There is, Harold thinks, a certain level of zen that can only be acquired by spending a large chunk of your high school career stuffed into a locker that smells of sweaty socks and stale lunches. The Buddha probably would have reached enlightenment by his sophomore year if he'd been cheek to cheek with his own gym sneakers when he should have been in AP Calculus. Not that Harold's been a slouch himself—he's puzzled out more than one difficult algorithm in an attempt to stave off claustrophobia over the past few years—but he has to say that developing inner peace isn't all that high on his To Do list for the week. In fact, he's feeling decidedly less peaceful the longer he's crammed in here; the situation isn't improved by the sharp corner of what he suspects to be his French book jabbing into his kidney every time he inhales.
He's moved on from working out a new, improved security system for his laptop to wondering exactly what level of toxicity would allow a gym sock to eat through metal without destroying the actual sock itself when he hears the muted slap of someone's footsteps heading down the hallway in his direction. Having learned early on that actually calling out for help only seems to make him more of a target, Harold shifts so that he can get a fingertip on the locker door and tap out 'shave and a haircut'. The footsteps falter, then there's an audible sigh and the sound of a nail tapping out the 'two bits' as the latch rattles.
“Really? Again?” Joss asks. Her eyebrow arches up as she gets the door open and Harold starts to tumble out without it supporting his unbalanced weight. Thankfully she manages to catch him by the elbow before he can fall on his ass, and helps hold him steady while he untangles his bag strap from around his ankle. “How many times is that this week?”
“Too many.” Harold's leg is asleep from the awkward position it was twisted in and he stumbles half a step before collapsing back against the lockers. “Simmons gets bored without football to distract him, and I apparently make for easy entertainment.”
“High school can be such a cruel place if you get a reputation for being easy,” Joss says, but she lets Harold take her arm and lean against her as he limps down the hallway.
“Your wit is not appreciated at the moment,” Harold says. His voice comes out tight from between the teeth he's clenching against the pins and needles biting into his leg as it wakes up.
“Now that's a dirty lie.” Joss smiles and waves her hall pass at a passing teacher who gives them a suspicious look. There's a harsh bark of laughter further down the hallway, followed closely by a staccato burst of thumps, and the teacher hurries past them without stopping. “You appreciate me and all the things I am. Denying it won't make it any less true.”
“I don't even know why I associate with you.” The pain in Harold's leg starts to ease, and he switches their arms around so that Joss' is linked loosely through his instead of him leaning on hers.
“Not the wisest thing to say to the person who just got you out of lockup. I might be tempted to leave you in there next time.”
“You would never,” Harold says, giving her arm a little squeeze. “You'd never abandon someone who needed you. It's not in your nature.”
Joss makes a dismissive noise, but there's something pleased lurking in the upturned corners of her mouth.
“Tryouts are this afternoon,” she says, voice too offhand to be anything but. Harold's leg is completely awake now, but there's still a trace of a limp from his knee stiffening up. It's not as bad as it could be, certainly not as bad as it was the better part of a year ago before two surgeries and what felt like endless physical therapy, but it's more than enough to keep him on the bleachers.
“A laughable exercise with this school,” he says. It's not what he wants to say, but some things are better left unsaid, especially when Joss is looking at him like that. Like he's something to be pitied. “Is Cal trying out,” he asks, because it's better to distract with a question that he doesn't care about the answer to than to let Joss voice whatever it is that's still caught behind her lips.
It works; Joss flushes and ducks her head to hide her smile. “Yeah. He wants me to go watch.”
“You should.” Harold hooks the corner of his mouth up in a weak approximation of a smile. “That way you can give me a full report of the team's prospects for this season.”
“Or you could come out and watch for yourself. You'd be a much better judge than me.”
It sounds so reasonable when she says it.
“I can't.” He disentangles their arms and takes a step away, the toe of his foot already angled toward the computer lab down the hall. Last period is his study hall, and technically he's supposed to be in the room across from Joss' government class right now with his head buried in a book, but he has standing permission to spend the period working on his senior project for his programing class. Not that any number of his private projects wouldn't easily get him an A, but this one is actually legal enough to share. “I think I figured out where I was going wrong with my program. I'll be in the lab until they kick me out.”
Joss gives him another look, the kind that implies the conversation isn't over, but one of the reasons Joss is probably his favorite person at school is because she knows how to pick her battles. There's no way she doesn't know that there's nothing he's going to be doing in the lab that he couldn't do just as well, if not better, on his laptop while sitting on the bleachers with her. She just nods, though, and tosses a, “Try not to hack into anything too illegal on school property,” over her shoulder in parting.
Harold doesn't bother saying anything back. They both know him better than that.
Harold is so far down the rabbit hole, chasing after a string of code that he feels almost but not quite close enough to touch, that he doesn't notice at first when someone pulls a chair up to his workstation and sits down. It's not like he's completely oblivious; it can't be more than a minute or two before it pierces his bubble of concentration. Still, he keeps his eyes on the screen for a few more minutes until his fingers can type out a web to catch the idea he's been trying to pin down. It's still rough, but he thinks it'll work, and he leans back in his chair, rolling his shoulders to ease their tension and settle the satisfaction he always feels when he does something no one else he knows can.
Zoe doesn't seem impressed. She has her chin propped up in the palm of her hand and her attention is focused on her cellphone instead of the technological miracles Harold's been working.
“Are you done patting yourself on the back or should I come back later once you've finished basking in the glory that is you?” Zoe's tone is bland, but she grins when she looks up from whatever she's tapping away at.
“I thought about designing a program that would say, 'Harold, you're the king' every time I do something groundbreaking or revolutionary, but it would happen so often that I thought it might be a little too distracting for our classmates.”
“A little flashy for your style, too. You're too happy hiding behind your curtain to ever fully embrace being Oz.”
Harold huffs out a soft laugh and saves his work to a thumb drive, before starting to wipe the computer clean of everything he'd been doing. “I'm certain you didn't come to find me just to talk about my style, Miss Morgan. As charming as your company always is, I assume there's a reason for this particular visit?”
Zoe crosses her legs neatly at the knee and shrugs. She types out another quick message on her phone, but slides it in her pocket even as it buzzes again. “I heard you had another run in with Simmons. What kind of friend would I be if I didn't check in to see if you're alright?”
Harold shoots her a look, and Zoe laughs. It's a bright, guileless sound, as warm as sunshine and easy as breathing. Harold would bet money she's spent hours practicing it.
“Even as I was saying it,” Zoe starts, trailing off with a dismissive hand wave. “I did want to talk about Simmons, though. He's becoming a problem for more people than just you.”
“And you want my assistance,” Harold says. “Like with the Lawson situation? Because I have to say, I don't know if that could be pulled off again without raising suspicion.” He pauses and tilts his head toward Zoe. “Not that I had anything to do with that or am in possession of any inside information about the whole scandal.”
Zoe laughs again, and this time it's less polished, more genuine. “Of course not. There's no way a high school student could have pulled something like that off.” She grins and bumps her toes against Harold's leg. “Although it really is astounding how close he came to being deported considering his family practically came over on the Mayflower.”
“These are strange times we're living in.”
“And getting stranger all the time,” Zoe agrees. She shuffles her chair a little closer and leans in, careful to angle her body so that anyone who looked over would think she was just looking at the computer screen. A few keystrokes brings up a game of Solitaire, and Zoe points at the card he should play. “I just think it's interesting that there's a camera in the east stairwell that most people seem to overlook. I also think it's interesting that the school keeps digital copies of the footage that the security cameras record, but because of time and budge constraints, don't actually review the footage unless something's brought to their attention. Additionally, I think it's absolutely fascinating how much time Simmons and his friends spend in that particular stairwell.”
“It's amazing what people are interested in,” Harold says mildly after a long pause where he dutifully plays several more more cards at Zoe's prompting. Even when she loses, there's always something to be learned from the way she plays the game.
Zoe hums thoughtfully and lightly drums her nails on his forearm. “I think you'll find Maxine Angelis would be particularly interested if the right video clip found its way into her hands, especially since she's trying to put together applications for journalism scholarships. Set her on the trail of the right story and she'd never stop digging until she had a winner.”
Digital fireworks pop up on the computer screen as the last cards are sorted into place, and Harold exits out of the game and turns to look at Zoe.
“And what do you get out of all of this?”
“The peace and security of mind that comes from knowing that my school is a slightly safer place,” Zoe says with the same wide smile that helped her charm her way into convincing the principal to make her his aide.
“And?” Harold asks, because, well, this is Zoe.
The smile drops from her face and Zoe leans in a little closer. “And if you happened to wipe all the pictures off Simmons' phone and help start a chain of events that would get him out of school and far away from me, then I'd consider it a personal favor.”
“Do I want to know what he has pictures of?” Something darkens in Zoe's expression, and Harold touches his fingertips to the back of her hand when she starts to draw away. “Never mind. I can delete them without looking.”
Zoe exhales long and slow, and when she inhales her usual cheery expression has settled back on her face like a mask. “You're a peach, Harold.”
“Don't tell anyone,” he tells her. “My reputation would never recover.”
There's a short trill of a shrill buzzer over the PA system signifying that the building's closing down soon, and Zoe gives Harold a distracted smile as she stands and takes her bag from him.
“Someone who can keep their mouth shut is worth their weight in gold.” She slides her chair back over to the table it belongs at and lingers while Harold gathers his things. “So don't count it against me if I tell you that someone's been asking around about you.”
“Really,” Harold asks. He tries to keep his voice level, but his hands falter over his folders, and he doubts Zoe missed that. “I generally try to arrange things so that people don't.”
Zoe shrugs and falls into step with him as they leave the room. “Don't worry, it's nothing bad. And he's new, so I don't think he's figured that out yet.” She turns away for a moment to wave at a cluster of cheerleaders, then waggles her eyebrows at him. “Apparently he thinks you look 'interesting'.”
“High praise indeed,” Harold says dryly, but he does breathe a little easier. Simmons is a few feet ahead of them, and Harold takes out his cellphone. Harold doesn't think he could hack into a phone with both hands tied behind his back, but he does well enough with one. “Let me know if he starts talking about my 'beautiful soul'. That should give me enough time to arrange for a restraining order.”
“You could always just talk to him.” Zoe bumps her shoulder against his. “He's cute and doesn't seem like a complete idiot. You never know, you might enjoy it.”
“Again, high praise, Zoe. You're not exactly selling him.” Breaking into Simmons' phone is laughably easy, and Harold deletes his entire photo folder, hesitates, then dumps his video and audio folders too for good measure. He taps his phone against Zoe's wrist to get her attention, then tilts his head in Simmons' direction and nods. Zoe beams at him. “Besides, it's senior year. I don't have time for anything like that right now.”
Zoe hooks her arm around his neck and plants a smacking kiss on his cheek. “Harold, if anyone could find twenty-five hours in the day, I have no doubt that it would be you.”
Harold rolls his eyes, but he doesn't shake Zoe's arm off when she leaves it there. “Regardless, I can assure you that if I had an extra hour every day, I still wouldn't be interested.”