Part I: Hank
i. you’re a stranger i know well, and not at all.
Emma comes over after practice, dropping onto Hank’s carefully-made bed and kicking off her heeled sneakers. He sighs but doesn’t turn around until he’s finished his calculations, pencilling in the final answer of his algebra homework. She’s sprawled back against his pillows in her pristine white cheerleader’s uniform and Hank is aware that it’s a sight most of the boys in the school would give their right arm for; it’s kind of a pity it’s wasted on him.
“Good practice?” he asks.
Emma shrugs. “I guess.”
They’re not much given to conversation; Hank because he’s all kinds of socially awkward, Emma because she’s made the life choice to be practically monosyllabic at all times. Half the school think it’s because she’s stupid and the other half think it’s because she’s a bitch; Emma is neither, actually, just chronically disinterested in everything. Emma’s been his best friend since her family moved in next door when they were both four years old, and Hank isn’t even sure that she actually likes him.
Hank gets up from his desk; Emma obediently shifts over, the splits in her white cheerleading skirt slipping open against her thighs, and he lies down next to her. Other kids had glow-in-the-dark stars put above their beds when they were little, but even when he was a kid Hank was annoyed by the inaccuracy, so instead he has precise galaxies and constellations still painted on his ceiling, white against dark blue.
“Good practice?” he repeats, softer, and Emma sighs.
“No,” she says, and it’s all she says. Hank shifts a little closer and after a minute Emma turns her head and presses her face into his shoulder.
Hank has no idea what it’s like to be popular, what it’s like to be head cheerleader and the subject of everyone’s gossip and to have to look pristine perfect at all times, but he’s learned from what Emma doesn’t say that it isn’t easy and it isn’t fun and it isn’t something to be desired.
Hank is just anonymous. That’s not exactly great either.
The cheerleading squad are known as the Angels because of their immaculate white uniforms. It’s also kind of a joke, since the school’s teams are the Hellions. To the students, though, they’re unofficially called the Hellfire Club, since the main recruiting question seems to be are you a grade A bitch?
Hank’s never asked Emma about how she actually recruits the girls, because that would be a whole thing that would require real sentences and would also possibly be vaguely insulting, but in any case he’s glad the uniform stands out so brightly because it makes it pretty easy to avoid the squad.
Madelyne Prior and Selene Gallio are casually sending a freshman girl down the path to bulimia with mean snickers as Hank passes, and he keeps his head down, shoulders tucked in, trying to be as invisible as possible.
“McCoy, my man!” Sean Cassidy is grinning his usual lopsided grin, pupils wide and shiny like nickels.
Sean’s not exactly a friend of Hank’s because a) Hank doesn’t really have friends who aren’t Emma, and b) Hank’s parents would never let Sean in the house. He just has the locker next to Hank’s, which is kind of annoying, actually, because it means everything Hank keeps in there eventually smells like pot.
“Hi, Sean,” Hank says, ducking his head, and lets Sean launch into an incomprehensible story about his band’s show last night, full of cheerful slurred words and happy vague hand gestures. Sean’s band is apparently pretty good; not that Hank’s ever heard them, but people who actually go to parties say they’re not as terrible as Sean’s hazy mumbling personality implies. All Hank’s ever really gathered about them was Sean’s gleeful we named ourselves after a typo! announcement a few months ago.
The bell goes and Hank leaves Sean to lurch off to homeroom, ducking into his own classroom before Angel Salvadore can knock into him and send his papers everywhere again this week. He scuttles to his seat, unobtrusive, letting the noise of the other students wash over him, and it’s not until he realises half the class are glancing towards the back of the classroom with something like nerves and something like schadenfreude that he finds out Alex Summers is back.
Hank is so much of a nobody that no one even calls him a pervert when they see him waiting outside the girls’ locker room, trying and failing to look casual. Emma comes out eventually, arches an eyebrow, and gives a minute jerk of her head for Hank to follow.
He keeps at least a foot away from her while they walk, and everyone else just erases him from the picture; there’s no way Emma Frost can be talking to him, after all, he’s too much of a zero.
“Did you know Alex Summers was back?” he asks, keeping his gaze on his shoes.
“There was a rumour,” Emma offers, quiet, barely moving her mouth.
Hank thinks about asking why she didn’t tell him, and then remembers that Emma knows everything that goes on at their school and Hank’s never complained that she doesn’t furnish him with information before.
“Okay,” he says. “Um. Right.”
They turn a corner, heading for the cafeteria, and Emma arches an eyebrow. “Bothered?” she asks.
Hank is all kinds of bothered, but he’s never talked to Emma about Alex before and he doesn’t know how much she’s figured out for herself. It’s not like there’s a lot to figure out, but still.
“No,” he lies.
A group of cheerleaders are standing near the cafeteria doors, all looking thin and toned and mean and prompting all kinds of girls to order plain salad when they’d prefer actual sustenance, and Emma offers a: “he’s not going to try to knife you,” before drifting over to join them.
“Right,” Hank says to the air. “Thanks.”
“You’re Hank, right?”
Hank looks up to find that incredibly pretty girl who transferred into half his classes this semester smiling nervously at him.
“I am,” he replies, slow, careful, and adds: “and you’re... Raven?”
She nods, looking grateful – like Hank wasn’t going to remember her name instantly, no one is called Raven outside of the Disney Channel – and drops into the seat opposite his.
“So,” she says, fingers twisting together despite her attempts to appear confident, “everyone says you’re the guy to go to for study notes.”
Hank considers this. “No one knows who I am,” he points out.
Raven laughs, caught, and says: “fine. But you always write twice as much as everyone else, and you’re actually in the library after school doing homework, so it’s not a bad assumption on my part.”
“I don’t do people’s schoolwork for money,” Hank says, privately adding any more.
“What?” Raven frowns. “Jeez, no. I just wanted to borrow some of your notes from earlier this year, make it easier to catch up, you know?”
Hank considers this. Her eyes are wide and very earnest, and from the little Hank’s seen of her in class, she actually seems to know things, so he’d probably be being genuinely helpful.
“...okay,” he says. “I’ll bring them for you tomorrow.”
Raven raises an eyebrow. “That’s... it?”
Hank shrugs. “I don’t need anything from you. Um. I mean-”
“Hmmm.” Raven looks thoughtful, her mouth twisting. “Who do you eat lunch with?” she asks. Hank struggles to respond, and she adds, looking triumphant: “great. I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
Hank gapes after her as she swishes away, skirt just a little too short, and thinks: this is going to end terribly.
Emma’s watching a DVD of a practice from last week; the camerawork is shaky and the sound is terrible but it’s pretty useful for looking out the weak points in the routine, the weak links in the team.
Hank used to find these DVDs bewildering and vaguely intimidating, but repeated exposure has taught him better than that, so he’s only been in Emma’s room about a minute before he says: “Selene’s just a little behind the beat on the turn.”
“She is,” Emma agrees. Her hair is falling around her shoulders in the natural curls she goes to great lengths to tame for school, and she isn’t wearing make-up, and it all makes her look softer, more approachable. There’s the slightest flick of disapproval in her tone.
Hank sits down next to her on the squashy soft couch that’s been in her room for years, though it’s been recently re-upholstered in white to fit in with the rest of her decorating scheme, barely recognisable now. Emma shifts over to make space for him, eyes still on the routine.
“Tessa’s pretty good,” Hank offers after a while, when their legs are entwined and Emma’s hard defensive edges have slid off a little.
Emma nods, head tilted just slightly in that way Hank knows means she’s thinking, and which makes other people think she’s stupid. Emma doesn’t believe in being expressive, and it’s taken almost a lifetime of acquaintance for Hank to learn all her minutiae. He’s not good with people, with their social cues and their myriad of meanings, but he gets Emma, even though no one else does.
“I could switch her with Selene,” she provides at last, voice indicating she’s already steeling herself for Selene’s inevitable screaming fit.
“Madelyne won’t like that,” Hank observes, watching the girls cartwheeling across the mats in perfect unison.
“No,” Emma agrees, the slightest of smiles touching her lips. “No, she won’t.”
They’re watching the routine for the third time through when Emma says: “so.”
Hank debates telling her with not telling her, and finally sighs: “Raven Darkholme asked me to have lunch with her tomorrow in exchange for my study notes.”
Emma taps manicured fingernails against her knee for a moment and then says: “doesn’t that count as pimping herself out for a grade?”
“Possibly?” Hank says. “I mean, she didn’t say it in a sexual-favours-for-information type way. I think.”
“You’re terrible at reading social cues,” Emma reminds him.
“I am,” Hank agrees. “Um. How do I have lunch with her?”
Emma actually turns to him and arches an eyebrow, the expression she uses that can reduce a girl to tears without her having to ever say a word.
“Well, obviously,” Hank says, “but, I mean, how do I talk to her? What do I talk to her about?”
Emma twists her lips in thought, and Hank can hear her dismissing his two math-related summer camps because nothing that happened there without conversations about formulae – not even Hank losing his virginity to a guy with sharp blue eyes and a way with equations that maybe turned Hank on more than his smile did – and the conversations that they have, which are barely conversations and made up more of significant silences than of words.
“Well,” she says at last, “this should be interesting.”
As it turns out, lunch with Raven is actually kind of nice; they start off stumbling over words, speaking over each other with clumsy half-sentences, before Hank asks her why she moved here. Raven waves her hands around a lot and frequently rolls her eyes as she tells him about her older brother – who seems to be her legal guardian, though Hank doesn’t pry – getting a fellowship at the university and dragging her along with him. Raven’s voice when she talks about her brother is fond and frustrated; “he’s a total genius so of course he never eats or sleeps, seriously, living with him is like babysitting most of the time.” When Hank tells her that he thinks her brother’s research into genetics sounds fascinating, Raven grins and says: “you should come over for dinner some time and talk to him about it, let me off the hook.”
After that, they move onto discussing the year’s syllabus and Hank makes the pleasant discovery that Raven is actually pretty intelligent; not hopelessly over intelligent like Hank, who takes math with the seniors and has already had offers from six universities despite the fact he’s got two more years of high school, but smart enough for them to be able to connect. It’s not that Hank judges or anything, but Emma is so disinterested in anything academic that he never really has anyone to talk to about these things.
Emma passes by his locker just before afternoon classes; she looks casual, but Hank knows it’s deliberate, and he’s grateful. She raises a questioning eyebrow.
“It went alright,” he says. “I have no idea why, but...”
Emma rolls her eyes, and uses her favourite you’re a dumbass tone to tell him: “she’s lonely too.”
Hank thinks about that all the way through biology – not that it matters, he read this chapter over the Christmas vacation in preparation anyway – and wonders how it is Emma always manages to know all the things about himself he refuses to talk about.
After all that business last year involving Hank being paid to do people’s schoolwork for them he has to go and see the school’s guidance counsellor/therapist once a week.
It got blown out of all proportion really; Hank’s momentarily mercenary attitude towards other people’s grades wasn’t born out of some low-level desire to start some kind of vaguely criminal financial empire, and wasn’t born out of any kind of latent self-destructive tendencies (yes, alright, so he’d gotten himself caught by setting off the fire alarm and triggering a school-wide sprinkler flood because too many people were asking too many things of him and the rage built up in him until he saw red and did the first thing that came into his head; but he hadn’t done it out of any sort of desire to get himself in trouble), but was, instead, the first and only time Hank ever decided to try and buy friendship.
He didn’t say this aloud because it sounded pathetic, and instead let his parents yell at him and then attempt to ground him before they realised that he never went anywhere or did anything anyway so there wasn’t much point, and sat in the principal’s office and got the word disappointed chucked at him a lot while he nodded blankly, safe in the knowledge that he was way, way too intelligent for them to ever kick him out. The school was cleaned up, everyone re-took exams to get fair grades, and he was completely forgotten about. Wiped from existence. People didn’t talk about Hank in the halls or beat him up or any of the things he’d been half-expecting; they just moved on, leaving him without an identity, lower even than the nerds who could at least be bullied into giving out homework answers from time to time.
All Emma had to say on the subject was that he was an idiot, but she brought over a stack of DVDs and stayed in his room for the week of suspension that he did get, claiming flu to the Hellfire Club, curled up on Hank’s bed with him while he tried to work out just what he’d been thinking.
Anyway, after all that happened, he has to have sessions with Mr Lehnsherr, who is so terrible at his job it’s kind of astonishing; he’s evidently got some kind of blackmail material on their principal, because there’s no other way he could still be hired. He threw Sean out of a window last semester. Hank actually quite likes him because Mr Lehnsherr is perfectly aware that Hank is nerdy and awkward and probably has half a dozen social anxiety disorders, but is also aware that there’s no deep psychological condition going on, and there is actually no point in Hank coming to see him. They’ve never actually discussed this, but their sessions are scheduled to coincide with Hank’s gym classes, which says a lot, really.
“Did you have any kind of psychotic break this week?” Mr Lehnsherr asks, sounding bored. There are thumbtacks lined up on his desk, point upwards, covering about half the surface; it’s clearly been a long day for him.
“Not that I noticed?” Hank replies. Most of their conversations are like this; Hank has no idea what Mr Lehnsherr can possibly have to write in the reports that have to go in his permanent file.
Mr Lehnsherr nods; Hank can’t work out if he’s approving that, yet again, nothing has happened in Hank’s life, or if he’s disapproving of the fact that Hank is, to all intents and purposes, really dull.
To waste some time before Hank has to leave, Mr Lehnsherr gives him a mental health questionnaire to fill out, with numbers on a scale of one to ten and a lot of questions about eating disorders Hank doesn’t actually have. While he does this, Mr Lehnsherr drinks an entire jug of filter coffee and types industriously on his computer; far too fast for him to be doing anything professional.
Hank hands it back and Mr Lehnsherr looks thoughtfully over his responses. “Nothing we didn’t already know,” he says dismissively. “You’re a loser who can’t talk to people.”
Hank is pretty sure guidance counsellors aren’t supposed to say things like that.
“I had lunch with Raven Darkholme this week,” he protests vaguely.
Mr Lehnsherr raises an eyebrow that clearly states he thinks that Raven’s name is stupid. “And how did that go?”
Hank shrugs. “We had a conversation?” he offers.
Mr Lehnsherr nods thoughtfully, then reaches into the top drawer of his desk. Hank flinches instinctively – there are rumours that he pulled a gun on a freshman last year – but Mr Lehnsherr simply pulls out a sticker sheet, peels off a gold star with meticulous care, and reaches across his thumbtack covered desk to hand it to Hank.
“Um?” Hank says helplessly. “Is this... this isn’t... what?”
“You had a conversation with a person you don’t know,” Mr Lehnsherr says, slowly, like he thinks Hank is stupid and like it’s been a very, very long day, “that means you get a gold star.”
Hank wasn’t aware that Mr Lehnsherr gave out gold stars for things. He’s not sure why, but something about this information is faintly disturbing.
“Thank you?” he says, and Mr Lehnsherr nods like he’s done Hank a favour.
“You can tell the next student to come in,” he says, dismissing Hank easily, and returns to his computer screen.
The next student, sitting brooding outside Mr Lehnsherr’s office, is Alex Summers. Hank’s heart jolts in his chest and he loses the ability to say anything. Alex looks up at him, looks through him, and gets up, pushing Hank aside as he walks into the office.
Hank still has the gold star stuck to his finger; he crumples it up and drops it.
ii. your folks told me you should be left alone on a mountain top, knocking the aeroplanes down with stones.
“Anyone home?” Raven calls, dumping her bag down in the hall and disappearing somewhere.
Hank had expected the apartment to be kind of poky, but the hall is larger than Hank’s living room. He carefully puts his backpack down next to Raven’s and follows the sound of her voice.
He finds her in a shockingly large kitchen, sitting on a stool at an honest-to-God breakfast bar and saying: “I can’t even believe you’re my brother.”
The man labelled as Raven’s brother is leaning back against one of the granite-topped counters, hair a mess and shirt a little too unbuttoned. He catches sight of Hank and a startlingly attractive smile tumbles across his mouth; he pushes himself upright and rushes over to him, saying: “oh, so you’re Raven’s new friend, it’s so nice to meet you.”
As Hank shakes Charles’ hand, he learns three things. One: Charles is tiny, shorter even than Raven; two: Charles is English, which is intriguing, and three: Charles is absolutely hammered.
“It’s like four in the afternoon,” Raven says, coming over and making Charles let go of Hank’s hand. “How are you this drunk?”
Charles frowns, features twisting, and says: “I’m not drunk. We maybe all went out for lunch and there was rather a lot of wine, but that’s neither here nor there.”
His words are falling over each other, blurring together.
“Scientists,” Raven mutters, “Jesus.” She takes her brother by the shoulders and half-drags him towards one of the other doors. “I hope your hangover is awful.”
“You know I don’t get hangovers,” Charles informs her, as Raven pushes him out and shuts the door in his face. “And don’t eat my Pop Tarts!” he yells through it.
Raven comes back over to Hank, smiling, though there’s something shy and nervous in it.
“Your brother is awesome,” Hank tells her fervently, and means it. Something clears in Raven’s face.
“Do you want Pop Tarts?” she asks.
Emma’s getting ready for a party at Selene’s house, one of the ones that will be awash with jocks and alcohol and noise and probably later the police. The other Angels wear other colours when not in uniform but Emma’s colour has always, always been white. Hank helped her repaint her room freshman year, the two of them covered in splashes of magnolia; he’s not sure he’s ever seen her laugh since then, but the last couple of years have been complicated for everyone.
Hank lies on her bed, half-watching a Law & Order re-run on her television while Emma switches between outfits. She’s barely frowning, expression closed-off and smooth, but Hank knows that the times she stops responding are the times she feels worse; it’s all a defence mechanism.
“What are you so worried about?” he asks during the commercials. “You’re going to look amazing whatever you wear.”
Emma tips her head to one side, lips thinning as she smoothes the latest in her string of white dresses over her narrow hips.
“I’m not worried,” she offers at last.
Hank sits up because Emma is lying, and not even particularly well.
“Who’s at this party who you haven’t already queen bee-d into submission?” he asks.
Emma huffs and pulls the dress over her head instead of answering.
Hank knows he’s not going to get anything out of her like this, so he surrenders and offers: “dress number three worked best, I think.”
“You don’t know anything about fashion,” Emma says, but her smile is soft and real as she reaches into the pile of discarded clothes.
Emma watches half an episode of Law & Order with him once she’s dressed, her make-up carefully applied, her whole body utterly still but thrumming with nervous energy.
“You should go,” she says over the credits. “Sebastian will be here to pick me up later.”
Hank feels himself tense up. “Sebastian Shaw?” he demands.
Emma blinks at him, cool and quiet, eyelashes tinted blue. “Do any other Sebastians go to our school?” she asks.
Hank sorts through his next words carefully before he finally manages: “...I don’t think this is a good idea.” He knows Emma will hear the but he’s a dick anyway.
Emma closes her eyes, takes in a breath through her nose, and says, even and quiet: “get out.”
Hank swallows, but he’s seen Emma have arguments with other people (never with him) where they shout and shout and shout and she just stands there, calm and quiet and refusing to break. Emma doesn’t laugh, Emma doesn’t cry, Emma doesn’t raise her voice, Emma doesn’t crack on the outside because she’s in so many pieces on the inside that if her exterior isn’t strong she’ll crumble.
“Alright,” he says, equally measured and soft, and leaves.
He stays up half the night, pretending to do other things to distract himself from the fact he’s listening. When he finally gives up and goes to sleep at four a.m., she’s still not back.
Charles gets very enthusiastic when he’s talking about genetics; Hank thought he’d be intimidated about having dinner with Raven and her brother, but he’s actually enjoying himself a lot. Charles doesn’t talk down to him, and while a few references to journals and people go over his head, Hank can keep track of Charles’ research better than he expected to. And anyway, it’s very hard to be intimidated by people who invite you into their giant apartment but then go “we’re ordering in Chinese”.
“Are you boys done yet?” Raven asks when they’ve finally run out of chow mein, removing one of her iPod earbuds.
“Raven,” Charles says, gently but recriminatory, “we’ve only been talking for an hour.”
“Right,” Raven says, rolling her eyes.
“I was just about to invite Hank to my lab so he could actually see some of the DNA I was talking about,” Charles tells Raven. “He’s remarkable.”
Hank feels himself blush.
“You can’t hit on all my friends,” Raven informs him calmly. “It’s creepy. Also Hank isn’t legal in the US yet.”
“I don’t hit on all your friends,” Charles protests mildly. “I hit on one of your friends. Once. While drunk. And it was dark.”
Raven covers her face with her hands. “You are such a giant slut, oh my God.”
Charles opens his mouth and Hank cuts in with: “so, just so I’m clear for my therapist later, am I being hit on or not?”
He’s lying, there is no way he’s going to tell Mr Lehnsherr about any of this, but it makes them stop bickering, which is the important bit.
“I’m not hitting on you,” Charles says, nodding benignly. “Which is not to say that you’re not an extremely intelligent and attractive young man-”
“Stop it,” Raven interrupts, a warning note in her voice.
“I’m trying not to give him any sort of emotional rejection problems,” Charles says, with an expression he clearly thinks is conscientious, and adds: “but I am serious about inviting Hank to the lab.”
“Okay, as long as it doesn’t end in some kind of lawsuit,” Raven says, and puts her earbud back in. “Carry on.”
“She exaggerates,” Charles whispers. “Well. Okay, she doesn’t exaggerate, but. Anyway. Where had we got to?”
As Hank asks questions about Charles’ current genetic research and hopes he doesn’t sound like too much of an idiot, he glances sideways; Raven’s eyes are on the screen of her phone, but she’s smiling.
Sean smells like cigarettes and bars that he’s not legally old enough to get into and his red hair is a wrecked mess.
“Good night?” Hank asks, as Sean frowns at his locker like he’s never seen it before.
“Yeah,” Sean rasps, “like, you don’t even know, man.” He continues to blink at his locker.
“Your combination is 50-28-17,” Hank tells him.
Sean gets his locker open and then lurches alarmingly sideways to hug him; Hank pats his back vaguely until Sean lets him go, tipping his ridiculous John Lennon sunglasses down his nose to blink at him with shiny bloodshot eyes.
“You’re my favourite, man,” he insists, before turning around and wandering off.
Hank watches him bemusedly for a moment, and then locks his locker for him.
“Woah,” Raven says when she runs into him a few minutes later, nose wrinkling, “whose parties aren’t you inviting me to?”
“Contact high from Sean,” Hank replies, and they turn around just in time to see Alex Summers punch a guy in the face.
“Alex!” Armando Munoz yells, fighting through the crowds of people in the hall who’ve all frozen to stare. He’s Alex’s best friend, supposedly, but no one’s ever seen them have a proper conversation; they spend most of their time punching each other, and Alex doesn’t speak in public to anyone. “Alex, don’t.”
Alex is staring down at the guy he just punched – another sophomore, Hank thinks, but he doesn’t know his name – who’s ended up on the floor with his back against the lockers and isn’t saying anything at all. It’s the quietest fight Hank’s ever seen at this school.
“He’s a fucking psycho,” someone behind Hank whispers; Alex half-turns his head in recognition and Hank looks down at his shoes as Raven’s nails dig into his arm.
Alex’s victim seems to have pulled himself together, pushing himself to his feet and grinning through his nosebleed. “They should lock you up,” he snarls, “lock you up like the fucking animal you are.”
“Alex!” Armando yells, still pushing through people, as Alex lunges. Hank flinches and looks away as Raven gasps beside him.
Mr Lehnsherr appears from nowhere, looking entirely unruffled and just a little bored by the proceedings.
“Mr Summers,” he drawls, “you can get in one more good punch and then we’ll go to my office. I’ve just put on some coffee.”
The guy Alex is trying to beat to a pulp gasps out: “you can’t-”
“If you will go around winding up people with well-publicised anger issues,” Mr Lehnsherr says lightly. “Alex, you’ve made your point.”
Alex draws back, cheeks flushed and pure frightening rage emanating off him. Mr Lehnsherr puts a hand on his back and slowly leads Alex away; Hank feels oddly ashamed, ignoring Raven as she mumbles: “who is that?” beside him.
Emma is officially dating Sebastian Shaw now, and unofficially not speaking to Hank.
Sebastian Shaw is the kind of filthy rich you want to turn away from; he drives an ugly expensive sports car and wears immaculate designer clothes and douchey sunglasses and has a mafia of sycophants who are low on personality and high on attractiveness. He seems to have worked his way through most of the Hellfire Club – the last Hank heard he was semi-dating Angel Salvadore – and there are ugly rumours about him. A hit-and-run last year, a girlfriend with a black eye, a handful of bribes put out in the right places to get him out of all kinds of trouble.
He’s good-looking, sure, but Hank isn’t sure what else he brings to the table.
They look good together, gliding through the halls like the most stereotypical of power couples; Sebastian does all the talking and Emma smiles her closed-mouth, serene smile that stings a little to look at, and Hank knows she isn’t happy but he’s the only one who does know.
Raven’s an actual genuine friend by now; they hang out after school, they eat lunch together, they make vague movie plans for the weekend. Hank still isn’t sure why she’d want to hang out with him, since it’s the kind of social suicide that no one should undertake, but he’s happy and grateful enough not to question it.
“What’s the matter?” Raven asks, following Hank’s eyeline to where Emma is walking down the hall with Sebastian draped over her shoulders; she’s in her white cheerleader’s uniform with white heeled high top sneakers, and he’s in a black suit that probably cost about as much as Hank’s dad’s car, and they look perfect and awful together.
Hank looks away as Emma’s gaze cuts through him the way everyone else’s does; rendering him invisible, unimportant, dismissed.
“Nothing,” he murmurs, and adds nothing you’d believe, anyway in the privacy of his own head.
He goes over to Emma’s after school one day, when she should be back from practice; her mom looks a little sad as she tells Hank that Emma’s out with Sebastian, she doesn’t know when she’ll be back.
You can’t ignore me forever, Hank texts her, an exercise in futility. He doesn’t expect a reply, and he doesn’t get one.
“Congratulations,” Mr Lehnsherr says during their next session, “you seem to have finally discovered teenage angst.”
Hank thinks about this, and then says at last: “do I get a gold star for it?”
“No,” Mr Lehnsherr replies firmly. “Tell me the source of your teenage angst so we can nip it in the bud and you can go back to being socially awkward and more attracted to equations than people.”
Hank gets a quick hot flash of thought about Alex, scowling and dangerous-looking at the back of a classroom while he doesn’t look at Hank because he has no reason to, but he keeps it to himself. He’s never told anyone, he never will.
“My best friend isn’t talking to me,” he says, tamping down on the feeling he always gets when he thinks about Alex, his skin prickling all over.
“Miss Darkholme?” Mr Lehnsherr asks. He sounds disinterested, threading paperclips onto the end of a very long chain that snakes across his desk.
“Emma Frost,” Hank corrects him. Mr Lehnsherr looks incredulous. “We’ve grown up next door to each other,” Hank adds. “And I’m gay and socially handicapped, so there’s no reason for me to fantasise about the head cheerleader being my friend.”
“What a thorough and in-depth psychoanalysis,” Mr Lehnsherr murmurs, sharply sarcastic, before adding: “and why isn’t she speaking to you?”
“Because I don’t approve of her dating Sebastian Shaw,” Hank says simply.
Mr Lehnsherr threads on another three paperclips and then says: “do you want to talk about it?”
Hank considers it for a moment. “Not particularly.”
“Excellent.” Mr Lehnsherr waits a few moments and then says: “your file announces I have a duty to check you’re not being molested by your friend’s older brother.”
Hank reflects he probably shouldn’t have told Mr Lehnsherr about his trip to the university to see Charles at work.
“I’m really not,” he says hastily.
Mr Lehnsherr lays down the paperclips. “Are you sure?”
“Reasonably,” Hank tells him.
Mr Lehnsherr nods and then pulls open his drawer and hands him a gold star.
“Seriously?” Hank asks.
Mr Lehnsherr rolls his eyes and then checks his watch. “Well, I think you’ve been uncomfortable at me for an appropriate amount of time. Please go and tell Mr Cassidy that there’s no point in him attending this session until he’s burned out the high from the drugs he stole from the nurse’s office this morning.”
Sean is sitting outside Mr Lehnsherr’s office giggling.
“He doesn’t want to see you,” Hank says.
“Man,” Sean sighs. “That sucks.”
“He pushed you out of a window,” Hank reminds him.
Sean waves his hands around a bit. “It was only the first floor,” he says. “There were bushes and shit. And I wrote a song about it!”
Hank fights not to laugh, because that’s so ridiculously Sean, and manages: “okay then.”
Sean grins at him, all shiny teeth and shiny eyes, and adds: “I called it Defenestration Sensation.”
Hank smiles. “Of course you did.”
Hank’s math teacher asks him to stay after the lesson and Hank waits as the seniors file out, not even sneaking curious glances at him because no one cares about him. He feels immediately panicked, worried that he’s somehow slipped up, that he’s not clever enough to be here.
“I was wondering if you’d be available for tutoring?” Ms Monro asks when they’re alone, and Hank’s knees feel weak with relief.
“Um,” he says, “um, sure, I guess I could do that, if you think I’d be able to help.”
She smiles at him, and says: “you’d be perfect for it, Hank. He’s actually in your year so the work will be a lot easier than what you’ve been doing here; you shouldn’t fall behind.”
Hank nods and manages a smile. The chances are whoever it is won’t want him tutoring them, but that’s their problem, not his; at least he can say that he tried.
“Of course you’ll get extra credit,” Ms Monro adds quickly, like Hank still needs persuading. “I just feel like maybe you’ll be able to get through to him where I haven’t been able to.” Her smile twists a little more. “He’s got something of a problem with authority.”
Hank’s heart lurches in his chest and he forces himself to remember that there are plenty of casually messed-up kids at their school and that he could be being asked to help any number of them.
“Right,” he says. “So, um, who-”
“Oh, right,” Ms Monro laughs, “I should probably have told you first, just to check you’d have no issues. I mean, I don’t see why you would, but... anyway, it’s Alex Summers.”
Of course it is, Hank thinks dully, and wonders how it’ll feel to have his nose and his heart broken by a boy who doesn’t give a damn about anyone or anything, least of all a nerdy kid he’s never spoken two words to who’s had the most awkward and gut-wrenching crush on him since freshman year.
“No,” he stammers, “no, um, no, I have no issues at all.”
He makes a mental note not to tell Mr Lehnsherr that he’s apparently hopelessly masochistic.
iii. d’you want my side of the story?
“Do you get a panic button?” Raven asks interestedly, reaching for another slice of pizza.
She and Charles don’t ever cook. Hank can’t work out if it’s a lazy-rich-people thing, if they genuinely don’t know how to, or if Charles is still living like a student.
“Not that I know of,” Hank replies, wishing he hadn’t had to tell Raven about his new tutoring assignment. Emma wouldn’t have asked questions; at least not verbal ones, and he could have pretended to miss her slight changes in facial expression.
“He’d probably break your fingers before you could push it,” Raven muses cheerfully, picking mushrooms off her pizza and putting them on Charles’ plate.
“Who is this boy?” Charles asks, looking up from his book for the first time this meal.
“Alex Summers,” Raven explains. “I don’t know much about him, but he mostly sits around glowering in classrooms or punching people in the face.”
They both look expectantly at Hank.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s mostly rumours, but there was something last summer that involved him and a group of guys he shouldn’t have been around and some of them got stabbed. He’s only just gotten back to school after whatever that was.”
Because Charles and Raven aren’t normal people, they both look interested rather than scared.
“And you’re going to tutor him in maths?” Charles asks.
Hank shrugs uncomfortably, as Raven says: “there’s no actual proof he’s a murderous psychopath.”
Charles shifts in his chair, straightening up a little into what Hank’s learned to recognise as his Responsible Brother Posture; he doesn’t use it very often, and it looks more comical than anything else, like Charles is playing at this.
“You’re not to date him, Raven,” he says firmly.
Raven laughs. “Seriously?” she asks.
Charles casts a pleading look at Hank. “That’s what responsible guardian figures say in this situation, right?”
Hank isn’t really sure; he unnerves his parents, and they don’t really talk that much anymore. “Sure,” he replies, and reaches for more pizza.
“Also, you have to call me if you get stabbed,” Raven says, in a cheerful parody of Charles’ Responsible Brother Posture.
“He gets frisked every morning coming in,” Hank murmurs without thinking, and then curls his toes in his shoes to try not to flush; he’s not sure if he ought to know that or not, if that counts as vague stalking.
“Anything can be a weapon,” Raven says gravely, and Hank ducks his head, feeling uncomfortable and weirdly defensive even though he doesn’t know what Alex did and with what and to whom.
“Stop it,” Charles tells her, and: “no more late night TV for you.”
“It’ll be fine,” Hank says to no one in particular, “he probably won’t even show up.”
He hasn’t decided what he wants to happen yet; he’s trying not to think about it too much, terrified of all the possible outcomes.
Emma catches him in the hall; Hank wants to be angry with her, wants to say you’re the one who stopped talking to me, but he’s missed her and he’s pathetic enough to let it all go.
“What?” he says, making an effort to at least sound cold.
Emma’s face is apologetic, at least as apologetic as it ever gets, and Hank knows that she’s trying.
“Alex Summers uses silence to intimidate people,” she explains quietly. Hank doesn’t bother asking how she knows; Emma knows everything that happens at this school.
“So?” he asks, and she rolls her eyes, sharp and impatient.
“So you’re very good at dealing with intimidating silences,” she points out, and gives him a flicker of a real smile before she walks away.
It takes Hank a moment to realise that she’s got a point.
At least Emma’s decided to be kind of supportive; Sean’s general reaction was to stand by his locker going dude, dude, dude repeatedly and unhelpfully – Hank couldn’t help noticing, for the first time, that the inside of his locker door was covered in little sticky gold stars – and Raven’s idea of help was to text him so, if you don’t die, we can get coffee after y/y? Hank’s not sure what he needs or doesn’t need; no part of his life thus far has prepared him for interaction with Alex Summers, who sports bruises and murderous facial expressions and leather jackets, who got kicked off a handful of sports teams even before whatever happened last summer, who exists in this little bubble of fury and potential violence.
Hank has a spare pair of glasses in his locker, just in case.
Ms Monro suggested they use her classroom – she didn’t specifically say it was to provide a modicum of privacy, but Hank figured it out anyway – and Hank is still half-certain Alex won’t even show up. He arrives early, anyway, to show willing or something, and finds Alex is already sitting there, arms folded across his chest, glowering at nothing in particular.
Hank’s first instinct is to back out apologising and pleading for his life, and his second is to start babbling to fill the heavy silence Alex carries around him like a malevolent cloud. Just as he opens his mouth, though, he remembers Emma’s advice, and forces himself to stay quiet. There’s every chance this could get him hurt, but there’s every chance it won’t, so he forces himself to keep breathing and act like he’s just with Emma when she’s sad and won’t tell him why and is pretending that everything is fine as long as she doesn’t say any of it aloud.
He walks over to sit opposite Alex, aware that Alex is watching his every move, but he doesn’t look at him because he thinks he’ll blush and lose his nerve if he does. Hank has no idea why his brain decided to have a crush on the one student in school likely to murder him with his bare hands, but it’s really kind of inconvenient. He gets out his own books and the textbook Ms Monro has lent him so that he can see what Alex should be working on, and the worksheets he put together with the library photocopier yesterday with Raven sitting beside him swinging her legs and examining her hair for split ends.
He passes the papers across the desk with a newly-sharpened pencil – he has no idea if Alex has his own pencils or not, but better to be prepared than sorry – and although Alex is now staring at desk and not him, he sees the slight shift in expression.
“To find out what you can and can’t do,” Hank says simply, and gets started on his own math homework.
He hardly dares breathe, doesn’t dare look up or move or shift in his chair, and he thinks he might be panicking because his heart is beating so hard he’s sure Alex must hear it, but after a few minutes that crawl by, Alex picks up the pencil.
“He didn’t say one word to you but he also didn’t hospitalise you,” Raven muses, channel-hopping on Hank’s bed, “so that’s probably a win, right?”
Hank’s body still feels drenched in nervous adrenaline; he can’t believe he managed to do that, managed to sit in a classroom with Alex Summers for an hour and not implode from it all. He was careful not to look at Alex too much, didn’t want him to feel pressurised or judged, but he was aware of Alex looking at him from time to time. Not looking through him but at him, and Hank spent a couple of minutes in the bathroom trying to look at himself as Alex would have seen him; the too-formal shirt, the glasses, the hair that has no particular style falling into his eyes, the ink-stained fingers. Hank’s not much to look at, he concluded, and while on one level it’s a little disappointing it’s also a relief.
“Probably,” Hank agrees, trying not to sound distracted. When he’d finished working through the papers Alex had stood up, dropped them in front of Hank and walked out without looking back. Hank doesn’t know if he’ll be there next week or not.
Raven’s finally settled on a rerun of America’s Next Top Model when Hank’s bedroom door opens. Hank catches the fleeting jealousy that runs across Emma’s face even though she hides it quickly enough; he feels Raven freeze in shock beside him.
All of this has the potential to end horribly and he’s been calm enough for one day. “I don’t-” he begins.
“Hi,” Raven begins slowly, “you’re Emma, right?”
She knows already; they all know she knows already, but she’s trying, and Hank is grateful for that. After a moment, something eases in Emma’s shoulders.
“Yes,” she says, and though her voice is cool and guarded it’s not made of ice like Hank knows it can be. “And you’re Raven.”
They’re glaring at each other in that special way girls have that Hank has never been able to fathom, and he can’t work out if this is terrible or maybe kind of hilarious. He gets the feeling Raven’s going to yell at him later for not telling her that he’s friends with the most popular girl in school, but he’s pretty sure he can fix it.
Eventually, Raven suggests: “Top Model?”
Emma tilts her head slightly in that way Hank knows means she’s seriously considering it, and eventually comes to sit next to him on the bed.
It’s not quite easy; Emma doesn’t speak and he knows Raven is on edge, but they’re both trying, which is more than Hank thinks he would’ve expected from this situation.
Eventually, Raven’s phone goes off; she answers it and Hank can hear Charles spilling out: “Raven! Raven. Raven. Raven, you should bring home dinner. Maybe fried chicken. A lot of fried chicken. Maybe even a bucket!”
Raven sighs. “Are you high? You’re high, aren’t you. I’m calling the family lawyers in the morning and getting legally emancipated.”
“Jolly good,” Charles says cheerfully. “But can you bring a bucket of fried chicken home first? Maybe two. Definitely two. Ta.”
“I hate you, oh my god,” Raven sighs before hanging up. She turns to Hank. “I should go before he decides that dismantling kitchen appliances is relevant to his genetic research. Again.”
When she’s gone, Hank waits until Emma relaxes a little, posture softening.
“Sorry,” he says.
Emma’s lips curl; it’s not a smile, but it’s something like a precursor to one. “You’re ridiculous,” she says, “there’s absolutely nothing to apologise for here.”
“Yes,” Hank replies, “but: sorry.”
Emma rolls her eyes. “I take it Summers didn’t stick a ballpoint pen in your jugular.”
“No,” Hank says. “Mercifully.”
“Of course,” Emma agrees, “I hear arterial blood is a real pain to get out of shirts.”
Hank laughs and she smiles one of those real toothy smiles she saves for special occasions.
“I’m never going to like your boyfriend,” Hank tells her finally.
“I know,” Emma says, and Hank knows it’s the closest she’ll get to saying I missed you. He hears it anyway.
Sean informs Hank that he’s got a show this Friday and Hank is coming whether he wants to or not, and Hank’s feeling just reckless and relieved enough from his tutoring session with Alex to say alright instead of really no. Mr Lehnsherr looks amused and annoyed when Hank informs him that he’s going during their next meeting.
“You do realise you don’t get a passing grade for therapy?” he asks. “Pushing yourself into situations you wouldn’t normally be in isn’t going to get you extra credit.”
Hank just shrugs and gets a gold star anyway.
Later, he freaks out at Raven (who decided to find his secret friendship with the head cheerleader and probable future prom queen hilarious and random rather than something to get mad at; Hank is grateful) because he has no idea how to go to gigs.
Raven gets this faintly disturbing smile and she tells him it’s all in hand.
Which is how Hank finds himself in his bathroom on Friday night with Raven yelling through the door: “they’re supposed to be tight, you idiot. I’m pretty sure you have an ass underneath those terrible slacks.”
Hank sucks in a breath and manages to zip up the fly. “I’m sure there’s a difference between tight and obscene,” he calls back. “And my slacks are not terrible.”
He looks at himself in the full-length mirror on the wall; the jeans Raven turned up with – they’re my brother’s ex’s, they’ll probably fit you, yes I washed them first – cling in all sorts of places Hank doesn’t want them to cling to, and the t-shirt she unearthed from the back of his wardrobe is clearly too tight and barely touches the waistline of the jeans; if he moves his arms at all it rides up.
“I look stupid,” he mutters.
Raven bangs on the door. “Let me see,” she demands.
Hank sighs and lets her in, reflecting that his parents must either be really certain he’s gay or be secretly hoping Raven will turn him straight if she spends enough time with him, because they haven’t objected to any part of tonight’s proceedings so far. Raven gives him an appraising look, eyes sweeping up and down him in a way that makes Hank feel vaguely uncomfortable, and says at last: “do you own contacts?”
He wants to lie but doesn’t, instead getting the contacts he never wears because they itch out of the bathroom cabinet and putting them in. Raven nods and then reaches into her purse, digging out an eyeliner pencil.
“No,” Hank says quickly, blinking too much because his eyes are watering like crazy, “just, no.”
“It’s for me, dumbass,” Raven mutters. “Although...”
“No,” Hank says, and steps back so she can refresh her make-up, tugging awkwardly at his t-shirt.
“Stop it,” Raven says. “You look hot, no one will recognise you, you’ll blend in as much as a stupidly giant guy can blend in, which is all you really want.”
Sean’s gigs tend to take place in a bar downtown that doesn’t care about how old you are or how legal you are, which Hank surmises will get them shut down sooner or later, but for now just means they get flocked with students who can’t be bothered to get fake IDs. Even Hank, who doesn’t go out anywhere ever, knows the place is a dive, but Raven seems perfectly at home, curling fingers around Hank’s wrist and dragging him through the crowds of people towards what passes for a stage in here. It’s noisy and crowded and all the things Hank generally hates, but Raven disappears for a moment and returns a little later with two bottles of beer, passing one to Hank and glaring reprovingly at him until he starts drinking, and after that things get a little easier.
The band are not actually terrible, Hank muses when they come on; Sean’s voice is kind of fascinating, shivering and cracking without ever breaking, screaming like a wild thing while fearlessly throwing himself around the stage. It’s crazy and too much and Hank wishes he hadn’t come and then Raven grabs his hands and moves them to her waist and makes him move with her, move with the people around him, and before he knows it Hank’s dancing; not particularly well, but not badly enough to make people look at him or anything, and he feels pleasantly lost in the sound and the crowd and the chants of BANSHEE BANSHEE BANSHEE any time Sean pauses for breath.
Hank ducks out for air halfway through the set because it’s all still a little too much, more than he’s used to. The night is surprisingly cold after the heat of all the dancing bodies; he can still hear the muted roar of people coming from inside, pictures Raven dancing in there with mascara bleeding down her cheeks, and smiles just a little.
There’s another bar across the street, one that even Hank knows has a reputation – it’s not the greatest neighbourhood, but Charles has promised them a ride home when they want it – and as his eyes get used to the dim streetlights, Hank realises there’s someone smoking outside it, lit in stripes of sputtering neon. A few blinks to clear his blurring contacts, and he realises he knows that battered leather jacket.
His whole body goes numb, stomach dropping and fingers tingling, before he reminds himself that there’s no way Alex would recognise him up close tonight, let alone at this distance, and it’s too dark for anyone to see him blushing. He takes a handful of breaths until his stomach stops swooping, and then turns and goes back inside, skin stinging with all the things he’d never even dream of doing.
Hank spends Saturday afternoon watching cheerleading routine DVDs with Emma and pretending he doesn’t have a slight hangover (such a lightweight Raven muttered in the backseat of Charles’ car last night, their ears ringing and hearts still beating too fast from post-gig adrenaline, while Charles smirked to himself in the front). The squad’s formation has changed slightly; Hank can see just how fixed Selene’s grin is, her eyes cold and flashing and trained on the back of Emma’s head like if she stares long enough Emma might collapse.
“It’s almost like you’re a real boy,” Emma remarks, passing him a bowl of fresh popcorn and another bottle of water. Her tone is sardonic but her eyes are sparkling, and she smirks when Hank glares at her.
Hanging out with Emma is different to hanging out with Raven; Raven talks almost constantly, blurting out whatever comes into her head and interrupting herself to begin another train of thought, while Charles appears from time to time looking harassed and distracted and frequently wearing the same shirt for days on end. Emma’s parents almost never interfere with her life; they’re both lawyers, and are hardly ever home, leaving her to her own devices. Sometimes Hank hates them for that, but he has no idea what they’d actually do about Emma even if they were around.
Emma’s got a date with Sebastian later but they’re both carefully not talking about it because Hank doesn’t know the questions to ask to get answers; Emma isn’t happy with him, that much is obvious to him (even if it isn’t to anyone else) and yet nothing about her seems inclined to stop dating Sebastian; Hank would like to ask why, or what it is Sebastian has on her, or simply just what is going on here, but he knows none of those tacks will work on Emma. She’s never been about the direct route.
Instead of saying any of the things he wants to, Hank watches the cheer routine through for the fifth time, the Hellfire Club moving in near-perfect sync to yet another 3OH!3 song – how do I say I’m sorry ‘cause the word is never gonna come out – Selene’s eyes hard and glittering, Tessa’s mouth quivering in concentration, Angel’s lips curling just slightly as she twists her hips a little more than is necessary, Emma calm and serene and confident, leading them all like she doesn’t belong anywhere else.
“You guys are good,” he offers.
Emma’s mouth twists in the shy way she takes a compliment, but all she says aloud is: “I know.”
The next tutoring session is on Tuesday, and Hank takes care to be even earlier than usual. Alex is still there before him, sitting in exactly the same position he was last week, scowling at nothing in particular. Hank almost does a double take, like this is a Groundhog Day situation, like he’ll be destined to repeat this over and over until something breaks, and then notices that this week Alex has actually brought a pencil with him.
Hank is momentarily disconcerted, and then pulls himself together. He manages not to say “hi” or bring up the fact he saw Alex this weekend or ask him how his day’s going, staying silent as he unpacks his books and the equations he photocopied for Alex to work on today, passing the first sheet across the table.
Alex starts work straight away, which feels like something of a miracle, and Hank desperately tries to stop his hands shaking as he starts his own work. He’s unable to stop himself from sneaking a few glances at Alex, who’s frowning down at the questions, hesitating every now and then as he hesitantly scribbles calculations in the margins.
Hank takes care to look back down at his own book as he says: “try multiplying out the brackets first.”
He hears Alex freeze, and then, after a moment, there’s the sound of his pencil scratching on paper again.
Hank has no idea how he’s going to do this every week without snapping or freaking out; it’s like torture, feeling his way along blind and careful so as not to make Alex lose his temper, even before you add in the utterly masochistic and ridiculous crush. He’s got no idea if he can even teach him anything like this.
The next time he glances at Alex, Alex is frowning, the end of his pencil between his teeth, and it makes something in Hank’s stomach turn over.
“You can do this,” he stutters out before he gets a grip on himself. “Just take it step by step, don’t try and do it all at once.”
Alex doesn’t look up and his fingers twitch; there’s a moment when Hank thinks they both think Alex is going to crumple up the paper and throw it away and leave; and then Alex starts writing again, jerky, scrawling.
Hank allows himself to take a breath and thinks that maybe these sessions are going to be the death of him. When he next sneaks a glance at Alex he discovers Alex is already looking at him; their eyes meet and every inch of Hank feels it, sharp and self-conscious. He swallows, and looks away first.
Alex hovers over him as Hank marks his answers, and it’s distinctly unnerving; Hank’s got a good five inches on Alex when they’re both standing, but sitting down he’s at a disadvantage.
“You got all of them right,” he says. “So doing your homework should be pretty easy.” He bites the inside of his mouth before he can add if you do homework, that is, because that just seems to be asking for trouble. He risks a look up at Alex, who’s turned his smile into something sharp and sardonic. “And no,” he adds before he can stop himself, “you won’t get a gold star for this.”
He sees the spark of surprise in Alex’s eyes and manages not to flinch as Alex reaches towards him; all he does is pick up the worksheet and leave, and Hank lets out a sigh of relief as the door closes.
“What have you done this week?” Mr Lehnsherr asks, looking bored. The desk is covered in staples today; Hank doesn’t ask. “Decided to develop a cocaine habit?”
“No, sir,” Hank tells him. “I’ve done nothing this week.”
Mr Lehnsherr nods; Hank can’t work out if this is good or bad, but he suspects that Mr Lehnsherr enjoys keeping his students guessing.
“Well then,” he says, reaching for a box file and looking inside, “I can give you a questionnaire on self-harming, or a quiz to test your drug knowledge while subtly trying to brainwash you into believing that all drugs will lead you to die homeless and celibate under a bridge.”
Hank considers his options and then says: “you’re mentoring Alex Summers.”
Mr Lehnsherr closes the file and leans back, raising an entertained eyebrow. “I can’t give out information on students. My files are, however, poorly-guarded and easy to break into, should a whim strike you.”
Hank decides to be worried about that sometime when someone would actually care about him enough to break into Mr Lehnsherr’s office.
“Does he...” he trails off, swallows, tries again. “Does he talk to you?”
Mr Lehnsherr regards him for a long moment, as though deciding what to make of him, and then says: “sometimes.” When Hank doesn’t say anything, he continues: “I understand you’ve been tutoring him in math.”
“I have,” Hank agrees. “I just wanted to know if, you know, he ever actually spoke to anyone.”
Mr Lehnsherr barks off a short, kind of worrying laugh. Then he leans over his desk a little to look Hank in the eye and say: “he thinks you aren’t scared of him.”
Hank has literally no idea what to do with that information. “I don’t think you can tell me that, sir,” he says. “Doesn’t it count as confidential?”
Mr Lehnsherr’s grin is nothing short of terrifying. “Well,” he says, “that’s interesting, since you’re clearly as disturbed by him as the rest of the student body.”
“I don’t think we should be having this conversation,” Hank announces, over the swooping in his stomach and the sudden roaring in his ears.
Mr Lehnsherr gives him a look that clearly says he thinks he’s boring, and says: “alright then. You can tell the next student to come in.”
The next student is, of course, Alex, who is sitting looking mean and bad-tempered with his legs stretched out across the hall. He looks up when Hank walks out and, before Hank can look away, carefully nods at him, an acknowledgement.
Hank, insides twisting, nods back, and then Alex gets up and disappears into Mr Lehnsherr’s office. Hank stands still in the hall for a few moments, realising with an unpleasant rush that he’s really not sure what to make of any of this.