SGA or some other, equally oblivious organization is doing its best to remind the student body that it doesn't know the difference between a trigger warning and the NRA. It's some sort of awareness week for sexual assault and dating violence, and someone decided it would be a good idea to plaster the entire entrance to the caf with statistics about how one in five Idris University students will be victims of sexual assault—without stopping to consider that maybe some of those one in five students will not react well to facing a wall of quotes about sexual assault and intimate partner violence without any warning.
Raphael promptly speedwalks to the men's room to have his panic attack in peace.
Any hopes he'd had of breaking down in relative privacy are abandoned, however, when he opens the door to find someone already at the sink in the cramped, two-stall bathroom. The man—Meliorn, Raphael remembers vaguely—Isabelle's ex, he remembers acutely—meets his panicked glance via the mirror. He has the sink running, but he's not exactly washing his hands, just holding them there as the water passes through his fingers.
“Um,” Raphael says, more out of instinct than an actual desire to start a conversation, and Meliorn shuts the water off and turns to face him, leaning back against the counter. Raphael wonders briefly, like he did the first time he saw the leaf tattoo on Meliorn's cheek, how fucking much it must've hurt to get that done.
Meliorn raises an eyebrow, which leads Raphael to notice that his eyes look—off. He's only seen the guy a couple of times, and only in passing, but Meliorn has always radiated a visceral sense of serenity, a refusal to be shaken by a predominantly white institution that makes its distaste for their presence undeniably apparent. Now, though, Meliorn has traces of eyeliner smudged across his knuckles. His eyes are red, and one thumb is keeping the ring on his index finger spinning at an inconstant rate. Water drips from his hands.
Raphael should probably leave; then, at least one of them could avoid having an audience for their emotional turmoil. Instead, he asks, “Are you okay?”
Meliorn shrugs, looking at the gradually growing puddle of water on the tile. “Just a little shaken. I will be fine.”
“Yeah, same, I wasn't prepared for all that.” Raphael gestures towards the door and wonders why the fuck he's making small talk about his trauma.
“Raise your hand if you have been personally victimized by Isabelle Lightwood,” Meliorn mutters, and Raphael snorts.
“That obvious, huh?”
Meliorn shrugs again. Despite the shakiness of his breath, the movement is graceful. “Honestly, I thought I might just be projecting.”
Raphael doesn't know what to say to that, but he knows he can't face the campaign outside yet, so he grasps for something that will keep the conversation going. Unfortunately, all he can think about is the shit outside that he's trying to avoid. “They really need to learn that there are ways to educate without triggering people.”
Meliorn smiles wryly. “That would require them to think of how things like this continue to affect people's lives, instead of viewing it as a statistic, a static event. Something with an end.”
“I thought the end was what they were trying to accomplish by giving me a panic attack,” Raphael says, and Meliorn laughs.
“Quite the counterintuitive strategy.” Beneath the shadow that hints at dark circles threatening to form, and past the harsh redness that is now fading, Meliorn’s eyes are a deep brown, and they’re flickering with tentative amusement.
“Yeah, no kidding.” Raphael can feel pins and needles beginning to stagger their way down the backs of his arms, a sure sign that he’s on his way to hyperventilating. He wonders briefly if Meliorn can tell, then figures maybe it’s only fair if he can, since Raphael has just caught him mid-crying.
“I probably should have asked if you were okay,” Meliorn says, and Raphael wonders if his thought process was obvious. “Perhaps the proper opportunity has passed, but I would still like to check.”
Raphael nods shakily. “I’ve been better.” He forces the words past his teeth, feels the consonants catch on his incisors. “I really don’t want to go out there.”
Meliorn nods. “Understandable. I have to, unfortunately, because I have a class soon, and I should probably avoid skipping any more meals.” He meets Raphael’s eyes briefly. “You can eat with me, if you would like.”
Raphael finds himself nodding. “Yeah, okay.”
He washes his hands, since he’s already in the bathroom, and also because he feels phantom sand grains on his skin, like someone dipped his hands in mud up to the wrists and let it dry, stiff and out of place. He turns the faucet off with his elbow and curses when he sees that the paper towel machine isn’t motion-activated; he’s never been in this bathroom before.
Meliorn jabs at the button a few times and hands him a paper towel, then holds the door open as they leave. (The trashcan is too far from the door to be able to open it with a paper towel instead of touching it, Raphael notes. He’s tried too many times to prop doors open with the very tip of his toes and stretch to the trash can, or shove the door open as forcefully as possible and try to sprint the few steps to the trashcan and back before it shuts. But now, Meliorn is propping the door open with his elbow like putting his skin against it is easy, and Raphael fights back the flinch as he brushes past him.)
They swipe into the caf, Raphael pointedly not looking at the floor, not allowing anyone to think this affects him, but not focusing on any parts of the walls long enough to read the bolded warning signs. He’s incredibly relieved to see Meliorn slide his hand smoothly under the hand sanitizer dispenser. Meliorn sets his messenger bag down at a table near the entrance, and Raphael puts his bag down, too, even though he prefers the back corners, where he can see everything that’s happening and doesn’t need to worry about someone walking up behind him.
Meliorn is already sitting with a glass of water and a pathetic-looking salad when Raphael puts his plate down. Meliorn follows his gaze and smiles wryly. “The vegetarian options here are limited, to put it nicely.”
Raphael grimaces. “The meat sucks, if it makes you feel any better.”
Meliorn smiles. It isn’t the smile he normally offers to people who try to talk to him, disarming and vaguely condescending; it seems genuine, which means it’s still intensely disconcerting. Raphael looks away.
“So, what’s your major?” he asks, forcing himself not to wince at his own awkwardness. At Meliorn’s raised eyebrow, he gives a half-shrug, carefully casual. “What, isn’t that what people normally ask in these scenarios?”
“I doubt that most of the student body would ever find themselves in this particular situation.”
“One in five,” Raphael mutters, and Meliorn sighs. Raphael wasn’t intending for him to hear, but then again, Meliorn has never indulged anyone else’s expectations. They sit in silence for a few minutes.
“Biology,” Meliorn says, and Raphael thankfully keeps his confusion off his face for the seconds it takes him to remember the context of the statement.
“Political science,” Raphael offers, and Meliorn nods in acknowledgement. Neither of them ask how the other’s classes are going. When they finish eating, they take their plates to the conveyor belt that stretches into the kitchen; Raphael holds his breath as he sets the dishes down, and until they've reached the cafeteria door. His face is impassive.
“I hope your day improves,” Meliorn says, and Raphael nods. His dorm is in the same direction as Meliorn's next class, but he takes the long way instead, leaving through the other cafeteria door, measuring his steps in his head.
A few days later, Raphael is scanning the booths at the caf for Maia. When he spots her, though, she isn’t alone.
“I didn’t know you knew each other,” he says, sitting his bag down. Meliorn gives Maia a strange look, and she grins.
“We’re in the same anatomy class.”
“I also didn’t know you took anatomy,” Raphael says, raising an eyebrow at her. He hears Meliorn snort.
“It’s a prereq for the upper-level marine bio classes,” she responds. Raphael shrugs.
“I haven’t touched a science since AP chem in high school, so…”
Meliorn looks mock-affronted. At least, Raphael hopes he isn’t actually offended. Maia just rolls her eyes.
“STEM majors, am I right?” Bat says, setting his plate down with a clatter. “So judgy.”
Meliorn gracefully arches an eyebrow and tilts his head to look Bat up and down with a flick of his eyes, which doesn't exactly disprove Bat’s point.
“You have paint in your hair,” Meliorn says calmly. Bat shrugs.
“Oh, by the way, Raphael, Elliot said to ask if you could look over his paper sometime before you guys’ history class on Thursday.”
“Is there a reason he couldn't ask me himself? I seem to recall him having a phone.”
Bat shrugs again. “It's a flip phone.”
“Yeah, okay, whatever,” Raphael grumbles, waving a hand at him. “I’ll help your boyfriend, even though he’s doing better in that class than I am. Now sit down.”
Bat grins, says thanks, and flops down next to Maia. “How goes the sciencing?”
Meliorn barely says anything throughout lunch, but the corner of his mouth lifts when Bat glances at the essay on Raphael’s laptop and asks what’s so important about the Coal Wars, anyway, and Raphael, in his steeliest voice, informs him about the Battle of Blair Mountain and the importance of unions without pausing his typing.
“He’s like this,” Bat says to Meliorn, waving a hand at Raphael. “It’s an unfortunate side effect of getting to hang out with me and Maia.”
Raphael rolls his eyes without letting them see how his breath sits uneven in his throat, but he does look up, then, to see Meliorn’s reaction. Meliorn’s face is unreadable.
“What is your opinion on Sid Hatfield’s engagement with reporters?” Meliorn asks, impassive. “Was it to spread information about the cause or to gain personal fame?”
Raphael knows he’s gaping, knows he should click his jaw shut and respond with an analysis addressing the importance of a figure of hope for the miners, but—
“You know who Sid Hatfield is.”
Meliorn’s eyebrow twitches. “Yes.”
Maia leans over to nudge Raphael and stage-whispers, “Marry him.” Meliorn almost smiles.
“He’s intimidating as hell,” Bat says after Meliorn leaves for class. “It’s hot.”
Raphael glares at him while Maia cackles.
“Not my type, boys, but I understand where you’re coming from.”
“Yeah, because your girlfriend scares the shit out of everyone,” Bat says, and darts out of the way of her elbow.
“It’s true,” Raphael adds, grinning at her. “Very impressive.”
“Yeah, well, we’ve already established that you have a thing for intimidation tactics,” Maia retorts.
“You know I don’t.”
“Speaking of stuff you don't have a thing for, does he know you’re ace?” Bat asks, looking up from his third plate of food.
Raphael glances at him, and tells himself he doesn’t have time to think about that right now. He taps his fingers against his thumb, index-middle-ring-pinkie, both hands at once, rhythmic, instead. “You’ve apparently forgotten that we’ve had a maximum of two conversations.”
“When was the first one?” Maia asks, raising her eyebrows at him.
“You’re late to class,” Raphael points out, and takes a sip of his water as they both swear and run off.
“We’ll find out eventually!” Bat yells over his shoulder, and Raphael shakes his head in mock exasperation. The effect is somewhat ruined by his smile.