Theo waited in line at the student canteen to get a decent, cheap dinner. While sliding his tray over the metal bars at the edge of the serving counter, he scanned the food containers behind the glass windows to check what options were available to him.
As always at that time of day, an hour before the canteen closed at seven p.m., not much was left, aside from a few crowd-pleasers such as mashed potatoes, sausages, and meatballs, along with a couple of bowls of soup.
Out of all those, meatballs were his favorites. He eyed the only remaining helping, hoping that none of the four people ahead of him in line would take it.
Unfortunately, the lady handling serving put the last five meatballs on a plate and handed it over the counter. If that weren’t bad enough, the person who’d taken them was none other than Zack Zel—a freshman whom Theo had had a grudge against ever since they’d first met at a marketing contest called CompetitiON two months before.
The Faculty of Economics and Business Administration in the European city of Thornburg, where Theo was a second year in the Marketing Department, provided many types of opportunities for students to gain practical experience and meet industry professionals. Among those were the two annual marketing competitions—CompetitiON, held in November, and brieFEST, held in February.
Both involved teams of students competing against each other to solve a given marketing challenge and win prizes consisting of money, free products or services, internships or work opportunities—or a combination of those.
The difference was that at CompetitiON, representatives of various businesses gave a challenge related to their brand, while at brieFEST there were members of marketing agencies giving out the briefs. A brief was a document containing information about a brand or business and its target audience, along with the desired objectives and guidelines for the campaign to be thought up and proposed by those receiving the brief. Since agencies were making the briefs for the second competition, the challenges in brieFEST were always more unpredictable than in CompetitiON.
During his freshman year, Theo had participated in CompetitiON along with Maya Hall and Derek Smith, the two classmates he’d team up with for any group project, and they’d won first place at the rebranding pitch for a certain bank. They’d also participated in last year’s brieFEST event, where they’d won a special prize in the pitch for expanding the visibility of an indie film festival.
Theo had also won scholarship money and a place in the student dorm due to great academic results, as well as popularity because of his casual networking with many students in other departments.
Freshman year had been full of wins for Theo, so he’d been feeling really good about himself and about his team’s chances of winning when they’d gotten to the pitching phase at the latest CompetitiON event, where they had to present an employee-retention campaign for a large audit company.
While waiting outside the room where the teams presented their campaign proposals to representatives from the company, Theo had noticed an unfamiliar guy sitting alone in a corner, scrolling through his phone without even taking a look around. CompetitiON didn’t have a minimum number of members per team, so it wasn’t against the rules for someone to participate by themselves. Still…it was uncommon.
Theo had assumed the guy was a freshman, and since the university year had started barely more than a month prior, he must not have gotten to know any of the other students well enough yet to form a team. Then he remembered how nervous he’d been the first time he’d participated in CompetitiON and how encouraging it had been having people around him, offering information, friendly words and support.
Theo had walked up to the guy, sat down beside him and started a conversation, discovering he’d been right. The guy, whose name was Zack Zel, was a freshman in the Management Department. He was participating by himself, and he was also about to present an employee-retention campaign for the audit company.
Most of the other teams there were presenting other types of campaign proposals for other companies. Thus, Theo hadn’t expected he’d put himself in the situation of reassuring his direct competition, especially when he felt so sure that their team had the contest in the bag. Still, he’d approached Zack to offer encouragement, so he told him that the juries in these cases were often friendly, that participants usually didn’t experience any scrutiny while presenting and that everyone had equal chances of winning.
At the end of their conversation, Theo had wished him good luck while they exchanged a firm handshake. Zack did the same, smiling widely. Theo briefly registered that Zack was really attractive with his dark hair and eyes, the five piercings on his left earlobe and even with the acne scars over his clean-shaven face. Also, with the wide smile, he looked cute and somewhat childlike.
Despite presenting at a pitch, Zack had come dressed in ripped jeans and a hoodie. As someone who always put effort into his appearance, topping it off with business-casual clothing and styled hair, Theo was drawn to people confident enough to leave their rooms with the first things they’d found in their wardrobes, such as Maya and now, Zack.
Theo had returned to his teammates to get ready because they were up next. Everything had gone well during their presentation and the jury had seemed impressed.
However, at the awards ceremony, Theo’s jaw had dropped from the shock of hearing that his team had placed second, and the winner was Zack. He’d barely stifled his dramatic reaction, and he needed all his willpower to smile for the pictures. But, when he talked to his teammates, he’d released all the bitterness, saying that the competition had been rigged and that they should ask to see the winning proposal.
Later on, when he’d found out that Zack had turned down the work opportunity offered by the audit company, only accepting the cash prize, Theo had become even more outraged, feeling personally insulted by the act. If his team had won, he and Derek would’ve likely taken that work opportunity. Maya had already been working in the industry, as did many of their classmates by their second year, and Theo had wanted to join their ranks soon. But he’d had many fears related to that, so he might’ve also declined the opportunity if Derek hadn’t gone along with him. Still, he’d felt as if Zack had unjustly taken a chance away from him only to discard it, and it had pissed Theo off.
Furthermore, Zack had acted friendly with Theo up until the award ceremony. But, apparently, after finding himself at the top of the pyramid, Zack had showed his true smug-ass colors, glaring and scoffing at Theo whenever they’d come across each other around campus, in the student dorm or at the canteen. He’d often looked at Theo like he was a roach, far beneath him.
On top of all that, today marked the sixth time Zack had taken the last serving of meatballs right when Theo was less than a minute away from getting them. It drove him nuts that Zack was seemingly snatching a bunch of things Theo wanted right from under his nose.
In the present time, at the canteen, Theo couldn’t help glaring at Zack until a female voice loudly called out to him.
“Young man, are you here to eat or sightsee?” the lady in charge of serving asked.
“Ah, sorry.” Theo realized that he’d been holding up the line while glaring at Zack. “I’ll have the mashed potatoes with sausages, please,” he said, despite not liking sausages. He’d gotten flustered and hadn’t thought about alternatives after getting pissed at Zack for taking the meatballs.
Theo turned toward Zack, who glared in his direction while paying for his food and taking his tray to a table. Theo’s eye twitched, but he forced himself to stay focused to not hold up the line again.
He took his tray and turned to scan the tables in the canteen. At a corner table, Zack was eating alone. Whenever Theo saw him, Zack was almost always alone, and Theo figured it was because Zack was too arrogant to bother himself with other people’s company.
Finally, Theo spotted the table where Maya was waiting for him.
“Took you long enough,” Maya said without malice when Theo sat across from her.
“Sorry. I wanted to finish the project for Communication Techniques so I can send it in and be done with it today.” Theo plunged his fork into one of the sausages on his plate and raised it. “Want one of these as an apology?”
Maya nodded and received the offering. “Why’d you get sausages if you dislike them?”
“I got distracted when I saw that Zack Zel was ahead of me in line. He took the last serving of meatballs again and, as always, he glared at me. My appetite was ruined three times in under five minutes.”
“Ah, I see.”
“But you don’t empathize.”
“Hey, I was also upset that we didn’t get first place after how much work we put into that campaign proposal, but it’s no use hating on the winner. Even you said that the judging had likely been fair after you’d calmed down and that we may have gotten cocky after our winning streak during freshman year. Let’s not harp over the past. We need to focus on crushing it at brieFEST.”
“Speaking of that, we gotta find a teammate by the end of next week,” Theo said, because brieFEST required a minimum of three and a maximum of five members per team, and the application phase for the contest ended on January the fourteenth.
“Yeah.” Maya sighed, then slammed a palm on the table. “I still can’t believe Derek bailed on us last minute like this. We were supposed to be The Three Marketeers. This is a betrayal.”
“Let’s not be too harsh. Derek’s been wanting a girlfriend ever since we’ve known him. Now that he’s found one, if she says ‘spend all your free time with me’, of course he’s gonna do it. With the euphoria of a new romance taking up all his brain space, he wouldn’t have focused on the contest anyway.”
“I get it, but that still leaves us with an urgent need for another teammate, preferably one with better design skills than ours.”
Within their usual team, Theo handled nearly everything related to doing research, establishing the target audience, coming up with marketing tactics and doing the planning.
Maya helped with all that, but since she’d been working for an event organizing startup, she was always in charge of anything that needed actual work experience, like making a realistic budget and media plan. Her biggest drawback was her fear of public speaking, which meant that she’d never participate in the actual presentation, leaving that part in the hands of Theo and Derek.
Derek contributed a bit to everything, but his main task was handling all the visuals required. Without a good designer to back them up, Theo and Maya’s pitch would look amateurish, regardless of how well all the other components would be handled.
“I know many people good at design, even from other departments,” Theo said. “But I don’t know who I should be asking to join us, because I’m not sure how seriously they’d take this, and I don’t wanna fill Derek’s slot at random.”
“Ah… I feel like that’s an implied ‘no’ to something I was gonna propose.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“Well,” she said, leaning forward with a grin. “Let me give you the backstory first. So, last week, I met a guy here at the canteen when we bumped into each other, and our food trays fell on the floor. Then, we cleaned up the mess while awkwardly apologizing and, afterward, we ate together. Two days later, we had another casual canteen dinner date.”
Theo chuckled. “I love how your crushes always start with a mini-disaster.”
“I hate it how they always end with a big disaster, though. So, this time, I’m gonna give myself time to get to know the guy before I move on to anything more than hanging out.”
“If you give me his name, I can find out his department, year, current residence and a few personality traits by tomorrow evening.”
“Mr. Networking’s flexing hard,” Maya joked. “It’s not necessary, though. His name’s Will Moore, he’s a third year in the Accounting Department and he lives in the same dorm as you.”
“Ah, I know him. Curly hair and broad shoulders, right? We came out of the shower stalls at the same time, so I said, ‘Hi. You’re from one of the upper floors, right?’, and he said he lives on the highest one. Their water pressure sucks in the mornings and evenings when everyone’s taking showers, so he sometimes comes to a lower floor to do it.”
“Oh, great. You know how my crush looks topless before I do.”
“The perks of living in a dorm with common bathrooms… You should come stay there, too, even if just for the eye-candy.”
“Yours is an all-guys dorm…”
“You could pass as one,” Theo joked, referring more to Maya’s way of dressing and acting than to her appearance, then getting a light kick under the table from her. “Anyway, he seems like a cool guy. I’ve stumbled upon him at the nearby stores a couple of times, too.”
“I’m glad you get along, because we might be setting up several meetings with him in the near future.”
“While we talked at dinner, I ended up bitching about the situation with Derek and us needing another teammate good at design. Will said that his roomie’s good at design and also in need of a team for brieFEST, so we could join our forces. Accounting students apparently don’t do many group projects, so Will would also like to join for the fun of it and contribute however he can. I told him that I’d talk to you about it, then get back to him with an answer.”
“I’m on board with it.”
“If Will’s roommate can actually take care of the design stuff, sure. One solution solves issues for several people. We two and Will’s roommate get to have a complete team for brieFEST, you get to learn more about your crush before deciding to date him and Will gets to be in a group project. In case Will’s roommate isn’t actually good at design, our team can have up to five members, so I’ll find someone like that to fill the slot, even if I have to do it fast.”
“Awesome! Thank you! I’ll text him and set up a meeting here in the canteen for tomorrow.”