Billy Meets World Chapter 1: Break The Rules
Hi, this is the first chapter of my new Hulkling/Wiccan High-School AU fic. I'm posting here first because I like to have a backlog before I post on AO3, which is where this will also be living. Expect the usual teen-movie tropes, except now they're gay! It's fun! Tags below, naturally.
"Okay," Billy said, to himself, still clinging to the last moments of peace inside of his car, "You can do this. It's just high school. In a new city. In a new country. Full of people you don't know and who might make fun of you for being a gay weirdo with an accent."
His voice grew softer as reality began to set in around him again. He gripped the wheel, fighting the urge to reverse straight back out of the parking lot once more and drive until he could start a new life somewhere else in another state. Not that that would help.
He was drawn out of himself by a knock on his passenger side window, startling him, his head almost hitting the roof as he jumped practically out of his skin. He turned, greeted by the wide grin of a girl his age, gesturing for him to roll the window down. He flicked the switch, her head poking through the widening gap, clearly eager to meet him.
"Hi, Billy, right?"
He stared at her, her words taking a few moments to register with him, his face still caught in a grimace, eyes slightly too wide. She was patient, her silver necklace swaying gently, almost hypnotic. She looked familiar, vaguely, like a girl from his previous school. Maybe they were cousins. He could ask, but that would require remembering the first girl's name, which he never could seem to, despite being her friend for almost three years.
Another knock — this time on the driver's side, inches from his head — broke through the humming blank static in his mind, this time eliciting a shout as he lurched sideways, almost toppling over the central console. His eyes met another girl's — blonde this time, her face soft.
"Sorry!" she said, backing away, "We didn't mean to scare you!"
Billy held his hands up, gesturing for them both to step back, which they did, coming around to stand by the front of his car. He stepped out, retrieving his bag from the back seat, taking the moment to steady himself.
Come on, Billy, you can do this.
The dark haired girl thrust out her hand, Billy staring at it for an awkward length of time before reaching out to half-heartedly shake it, his palm clammy and damp where it met hers.
"I'm Kate," she explained, gesturing to herself, "And this is Cassie."
The blonde girl smiled again, her hair bouncing as she pulled him in for a hug which he wasn't quite prepared to return — his arms left dangling at his sides as he and Kate made eye contact, her rolling hers at Cassie's enthusiasm. She was a lot taller than he would have expected, towering over him, his face crushed against her. She finally caught on to his unease, her face growing hot.
"Sorry," she said again, pulling away, "I'm a hugger."
"That's okay. I'm… not."
"That's fine," said Cassie, waving her hand in dismissal, "We're the welcome wagon! Here to introduce you to our school and get you settled in!"
Noticing the look of pure bewilderment on his face, she returned sheepishly to Kate's side, the two of them swinging their arms in a wide gesture towards the school behind them, as if welcoming it to the stage. When his eyes didn't grow wide in awe, accompanied by a sufficiently impressed noise of approval, they deflated, Kate picking up the thread again.
"Look, we only did this to get out of detention-"
"Turns out the no smoking on campus rule extends to the girl's bathroom," Cassie added, her earlier bouncy demeanour falling away slightly to something a little more compatible with Billy's (in the words of his therapist) melancholic demeanour. She was still upbeat, still smiling, but it felt like her good humour was at someone else's expense. Kate looked dour — dark hair, darker makeup, and a scowl that seemed to drag her entire face down with it. Internally, Billy felt warmth start to fizz in his chest — familiarity, his well-practiced routine of ingratiating himself into the lives of other people.
Although sometimes it felt like he was tricking them, that it was only through an elaborate system of lies and deceit that he was able to put himself forward as a member of society with a brain that could function without constant reassurance that it was doing a good job.
"Yeah," Kate continued, snapping him back, "So Professor Xavier said we could either do this, or else it was a week's detention. We figured this couldn't be any worse than sitting in the science lab for an hour every day watching Mr Stark grading everyone's papers."
"Wow," Billy replied, "You guys are doing great so far, I feel really welcomed and not at all like a dead weight wrapped around your necks."
They laughed, pulling him along as they made their way towards the front doors.
"We're gonna need that in writing so we can show we did a good job here," Cassie said, patting his shoulder.
The parking lot had filled up as they had chatted, the school now buzzing with life, clusters of students already forming around their various cliques, voices loud enough to drown out the ominous, anxious hum that seemed to accompany all of Billy's thoughts. He glanced between Kate and Cassie, who were looking out over the front lawns of the school, as if seeking out someone in particular. Cassie caught him watching, and winked. He had half expected a grand, sweeping set of exposition, carefully delineating each clique in a concise, easily-digested manner. When none arrived, he decided to fill the silence himself, preparing to speak before Kate interrupted him.
"Okay," said Kate, pulling out a small notepad on which was written a short to-do list. Billy watched her flicking through the sheets, each page seemingly filled up by an identical list, the words unintelligible beneath the scratch marks. He shook his head as she snapped the notepad shut, returning his eyes to hers. "Step one: Greet Billy and welcome him to the school — done."
"What's step two?" he asked.
They piled into the hall — the last echoes of the school’s air-raid siren of a bell still ringing in Billy’s ears. Math had been a slog, the minutes ticking away like molasses, everyone’s eyes on the clock as it made its slow revolution to freedom. All eyes except Billy’s, which had found themselves preoccupied by a student three rows over from him. Kate and Cassie walked ahead of him, comparing each other’s illegible notes, groaning at the prospect of going back over them in advance of that week’s test. Eventually, they seemed to notice that Billy hadn’t joined them in their commiseration, stopping short in the hall as he stumbled into them, mind elsewhere.
“Earth to Billy,” said Cassie, waving her hand in front of his eyes as he shook himself out of his distracted daze. “Don’t tell me Dr McCoy completely fried your brains already? It’s not even ten!”
He felt his face flush with colour, the three of them making their way down the hall — teeming with students, although less than Billy was used to at his previous school. Conversations were happening all around them, but Billy couldn’t really make out any of the words, everything blending together in his mind.
“Sorry, I’m a little distracted,” he laughed, scratching at his head, adjusting his bag just for something to do with his hands.
Cassie leaned in, hooking their arms together, glancing conspiratorially across the hall.
“Oooh. What’s his name — well, you probably don’t know his name yet seeing as it's your first day but — what’s he look like?”
Billy spluttered, blood rushing to his face, panic sending adrenaline shooting up and down his spine. He felt himself dissociate from his body, his arms feeling as though they were seventeen feet long, his head swaying from a dizzying height, far above the puke-inducing pattern on the linoleum floor.
“H-how did you know?” he asked, voice frantic, sweat already beginning to seep through his t-shirt.
He felt Kate’s hand come to rest on the back of his neck, a diffuse sense of calm spreading through him from the point of contact. He met her eyes, her reassuring gaze holding back the flood of abject terror that coursed within him.
“Relax, Billy — it’s 2015, we know what a gay person looks like!”
“There’s a bunch of out people here, you’re not gonna get called the f-word,” Cassie added, cheerfully, her words tinkling melodic in the air, her features pushed up by her buoyant smile.
“Oh…” he replied, still unsure, “I didn’t know… A-at my last school, it was…”
He trailed off, unable to remember exactly how it had been at his previous school. He knew he had been bullied, could remember his tears, could remember taking refuge at lunch times under the oak tree where couples in the 90s used to carve their initials at graduation. Yet, the specifics eluded him — the names, the faces, all blurring into an amorphous, hateful blob.
“Well, you’re here now!” Cassie said, pressing their cheeks together, holding Billy close. He sighed through his nose, dispelling his fractured, traumatic memories, focusing on the reality before him.
It was a new sensation, to have two people other than his parents legitimately interested in his well being.
“So,” Kate prompted, nudging him, lacing her own arm within the crook of the one not clutched by Cassie. “Who was distracting you from Mr McCoy and his basketball-sized biceps? Or was it him? You like older guys, Billy? Hmmm?”
He groaned, shaking his head.
“Ugh, ew, no — not him. He’s a little outta my age range, don’t you think?”
“Oh I don’t know — there’s a rumour going around that one of the quarterbacks on the football team is banging the guidance counsellor,” Cassie offered, her voice nonchalant in the face of what to Billy was an Earth-shattering piece of gossip.
“Are you serious?”
“It’s just a rumour,” Kate assured, her expression saying quite plainly; Please do not repeat that in front of a staff member.
“Yeah, Scott would never do anything like that. It would totally destroy his chances of getting into college — and let me tell you he isn’t gonna get in on academic merit!”
“So, who is it then? You can’t dodge the question forever, Billy.”
He disentangled himself from their arms, lurching away as they approached the door for his next class. He slouched against the open door frame, grinning.
“No, but I can dodge you for this period, at least. Unless either of you are taking AP English?”
They both made retching noises, tongues lolling, Billy laughing along, head thrown back, almost knocking into a body trying to squeeze past him into the classroom. He turned, embarrassed, met by a solid wall of muscle, wrapped in a flannel shirt, the scent of too-much cheap deodorant filling the air around them both. He glanced up at the guy’s face, anticipating a shove and a slur — the ol' one-two, as he had called it at his last school — met by a soft face, an apologetic, puppy-dog grimace.
“Sorry man,” said the guy, moving gently by, taking his seat, Billy’s neck craning painfully to follow him.
“Teddy Altman… a fine choice, sir,” Cassie said, Billy snapping back to meet her and Kate’s expectant faces. He groaned.
“Ugh. Yes, him, alright? Judge me all you want, it’s not like it’ll go anywhere. He’s totally out of my league!”
The girls shared a glance, smiles playing across their lips, something knowing passing between them which Billy wasn’t privy to.
“Well — and this is just a rumour, naturally — word abounds that Teddy might be a little, you know…” Kate said, letting her wrist fall limp in silent admission. Billy felt his eyes widening, nervously glancing over his shoulder into the class, where Teddy was sitting, already deep in conversation with someone he vaguely recognized — their voices loud, sending the usual anxious ripples shuddering down Billy’s left arm.
The bell rang, forcibly bringing their conversation to a close, Kate and Cassie waving him off.
He turned inside, the room suddenly filled with people who hadn’t been there a second before — each seat bar one already filled. He shook his head, cursing his scatterbrain perception, shoulders slumped as he pushed through the tightly-pressed desks.
Evidently the school had an overcrowding issue.
He practically fell into his seat, settling himself, his eyes coming to rest on a wide-set pair of shoulders, bulging out of a flannel shirt that should have been a size up. It was Teddy, easily recognized by the line of piercings down the ridge of his ear which had so thoroughly occupied Billy's attention during their previous class. He bit his tongue in his surprise, yelping in pain. He watched Teddy flinch at the sound, watched him turn to regard Billy, his face creased in confusion.
“Sorry,” he said, his words slurred slightly from the blood he was sure was pooling in his mouth — definitely not saliva at the sight of the guy before him. “I bit my tongue.”
“I’ve been known to have that effect on people,” he replied, throwing Billy a grin that completely erased all thoughts of responding from his mind. He went on, "You're in Mr McCoy's Math, right? Did you get good notes? He lost me when he started talking about differentials and I just never caught back up."
Billy took a moment to let Teddy's words wash over him — the perfect lilting cadence of each consonant and vowel seemingly perfectly engineered to light fireworks in the centre of his brain. He swallowed, gingerly prodding the backs of his teeth with his tongue to make sure it was still in one piece.
"He started talking about differentials straight away," he said. That hadn't been what he had intended to come out — going for more of a breathy, inviting affirmation that would leave Teddy just as starstruck as he. He watched Teddy's face fall for a second, heart thumping in his throat, before he threw him another smile, his face crinkling in on itself, his teeth bared. He pawed at the back of his head, fidgeting with his piercings as he blushed.
"Uhh… yeah! You got me."
"I can give you my notes, sure."
"Cool, uhh… I don't know when to get them off you… we-"
They were interrupted by the arrival of their teacher — tall, a shock of white hair, glasses perched at the edge of her nose as if only there for show. She looked like something out of a teenage boy's midnight fantasies, and judging by the looks she received from Billy's fellows — including one of the girls sat by the window, twirling her curls around the end of her pencil, hopelessly caught in the corona of their teacher's radiance — she was.
"Alright settle down. Yes, I'm your English teacher for this half of the semester — and yes, I am very tall and beautiful. Please don't let it distract you because if your grades start dropping you're outta here."
There was a ripple of laughter throughout the room, quickly cut short as her expression hardened and the realization that she wasn't joking settled in around them.
"Yeah that's right you better quietly gasp." She paused, rifling through some papers on her desk, "Oh, we've got a new student joining us. So this is where I'm supposed to call them out by name and make them stand and introduce themselves and publicly humiliate them for no real reason."
Billy swallowed, catching her eye, sweat beading on his forehead.
"But we've got a lot to do in these few weeks so why don't we just cut all of that out. You can figure out who it is on your own time. For now, take one of these sheets and start reading."
A stack of papers was passed around, Billy sighing in relief. In front of him, he heard Teddy chuckle quietly, his finger reaching to scratch at his ear. Billy watched it, the gesture feeling significant, as if in silent acknowledgement that the teacher's message was meant for him. Or, perhaps, Billy was overthinking and his ear was just itchy.
He was drawn out of his thoughts by Teddy reaching his arm behind his head, hand grasping the stack of sheets, passing it to Billy. Their fingers brushed as he took them, Teddy chuckling again.
So, perhaps not overthinking.
Eventually, each student had their material, the teacher rising from her spot where she had been perched at the corner of her desk, turning to write on the board behind her.
What Is Genre?
Her words matched the title on the page, which was printed on both sides with quite a lot of text. Collectively, there was a moment of apprehension from the class, as they realized what they were in for.
"So," she began, clapping her hands together to draw their attention up to her face, "Since the regular English classes are starting up Frankenstein this month for their introduction to sci-fi, I thought we could one-up them and start thinking about concepts that are a little more complex. Who here can tell me what a genre is?"
Billy thought to himself that if teachers were able to command the sort of silence and stillness which pervaded a classroom after they asked a question at all times during the day, they would never have another discipline issue.
"No one? Am I going to have to start pointing at people? I've got a taser in my purse, we can do it that way if you like?"
Something told Billy that she wasn't joking, and so he raised his hand. She smiled, gesturing to him.
"Ah, see, someone's got a spine. I don't recognize you so I'm assuming you're our new student — can I get your name, before you answer?"
He swallowed, suddenly aware of every eye in the classroom trained on him — all except for Teddy, who remained with his eyes on his page.
"Uhh… my name is Billy."
"Okay, good, just checking you were actually on my list," she replied, crossing a line through a list of names on a sheet on her desk. "Okay, Billy — what is a genre ?"
"A set of conventions and tropes in fiction that follow a similar formula each time."
"Right. But that's what the dictionary says — I wanna hear what you guys think. Someone else?"
Billy sat back, unsure how to feel. Teddy — in a move which shattered all of Billy's preconceptions regarding him, his physique, and all that that implied about his intelligence — spoke up.
"It's like in a teen movie where there's always an awkward nerdy girl and she ends up with the quarterback after a makeover. Or in horror movies when you have to have a killer and a group of teens who run upstairs when they should go out the front door."
"Good, Teddy. That's right, and it's a useful way of thinking about what Billy said. It's about the formula. It's about why we enjoy the same thing — more or less — over and over again. That's what we're going to be thinking about this month — what is genre, what does it do, why do we enjoy it, and how can it be played with and subverted. There's a reading list on the back of the page."
There was a moment of rustling papers as the class flipped their sheets, followed by a groan of disbelief. The teacher laughed, waving her hands.
"Relax, relax. You don't have to read all of them. I'm gonna split you guys into groups of two, and then each of you is going to pick a book each, and then collaborate on an essay — a short one!" she added, as the groans returned, louder this time, "It'll count for a fifth of your grade, so make it count."
There was some grumbling, interrupted by a knock on the door, a dark shape rising behind the frosted glass.
"Come in," she called, the door swinging to reveal Mr McCoy, who ducked his head in.
"Apologies, Ms Munroe, might we speak outside for a moment?"
Billy watched her face split open in a grin at the deep rumble of his voice — the telltale rapport of two teachers who were barely hiding the fact that they were banging in the teacher's lounge after hours. She turned to the class, gesturing for their attention again.
"Everyone in an odd numbered row — that's you, you and you," she explained, gesturing to each, "Turn around in your seat. The person behind you is your partner. If you don't like it, tough. I'll be right back, don't burn the place down."
She headed out, heels clicking, Billy catching his arm wrapping around her waist right as the door shut. Before he knew it, Teddy was turned around in his seat, his own smile wide as he met Billy's bewildered face.
"Guess we're partners!"
"I guess so…" he replied, sirens blaring in his head.
"Which book do you wanna take off the list? I had my eye on the Lovecraft stories, but I don't know if "ramblings of a racist weirdo" is a genre."
Billy blinked, Teddy's grin faltering slightly as the response he expected took longer and longer to materialize. Billy hadn't expected him to be an active participant, nevermind showing an interest that intersected neatly with Billy's own. He flushed, eyes diving to the sheet, finger settling on The Stepford Wives, his own grin meeting Teddy's.
"What do you think?"
"Sounds good to me. Do you relate to the story, is that it?" he asked, turning his seat fully around, knees splayed wide, Billy's legs tucked in the space between them.
"Oh yeah, totally. Who wouldn't want a robot wife who does everything for you?"
"Oh, so you would be the husband in this scenario?" he replied, cocking an eyebrow, tongue pressed against the inside of his cheek as he swallowed laughter.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Billy asked, a little harsher than intended.
"Well, you don't seem like the sort of psychopath who would kill his wife and make a robot out of her, but what do I know?"
"Exactly. Jeffrey Dahmer was probably super nice right up until he got the chloroform out."
Teddy barked a laugh, nodding.
"I heard Ted Bundy was a real charmer."
"Softens the blow of the lead pipe."
They went back and forth for some time, Billy's otherwise anxious thoughts settling into a calm equilibrium, soothed by the steady rhythm of Teddy's voice. He barely heard the bell — Ms Munroe having returned at some point, her shirt a little rumpled, her hair slightly messy — disappointed at having to leave Teddy behind as he inevitably returned to the close circle of his jock friends. As he made his way to duck out of the class ahead of the crowd, Teddy stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, wheeling him around. Billy's mind whirled with possibilities — a sudden, heartfelt confession of mutual attraction at the top of the list.
"So, how about I get those Math notes off you as soon as we can, huh?"
Billy swallowed — slightly deflated — and nodded.
"Sure! Just, you know, come find me. Or, I'll find you. Or we can-"
He was interrupted by a body shouldering him to one side. He lurched sideways, almost toppling over the teacher's desk, disturbing her as she reapplied her smudged lipstick.
"Hey!" she called, to the intruder, "I don't know what they let you kids away with in that daycare that Mr Drake insists on calling a Geography class, but there's no roughhousing in my classroom, Elijah Bradley!"
"Sorry, Ms Munroe," said the boy — tall, muscular, everything Billy was not — as he slung his arm around Teddy's shoulder. Teddy grimaced in Billy's direction, hauled away before he could properly apologize.
"Don't let him get to you, Billy," she said, snapping her compact mirror shut, satisfied with her makeup job, "You deserve to be loved, too, you know."
He stared at her for a moment, silence falling between the both of them, save for a dull pounding in his ear. Before long, the class had emptied, leaving them standing there. She gestured for him to leave, his feet pulling him mechanically forwards in the direction of the cafeteria.
"So," Kate began, at the exact moment Billy practically fell into his seat at their lunch table, amidst the swarming, chattering bodies of the rest of the students. The cafeteria felt like the world's largest beehive, a constant hum of indistinct voices permeating the atmosphere.
The morning had slipped away unnoticed, the hectic pace of Billy's first day at a new school having distracted him from his usual routine of staring at the clock until it was time to leave. He hadn't even remembered what he had ordered for lunch, eyeing his tray suspiciously as he attempted to pick out discernable edible matter within the greyish mass on his plate.
"So, what?" he replied, lifting what appeared to be a burger to inspect its contents. Grimacing, he replaced it, opting for his grapes, which seemed just as lifeless — sad and watery in his mouth, flavourless.
"So, when do we get to do a montage introducing you to all of the cliques at school in a quippy, effortlessly cool and detached way?"
"Uhh… whenever, I guess."
Cassie rolled her eyes, nudging at him with her foot.
"Come on, Billy! This is the best part of introducing a new person to school!"
"Fine — go ahead, whenever you want."
Cassie and Kate shared an excited glance, Kate gesturing for Cassie to start, since she was beginning to rattle their lunch trays as she vibrated in her seat.
"Over there," she said, pointing towards the far window, from where originated a huge commotion — where sitting amongst it all, jostled by those around him, was Teddy. "Are the jocks — which you've already met."
Kate nudged him, raising her eyebrows, her elbow digging into his side as he shrugged her off, laughing.
"When's the first date scheduled? Did he give you his class ring yet? What are you gonna name your adopted child?"
"Shut up!" Billy said, almost choking — due mostly in part on account of how dry his bread roll was. He tapped it experimentally against the table, the dull thud thoroughly discouraging.
"Okay, okay, so you know how it works with them, obviously. Our big sport is football — which your hunk Teddy is involved in, naturally. We've got basketball too but they suck. They sit at their own table right by them, and they just kind of leech popularity though osmosis."
He followed the line of her finger to another table, the perfect mirror of the previous, although a little more subdued. There sat Elijah, who craned his neck towards the football table, as if he might join in. He was drawn away by one of his friends, disappointedly returning to his assigned cohort.
"Please don't tell me you're also into Elijah Bradley," Kate said, following Billy's eyeline.
"No, no." He shook his head, nodding once again in Teddy's direction, "He basically dragged Teddy away from me after English class. Almost knocked me over."
"He's kind of an ass, but as far as the rumour mill can tell, he hasn't had the world's best childhood experiences, so people kind of let it slide."
Cassie was quick not to let things get too dark, leaning close to Billy, whispering loud enough for Kate to hear.
"That guy talking to him is Noah — well, we call him Noah because his real name is some weird Swedish thing that no one can pronounce — he's Kate's boyfriend."
Kate kicked her under the table, Billy able to feel the rush of air as her foot shot out.
"Turns out he had a string of exes that he was still… friendly with."
"He's with a guy now, did you know that?" Kate added, Cassie shaking her head. "Yeah, some dude he met on an app. He's older, I heard."
"How much older?"
"He owns his own house, according to the gossip."
"Gay people are crazy. No offense," she said, tipping her head towards Billy.
"None taken. So, who's next then? Or has the school only got two cliques?"
Kate gestured to a table where Billy could pick out his English and Math teachers, surrounded by others who looked around the same age group.
"The teachers all sit over there. Allegedly it's because people used to get into huge fights in the cafeteria and so they brought the teachers in to keep an eye on things. But really it's because they can't stop having sex with one another and the teacher's lounge was starting to look like a bathhouse."
"That's… a lot to take in."
"Yeah. See the lady with the red hair?"
Billy glanced over, the woman in question sitting next to Ms Munroe, the two of them in conversation. Periodically, the red-haired woman would look over to the football table, her eyes falling to one of the students who seemed to be only half-interested in whatever too-loud conversation was happening around him.
"Is that the kid she's supposed to be fucking? The douchebag with the sunglasses on?"
"He's not a douchebag, he's colorblind. Well, that's a lie, he is a douchebag, but not because of the glasses."
"Right. And like do the other teachers know?"
"I guess," Kate shrugged. "No one seems to care."
"I guess if they're happy they're happy."
"This school seems really fucked up so far."
They each shrugged.
"No one's died in like a year, at least so…"
"That's really comforting to know. I can't wait to break the streak."
"That was a joke about you being murdered, right? Not, you know…"
"Oh geez no! I would be murdered, yes, that was the joke."
They laughed together, once it was established that Billy wasn't spilling some hitherto unspoken trauma to his new friends, Kate picking up the thread as she waved broadly at the opposite end of the cafeteria.
"There's three tables over there — drama club, AV club and then the kids who aren't in a club and aren't pretty enough to be at the slutty table."
Cassie jerked her thumb over her shoulder, Billy following it towards a table populated by a party of supernaturally beautiful people, each preoccupied with their own reflection, as well as pointedly ignoring whatever meagre food was in front of them.
"So what makes them slutty, or is it just cause they're pretty?" Billy asked.
"Just societally prescribed stereotypes based solely on appearance. That girl with the black hair is a certified genius, but everyone acts like she's dumb as a rock just because her boobs are too big for her body."
Billy's deadpan tone seemed to be enough to set the other two spiralling into laughter, leaving him thoroughly pleased with himself. They finished their food — what little of it was edible — settling down as they whiled away what was left of their lunch hour. Cassie, drawing spirals in her sad mac and cheese with her fork, eyed him, her face inquisitive.
"You and Teddy… how are we feeling? What's our prospects?"
Billy shrugged, leaning back, running his fingers through his hair just for an excuse to throw his eyes over to the footballers, who had since dispersed, Teddy having been swept up with them. He returned his eyes to Cassie and Kate, who were watching him expectantly.
"I dunno… I just met him. We've got stuff in common, I guess, and we're partners for the English project this month. But… I mean, he's not gay, is he? You said it was just a rumour, and he wasn't exactly giving me the vibes."
Kate splayed her hands wide.
"No one knows. He's never had a girlfriend — or a boyfriend — in three years. Never even talks about anything, apparently."
"Noah made a move on him at a party last summer but it didn't go anywhere, he said Teddy just brushed him off like he didn't care, but he didn't see him with any of the girls."
"Yes, Cassie, thank you for reminding me that my boyfriend at the time was sneaking around that party sniffing for dick instead of spending my birthday with me."
Cassie rolled her eyes.
"Look, he's your ex for a reason, we get it."
Their back and forth was interrupted by Billy's muffled shout as a hand clapped down on his shoulder. His head jerked around, Teddy crouched by his side, their faces close.
"Sorry! Didn't mean to scare you."
Billy clutched performatively at his chest, Cassie and Kate exchanging a look — somewhere between quiet humour and outright confusion.
"It's okay, just give me a second for my heart to start beating the right way again."
Teddy shuffled a chair around, chest pressed to the back of the seat, leaning on his crossed arms.
"You mind if I get those notes off of you now? I'm super behind on McCoy's class already so I'm trying to play catch up before that quiz on Friday."
Billy quietly wondered if Teddy really was part-puppy, so soft were his eyes, his lower lip jutting out of its own accord. He nodded, fishing in his bag for his notebook, laying it flat across the table. Teddy began to copy them down into his own, hand working quickly, his writing barely legible. Billy was completely fascinated by him, his eyes glued to the sliver of tongue poking out of the side of Teddy's mouth as he concentrated. Kate stood, grabbing Cassie's attention away from her phone.
"We're gonna go smoke," she said, a slight sour note in her voice, her face set.
Cassie looked up, confused.
"What? Kate, I don't wanna-"
Kate jerked her head at Billy and Teddy, throwing Cassie a meaningful look — Get up, now. Cassie caught on, mouth falling into an O-shape, gathering her stuff as she followed Kate towards the door. Billy watched them leave, the pair caught in what looked like a heated discussion, their eyes occasionally looking back towards where Billy and Teddy were sitting.
"I think they're mad at me, or something," he said, worrying his nail between his teeth.
Teddy hummed beside him, before the words registered, his head jerking up. Billy met his face, Teddy smiling gently — his expression far away from the brash, exuberant laughter of he and his friends.
"Don't worry. Kate gets cranky when she hasn't had a smoke."
Billy tilted his head.
"You know her?"
Teddy looked shaken for a moment, but he quickly regained himself, laughing sheepishly.
"I've had Chemistry with her for three years. Last year we had it right before lunch and she was always fighting with our teacher because she was jonesing for a smoke and couldn't focus. It was a mess."
"Yeah, that sounds about right."
He settled himself, resisting the urge to lean into Teddy, content just to watch him.
"Your piercings are cool," he said, after an extended period of silence between them, the cafeteria having mostly emptied out as the end of lunch approached. Teddy quirked a smile, huffing laughter through his nose.
"Thanks. Most people just call them gay. It's nice to have my sartorial choices appreciated for once."
"Wow, 'sartorial' — that's a big word."
"What's that supposed to mean? Just cause I'm a football jock I'm supposed to be dumb? Little judgmental don't you think?"
"I'm sorry, I-"
"I'm kidding. Relax."
"Oh," Billy said, sitting back, feeling his panic recede.
The bell rang again, Teddy patting him on the shoulder as he stood.
"Thanks for the notes, Billy. Let me know if you want to get together to work on that report for Ms Munroe's class. See you around."
He left with a wave, Billy alone, the cafeteria completely empty. He glanced around, suddenly uneasy, shunting his possessions back into his bag, ducking quietly out of the lunch room doors.
The rest of the day went on as if on fast forward, Billy zoning out through his last few periods, only coming out of his daze as the last bell rang. At his locker, shuffling his books around as he tried to figure out what needed to come home with him for homework, he felt a presence at his side. Shutting the locker door revealed Kate, slouched against the rows, her face apologetic.
"Sorry about lunch — I get cranky without my nicotine. Didn't want you to think we were ditching you already."
"It's all good!" he replied, his bright smile met with her own, pleased that her apology had been accepted. "Teddy said you had kind of a thing with that last year when you guys had Chemistry together, I get it."
She nodded, chewing on her cheek for a moment before responding.
"Yeah… Chemistry was rough last year," she said, leading him along by the arm again as they made their way into the parking lot. They stopped at Billy's car, where Kate leaned in, glancing around herself to be sure that they were out of potential earshot.
"Listen to me, Billy. Be careful, with Teddy."
He blinked, heart in his throat.
"Uhh… okay? Anything I should know in particular?"
She sighed, toeing at the dirt beneath their feet. She fished out another cigarette, lighting it hastily, taking a deep drag to settle herself. As he waited, Billy could feel the anxious tide of water begin to climb, feeling his pulse throb before she finally exhaled and spoke.
"Look, maybe I'm just being selfish but I know what those sports freaks are like — they sweep you up into their orbit with their perfect bodies and their smiles and their interests that just barely intersect with your own enough that you can convince yourself that you're compatible, and then they dump you. They take what they want and then they toss you aside like you're fucking nothing. And I know what you're going to say," she added, before he could even begin to form a thought, "That I'm just bitter about what happened with Noah. Well, Billy, yeah — I am bitter. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong."
She finally stopped talking, voice shuddering weakly around her last few words, cigarette clutched between pursed, shaking lips. Billy sighed, nudging her slightly.
"Look, I understand, and I appreciate what you're saying. For what it's worth, I don't think he's like that."
She scoffed, Billy rolling his eyes.
"I know, I know — 'That's what they all say'. I'm not going to get hurt."
"I just like you. I know we only met today but I feel like you fit in with me and Cassie and I don't want some meathead fucking everything up just because he has a huge dick and smiles at you like a golden retriever."
Billy raised an eyebrow.
"He's got a huge dick? Let me guess — rumour has it?"
She shook her head.
"Team all showers together after practice — everyone in school knows more about their dicks than they do."
She stood straight, eyes over his shoulder, Billy turning to see the one girl from his English class who had been as interested in their teacher as the boys approaching them.
"Kate, you got a second?" she asked, barely acknowledging Billy.
"Yeah, be there in a second, America!"
She patted Billy's shoulder as she prepared to move off, pausing as something forgotten returned to her.
"Me and Cassie are going to the mall tomorrow after school. Come with us."
She didn't phrase it as a question, and so he nodded, eagerly.
"Sure! See you then."
She nodded, and moved off as he settled into his car.
As he drove away, he saw her and the other girl — America — in the midst of a discussion. Kate retrieved a notebook from her bag, the two of them going over it, America's face impassive. Billy figured they must be on a project team together, and shuddered — America didn't seem like someone who tolerated bullshit, going off of her stance and her scowl.
Silently, he wished her the best, hoping to never end up on America's bad side.
Later that night, he laid in bed, scrolling through social media, trying to convince himself that he wasn't behaving in an entirely deranged manner by hunting for Teddy's profile. For fifteen minutes, he had scrolled through Noah's account — having sourced it from a photo from two years previous which Kate had forgotten to delete — swiping through endless selfies of Noah and his faceless boyfriend, only a huge, hairy hand in the corner of the frame to prove his presence. Eventually, he found it, a group shot of the football team, Teddy's account in the comments, after having been tagged. Billy clicked in, greeted by the blank wall of a private account.
He silently cursed himself, thumb hovering over the Request Follow button, debating whether he should or not. Before his decision could be made, he felt his thumb twitch, the request sent, too late to take back without the notification already coming through on Teddy's end.
He dropped his phone to his chest, feeling the anxious heat swimming to his face. He wondered what Teddy would think, when he saw Billy's profile. He wasn't exactly shy about being gay — a pride flag in his profile picture, as well as a litany of pictures right out of the Gay Teenager Social Media Playbook.
Maybe he would just block him, and the worst Billy would have to deal with would be an awkward conversation with Ms Munroe about switching partners.
Right before he went to sleep, after two hours of refusing to check his profile to see if Teddy had accepted him, he caved, tapping into the little circle containing Teddy's grinning face.
He was surprised to be greeted by a full display of Teddy's photos — not many, and the majority being either trees and grass, or suitably modest gym selfies. Even more surprising was the blue mark next to his profile name — Follows you.
He chuckled to himself, plugging his phone in, rolling under his covers as he drifted off.
Outside, the wind picked up, rustling the leaves of the tree by his window, its murmuring voice carrying to him in his dreams.
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