Edited (again) as of 1-1-08. Let me know if you see any other problems.
Prologue; In which our hero saves his friend
Neil ducked out of the way of a taller student as he tried to make his way through the lunchtime crush in the Eatery. Once he found Emily he'd be able to dump his backpack, which would hopefully give him that added edge of maneuverability he needed to survive getting his lunch. Thursdays really weren't his day. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he only had one medium-sized book he needed to haul from one end of campus to the other. Tuesdays he had only one large book. But Thursdays he needed the thin book, the thick book, plus one other giant pain-in-the-ass one.
Everyone kept telling him that no one carried their books to class in college, but the teachers didn't seem to know that.
Finally spotting Emily through the crowd, Neil slipped his way between two giant football players, darted between a frat boy and his girlfriend, and dodged the unbelievably crowded table of geeks before reaching the tiny out-of-the-way table Emily had picked today.
"Good, you're here, watch the table while I go get food," Emily said, jumping up from the table and vanishing into the crowd.
"Fine, Emily, how was your morning?" Neil muttered to himself as he settled down at the table for the long wait until his best friend returned. "Why do I even put up with her?"
Tipping his chair back slightly, Neil watched the crowd. "I put up with her because no one else will put up with me." The reasons for this were fairly obvious. "I talk to myself, for starters."
Truthfully, Neil wasn't that bad, and he knew it. But he was terribly shy, and so far Emily was the only person who had decided she was going to be his friend. Neil just didn't know how else to get a friend.
Actually, even that wasn't quite true. Once one had one friend, then the thing to do was to mooch friends off of that person until you could call them your own.
Neil was most of the way through this process with Emily's other friends, but none of them had lunch at this time on this end of campus, so it was just the two of them.
Kicking out a spare chair, Neil put his feet up and stared at the student art on the walls, waiting for Emily to return.
Once she'd come back, Neil went to get his own lunch.
"How are you, Emily?" Neil asked as he returned to the table.
"I'm fine. Actually, I'm wonderful! I feel like something special is going to happen today." She seemed quite charmed with the idea.
"Like what?" Neil asked. "Are you going to win the lottery?"
Emily waved the question away. "There's no drawing on Thursday, and anyway I didn't buy a ticket. I just think the universe is shining down on me today."
Neil shook his head. Emily the optimist. "Think you've passed your psych test, then?"
"Uh-huh," she said, beaming a smile at him. "At the very least."
"Did you finish your paper last night?"
Emily rolled her eyes. "Yes, thank god. I even managed to get three hours of sleep."
Three hours? That explained the odd mood. "When do you turn it in?"
"It's due by two o'clock today. I'm going to drop it off after my next class. I just know I did well on it!" She gave herself a congratulatory hug.
"Speaking of class," Neil muttered, glancing down at his watch. All that waiting had really cut into lunchtime. "We'd better get going if we don't want to be late."
"I'll meet you outside INAB?" The InterNational Affairs Building; neutral territory between the art history building and the psych ward, er, building.
Nodding absently because they always met there, Neil piled trash onto his tray. He dumped it into the proper receptacle as he wandered towards the art history building and two hours of torture, er, class.
Brain soggy with knowledge about the bronze doors of Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim, Germany, or whatever the teacher had been blathering on about, Neil ambled his way towards the bench outside INAB. I nab. iNab. Who came up with a stupid name like that, Neil wondered, as he did at least once a week (on Thursdays). Am I warning people that I steal? Or did Apple adopt a certain amount of honesty for their newest product? They should put bronze doors on this building. Then we could say 'I nab bronze doors'. He considered. I'd be amused, anyway.
"Neil!" Emily's voice interrupted his thoughts, and he glanced up to return her wave. She appeared next to him in no time at all, and they started walking back to the residential part of campus.
Well, Neil walked. Emily, however, bounced with every step. I bet her teachers got the memo about not carrying books to class, Neil thought with some bitterness as she babbled cheerfully. He had learned long ago not to listen to her, not unless he wanted to start hating his only friend for being generally too peppy. It had happened last fall, and he'd had to avoid her for nearly two weeks until winter break, over which he thankfully forgot his disgust, and she thankfully forgot that he'd avoided her.
Neil kicked a rock and watched it clatter down the sidewalk.
"…and do you have a wrapper?" something Emily said finally penetrated his muggy brain.
"What?" Neil said.
"A wrapper. I have this piece of gum, and I'm done with it, but I don't think I have anywhere to put it."
Neil sighed, switched his backpack onto one shoulder and dug through it until he found something she could wrap it in. "Here. Oh, and I've got your lipstick from the Fetish Ball…"
Emily didn't seem to hear him. She'd been digging through her backpack, too. "Oh no!" she cried. "I forgot about my paper!" She glanced at her watch. It wasn't quite two yet. "I need to go ba-" Emily glanced up towards the Physics Building, words stopping abruptly.
Neil looked over to see what had caught her attention. Her long-time crush, Josh, was walking along the path towards them. Josh was a mutual friend, and Emily wasn't terribly worried about being turned down, but she had been trying for weeks to ask Josh out with no noticeable success because she could never get him alone. He was alone now. But there was a paper due.
Neil sighed. The debate going on in her brain was pretty obvious. Ask Josh Out vs Turn Paper In, odds unknown. But Neil was there, and Emily, annoying as she was, was his only friend. And friends helped friends out, right? "I'll take your paper," he said. He certainly wasn't going to ask Josh out for her.
Now it was Emily's turn to ask, "What?"
"Your paper, I'll turn it in for you; Mr. Nanagin's office, right? Number 3?"
Emily's face lit up. "You will? Thank you so much!" She gave him the briefest of hugs, handed over her paper and the used gum wrapper.
Grimacing, Neil slipped the wrapper into the 'garbage' pocket on his backpack, slipped the pack onto both shoulders again and headed back along the sidewalk towards the physics building.
These stairs are a menace, Neil thought, gripping tightly to the railing as he descended the too-steep steps. The basement of the physics building had always seemed a scary place to him, with its cement floors, flickering florescent lights and myriad short, narrow hallways. I wonder if I'll meet the Minotaur this time? It was a long-standing joke that the fabled beast's Labyrinth was actually the pointlessly twisted hallways of the physics basement.
Neil had been here a few times before, although he hadn't ever taken physics. His favorite Latin teacher had her office here.
Neil didn't know if she taught physics, or even knew what a physic was, but at least her office had been near the door. Mr. Nanagin's was in the farthest corner.
Wincing at the hollow sound his shoes made on the loose tiles, Neil peered warily down one partially-lit hallway. Was that movement? He wondered. Yes, Neil, it was. It was the big, scary monster, coming to EAT YOU. Sarcasm was always useful in the face of fear, especially when accompanied by a self-mocking eye-roll.
Shaking his head at himself, Neil passed the hallway and finished his errand of sliding the paper under door number three. It's two to two; how does this man even know if the papers are here on time if he's not here?
Shrugging at the inanity of the universe, Neil turned and walked back the way he'd come.
He was just passing that dark hallway, wondering if running was cowardice if no one saw you doing it, when he heard a voice calling. A damp wind blew out of the hallway as he turned to look down it. This is far too creepy, he thought, fighting an even stronger urge to run away. Actually, it's not. Neil took a deep and bracing breath. It's just an unlit hallway, in the middle of the physics basement, and theories to the contrary, there's no Minotaur here. I'm too old to be afraid of the dark. Hoping to prove something to himself, Neil squared his shoulders, reminded himself that 'the dark was just like the light except you can't see through it' as he'd learned from a kid's show his little sister used to watch, and started walking down the hallway.
See, he told himself as he reached the edge of the light, just a hallway. He walked a few more steps just to prove that he could.
His left foot came down on nothing.
There was a bright flash of light.
Random fact: professor Nanagin's first name is Sheh. As in Shenanigans.