My locker was on the way, so I dropped off the Japanese workbook Mrs. Shimamoto had handed out near the end of class, then waded my way through the crowds of fellow high schoolers as I made my way to room 216 where Classic Literature was being held. Classic Literature—followed by Modern Literature in second semester—is the one required course for sophomores at Alburn High, so although my school doesn't go in for the whole "home room" thing, our literature class is effectively the sophomore home room. Being electives, the other classes are all a grab bag of sophomore, juniors, and occasionally seniors or freshmen, but Classic Literature is all tenth graders like myself.
I was one of the first there, and this classroom was set up more normally than my Japanese class had been; all the desks were in rows facing the front. I picked one midway back on the left side and sat down to watch people filter in.
Of course, since passing periods are the de facto social hour, people didn't really filter in so much as suddenly flood the classroom about 30 seconds before the bell. Rachel was one of the few people to arrive before the rush, and to my great shock she sat immediately next to me. Oh right, except that wasn't a shock at all. Manga logic dictates that if your romantic interest isn't within one seat in a cardinal direction, the earth shall cease to rotate and plants will gain sentience, then subsequently conduct a pogrom against vegetarians. Or something equally implausible and apocalyptic.
Most of the rest of my classmates were casual acquaintances, at best. The two exceptions were Seamus and his friend Jesse, who both gave me a wave when they sat down on the opposite side of the room.
The class period itself wasn't terribly interesting, although apparently "Kaczkowski" is pronounced "kax-KOW-skee". Mr. Kaczkowski is a jovial, medium height guy with a receding hairline who talks a little too loudly and likes to laugh at his own jokes.
And with second period done, it was time for lunch.
Alburn High is big enough that they can't fit the entire school in the cafeteria; heck, they can't fit even half the school in the cafeteria, so there are a bunch of tables in the wider hallways down near the PAC and gyms to help with the overflow. In order to prevent everyone from going absolutely insane and leaving half the student body without time to get through the lunch line, there are two lunches: Lunch 1 falls immediately after second period, at 11:15, while those in Lunch 2 go to third period first, and then eat lunch at 12:35. Since my third period class was P.E. I would have preferred the later lunch, but my luck wasn't that good so off to Lunch 1 I went.
Lunch was one of the most stressful parts of high school during the first part of ninth grade—I'm terrible at interacting with strangers, so until I had a circle of friends and acquaintances finding somewhere to sit was pure torture—but fortunately by the end of the year I had a routine. I discovered that the tables in the hallways near the PAC were the last to fill since the bulk of the kids wanted to get their lunch in the cafeteria and immediately sit down. Since I almost always bring a lunch from home, I found I could claim a table over by the PAC easily and be joined later by Hayden, Andrea, and a few other drama geeks or acquaintances from the improv club and elsewhere.
With that in mind, I headed straight downstairs when the bell rang, staked out the table we'd habitually eaten at last year, and shot a text to Hayden to see if he had Lunch 1. A few bites into my sandwich later, he got back to me: he was in Lunch 2. Well, that sucked. I kept an eye peeled for some of my fellow improv participants instead; the drama classroom was a few doors down from the PAC, so they often ate in this area.
"Oh hey, Xavier, mind if I sit with you?"
I looked up, and there was Jill, holding a cafeteria tray in one hand, and pulling a chair out across the table without waiting for a reply.
"Definitely not," I said. "All of these seats are taken by my many adoring fans."
She'd already sat down. "Thanks! Looks like my friends are all in Lunch 2 this year; figured I'd sit over here since I have gym after lunch, anyway."
"Oh?" I said, suspicion raising its ugly head. "Which class?"
"P.E. with, uh…" Jill grabbed a well-creased schedule from her pocket. "…Patterson."
"Looks like we're classmates," I said. Yep, Jill was definitely in the harem on the childhood friend track.
Oh crap. Come to think of it, I hadn't seen anyone I was remotely acquainted with other than Jill at lunch so far, which meant…
"Hello. Jillian, wasn't it?" Rachel pulled out the chair next to me, before pausing to look my way. "Alright if I join you?" I waved assent.
"Jill is fine," said Jill.
Childhood friend: check. Main girl: check.
"I don't want to sit with you, but I don't know anyone else yet so I suppose you'll just have to be grateful." Samantha plopped down into the chair on my other side. Aaaand, she had twin-tails again, despite looking like a normal person in first period. When did that happen?
Oh, right; tsundere: check.
Rachel was imperturbable as ever, but Jill was looking at Samantha like some sort of alien had suddenly joined us and she wasn't sure if she should be welcoming it or calling the National Guard. Just go straight to the National Guard, Jill. You know you want to.
There was an awkward silence as Samantha ate a fry and stared around the table. "Well? Aren't you going to introduce me? What is with you and not introducing people?"
Don't tell her to die in a fire. Don't tell her to die in a fire. "This is Rachel, and that's Jillian."
"Just Jill is fine."
"And this is Samantha from Japanese 1."
"No, I'm from Cincinnati," said Samantha. "Unfortunately, I am admittedly taking Japanese 1 with this guy. How do you two know him?"
Rachel glanced quizzically at me, but Jill spoke up. "He lives a couple blocks away from me."
"And Rachel and I live together," I said.
"What?!" shrieked Samantha, half standing. Oh yes, that had been worth it. "Oh, you're related?"
"No, the Brocks were kind enough to give me a place to stay. I'm related to a friend of their family."
Way to rain on my parade, Rachel. Trying to drive Samantha off by fostering a stupid misunderstanding would have been totally manga-worthy, but was evidently off the table for now.
Samantha opened her mouth as if to say something else, but before she could get started on her next bout of tsundere nonsense, a pair of arms draped across my shoulders as someone leaned up against me from behind. What the—
"Well, hello there, Xavier," purred Paula in my ear. "You're quite the popular boy, aren't you?"
The girls around the table froze. Even Rachel looked nonplussed.
Big-boobed girl? That's a big ol' double-barreled check pressed right up against my back. How oversized was she that her breasts reached me despite leaning up against the back of my chair? I was sitting pretty far forward.
Paula chuckled, evidently pleased at the reaction she'd provoked, stood up, and grabbed an empty chair from the adjacent table without so much as glancing at the table's current occupants. "Scoot over pig-tails."
"Pig—?!" Samantha turned bright red and appeared to be having trouble drawing breath, to say nothing of finishing her sentence. Funny, I don't think I've ever actually seen someone apoplectic before. If my ears weren't burning from the unexpected close encounter with Paula's chest, I'd probably be enjoying it more.
Paula shoved her chair in between me and Samantha regardless, forcing both Samantha and I to scoot sideways a bit, before sitting down and pulling a paper Stirbucks bag from her backpack. She whisked a croissant of some sort out of the bag and began absent-mindedly shredding it with her fingers. The rest of us watched in silence. I think all of us were slightly in shock. Maybe I'd repressed the memory or something, but I'd forgotten quite how much…impact…Paula had.
Jill looked like she'd swallowed a lemon, but still found her tongue before the rest of us. "So, um, who…?"
"Ah, right, sorry," I said. "This is Paula. She's a senior who works at the Stirbucks in the Outlet. We met a couple weeks ago. Paula, this is Samantha, Jill, and Rachel."
"Mm-hmm," said Paula, giving a brief nod to the rest of the table before turning to me. "So how's your twenty-something girlfriend doing recently?"
"Girl—?!" choked Samantha.
Paula patted Samantha on the back without really looking at her. "Breathe, pig-tails, breathe."
Huh, so people actually could turn that dark a shade of red. Learn something new every day. I still had no idea how to deal with her, but I had to admit that purely based on her interactions with Samantha, Paula was growing on me.
I didn't have any time to enjoy Samantha's predicament, though, because Jill and Rachel were taking me apart with their eyes. How on earth was I going to explain the sex bomb? Come to that, what was I going to do if she showed up?
"Who is she talking about, Xavier?" said Rachel.
"Just some woman I ran into right before meeting Paula," I said.
"No need to be modest!" said Paula with a grin. "You know, Xavier is quite the knight in shining armor. He rescued this woman from three assholes who were hassling her."
"Cut it out!" I snapped. I take back everything I thought about enjoying Paula's company.
Paula just laughed.
Needless to say, tomorrow I was looking for a different table.