they scattered to the floor, blown about by the overhead heater. It was obnoxiously loud and he raised his voice just enough for her to sense the tension in it. "Nina, the reason I enjoy having your input in our discussions is because your mind is not like mine or Walter's. You see possibilities we have never considered. You have the makings of a great scientist but if you allow him to change your perspective, you will lose your focus. Do not make me penalize you for not using your imagination."
The second bell rang. She had two minutes to get to class. Nina glared at him but was not willing to risk a late penalty from her math teacher just for the satisfaction of telling him off, so she shoved the thesis into her book bag and stormed out. She had spent hours with Bell in the laboratory, reading his notes and offering suggestions, and now he was treating her like one of his students! That annoyed her most of all. They were not equals, not in his mind or hers, because regardless of their fondness for one another, regardless of the months they had spent becoming friends and inching toward something more, regardless of how impressed he was with her mind, he was still the professor and she was still his student. This was his way of reminding her, warning her that what both of them wanted was improper, unethical, and dangerous.
Many times, she had wondered what it would be like. The thought excited as much as it intimidated her, for if anything happened and the faculty found out it would ruin both their reputations. His might recover, but hers would not. Everything she achieved would come into question. She hated it, hated it that he could not look at her in class, and he had to remain distant when all she wanted was to feel his arms around her, his hands caressing the curve at the base of her spine as he sent delicious sensations through her in a lingering kiss. Nina remembered the one time he had given in, how he had pressed her body against his and fought every instinct as he indulged in mild temptation. It should have emboldened her that she had such a hold over him, but instead all she found was frustration.
Pausing outside her classroom to gather her composure and smooth down her skirt, Nina entered and made it to her seat just as the professor appeared. She slid down slightly so he wouldn't know she had come in late. Lauren gave her an exaggerated wide-eyed look and Nina shook her head, drawing out her text book. She took notes, grateful for a distraction and constantly flicking her eyes between her text book and the blackboard. The lunch bell rang and knowing Lauren was about to descend on her, Nina snatched up everything and ran out of the classroom, pushing her way past her peers and making it out the front door ahead of them. She went down the steps and skidded around the corner of the building, ducking into the stairwell that led downstairs, where the students went to smoke joints. Butts littered the floor and she kicked them aside, pounding her fist against the brick wall and slumping against it. Melting snow dripped into the stairwell and produced an odd and unpleasant odor. Nina ignored it, looking up only when Lauren appeared at the head of the stairs.
"Are you all right?"
"Not really but I've had rotten days before. This too shall pass."
Glancing around to make sure she wasn't seen, Lauren came down. "I'm sorry."
"He didn't like it. I spent hours on that thesis summary. Days. Weeks. And he had the nerve to tell me that it didn't sound like me and it lacked imagination!"
Sticking her hands into her coat pockets, Lauren rocked back and forth on her heels. Nina made a sound of disgust and stared at the muck that littered the bottom step. Presently, quietly, she said, "You think I am a total idiot, don't you?"
"For being upset or for not banging Professor Bell?"
This produced a shocked laugh from Nina as Lauren came to lean against the wall beside her. They looked at one another and Nina realized how much she had actually missed her. Their dorm room had felt empty without her in the corner snapping her gum and turning up her stereo in an attempt to distract Nina from her studies. Yet at some point, Nina had come to like her. It was Lauren that had come after her, no one else; Lauren who knew her secret, how she felt about William Bell; Lauren who would never judge her.
"I don't think you are a total idiot," Lauren said. "I think you hate that you disappointed him. That's your problem, Nina. You try too hard to impress him. He likes you. He has always liked you. You managed to make it into his much-coveted 'inner circle' and are the first female student to do so. You need to get out more. What are you doing this afternoon?"
Resting her head against the cold wall behind them, Nina asked wryly, "Other than studying?"
"Leave off studying and come with me."
Lauren laughed. "To the hospital; my sister called this morning, which is why I was late. I am apparently an aunt. We'll have to go for a bit of a drive, though. She's about an hour away. Will you come with me?"
Getting off campus and having a legitimate excuse not to see Walter sounded like a good idea. Nina nodded.
Her friend smiled. "Good. Now let's go have some lunch. I am starving and haven't had a decent meal in weeks, at least nothing that involved actual lettuce. Hospital food, not recommended."
"You really don't remember anything about what happened?" Nina asked as she followed her up the stairs.
Rounding the corner of the building, Lauren's scarf fluttered behind her in the breeze. "Nope, I don't even know where I was before I blacked out. All I remember about that night is coming around in the hospital with you and Bell standing over me. To be honest, I'm not sure I want to know."
Considering she had appeared out of thin air with a four inch cut in her stomach, Nina did not blame her.