“ Ste vie,” David growls, because otherwise he’d be whining, and that’s not a good look for him, “we had a fucking agreement , and if you’re not going to uphold your end by protecting me from this malarky then you can be fucking sure that I won’t bring my considerable influence with the parent committee to bear when they’re debating annual bonuses- Oh hi,” he stutters, halting in his tirade as he realizes Stevie isn’t alone in her office. He props the hand holding the event assignments on his hip and tilts his chin up, hoping they’re correctly reading nonchalant and disinterested from his expression. “Am I interrupting something?”
Stevie smiles what David calls her “business-like f-you” smirk and gestures at the man sitting across from her. “Mr. Brewer - Patrick- was just asking how he could get more involved at the school.”
“Well, isn’t that fun for you.” David has no idea how Patrick can convey a smile while also looking so totally neutral. They’ve met a few times since Patrick started teaching... wood shop, or maybe it was lacrosse? And every time he’s seen him, Patrick has looked like this, nearly expressionless but also somehow amused . He was probably voted most amiable in his graduating class.
“Are you allowed to use that kind of language in a school?” Patrick asks, twisting to look at Stevie. “Shouldn’t he get demerits or something?”
“ Oh- kay,” David says quickly, “it was two f-bombs, and there aren’t any kids-”
“I was more bothered by ‘malarky’ .” Patrick’s barely-there eyebrows have risen, but otherwise his face looks the same as it did a minute before, and a minute before that.
David juts his jaw out, trying to decide if it’s too soon in Patrick’s employment to chew him out.
Stevie’s grinning like she’s just won a radio contest or something - David should know, he’s seen that happen to her. “Was there something you needed, David?” she asks in her faux-helpful business voice.
“If Patrick doesn’t mind-”
“Oh, go right ahead,” Patrick says, the tiny quirk of the corner of his mouth indicating that he definitely understands that David wants him to leave the room and he definitely has no intention of doing so.
“Fine,” David exhales loftily. “The extra duty assignments came out, and I was expecting to see myself down for the book fair, but instead I’ve somehow ended up with prom , which - Stevie, we had an agreement -”
“The assignments are randomized, David, I can’t play favorites!” Stevie protests.
He narrows his eyes at her. She might be telling the truth, or she might just be protecting her image in front of the new teacher, though David’s already screwed the pooch on that one by blustering in here talking about their mutual back-scratching set-up.
But you said-”
“I was misinformed, when I had that discussion with you,” Stevie says delicately.
Patrick turns his head long enough for David to mouth I’m gonna kill you-
“Why’s prom so bad?” Patrick asks, twisting to look at Stevie and then back at David. He looks so earnest and David wonders if he looks that earnest even when he lies. “Wouldn’t it be great to see all your students celebrating right before graduation? A big party as they prepare to go off into the world? A last hurrah, and all that?”
David scowls. “You would say that, you probably enjoyed high school.”
Patrick laughs, an annoyingly pleasant sound, and he shifts to sling his arm over the back of his chair. It looks like his whole body has opened up with the laugh, and oh no , he thinks they’re pals now or something. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t - I don’t have time to explain,” David sighs, fighting the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Stevie-”
“Yeah, David, what’s so bad about prom?” Stevie echoes.
“Is this how this is gonna go?” David demands, gesturing between her and Patrick. “This - this - imbalanced social dynamic? This is the new normal?” They both continue to just look at him, a pair of faux-innocent shit-eating grins, so he closes his eyes and waves at the air like it’ll help him gather his thoughts. “If you must know, the idea of being trapped with that many teenagers, likely inebriated and horny and feeling far too self- confident considering their persistently questionable skin-care choices, brings up a lot of bad memories for me. And a ... fight or flight reflex. And a nauseous expectation of imminent humiliation.”
Patrick whistles quietly. “You really did have a terrible time in high school.”
“How are you a high school teacher if teenagers scare you that much?” Stevie prods.
“The classroom is a controlled environment ,” he says shrilly; he’s explained this enough times to Alexis and it’s frankly rude that people don’t just leave well enough alone. “I have a clear role and there are rules and schedules and also art supplies, all of which help divert the students’ more toxic tendencies.”
“I can ask Mrs. DeLuca, David, but I just don’t know-”
Patrick interrupts Stevie. “Why don’t I go with you, David?”
“I’m sorry, what?” Stevie and David say together.
Patrick shrugs, the rise of his cheeks looking a bit pink but his gaze steady. “If I went too, helped chaperone, it’d be like you had a partner, and you’d be less of a...an easy target, if you will. And you could talk with me instead of focusing on how miserable you were the whole time.”
It sounds logical and reasonable and not at all like the mockery he’s used to. David clears his throat. “Bold of you to assume I’d rather spend time with you than with a bunch of judgy adolescents.”
Patrick laughs, because of course he does. “I wouldn’t want to push you into anything you don’t want. But I’ve heard it can be a helpful strategy for people with anxiety to do things with a buddy.”
Behind Patrick, Stevie gestures with both hands, as if to say What a generous offer! You’d be an idiot not to accept!
David’s skin is feeling a bit tender, like he’s too exposed, like something’s rubbing him raw. “First of all, ‘buddy’ is a stretch, and who said I have anxiety?”
Patrick’s elbow slips off the back of the chair and his mouth rounds into a distressed circle - the first time David’s seen him look less than amused. “Oh, no, David, I just meant - it’s a strategy for people with anxiety but it - it could be helpful for anyone - I don’t know what you - what your- I didn’t mean to assume-”
As fun as it should be to watch Patrick fumble, David finds it settles heavily and guiltily behind his collarbone. He waves his hands quickly. “I’m kidding, Patrick. Obviously I have anxiety. And, like, ten other things.”
“Right.” Patrick’s smile is back, but it’s small and soft and makes David wish Stevie weren’t looking at him right now. “Sorry.”
“So does that mean you want Patrick to chaperone prom with you?” Stevie pipes up, oh-so-helpfully.
David presses his lips together and ignores her, focusing instead on Patrick. “You don’t have to do that.”
“No, I - I’d like to,” Patrick assures him, and unlike Stevie, unlike most people David has known, he sounds like he means it, and David believes him.
David nods slowly. “Okay then. Um...thanks for ...signing up to chaperone hell with me, I guess.”
“Anytime, man,” Patrick smiles, and he actually stands and shakes David’s hand like this has all been a respectable business transaction, rather than an embarrassing exploration of David’s neuroses in Stevie’s seedy office. “I have to run to the FBLA meeting, I’ll see you two around!”
He pats David on the shoulder and strides out with all the cool of a person whose self-confidence is very much not predicated on their haircut or jeans.
“Did he just wink ?” Stevie asks, staring at the door Patrick has closed behind him.
“I think so,” David says with a shudder and takes Patrick’s vacated chair. “Only in rural Ontario would you find someone like that .”
“Hey, I’m from rural Ontario,” Stevie reminds him.
“Yes, and I’m still trying to figure out where they went wrong with you,” he shoots back. “You were clearly meant to be popped out in, like, Alberta, or Wyoming.”
“Fuck you,” Stevie mutters affectionately.
“I just feel bad for him, you know,” David continues, waving at the door. “We’ve met like five times and he hasn’t gotten the clue.”
“Maybe he got the clue and ignored it.”
David hums in agreement. “I worry for his sanity, or his sense of self-preservation, because he keeps trying to be friends with me even as I keep being as much of an ass to him as I can.”
“Patrick’s a grown-up,” Stevie shrugs.
“What does that make us ?”
“Adults, maybe, but definitely not grown-ups.”
David can’t argue with that, so he studies one of Stevie’s motivational posters which features a sunrise and the emblazoned inscription, POSSIBILITY: Every dawn brings a new day for you to shine, or to flame out in abject humiliation. “Still, don’t you think it’s masochistic or something?”
Stevie’s gone back to whatever she’d been working on before first Patrick and then David interrupted; they’ve been friends long enough that she can do her half of this conversation with David with only a tenth of her attention devoted to it. “You’re not as mean as you think, David. Obnoxious, yes. An acquired taste, certainly. But not mean. And Patrick can take it.”
“But why?!?” Friendships are far too much work and far too much risk; Stevie knows this, knows they’ve only stayed friends because they’re similar and an appropriate balance of co-dependent and isolationist. “I model my self-loathing so that others know how to hate me. Disregarding that is just...disrespectful.”
“Maybe Patrick is a better teacher than a student,” Stevie suggests.
David flares a look at her. “Don’t play with my fantasies, Stevie.”
She chooses now, of course, to look up, to pin him with a look that threatens zero tolerance for his shit. “So you fantasize about Patrick?”
“ No ,” he scoffs, laughing at the very thought - you can’t call noticing a colleague’s forearms and smile and the little chipper way he walks into the staff room in the morning fantasizing . And even if he’s wondered how strong Patrick’s thick thighs actually are, that’s not fantasizing either. It’s scientific curiosity. “I mean I guess he’s objectively cute, in like a Wall Street lumberjack kind of way, but no.” David’s clear enough on how things work, how people see him , to cut those thoughts off before they reach the fantasy stage.
“Yeah, I guess he’s not your type,” Stevie muses.
“The fuck does that mean?” David demands.
“He’s nice, and stable, and engages in active communication. Your last three flings were the complete inverse of that.”
“ O kay, thanks so much,” David snaps, finally standing to go. “This has been really helpful. I came in saddled with one nightmarish responsibility, and I’m leaving with one nightmarish responsibility and a buddy . A buddy , Stevie.”
“He said he thinks you’re funny,” Stevie says to the forms she’s filling out.
“He - what?” David manages, tripping over the chair as he turns back to her. “That’s not - that doesn’t sound like a thing he would say.”
“At first I thought I’d misheard and he’d said funky , but no.”
David narrows his eyes at her, but her stoic gaze gives nothing in return. “I don’t trust this. This - earnest, helpful friend thing you have going on today,” he declares, gesturing in a broad circle at her. “You’re scheming.”
“You know me, David,” Stevie shrugs, all wide-eyed innocence. “I can’t fake sincerity.”
“I don’t trust it,” David repeats as he backs out of the room, glaring at her until the door snaps shut.