"Hey, Zahle! Who'd ya fuck to get that A this time?" A young man sporting a bomber with his college's emblem calls out from a distance. His peers snicker around him, and they too have their eyes locked on Hayden as he passes them by. With a nonchalant front, he flips them the bird and smirks at their scoffing, ignoring their outrage as he makes his way for his first class of the school year.

Fourth year. Spring. University life is frustrating, but for Hayden, the grind is all the same. The sight of blooming flowers and excited freshmen are meant to refresh his eyes after a long and dreary summer filled with heaps of papers and books, but the slightest thought of optimism irks him. Behind all those smiles are mouths shaped and set to spread baseless rumors, needless gossip, and dubious hearsay. It doesn't matter who, what, when, or where-for him, everyone is all and the same. Even the sweetest of faces hide their own dirty secrets behind the cleanest of intentions.

Hayden passes by the faculty office and takes a quick peek at a sheet of paper pinned on the bulletin by the door. The Dean's Honor List, it reads, and written right under it is his name. Hayden Zahle. GPA 3.8/4. A proud smile lines his face as he walks off, ignoring the petty whispers from the crowd that surrounds the board. His classroom's just a couple of doors away-under two minutes of enduring stares and gossip.

Sitting alone at his favorite corner by the door, he slides off his bag and drops it on his desk. He sees new and familiar faces alike from his seat, but as he's about to take out a notebook, everyone's eyes are on him like he's at the center of the spotlight. The professor eyes him from the top of his glasses and hums.

"It's a pleasure seeing you in my class this semester, Zahle," the man-around his early forties or so-greets with half a smile. "Will I be seeing you next meeting or will we meet again during the preliminaries?"

The class looks at each other with hushed laughter.

"I watch my absences rather keenly, Mr. Olsen," Hayden retorts with cunning.

"You have them planned out already? I admire your forethought."

"For someone who's used to this, I'll take that as a compliment."

His classmates' grins shift into grimaces and begin to whisper among themselves. "He's got balls to tell that to the prof." "How can he be so proud of his shitty attitude?" "I guess the rumors were right after all." Their criticisms cease only when the professor hushes them to mark the start of the class. The bell rings, and out comes everyone's pens as they hear marker squeaks across the large whiteboard.

• • •

In Hayden's next class, the doors slam open and everyone's heads turn towards the back entrance. In comes a slender yet haggard young man with unkempt hair, sweats, and a parka-his fashion sense screaming 'I grabbed the closest thing I can find so I won't miss the train' more than anything else.

"Desmond Irvine!" the professor chides. "You have the gall to be late in your first class!"

Desmond pinches the area between his brows and moseys to an empty seat. "Professor, please… Not too loud… I have a really bad headache right now…"

"Great, now we get two whores in the same room," one of the students in the third row whispers. His seatmate snickers, but stops upon witnessing the professor's glare, not wishing to incur her wrath. Still, murmurs and whispers float around the classroom as the lecture goes on. Simply put, Hayden's classmates find him just as detestable.

"For goodness' sake, all you shut up and settle down!" the irate professor exclaims, and her voice echoes within the now-silent lecture hall. "Mr. Irvine, sit down and try to keep your nightly activities to a minimum. For this semester, at least."

The class' whispers return as the professor starts to load up her presentation, with most of the students complaining about why they had to be in the same room as 'those two freaks'. Others reiterate the gossip about him-his alleged favors with older men in order to fund his nightlife and clubbing tendencies and his desire to live in the lap of luxury. The hearsays began when students often spotted him with white-collared men by his side. And those aforementioned men even pick up him after class, leading most to believe that he must be pretty good in bed for them to go all the way for him.

Even the girls feel a bit bested by the stories. They have their own sense of confidence, but being stuck hooking up with other college students while this one dude's raking in dough with his body by hanging around affluent businessmen? It's a dream that nobody will ever admit to having, but secretly want all at the same time. Still, at least this explains why Desmond's got designer stuff around, perhaps?

And yet, they're nothing but stories. Or are they? Desmond remains unfazed and continues to take notes in silence, but then his phone vibrates in his pocket, distracting him from the lecture. He takes it halfway out of his pocket and peeks at the screen.

"Let's see… A message from Editor Yan, and…"

A sinking feeling wells in his stomach as he reads the other notification.

"Bloody hell, not again," he sighs as he quickly tucks his phone back into his pocket and regains his focus.

However, some students three seats away from him sneer and jeer among themselves after glancing at Desmond's fishy behavior from the corner of their eyes. "Guess he's gotten another daddy," one of them whispers and giggles. Despite being a few feet away, Desmond can still hear them loud and clear, but he couldn't care any less. He has bigger and more frightening dilemmas, after all.

• • •

Soon, the day ends. Their classes, at least. Hayden peels his sleeve and peeks at his watch before heading out of his last lecture. At this hour of the night, the university grounds are chock full of students hanging at benches under the cherry trees-their leaves leaving beautiful shadows like natural pinholes. Lampposts line the flagstone paths with stringed sphere lights between them. There are couples basking in their own world at the dimmer ends and groups of friends laughing together in a semicircle near the center of the field. All in all its a beautiful night to enjoy the stars, but Hayden wants nothing of it.

He passes by the chipper folks with the same so-called resting bitch face everyone seems to recognize him by and ignores every person who bothers to tell him 'hi', regardless if it were out of insult or-no matter how rare it is-sheer cordiality. Hayden can wish to have people by his side like the lively students at the park like a normal person, but he doesn't. The sense of isolation comforts him greater than the presence of companions, especially if said companions are two-faced.

With nowhere else to go for the night, he decides to head back to his dorm, but the sound of his stomach growling urges him to make a stop for the convenience store. With open palms, he pushes the door open and a blast of cool air hits his face. He makes his way for the instant noodle aisle and scans the shelves for his favorite brand. Much to his disappointment, only one cup remains and while he isn't picky, Hayden believes it's best to treat himself after a long day of bitching at his so-called peers. He has the right to be picky, even if it's only for the day.

As he's about to take hold of the instant ramen, he encounters a familiar young man dressed in casual sweats, a jacket, and tousled hair. Whether the guy's lazy beyond reason or wishes to be the comfiest man alive is none of Hayden's business. All he wants is the ramen and nothing else. He's much too stressed and hungry to act as a generous saint right now.

"Hey, you," Hayden growls. "There's a bunch of other stuff on the shelves, so back off. That's mine."

"Nah," the man lazily retorts as he tries to muster his strength to claim his prize. "See my hand? I got it first."

Hayden takes a closer look at the man and realizes that he's one of his classmates in one of his electives. Although he can't remember his name-as he does with most people-he does know that he's the one guy everyone else's talking about who gets loads of cash by hanging out with older men-if he's to base it off from the stories he keeps hearing.

"Well, whatever," Hayden scowls as he puts more force into taking the lone cup of ramen. "You're making an awfully poor decision to test the patience of a very hungry man. Now, let go."

"Like hell I am!" the lad hisses. "Imma need to be up all night, ya hear? Hand it over!"

Now at the edge of his patience, Hayden decides to shove him off and the other tries to elbow him, but their rash actions lead to the ramen flying and rolling off to the next aisle. In an instant, both men rush to the other side and nearly dogpile over each other on the way as they fight for the noodles, making for an entertaining scene for the salespeople and other customers. By the time they reach the other aisle, they watch in tragedy as their prize sits in the cart of a woman in her fifties.

"Now look at what you've done!" Hayden growls in frustration, balling his fists and ready for a fist fight. Never mess with a hungry man and his food.

"What I've done? This was all your fault," his now-sworn-enemy scoffs and rolls his eyes. "If ya hadn't shoved me, that thing wouldn't have flown off like a bloody rocket to the other aisle," Desmond goes on with a deadpan face.

Hayden-now fuming and unable to form a coherent retort-is up and ready to slam his knuckles near Desmond's face. However, Desmond manages to intercept his punch before he can land a hit by blocking it with an open fist.

"Geez, dude, you oughta stop before ya make this scene much worse than it is," Desmond sighs. "Look here, but I have other things to do. So be a dear and let me off just this once, if ya want…"

He then rummages through his pockets and shoves the irate Hayden a hundred dollar bill.

"Have this as a bit of compensation."

As Hayden's about to throw a fit. Desmond's phone rings and the latter takes a glance at it before running out of the store.

"What an asshat!" Hayden scowls as he crumples the bill in his pocket. He may be broke, but he still has his pride, and yet again money is still money. He continues to browse the store for something to eat in displeasure, but the displayed food no longer cater to his taste buds.

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