She'd hit a wall. A fourth year in Columbia's Classical Studies graduate program, Myka Bering only had a few more months before the first chapter of her dissertation was due. There were few things Myka found more agonizing than being on the cusp of understanding and being unable to take those last steps. When she'd stumbled upon Dr. Wells' article it was like a missing piece of the puzzle slid into place, and when Dr. Wells turned out to be a Professor in Columbia's own English and Comparative Lit. Department it almost had Myka believing in fate.
Ill-fated more like. For she was late, and Myka was never late. But Pete-
her childhood friend, the boy who punched Tommy Randall in the 3rd grade for pushing her down on the playground and then proceeded to tell her jokes until the teacher finished cleaning off the cuts on her knees-
Pete who Myka loved without reservation but who really shouldn't be calling her at 4am if he wanted to keep both his testicles. Upon hearing his voice, however, she instantly forgave him,
And she'd talked him down and away from the bottle until the sun was up and she was already late. And she really shouldn't have stopped to grab that coffee, but even with the excitement of finally making headway on her research, she was afraid she'd fall asleep in her meeting. Only, if she hadn't stopped then she wouldn't have been right there to go tête-à-tête with a swinging door. All her papers and colour-coded notes scattered to blanket the marble floor just shy of the entrance to the English department. And the low groan that escaped her was more petulant than anything, because didn't it just figure?
She didn't recognize anyone, having never needed to come to this part of the building before, but she avoided eye contact anyway. She could feel the heat rushing to her cheeks as she nodded and waved off the young red-haired woman and her rambling apologies. Falling to her knees as gracefully as she could in her pleated skirt (which meant not at all) Myka started collecting her papers, unable to resist putting them back in order regardless of her tardiness.
"Red-Greek. Blue-Latin. Green-Kufic script. Yellow-Aramaic." Looking up, her mumbling was cut short as she found herself caught in the most vivid mahogany eyes, and if there wasn't a literal damn twinkle in those intelligent depths, Myka would eat the rainbow post-it pad clenched tightly in her fist.
The eyes belonged to a beautiful woman in her late-thirties with medium length jet-black hair whom Myka now realized was smiling down at her from the other end of the Department lobby. She was tempted to smile back perhaps at the sheer lunacy of her own behavior, but she really was late so instead she went back to collecting her papers, and ignored the slight pang of disappointment at the woman's absence once she returned to her feet.
Her destination lay at the far corner of the department. While many of the other office doors had tacked articles or cartoons featuring literary puns to their surface, the one in front of her stood out for its simplicity: a sole small plaque reading 'Dr. Helena Wells' front and centre. Professor Wells is a woman? Her article was just under the initial Dr. H Wells, and somehow this detail had escaped her when she'd done her googling.
Her knock was answered with a low lilting, "Yes?" and Myka was struck dumb upon entering the small office, her mouth opening and closing a few times in a wholly unattractive manner. Professor Wells was that woman? How on Earth did she beat me back? And by god she's attractive. Myka tried to smile, but she could feel the heat returning to her cheeks and the anxiety in the lines of her face.
"Hello. You must be my 8 o'clock, Miss Bering?" Myka nodded, the soft British accent at once lulling her apprehension and setting her on edge. She watched long fingers lacing to press against a rich cherry wood desk notably absent of clutter, "You are a bit late, but having witnessed your entrance to the department," Myka felt her blush intensify, and watched with wide eyes as the other woman allowed her gaze to trail after it as it kissed her collarbones and sank down her blouse's opening, falling between the valley of her breasts (last time she listens to Pete's fashion advice before a meeting),
"I won't hold it against you. I remember the days," Professor Wells laughed and Myka inexplicably wanted to hear it again, and more specifically to be the cause of such a mellifluous sound. She could it feel it curl around her, sending a slow pleasant tingling down her spine, vertebra by vertebra, "and nights with a dissertation looming over my head. Now shut the door and come in darling."
Myka answered the soft command and beckoning finger without thought, drifting slowly closer stopping just short of the large desk at the centre of the small office. Her eyes darted around to the bookshelves that flanked both walls and a large window that stood behind the desk, casting a warm glow about the room. She looked to the worn leather chair beside her but ignored it.
She adjusted the papers in her arms, more for wont of something to do than anything else. For some reason she was rather thrown by this woman. She was certainly not what Myka had expected. She had expected Professor Wells to be more like her advisor: older, a bit unkempt, and grouchy as if every second he spent on her was one keeping him from something of greater importance.
This woman countered every assumption, and the small smile tugging on the corner of her lips had Myka suspecting she was aware of that fact.
"I admit I was surprised when I got your request for a meeting. I don't often get many Classical Studies grad students beckoning at my door. So Miss Bering, what puzzle can I help you with today?" Professor Wells' smile was bright, but her eyes were challenging, assessing.
Myka smiled slightly in response, nodding as she took a deep breath. This she could do. This was what she excelled at, and the desire to meet the challenge in those dark eyes exceeded even her usual drive to please. She started laying out her notes, still nervous but not entirely sure why,
"You wrote an article a few years ago about the poet Keats and his involvement in a secret society." The woman leaned back in her chair, the stretch pulling alluringly at the pale blue blouse just peeking out from under an understated but undoubtedly expensive black power suit. Myka swallowed the lump in her throat. She turned to look back at the notes she was arranging along the desk separating them. Professor Wells' eyes followed her every movement, eventually speaking up in the lull,
"Yes, people have been positing about Keats' ties to secret societies for a long time." Myka looked up to find Professor Wells' gaze fixed on her rather than her research. She nodded, clinging to the intellectual and trying to ignore the warm but unsettling feeling of being under the woman's scrutiny,
"True, but you claimed that while Keats was a spiritual man his regard for intellectualism made you question his compliance with the hermetic philosophies held by the secret societies of the time." The raven-haired woman's lips twitched, and she tilted her head slowly accordance,
"Indeed. Influencing the world through contact with," Myka had never seen a professor use air quotes and found the gesture oddly charming, "'heavenly forces,' while the man was certainly a romantic poet he became exceedingly realistic as he got older and yet…"
Myka finished for her, words coming out quickly now, unable to contain her excitement, "his letters indicated continued involvement. You analyzed a correspondence with one of his friends in which he spoke of an 'endless wonder.'" She paused, watching with rapt attention as Professor Wells now moved to lean forward in her chair, lessening the distance between them as she finally began to look over the papers Myka had practically covered her desk in.
"I don't think the endless wonder was a reference to heavenly forces or Godly reverence," Myka continued, nervously rubbing at the back of her neck; she hadn't told anyone this next part, not even her advisor, "I think it was a reference to something more physical. Perhaps even a place. Something that has existed for a very long time."
It came out in one breath, and it was a few moments before Myka remembered to breathe in again. She could feel that delicious drug of discovery singing in her veins. The tension in her frame kept her still as she waited for the other woman to speak. With what she'd unearthed she suspected was in need of this woman's help to take the next step.
The silence lingered as Professor Wells turned from the notes to simply look at her. One sculpted eyebrow was raised making her look both amused and intrigued, and Myka was not at all sure how to take that.
"You have writings here, I recognize Latin and Greek but not the others. How does this," Professor Wells gestured vaguely at the colour-coded array that lay between them, "play into it?" It wasn't approval, but it wasn't a dismissal either. Myka's heart lurched painfully all the same,
"I've got texts from 900 B.C.E to the 11th century: Aramaic," she pointed to each one in turn, "Hellenistic Greek, Medieval Latin, and Arabic from the Fatimid era." One long finger was playing at the edge of a green post-it; Myka could see the moment the other woman recognized her color-coding scheme. The resulting indulgent grin made Myka blush for what felt like the hundredth time that morning.
Myka rolled on the balls of her feet, attempting to regain her bearings, "After translation, they all use a surprisingly similar phrase, 'Limitless wonder' 'endless marvels' etc to refer to something. Something to be treasure and protected."
Helena was shaking her head but her eyes now roved over the papers with focused consideration, "Indeed intriguing but very speculative. It could simply be a coincidence." Myka nodded,
"I thought so too, at first, but look at this." She pointed to a small symbol she'd highlighted.
Both eyebrows rose now, "I'm sorry darling," her voice was teasing and low and Myka had to lean in a bit closer to hear, "but I don't read Aramaic." Myka grinned broadly, eyes alight. She could feel victory at hand,
"It's not Aramaic," she pointed at the same symbol highlighted on a page covered in red post-its, "and that's not Greek," and another, "and that's not Arabic." Helena now looked more closely at the symbol highlighted on each page,
"It looks like some sort of bird standing on a flame under a roof." Myka nodded. Some were hard to see-the Greek one looked more like a blob with a beak- but they were all undeniably the same symbol.
"I think the endless wonder is referring to whatever that symbol represents." Professor Wells leaned back once more, looking impressed in spite of herself,
"You're arguing that this same treasure has existed since 900 B.C until the 11th century. That would make it the oldest legend to date, regardless of whether it truly exists." She let out a controlled breath, shaking her head with a wry grin, "To say that would be a discovery of massive import is a considerable understatement."
Myka shook her head, pulling out a heavily marked copy of the article that brought her to this woman's door in the first place. She turned it to the second to last page and pointed to just to the right of Keats' signature at the bottom of a Xeroxed image of his correspondence,
"No. I think that some tangible thing of great worth has either existed or thought to have existed since 900 B.C.E until at least 1818, perhaps longer." The woman looked down at her own article, noting the unmistakable symbol that lie at the bottom of the page. Wells' fingers ran through her hair, tugging slightly at the inky strands. When she turned back to look at Myka, the spark in her gaze was mirrored in Myka's own.
"I help you with your dissertation, and I'll publish a paper regarding what our collaboration illuminates regarding Keats." It was a statement not a question, sure and confident, but Myka was nodding anyway,
"That was what I was hoping Professor Wells." The woman grinned widely now, two full rows of pearly white teeth on display. It was an exceedingly captivating smile, laced with excitement and something almost feral in its intensity. Myka was lost in it for a moment, almost not hearing the next words,
"Brilliant. But if we are to be working together darling, do call me Helena."
She'd known from the article and meeting Professor Wells, Helena-she corrected in her head not for the first nor the last time-that the woman was highly intelligent (Top of her class from Cambridge, full professor at 34…Myka may have done some more googling after that first meeting), but the evenings she'd spent past few weeks pouring over texts in Wells' office or one of the many study rooms in the university's enormous library had demonstrated just how much of an understatement 'intelligent' was. She had a mind the likes of which Myka had never seen.
Within a few days, with no prior knowledge of any dead language but Latin, she'd started to gain cognizance –bringing Myka Greek and Arabic texts to their meetings that she'd somehow come across and thought would be of use…and she was unnervingly almost always correct.
Myka had often felt set apart by her own mind, the way it absorbed and pulled apart everything around her. Pete always said she thought too much. Even in college and then again in grad school she'd assumed she would find people of like ambition and drive, but it seemed that many sought knowledge to reach a goal- publication or a grade- and not as Myka saw it, with the attainment of knowledge and understanding in of itself being a worthy goal.
She soon found herself developing a sense of kinship with the charming British Professor. Dark eyes lighting up with every new discovery, every newly attained bit of knowledge – regardless of whether it related to their actual work. Late nights in her office had also revealed another side.
As the department cleared out, Helena would shuck her blazer and roll up the sleeves of whatever button-down she'd chosen for the day (always one too many buttons undone in Myka's opinion. It made the times when she'd bend over to pull a text from a shelf or lean over Myka's shoulder to point out something incredibly distracting). Myka also had the distinct impression that Helena knew the effect she had on her. Sometimes when her gaze would linger on the opening of her shirt and the spattering of freckles just barely visible along her sternum she'd look up to find Helena watching her with a cheeky grin or sometimes a softer knowing smile.
She was also fairly certain that-to an extent- this went both ways. She too had an effect on the professor, something that still surprised her: every time she'd look up from reading and find Helena's eyes focused on her mouth and more specifically the bottom lip she had a penchant for gnawing on when concentrating, or every time Helena drifted just a bit too close only to jerk slightly away…as if it were a compulsion she could not help, as if Myka had some pull that she could not escape.
Myka's eyes darted down to her wrist as she adjusted the shoulder strap of her bag at her side. 7:10. She had been extra carful not to be late after that first meeting. She told herself it was to make up for her poor first impression and not out of a desire to see the other woman. As she meandered her way to through the English department, she noticed two people chatting a few feet in front of Helena's closed office door. A short red-haired woman that appeared to be in her early-twenties and that looked oddly familiar and a tall man with short brown hair…they were engaged in a lively conversation and did not notice her presence until she was right in front of them,
"I'm telling you dude, I know H.G okay. Something's up and it has something to do with-" the young redhead trailed off, eyes widening as she finally noticed her arrival, "Oh. Hello. Fancy seeing you here."
Myka's eyes narrowed in question but she was distracted by a sudden realization,
"You're the woman who swung a door at my face a few weeks ago." It was more of an amused statement than an accusation but the young woman winced anyway, fiddling with the large collection of bracelets on her wrists,
"Yeah. That was me. I'm so sorry. I think I said that before, but yeah- totally am…" she trailed off, sending a glare at the man to her right who seemed to be holding in a laugh before continuing, "You're Myka Bering right?"
Myka nodded slowly, confusion setting in again, "How did you-"
Myka swore she heard the woman mutter something about curly hair and bright green eyes but didn't get the chance to speculate before the young woman extended her hand, "I'm Claudia Donovan, I'm Professor Wells' assistant. Among other things I handle her schedule, and you've been taking up quite a bit of it." She was smirking like she was privy to some knowledge Myka was not, and after a moment the young man with kind gray eyes jabbed her in the side with his elbow. She started, slapping him back,
"And this pain in the ass is Steve Jinks. He's basically the go-to guy when people need to get anything done in the Department." She leaned in to mock-whisper conspiratorially, "he's also the English Department Poker Champion 3 years running. Be forewarned." Myka smiled, nodding her head and promising to take that under advisement just as the office door behind them swung open,
"Ah good, Myka," Helena had already tossed aside her blazer looking effortlessly beautiful in a pale green blouse and tapered charcoal dress pants. Her eyes lingered on Myka for a moment before turning to the redhead, "Claudia. I thought I told you that you could go home over an hour ago. I need you bright and early tomorrow to help me with my seminar."
Claudia grinned, "Oh Jinksy and I were just heading off. Just stuck around to confirm a suspicion. You always do tell me to pursue every notable inquiry…" Helena's eyes narrowed and Claudia swallowed thickly, the cockiness seeping from her face, "and we'll be going now." She grabbed a hold of Steve's collar and promptly dragged him away.
Myka watched them go with a bemused expression. She turned back to find Helena studying her face intently. She cleared her throat and raised the small paper cup holder in her hand, "I brought beverages." Coffee for her; Tea for Helena. Helena always preferred herbal teas in the evening with just a touch of honey.
"Splendid. Well come on in darling." Feeling oddly reminiscent of their initial meeting, again inexplicably both more comfortable and more on edge, Myka followed Helena into her office.
For the next few hours they worked in relatively quiet harmony. Occasionally Helena would read an excerpt from some poem or letter written by one of the now 3 other poets and writers of the romantic era that they suspected were part of the same secret society that knew of the "endless wonder" they sought. They'd chat on the meaning of a passage or phrase and then drift back into comfortable silence. It wasn't until close to 10 that Helena broke the quiet for something besides their research,
"You know. I was very surprised to have gotten your email. Especially with your advisor being Arthur Nielsen, I was under the distinct impression that he doesn't much care for me." Myka looked up to find Helena smiling at her, leaning forward against the desk, palm tucked against her chin. Myka shook her head unable to help but return the smile,
"No. He doesn't, he was staunchly against me working with you when I told him, but when I asked why he wouldn't say." Myka pulled her bottom lip into her mouth sucking gently and watching Helena's eyes follow the move before she continued, "Why is that? I don't even know why you would be on his radar. The English Department is rather removed-physically and academically-from the Classics Department."
Helena grinned, but it was laced with something different, not angry but something far darker, "He has his reasons. There was an incident a few years ago that I was involved in. Because of such, Arthur did not think it suitable for me to be hired here. Thankfully, his position was overruled."
Myka desperately wanted to ask what the incident was, what it was that could bring about such a change in the woman's eyes, cause such immediate tension in her, but she could not. She had a feeling Helena wouldn't tell her anyway. Instead she turned back to the book in front of her, smiling as she spotted that elusive symbol for which they had both been searching,
"I found another one." Helena was out of her seat and standing behind her before she could say another word. Helena leaned down, the tips of her hair tickling the exposed column of Myka's throat, "Uh- see." She cursed herself inwardly, but the closeness was dizzying. Myka was certain that if she turned her head slightly to the side and up, no, she would not go there. She stared at the page in front of her, her knuckles white around the frayed binding.
"That does not look like one of the languages with which we've been working." Myka shook her head,
"No. It's Neo-Sumerian. 2100 B.C.E." Two long arms bracketed each side of her body, trapping her in the small space between the desk and the woman behind her. After a moment of silence, Myka finally got up the courage to turn her head. Oh God. She was so very very close. Myka could feel Helena's slightly shallow exhales, warm and sweet with the scent of honey.
"I was not aware that so many languages were required to get your doctorate." She was smirking; her bottom lip was moist as if she had just run her tongue along its length.
"You don't. You only need to be proficient in 2 ancient languages and 2 modern." Helena tilted her head slightly to the side in question,
"And may I ask how many modern languages there are in which you're," her eyes darted down to Myka's mouth and then farther, rolling with aching leisure down her frame and back up again, "proficient?" Myka's throat was dry, and as she squirmed in place her hand brushed against Helena's on the desk, but she did not move it,
"Five." Helena nodded looking not at all surprised by her answer. Myka felt the heat rushing to her cheeks and spreading-by the wandering look in Helena's eyes-everywhere.
"Delightful," it was only a whisper, but Myka could not possibly miss it, they were but inches away. She frowned brows furrowing in confusion, she had a feeling Helena did not mean her language capabilities,
"What is?" For some reason her voice was equally quiet. As if their conversation was to be kept secret even from the shadows on the walls.
"That blush on you." It came out in one long breath, and with Helena's eyes widening ever so slightly, Myka wasn't entirely sure it was meant to be said aloud. All it would take would be to lean up slightly, or to pull at the hand now resting on top of her own.
The chorus of 'Eye of the Tiger' rang out loudly in the room. Pete had set that as his own personal ringtone. As Helena straightened, tracing her fingers over Myka's knuckles before stepping away, Myka honestly couldn't say if she was disappointed or relieved.
"What is it Pete?"
"Hey Mykes! I need a ride!" He sounded hyper, but Myka knew a front when she heard one,
"What happened to your car?"
"Didn't bring it. And I lost my wallet so I can't call a cab. Please Mykes?"
Myka signed running her fingers through her hair, suspicions now confirmed, "You're drunk."
There was a lingering silence before Pete answered, false glee replaced with exhaustion and an uncharacteristic meekness that bordered on begging, "Please Mykes."
"Fine. Where are you?" She gave Helena an apologetic look, still close enough to be dizzying. Helena nodded, already back on her side of the desk and helping to gather the mess of books and papers, separating hers from Myka's.
Myka gathered her things as quickly as she could as she got the details from Pete, not looking back and yet very much aware that Helena was watching her go.