A/N: Took some time, but Chapter 4 is up. Primarily a thematic expansion. As always, criticism welcome, but no flames.
A familiar squeak of the old leather recliner softly echoed past the luxurious expanse of Aleksandr's office, where he sat brooding in the darkness. Thin wisps of the nightly breeze drifted along the surface of the exquisite floral drapes, arousing a faint billowing of heavy fabric against the legs of the professor's chair. Aleksandr shifted slowly in his seat, displeased with the sudden drop in temperature. It was a familiar, but unwanted presence; uninvited in a professional environment.
A series of muffled knocks on the office door pulled Aleksandr out of his thoughts. He spun the recliner around slowly to stare at the thin oaken door in mild displeasure.
"You may enter, Lee," Aleksandr said. "But do remember the value of my time."
The door gently creaked open as the secretary's thin pasty face appeared in the doorway. "Understood, Professor Kazakov. Where would you like the editor's latest notes on your Illuminating Casement of Lower Civilizations? You'll be happy to note that this stack of reviews is a lot smaller than what we had to deal with last month."
Aleksandr casually waved his hand over his desk in reply. "Is there anything else on the agenda?"
"Well, you need to be reminded to read the University's newest security memo by the end of the week. Other than that, you should be in the clear for today's list of official duties and obligations."
Then a sudden, small waft of wind escaped past the heavy office drapes, idly whisking away a few loose sheets of paper from the professor's desk. The lanky assistant uttered a little cry of surprise before instinctively snatching at the nearest note fluttering in the wind. It instantly crumpled, squeezed tightly within Harbin's outstretched fist.
"Ah." What little color that was left in the secretary's face was immediately drained away. "This. Sir, I –"
"Dismissed," Aleksandr pronounced, neatly spinning his recliner back to its original position. "Tell the technicians to print out a replacement copy of all the editor's notes, as well as a stack of employment advertisements requesting potential personnel qualified for the job you, Mr. Harbin Lee, have just forfeited. Of course, the fees for both piles of paperwork are to be deducted from your severance package."
Harbin dropped the crumpled piece of paper promptly and stared at the back of the professor's recliner in visible panic. "Professor Kazakov, please just give me a chance to explain. It was an accident, I swear!"
"Indeed. Take the rest of the reviews with you when you head out of the office, Lee. Disappointments should go together, don't you think?"
Without another word, the newly unemployed man dumbly picked up the stack of reviews and made his way out the building. He didn't address the receptionist's usual cheery farewell when he shambled past her desk. Once he stepped past the main doors of the department building, a swift flurry of frigid breezes scraped at his face. The autumn air was bitterly cold for him tonight.
He walked into the department parking lot, where there were two large dumpsters were set a little ways apart from each other in the far back of the block. The sign above the container to his right was marked, "Paper"; the sign above the other was illegible on account of the infested mold and grime growing across the surface of the metal plate.
Harbin smiled, then discarded the stack of papers. The soft squelch of disturbed decay was quickly followed by a grotesque stench of harmonious filth.
"Ah, Professor," the pale man muttered to himself while pulling his shirt over his nose. "It seems as if I had forgotten to take the most important piece of paper with me to throw away. It's still on your floor, isn't it?"
A heavy rush of unbridled anger and shame overtook all other emotions. He gritted his teeth and impulsively lashed out with his palms, loudly smacking the sides of the shabby dumpster. Two finely manicured sets of fingers immediately sank deep within the festering coat of mold.
He fell backwards in fright as the fungal growth's grip on his hands gave way with a sickening slurp. "What is wrong with me today?"
"Quite a lot of things if you're slapping fungi out of a dumpster with your hands, I can imagine," a voice coolly interjected behind him.
Harbin quickly spun to his feet to see a familiar flash of blonde hair. "Miss Kazakov?"
"Herself. You are welcome, Mr. Lee; but I do wish for an explanation for your behavior. "
"Wait a minute, what are you doing out here so late at night?"
"If you must know, Mother is on her way to the ruins of southern Manchuria the moment. She dropped Ivan and me off about half an hour ago, and Ivan's been waiting in the main room for Father to finish work ever since; I preferred to take a walk. Now, Mr. Lee, explain yourself."
Harbin groaned as he swiped at the cold cement floor with his grimy hands in vain. "There's not much to explain. I accidentally crumpled up a note from the most recent stack of reviews, and Professor Kazakov decides to fire me. Then I guess I needed a catharsis of sorts, and here we are with my moldy hands."
"Is that so?" Lillian replied, slightly tilting her head to the side. "Well, at least you've lasted longer than your predecessors. I'm sure you'll easily find a job somewhere else."
"I know. To be the personal secretary to Professor Kazakov for half a year is pretty impressive, but that fact isn't really comforting me at the moment," he admitted. "I just wish I knew why the professor acted so unreasonably over one mistake I made when I've done so well on everything else."
Lillian looked down at the rough little piece of notepad paper she was absentmindedly creasing. It was quickly becoming an unmanageable habit for the girl to tear up any paper she could find into neat pocket-sized stacks of squares for practice. For the moment, there were no evident changes in the dimensions of the quadrate fragment in her hands; yet there were infinitesimal lines of delicate patterns traversing all over the surface of the paper. Nimble fingers were lovingly tracing every thin furrows and ridges with unfathomable care; a sad smile slowly stretched across Lillian's face as her affections steadily subsided. With a sigh of an emotion akin to motherly grief, she held out the thin paper piece to a surprised Harbin.
"Miss Kazakov," the pale man spluttered. "You do know I have disgusting muck on my hands, right?"
"It doesn't matter. Try making something out of this."
"And how does this relate to anything?"
"You will find the answer easily enough, ceteris paribus," Lillian said as she swiftly turned around and began walking towards the exit. "I believe Father is quite similar to someone whom I admire very much. The only fundamental difference between the two is …"
The man scowled as the back of the pondering adolescent girl slowly retreated back into the darkness. "Wait! The only fundamental difference between the two is what?"
He didn't think she answered him. All he heard was the low crackling of leaves scampering across the concrete floor. All the man wanted were answers. Soiled fingers, once immaculate, fiercely tightened their grip on the little square piece of paper.