The first time he noticed her they were in the darkroom. He actually saw her photograph first, his eyes skimming over it and then returning in surprise with the realisation that it was nearly as good as some of his own. Very strange, and not unpleasing; it would be nice to have someone around who, if not exactly competition, should at least be competent enough to appreciate how good he was. He almost said something, opening his mouth to offer a comment like "That's not bad" or "I like the contrast between the texture of the fabric and the wood".
If he had, the trouble might have been avoided.
But he didn't.
Before he could say anything, she glanced up at the clock, gave the fixer tray a final swirl, and then plucked the picture out and held it between her forefinger and thumb to shake off the drips; and that was the point at which everything else became inevitable.
At the time, it irritated him only slightly. The year before he had enjoyed being the only one in the group to use his fingers instead of the tongs, ignoring the sting of chemicals in small cuts and enjoying the stains and the odour that would cling to his hands; it suited his view of himself as the absent-minded artist, too involved in aesthetics and ideas to bother reaching for the helpful apparatus when there was a natural alternative at, and indeed of, hand. Still, the fact that she'd compromised his uniqueness in this one respect didn't mean that she was necessarily a bad person; although now that he was seeing it without the distorting effect of the fixer he decided that the photo she'd been developing wasn't actually that good after all.
Later in the week, he found out that she was in the same painting tutorial as he was. For three weeks he almost ignored her, glancing occasionally at her work and always finding himself glad - though not relieved, never relieved, because he had of course had no doubts - that although she was certainly technically proficient, and moderately imaginative, and easily the best in the class apart from himself, his work was still clearly superior. He therefore continued to paint extremely well, and to look preoccupied, and to accidentally smear paint across his face; and when she turned up one day with her hair down, and had to twist it around a pencil into a ragged bun, he ignored that too. It was mildly absent-minded, he supposed, but nothing remarkable.
The week after that, he watched her reflection in the window as she stepped back from a watercolour sketch and squinted. It was a good painting; there was no point in denying it. Still, she didn't have a chance of getting the year level prize away from him, no matter how many pencils she stuck in her hair. Pencils or art supplies of any sort, he added to the thought, as she took the brush out of the water jar she was holding and flicked a droplet off before tucking it behind her ear; she could even drink the murky paint water if she wanted and it still wouldn't make any difference.
The thought occurred only a moment before the act did. At first, she only took a preoccupied sip as she squatted to see the painting from a different angle; but then, standing up again, still without noticing what she was doing, she swallowed the whole jarful before placing it, empty, on the table. Her eyes never left the paper until she turned around towards the sinks. As she did so, for a moment he thought that they had met his in the window, and that they had held a challenge.
When, the week after, he chewed on the wrong end of a paintbrush, and ended up with a mouthful of ultramarine acrylic, she countered by doing the same with burnt sienna oils, and having to scrub her lips and teeth with turpentine to get it off, laughing at herself all the while. He thought about taking up smoking, so that he could try to light a pastel, but instead he ended up bringing in a sheet of pita bread to nibble on and accidentally consuming a piece of cardboard instead; but the week after that, she blew her nose on the fabric from the silk-screen apparatus. He wondered how his digestive system would cope with clay. There was no longer any possibility that he was misinterpreting her actions; she was actively trying to undermine his position, and because she couldn't do it through better painting, she was doing it through more preoccupation.
This could not, he thought, be permitted. However, there is a limit to the extent to which art supplies can be reclassified as comestibles, so instead he began sitting down on his paintings in moments of thought, and not noticing that he was covered in paint. For a while, that was enough. Then she accidentally began her next painting, not on the canvas propped on the easel, but on the adjacent piece of wall.
From there, things only got worse. His work was still better than hers - he was still the only one in the group, in the year level probably, in the whole art department possibly, who could outpaint her - but he was losing on absent-mindedness, and without that, without seeming to be artier than anyone else, he no longer felt that he was. He comforted himself with the fact that at least he would stop her from getting the two thousand dollar prize at the end of the year; he was guaranteed that much, even if she was more able than he to mistake a piece of conceptual art for a sunhat. He had still beaten her at what he tried to convince himself was the most important aspect of their rivalry.
The final tutorial was over. She managed to scoop all of her books and belongings into a pile, then hurried out of the room with them clutched to her chest. He hadn't been there, but she had seen him that morning, over near the darkrooms, so that was where she went now.
He was standing in orange light crushing negatives into an enlarger. He turned around when she came in, and glared, and then turned back to what he was doing.
"Hello," she tried.
"I was going to develop a film," she said, "and the other rooms are locked. If I get everything ready first, would you mind if I turned the lights out in here? I'd only need a few minutes."
Still no answer.
After a moment she emptied her arms onto the bench and opened the cupboards. Undiluted developer, first; she measured it out and poured it into a beaker. Tested its temperature. Rummaged around for the film and some scissors.
He turned around suddenly. "I've still won, you know," he said. "I'm much better than you."
She blinked, then frowned uncertainly. "Yes, I know," she said. "I loved that thing you did with the fence and the snow."
"Oh, I'm sure you did."
She blinked again, and frowned a little more uncertainly, then walked across to the sink and turned a tap on, letting it run for a while to warm up. As she did so, he stepped over to her books and pushed a couple of them to one side, then flicked open a folder to show a thick sheaf of photographs: umbrellas, mostly, massed in crowds or open and floating down a river. "Cheap surrealism," he said. "It's not bad, for what it is, but what it is isn't much." And he turned around.
And she was watching him, and testing the water temperature now; but not with the thermometer.
She had immersed the clock.
For a moment he stopped breathing. That was it. That was enough. He was a better artist, he knew he was, and he was going to act like it. He cast his eyes around the room, searching for something to prove himself with. Paper towels. Plastic trays. Taps. Tongs, of course. And then, out of the corner of one eye, he saw the developer she'd prepared. The developer; yes, that would do it.
He reached back, picked up the beaker, and swallowed every drop.
And as he put it down again, he thought he saw her smiling.