At first, Thalia Harper didn't understand why his teeth caught her gaze. Perhaps it was an old instinct, passed down through millennia from an ancestor that used to scurry beneath the feat of dinosaurs. Whenever he talked, her gaze drifted to his maw, with his rows of sharp teeth. And her heart did, indeed, thrum a little harder.
But she didn't think it was out of fear.
When she went back to college at thirty-four, she wondered if - almost hoped - she'd reignite some form of excitement in her life. After dropping out at twenty to have a baby with an abusive deadbeat that eventually disappeared, she'd struggled to maintain friendships, passions, and hobbies while "single momming" it up. Now, with her baby a ripe old age of fourteen and her career as a writer for games, Thalia itched for something else.
It had been her darling Taryn's suggestion she go back to college to pursue whatever classes caught her interest. In reality, Taryn probably just wanted to have their friends over without Thalia around and being a general, parental embarrassment.
So, Thalia found herself in a dark corner of the campus library, sitting across a table from Maktov Algrise the shadow demon, trying to plan out a group animation project.
Like her, he was on the older end of the college-goer spectrum. From their first day, he'd introduced himself as a 'reborn college student' with some number of work years under his belt. True to his kin, his physical form was swathed in darkness, like a corporeal aura currently wearing glasses, dark blue jeans, and a button-up white shirt. It made guessing his age almost impossible.
Those teeth, though, were anything but physical. Large and sharp and catching the light just right. They never failed to draw her eye. Goosebumps skirted over her skin as she wondered how they'd feel raking across the flesh of her neck or sinking, gently, into her shoulder.
"Are you even listening?" Exasperation rasped through Maktov's voice, drawing Thalia's eye from his mouth to his completely white eyes. He let out a sigh and, though he lacked pupils, she got the sense he was rolling his eyes at her.
Frustration peppered Maktov's thoughts. He knew little when it came to his classmates and, honestly, he preferred it that way. Had he known this particular teacher would expect group work, he would've avoided it. It was too late now.
"Yes, of course I'm listening," Thalia replied, indignantly, crossing her arms as heat licked across her face. Faintly, she wished the other members of the group had deigned to show up. But, the others were 20-somethings, with more classes or jobs or parties to attend.
"Then what was I saying?" He didn't lean across the table. Maktov sat ramrod straight, head inclined just slightly to indicate curious annoyance. People stared at him. Who wouldn't stare at the shadow man with sharp teeth and pupiless eyes? It wasn't as if his people were common, like lycans and vampires and orcs. He was used to it, but this woman was so blatant. Didn't she even have the courtesy to be discreet?
Thalia pressed her lips together at his challenge, mind scrabbling to recall his words she only half-listened to. "You were complaining about how hard it was to divvy up the work when over half the group couldn't come."
Even before Maktov began speaking, she knew she'd missed something important. The darkness around him became prickly, like the way an agitated dog's fur stood on end. "And I asked you what your skills were, to which you answered by staring at my mouth."
Her mouth snapped open, ready to deny or make an excuse, before her lips pressed tightly together. Maktov's darkness whipped with agitation and his white eyes narrowed with displeasure. Now wasn't the time to make excuses. But she couldn't bring herself to admit his mouth, and his teeth, fascinated her.
He heaved a sigh, standing as he collected his strewn items from the table. The fortitude for such an interaction, with other finals looming over his head, exhausted him. Bitter annoyance clipped into his deep voice as he spoke, "Look, if you can't work with me, we should talk to the professor. Get a group reassignment."
"Why wouldn't I work with you?" She blinked, confused at the sudden shift from her classmate. Suddenly, their dusty dark corner felt colder. The ambient sounds of the library faded away as Thalia focused on Maktov.
He didn't bother pausing in stacking up his items. "Fear, bigotry, discomfort. Take your pick, I'm no stranger to the reasons."
She'd gasp and declare her innocence, he knew, affronted at the very implication. This song and dance was all too common.
"I don't have a problem with you." Thalia frowned, brows furrowing. Why in the world would he think that? When Maktov's movements paused and his eyes darted to her face, she tensed. That was wrong of her to say. She should've apologized for making him uncomfortable. This was obviously a sore spot.
"Ah, so you were staring, because you like my pearly smile." At those sarcastic words, Maktov's maw split wide, showing off his rows of sharp, interlocking teeth. He expected her to flinch and pull back, like a small animal in the face of a greater predator. Maybe she'd stutter out a denial, despite the fact they'd both know the truth.
Thalia didn't flinch, though. Her gaze flickered to his smile, following the edges of his teeth, then away. Silence fell between the two. Thalia shifted awkwardly in her seat, the heat intensifying across her face. Biting her bottom lip, she slotted the words together stiltedly, "I cannot deny an inexplicable... interest in your teeth."
She swallowed as the silence quickly returned. His eyes were on her, leering. Bracing herself, Thalia waited for the outrage at her inappropriate behavior to come crashing out of Maktov.
All she got, however, was a simple, "What."
The word wasn't a question. The word was pure bafflement and confusion, with just a hint of realization. It hinted at the swirl of clashing thoughts inside Maktov's mind.
Thalia groaned, putting her head in her hands. For that moment, it felt as if the world was hyper-focused on them, as the outside world seemed to silence entirely. "Can we get back to the project? Please?"
She didn't look up until she heard Maktov sit. As if nothing happened, he had a pen and notebook out, scribbling something down on the page. He seemed resigned as he sighed, "Fine. What are you good at?"
"I'm a writer by trade, so I can make up a story for whatever we need." Relief flitted through Thalia as the focus shifted. She didn't want a different group nor did she want Maktov frustrated by her staring.
The overall project wasn't that daunting for a writer: A three to five minute animated short. Though, it was a final project, so tensions were high for good grades. Thalia was confident she could write something sufficient and assist in other areas.
Maktov only grunted in reply, scribbling something down in his notebook. He tried to focus on the chore at hand and not consider all the thoughts swarming him.
When the silence dragged on a breath too long, she prompted, "What about you?"
"Artist," he replied tersely. His shoulders tensed, trying to hang on to his anger at the absent members. Anger was easier than whatever else was whorling about his head. "Which means I'll probably do the bulk of the work, since the others can't be bothered to come."
"I can probably help with some of that." Thalia frowned again, growing tired of his bad attitude. He glanced at her, something shifting in the shadows around his face. Was he cocking an eyebrow at her? She shifted under the look, heat roiling in her stomach. "I'm not, like, a master artist, but I storyboard my scenes, sometimes."
"I'll keep that in mind." Around them, the sound of a bustling library filled the silence between them. Pages turning, people whispering, the softened footfalls of sneakers on business grade carpet, someone giggling between the stacks. In an effort to not stare at her partner, Thalia's gaze gleaned over their surroundings. Maktov shifting in his seat caught her eye, though. "It's probably a good idea to keep designs simple, so it'll be quicker and you can help."
"We still need music, sound effects, and title cards. Maybe voice acting." His bit of give encouraged Thalia, considering what else would have to be done for the project. There was plenty of work to spread around. "The others can do that, since they could do it at home. We just need to e-mail them."
He grumbled, grudgingly, "I suppose."
More silence. Thalia shifted in her seat, awkwardness turning the quiet into tension. Undoubtedly, he was still frustrated with her from earlier. Or maybe her 'interest' in his teeth displeased him. She wasn't exactly a spry college girl, after all, and most men seemed to prefer obscenely younger 'quarry.' Dissatisfaction pursed her lips at the thought.
"Well, we've at least figured who's doing what!" Thalia stood, a smile stretched across her lips as she forced the amicable tone. "Should I e-mail the rest of the group? Or would you like the duty?"
"If you have their e-mails, you do it." He took his phone, snapping a picture of what he'd written, before tearing the paper from his notebook. Shoving the paper toward her, he curtly said, "Here."
She took the paper, glancing over Maktov's impressive handwriting. It was a list of things that had yet to be assigned, with particular - absent - group members beside each one. Strange. He didn't seem to have their e-mails - if he did, he'd have e-mailed them himself, Thalia surmised - but he thought he knew who would be best acclimated to specific duties? Shrugging, she folded the paper snugly into her current reading material. "Is online conferencing okay with you? I'm not sure we can get everyone to meet at one time... obviously."
"Yes," replied Maktov, also getting to his feet. He wanted to retreat and meditate on this situation. Thalia tried to ignore how much taller he seemed, close up, after admiring him from afar for most the semester. "Messaging and video calls should work well."
"Okay," she adjusted her hold on her armful of books, binders, and notebooks. Chewing on the inside of her cheek, Thalia realized she didn't quite want to say good-bye. But her earlier transgressions made her guts prickle. He wouldn't want to linger, anyway. Another smile forced its way to her lips as she looked up at him. "Well, I'll see you around, then."
He simply nodded in return, but that was it.
Turning quickly, Thalia strode from the library. Her scrunched shoulders burned, as if she could feel Maktov's stare heat across her back. It took all her willpower to not glance back. Gods, when she decided to head back to college, she didn't anticipate acting like an awkward, overly-hormonal young adult again.