Malcolm enjoyed going into the city.

In contrast to the quiet countryside around Lawson, it was everything he missed since his family had gone rural nearly eight years ago. The skyline of towering buildings; the ribbons of concrete roadways. And the bustling crowds of different people. So many shops; so many different sights. It was everything that the country life wasn't.

Still, Malcolm couldn't quite calm the anticipation building in his stomach today. This wasn't a fun jaunt for the afternoon or even to visit old friends-though Chase was in the driver's seat today, more or less coming along for the ride. Today everything would change. These old, familiar sights weren't as comforting as Malcolm had hoped they would be. He tried to calm his nerves the night before with the reassurance that he would get to see the city on this pivotal of all trips.

"Oh, that sucks," Chase muttered, glancing over the concrete barrier of their two-tiered overpass. Below was a wide avenue lined with several colorful storefronts and eateries. "They closed Parrett's Creative Arts. I loved that place."

Malcolm chuckled nervously, not entirely listening to his buddy. "That place stopped being fun when we were in eighth grade. Just a place for kids, anyway."

"Yeah, but that was an essential part of childhood. Seeing it torn down is just…sad."

Malcolm wondered how essential an adult supervised arts and crafts activity center really was to childhood, but the thought quickly faded to the backdrop of anxiety currently flooding his mind. The finality of it all was what seemed to be the most daunting. Sure, there were plenty of opportunities to hitch a ride back on long weekends and holidays.

But this was going to be his new home.

Chase absentmindedly scanned through his player's music list, not quite fond of anything in particular. He finally settled on an old pop song Malcolm first remembered hearing with…

Malcolm frowned. That was strange. A face and a memory seemed attached to this song, but he couldn't quite place it. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more the face seemed obscure and fuzzy. Maybe it was in a movie or something.

The sun was off to their left, glaring through the side windows of pre-noon by the time they had made the loop around downtown. Now they were headed into the southern greenbelt. There were a lot more suburbs off the freeways and plenty of work-bound traffic in the opposite lanes. Some of it was headed south with them, putting them in the thick of later commuters. This worried Malcolm more, because he didn't want to be late. It was trouble enough moving, but getting settled in was something he wanted finished by the first day. There would plenty else to worry about in the coming weeks.

He was relieved to see the exit sign for Grandview flash by down the highway.

"Almost there!" exclaimed Chase. "Then college boy will be off on another grand ol' adventure."

"Meh. Adventure," Malcolm murmured. "You still have time to help me unpack, yeah?"

Chase checked his watch. "Yeah, shouldn't take long. My mom knows it's a long drive."

Malcolm was about to add that between the three of them they could have it all done in five minutes—he hadn't packed much; the basic necessities of living, and a few food items. Though he had to remind himself that his new roommate probably wouldn't be there. And the feeling persisted that between the three of them, it would be a quick unpack.

Malcolm was trying to figure out who this third person was that he couldn't quite remember when he saw the campus flash into view.

Chase whistled. "Looks more expensive in person."

There was an old, gothic styled building dominating the center of a large, green lawn. Smaller, similarly designed buildings jutted off in various places around the main campus. The grounds were largely vacant, a few of the new students milling about before the start of the semester. They all wore flashy new school clothes in contrast to Malcolm's bland T-shirt and jeans.

"Jackson University is actually one of the cheapest in the country," Malcolm added absentmindedly, his eyes wandering over a few of the female students in their colorful, low-cut outfits. "Tuition alone makes going to UMKC seem like paying for Harvard."

Chase shrugged. Malcolm knew he had interests in heading out east to MU to take part in their nuclear engineering program. Not a cheap education by any means, which probably made his comment seem like he was taking shots at Chase's goals. He hadn't meant it that way.

"I just mean, Jackson is more up my alley of affordability."

Chase glanced his way with a toothy grin. "Dude, whatever! I knew that was aimed at me and don't deny it!"

"It wasn't! I swear!"

Chase laughed. "Just messin' with you."

They wound through the little sub-development of student housing and neighborhoods before finally pulling into the apartment complex marked simply as Grandview Towers. Malcolm scowled at the sign; the complex was two stories tall. So much for towering.

Malcolm felt a vibration in his pocket and fished out his phone. It was a text message from his new roommate. "Down by the stairs. Meet you there."

"I guess we were expected," said Malcolm. He glanced up and around the complex. Not much further in, they spotted the guy waving to them from across a grassy roundabout.

Chase pulled in to the nearest vacant spot and the two piled out of the car. The guy by the stairs walked casually over to meet them, his glossy black hair almost shining in the early day light. He took Malcolm's hand in a steady grasp.

"Evan Stow," he said with a subdued smile. "And I'm guessing you're Malcolm Reeves."

"That's me," Malcolm replied evenly. "My buddies— buddy Chase is the one who actually drove me down."

Evan exchanged greetings with Chase while Malcolm took a moment to gaze around his new surroundings. So this was going to be home for the next little while.

"Let me give you a hand getting things up," Evan said, interrupting his thoughts.

"Wow, thanks," Malcolm replied. "I didn't know if you would be around when we pulled in."

"Planned on it," Evan said, hoisting a box out of the back seat. "Plus, I'm having a little shindig later tonight. Wanted to make sure you were all settled by then."

Malcolm felt a stone drop in his stomach. "Here at the apartment?"

"If that's okay with you."

Great. So he was getting right into it. Of course, he was only paying for half the rent and utilities, so it was only natural that Evan would have his own friends and events. Malcolm had hoped that his assessment from their phone conversations was a little more accurate; that Evan was typically a quieter guy. Not the one to be throwing social events and what not.

"Sure," Malcolm replied. Thinking on it now, it wasn't going to be anything crazy, right? A few friends over; no loud music, nothing crazy. Besides, it would probably be good for him. Help meet some of the new folks. "It won't be a problem at all."

Evan seemed to lighten up, a genuine smile taking shape. He also looked a little relieved. "It'll be great. I promise nothing crazy."

Malcolm nodded, following as they marched up to the second floor. The apartment space wasn't much bigger than his basement rec room back in Lawson, but he had expected as much. It would be a change adapting to an apartment lifestyle. One bathroom, separate bedrooms, a small kitchenette, and a front living room. The living space was a lot smaller than what he was used to.

But he was grateful to find the bed and desk in his new room as promised in the ad. The white walls were all bare; a few nail holes from whatever the previous occupant had decided to hang. The carpet was also fairly worn. For one person, it wasn't too shabby at all. Malcolm tried to imagine himself seated at that desk, his laptop open to whatever new homework assignment was current. He also tried to imagine the walls decorated with his various projects and schemes. Most of those were back home, plastered around his old bedroom wall. This would give him a fresh start.

Malcolm turned, about ready to mention to Chase that they could finally get a full map on this wall, but the thought froze on his tongue. The thought hadn't been directed at Chase. He didn't even have any current projects with Chase that involved a map. In fact, as far as Malcolm could remember, he didn't have any current projects with any of his friends from Lawson. Where had this whole map idea come from?

Malcolm exhaled, heading back out and down to the car. Someone was definitely missing from this picture. Someone he was certain was supposed to have come down with him and Chase today. But the more he racked his brains about it, the more he could only conclude that he needed to get himself a girlfriend.

When they had finished the last box, the three of them gathered on the sidewalk by Chase's car outside.

"We've got a little extra time," said Chase. "Want to head downtown?"

Malcolm shook his head. "Nah. I'll just unpack and settle in. We'll have time for hanging out later."

Chase shrugged. "Suit yourself. I'm still stopping by Casey's Restaurant on my way back up."

Evan made a face. "Not exactly my first choice."

"You're loss too!" Chase slapped Malcolm on the back—the closest they ever really got to giving hugs—and hopped back in his driver's seat. "Have fun, college boy!"

Malcolm watched him pull out of the parking lot, feeling a part of his old life drive off with him. Even with Evan standing beside him, he suddenly felt completely and utterly alone.

"C'mon," said Evan, turning back to the stairs. "I'll help you get unpacked. First time out on your own, right?"

"Yeah," Malcolm muttered in reply. Very first time.

"Don't worry. I'll get you properly introduced tonight. You'll find your niche."

Malcolm followed him back inside. He wasn't sure if he would make a whole lot of new friends right away. But at least he had plenty to do to keep him busy.

0.0.0

It was around seven later that evening when Malcolm pulled his ear buds out, faintly catching the activity and conversation in the living room outside. He had been shut in his room most of the evening, several scraps of paper scattered around his desk. Pencil in hand, he added a few finishing touches to the machine coils on his latest project; a loose concept of a starship engine. A few notes scattered around the page gave general descriptions for each aspect, but he wasn't sure if he had the specifics in mind. He would need another sheet of paper for that.

Someone knocked on his door. After inviting them in, he glanced over his shoulder to see the silhouette of a girl in the entryway. Malcolm's eyes adjusted in the darkness, during which time he realized he hadn't even turned on his room light.

"Evan sent me to find you," she began, her voice relaxed and even. She put a hand on her hip, cocking her head quizzically. "Don't tell me you've already started on homework."

Malcolm stood, pushing his papers aside. "No, no. Just…doodling." He reached for his desk lamp, finally casting some illumination on the gal who had come to fetch him.

She stood nearly half a foot taller than him, a fact that became apparent now that he was standing too. She had short, sun-bleached blonde hair that was almost as white as her skin. A pair of small, square-rimmed glasses sat perched in front of her pale blue eyes. She was a lankly girl, little more than skin and bones.

She was also staring at him expectantly. "Well, you're not going to keep me waiting, are you?"

Malcolm snapped to, walking forward. "Sorry. I was just vegetating in here. Lost track of time."

The girl stood aside, letting him out into the hall before following him into the living room.

"Well at least come vegetate with us. Much more exciting."

Malcolm quickly found himself a seat by the kitchen counter. Once seated, he took a moment to actually survey the room. There were about six new faces altogether, a couple on the futon with Evan, the rest scattered around on the floor. The girl that had come to retrieve him took a spot on the floor next to his chair.

"I'm Dakota Lowery, by the way." She extended a hand, which Malcolm obliged.

"Malcolm Reeves." He turned his attention to the rest of the group, who had all glanced his way now. Suddenly he felt very self-conscious and repeated his name to everyone automatically.

"Malcolm is my new roommate," said Evan. "From way up north, didn't you say?"

"Yeah, little town called Lawson. Nothing really out there."

They went through the standard list of questions: was this his first semester of college, what he was studying, and a few other generic inquiries that were easy for Malcolm to answer without thinking too much. He learned a few of their names, and that all of them lived in the same apartment complex. Apparently Friday night was "hang-out-at-Evan's-place" and had been a long-standing tradition. Malcolm smiled and nodded automatically, muttering that he was glad to meet them and looking forward to the semester.

Then he sat back quietly as the group launched back into conversation, none of which held any real interest or relevance to Malcolm. As long as he sat quietly and turned his head to whoever was talking, he felt he could go unnoticed.

That is, except for the girl named Dakota.

"You don't have to be so quiet. I promise we aren't all as crazy as we look."

Malcolm turned to meet her gaze. She looked bemused by his expression. He tried to shrug it off. "Sorry. Just new and I guess I feel mostly like a fish out of water."

"It's okay to feel like a fish out of water. But then you evolve, sprout some legs, and learn to breathe air."

"Ha ha," he replied dryly. "I see what you did there."

She gave her head a swift jerk, shifting some of the stray hair out of her face. "Tell me about yourself. Why JUM?"

"Why Jackson?" Malcolm repeated. "It was cheaper. I didn't want to rack up a bunch of student loans."

Dakota nodded, thinking silently about it. "Is that the only reason you came here?"

Malcolm opened his mouth to reply, hesitated, and smiled sheepishly with a shrug. "Pretty much. Didn't really have much of a plan. Go to school. Take some classes. Hope for the best."

"Well what do you like to do? What's your passion?"

Malcolm felt very perturbed talking to this random stranger about these things. He wasn't even so sure he knew himself. But the question brought out some interesting answers.

"I guess I would love to pursue something in engineering. I suck hardcore at math, though, so I don't know if I'll actually go that route."

Dakota smiled knowingly. "I hate math just as much. But the sciences only have one language, and unfortunately that's math."

"Oh, so you're going to be a scientist," Malcolm replied. "The kind in white lab coats that mixes beakers and plays with super computers?"

"Super computers, maybe, but I think I'd rather go spelunking in a volcano before I mix any beakers."

Malcolm's eyes widened a little with surprise. Not exactly a typical answer. "You want to be a geologist?"

It was Dakota's turn to shrug. "Whatever takes me to fantastic places. Marine biologists, geologist, NASA rover controller…if it takes me into the wild, I'd go for it."

So she's an adventurer, Malcolm thought to himself. "Well what about being an astronaut?"

Something flickered in her eyes and she smiled sadly. "That's kind of a dead career field, these days."

Malcolm nodded in understanding. "Know what you mean. I remember when they launched the very last Space Shuttle mission. Broke my heart. But there's got to be some hope in these private corporations, yeah?"

"Not much, to be honest," she replied. "Not unless you want to spend most of your time on the ground designing equipment that's too expensive to build."

Malcolm cocked his head, staring off into space. "I don't know. Designing is half the fun in my opinion."

"Ah yes, you were going to be the engineer, weren't you? Is that what you were doing in your room all by yourself? Doodling some new spacecraft?"

Malcolm blushed, looking down at his feet. Dakota lit up. "That was what you were drawing, wasn't it?"

"It was nothing more than a fantasy. Just a warp drive, if you could call it that."

Dakota laughed to herself. "Oh, we've got a class-A nerd right here, don't we? Well have no fear, you're among friends."

Malcolm chuckled. Well, at least he had made one friend tonight.

The two of them ended up talking for some time. It was about the time he was getting to know how she got her name that the others were starting to leave. They said a quick goodbye to Malcolm, welcoming him once more before heading out the door.

Malcolm waved after them and then turned his attention back to Dakota. "Don't tell me your parents were feeling trendy," he replied mischievously.

She shook her head, grinning. "No. My family had some long-time friends from northern Pennsylvania. They had a boy and named him Dakota, and so I guess my parents decided to follow suite when they had me."

Malcolm blinked, a devious smile crossing his face. "Oh wait, so you're telling me they had a kid up north named Dakota, and then you down south and named you Dakota?"

She scrunched up her nose, confused. "Yes?"

"Well that's it, then; you're officially South Dakota."

She made the same dry laugh he had made earlier. "Oh how clever of you."

"Hey, it's your parents' fault. Any time you have two Dakotas, you have to figure out some way to differentiate between the two of them."

"True, true."

They talked longer and longer, until Dakota was the last one from the original group. Evan had joined them on the floor. Now it was only the three of them. Malcolm could tell she was a bit of a nerd herself, which wasn't such a bad thing. Of all the people to meet on his first day here, he was glad she was one of them.

"Well some of us intend to get to bed at a decent hour tonight," she finally said, checking her watch.

She pushed herself up, stretching her stiff limbs from sitting on the floor for the last three hours. Evan accepted a hug from her.

"Sorry Mandy wasn't able to make it out."

Evan shrugged. "She's got a huge performance this weekend. She'll no doubt be up to her elbows in work."

"Well, tell her I said hi." She then turned, offering Malcolm a hug as well.

"Oh, well, okay," Malcolm stuttered, pushing himself up. "I'm usually not a hugging kind of guy."

Dakota laughed, giving him an extra squeeze just help make the moment that much more awkward. "Peace out, Malcolm."

"See you later, South."

When she was gone, Evan chuckled to himself. "You two hit it off pretty fast."

Malcolm shrugged. "I guess. Who was that gal, Mandy, you were asking about?"

"Another friend. Well, a close friend."

Malcolm smiled, nodding. So there was some interest there, and perhaps a little sadness that she hadn't made it out to his shindig. "What kind of a performance were you referring to?"

"Oh?" Evan laughed. "Well, she's actually an assistant director for one of the companies at the Performing Arts Center downtown. She's working on a production of Othello."

Malcolm nodded, impressed. "Well hopefully you get to make it out to it."

"Already got the tickets."

Malcolm lumbered back to his bedroom, glancing down at the rough sketches of his starship drive on his desk. Maybe Dakota was that third buddy he felt like he was missing. He didn't want to get his hopes worked up. But it would be good to have a new, familiar face to count on in this distant place he was going to call home.