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“Elee Badge?” Mauve’s head poked out from behind her door, then, following shortly after it, a beckoning hand.

Elee closed her eyes so that Mauve couldn’t see how hard she was rolling them. In the five minutes that Mauve had kept her waiting outside the office, she had had plenty of time to stew in her bitterness, which she had used rather effectively, staring at the taupe walls with such fury that she wouldn’t have been surprised had they caught fire. “Let’s get this over with.”

Elee slouched after Mauve as she disappeared into her office. Over the last year, Elee had spent more time with her guidance counselor than any student should have to. She didn’t take the seat across the desk even as Mauve motioned to it. She was a rebel. She didn’t need chairs.

Most of Mauve’s office was set up to be soothing to students. She had hung a gauzy cloth over the open blinds of the window, allowing a soft sunlight to diffuse through the room. A bowl of candy sat on her desk, and even though Mauve always offered it to students, she said that Mr. Mako usually ended up eating most of it. The one thing that didn’t fit the rest of the room was the sword hanging in a display case. Elee had asked Mauve once how she had gotten the administration to allow her to keep it there, but she had only laughed.

Mauve didn’t blink at Elee’s disobedience, watching calmly as Elee approached a small table by the window and the spider plant that it carried. “Do you know why you’re here?” she asked.

“I have some guesses.” One of the lower leaves of the spider plant had shrivelled and turned brown. Elee plucked it and began tearing it into little pieces.

“Care to share?”

“No.” Elee sighed and dropped her confetti into the plant’s pot. “Did Geoff squeal? Or was it Sal?”

Mauve leaned forward, resting her elbows on her desk. “What happened with Geoff?”

“Nothing.” Nothing he didn’t deserve, at least. Elee relented in her campaign to not look Mauve in the eye and grabbed the chair she was expected to sit in, spinning it backwards. If she had to sit in the chair, she was going to do it her own way. The spindly plastic armrests made it difficult for her to situate herself comfortably, but she managed to settle in with one knee tucked beneath her and one leg jutting out to the side. “Is this about my hat, then?”

Mauve gave a dry laugh. “I think we’ve said all there is to say about that. No, this isn’t about the hat, although there have been plenty of complaints.”

As far as Elee was concerned, all her teachers could fall in a ditch. Even if hats weren’t allowed to be worn in school, there was nothing forbidding her from carrying hers around, even if the brim was so prohibitively wide that it spilled over the edge of every desk she sat in and kept her from taking notes or using her textbooks-- the hat was her excuse, anyway.

“Elee Badge, this is about your grades.” Mauve held out a piece of paper towards Elee. Her transcript.

“That was my next guess.” Elee didn’t take the paper. She knew what it would say. Five years of steadily declining numbers, with one semester of the fourth year completely blank.

Mauve set the paper down. “What do you plan to do after graduation, Elee? Or, let’s not get ahead of ourselves: do you plan to graduate?”

“Sure.”

“What’s this, then?” Mauve gestured down at the transcript. “You’re failing multiple classes and we’re not even two months into the semester, and I know you’re not stupid.”

“I’ve already taken half of them,” Elee argued.

“So you know the material.”

“So it’s boring and I don’t care!”

Mauve watched Elee curiously, unshaken by her outburst. Elee hated how silly that made her feel. “There’s still plenty of time for you to get your grades up. Study for your midterms, do your homework, take any extra credit opportunities that might come your way. You’re capable. I know you are, and there’s a path forward for you. Have you been looking at colleges?”

A year ago, Elee had been applying to colleges, although she hadn’t had much of a plan beyond moving forward in her life. She had gotten accepted to a few places, too, contingent upon her graduating. Then all her plans had turned to dust.

Elee said nothing.

“You might be a hard sell, with the way your grades are trending. Usually, I’d recommend applying to a wide range of schools and keeping an open mind, or going for an Associate’s from a community college first.”

Elee took the bait. “Usually?”

“Well, in your case, I don’t know. Do you still want to go to college?”

Elee hadn’t been thinking about her future much at all when she could help it. Too much had changed. She had been too busy watching the present burn. “A lot of my top career choices don’t require a degree. Like being a bouncer, or a gladiator.”

Mauve nodded. “But you are still planning on finishing high school?”

“Yeah,” Elee said without hesitation. If she wasn’t planning to finish high school, she would have to be planning to do something else, and she wasn’t willing to contemplate the future long enough to figure out what that might be. It was why she had decided on taking the extra year in the first place instead of trying for a GED. “You can’t get too far in life without a diploma.”

Mauve picked up Elee’s transcript again and opened her mouth to speak, but before she could start, Elee waved a hand to stop her.

“I get it. I’ll go to my classes and pass my tests. I won’t be a thorn in your side anymore.” Elee gave up on sitting in her chair backwards and shuffled it so that it was facing sideways instead.

“I wasn’t going to call you that,” Mauve said. She sounded so earnest that Elee snorted. “So I see that you have a study hall seventh period.”

“I can make better use of that time, too. Do my assignments or whatever,” Elee promised, though even as she said it she understood that it was probably a lie.

“Actually, I have an opportunity for you. It’ll be a relatively small commitment, and you’ll be able to earn half a credit for it. How does that sound?”

“Good. I guess. Depends on what it is.”

“Tutoring.”

Elee blinked. Even before her interest in her classes had waned, she wouldn’t have considered herself a good enough student to be able to tutor others-- at least, not in the sorts of classes that people needed tutors for. “Tutoring? I don’t think I’m cut out for helping people. Being nurturing or whatever.”

“I think you might surprise yourself,” Mauve said with a small smile. “A freshman is looking for help in Speech.”

“Ah.” Elee had taken Speech freshman year, too. Gotten an A. She thought she remembered enjoying it, but the concept of enjoying any class was so strange to her that she couldn’t be sure.

“Will you do it?”

Elee sighed. With the somber way Mauve was watching her, and the way Mauve believed in her, and the way Mauve cared, it was hard for her to say no. “Who is it, and when do I start?”

“Her name is Soe, and as early as today,” Mauve said.

The name wasn’t familiar to Elee, but that wasn’t a surprise. She wasn’t involved enough in any activities to know people. Even though she had been in the same school district since elementary school, she felt like she didn’t know anyone anymore. Everyone from her own grade was long gone.

Elee was lonely, even if she’d never admit it. She hated the word. It sounded weak and it reeked of truth.

“Sure, okay,” she agreed grudgingly. “Is that all you wanted to talk about?”

“Not quite. I have an assignment for you, Elee Badge, something to try for the next few weeks, or the next few days, at least. Now, I don’t know what your plans are for the future, but you can’t keep closing doors for yourself. I’ve known you for years now. You can be smart and passionate and unstoppable when you want to be. So here’s your assignment: care.”

Elee didn’t respond. She stood and replaced her chair, lining the legs up perfectly with the dents it had worn into the carpet. She walked over to the door and paused with her hand hovering over the doorknob. “See you.”

“Go. And Elee? You can always come talk to me.”