AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a one-shot request from a longtime reader/reviewer, BrokenDreamz, and it's my holiday gift! Read and review, but remember, it's a one-shot!
Henry hurried along the hall trying to get to his science class. He pushed back his mousy brown, shoulder-length hair as he noted that he was late again but he couldn't help it. He had phys. ed. Before science and he had to wait for everyone to be out of the locker room before he could change his clothes. He didn't want anyone else to see his scrawny body and pale skin – and especially the red and purple splotches that marred it. As he rushed into the room, he didn't notice the notebook he dropped on the way in.
He took his seat after muttering a short apology to the teacher, who frowned at him deeply as he sank into his chair.
"Well, now that Mr. Thornton has joined us, we can begin," Mr. Seltzer said snidely before he began the lesson.
And what a lesson it was! Filled with all the intrigue Earth Science could offer. Henry found it hard to stay awake as the elderly man droned on and on in his monotonous voice about igneous rock and its various attributes. He tried to take notes but his mind kept wandering to more interesting things. Besides, he knew he could look up all the information he needed before the test. Suddenly he was jolted out of his daydreams by a sharp poke to his shoulder. He turned warily around to the kid behind him.
The guy who sat behind him was the football team's star tackler, Kenny Jones. With his slightly shaggy dark brown hair, clear blue eyes and sun-kissed skin, Kenny wasn't your average jock. He didn't seem to like hanging around with the rest of the team, preferring to keep mostly to himself. Henry had often seen him at the library on weekends when he himself was working on a project or two. But he'd never seen the other football players there.
Kenny silently held a familiar looking notebook out him with an expressionless face. Henry recognized it immediately and snatched it with a nod. He felt the hot crimson red color mottle his cheeks as he turned quickly back around. The book wasn't for any of his classes. It was his scratch book – or, more closely known to him, his life line. It was the one place where he allowed himself to express how he really felt about things; a place where he doodled, wrote rants and poems or snippets, and even scratched nonsensical lyrics and prose. And if anyone read it, they'd see the real Henry. The one who thought they were all fake morons.
Hey looked around the room but no one seemed to be paying him any attention, as usual. He glanced shyly behind him, but Kenny was jotting down notes and didn't look up at him. Henry pulled the book protectively close to him and tried to pay attention to the rest of the class. When the bell rang, he sighed with relief and gathered his things, making sure his book bag was zipped tightly this time. He hefted it onto his shoulder and turned to walk out, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. He swallowed nervously and turned slowly around.
"You busy next period?" Kenny asked in a deep voice.
Henry couldn't even find his voice, so he shook his head.
"Come with me."
It was a statement, Henry noticed, not a request. So he shrugged and followed the taller boy out of the classroom and down the hall. Before they reached their destination, Henry recognized the familiar path. Kenny nodded to the librarian on the way in and Henry said nothing as they made their way to a table out of her view. The smaller boy slunk meekly into his chair and looked down at the table as he waited for Kenny to tell him why he wanted to talk to him.
"I kept Ricky from reading your notebook," Kenny said bluntly.
"But I read a little before I gave it back."
A chill swept down Henry's spine as he darted his eyes furtively up to Kenny's blue ones. Noting the serious expression, he immediately returned his gaze to the desk and again felt his face grow hot.
"How long has it been going on?" Kenny asked coolly.
The smaller boy began to shake as he played with the frayed end of his backpack strap. He didn't want to answer these questions. No one ever asked before. Well, to be fair, he'd never let anyone know that something was happening. Why would he? He was a little nobody. His classmates never looked at him; they looked right through him. And teachers only noticed him if he was late, or caused trouble.
"How long?" Kenny asked again.
Henry shook harder and squeezed his eyes closed tightly. Why wouldn't this one go away already? He wasn't anything to him. It wasn't his problem.
"I'm not one of them," Kenny said gently, leaning in and touching Henry's arm.
Henry jerked back, frightened suddenly.
"I won't hurt you," the larger boy went on. "I promise."
"I-it's m-my pr-problem," Henry stammered out softly.
"Not anymore, kid."
"Y-you d-don't kn-know m-me."
Kenny seemed a bit taken aback by that and sat back in his seat, gazing at Henry blankly. The smaller boy shook again, worried that his sudden testy streak might bring him more trouble than he had already.
"I don't?" Kenny asked in a measured tone. "You don't think so?"
Henry shook his mousy brown-haired head.
"Let me tell you what I do know," Kenny grunted. "You're an only child of a single-parent household and your mom works long hours. Your father divorced your mother when we were still in elementary school and you don't see him too much. How am I doing so far?"
Henry looked at him in alarm. How does he know so much about me? Why does he care? He shrugged and Kenny nodded before continuing.
"You keep to yourself mostly and try not to get noticed by anyone." Here Kenny paused and his look turned speculative again. "That always made me wonder … until today when I read the notebook. I wish I'd known sooner."
"Known what?" Henry demanded.
"That Ricky and his friends got their kicks out of bothering you."
"You don't deserve it," Kenny said simply.
Henry looked at the other boy like he was crazy. Not deserve it? Ricky caught him looking at his friend Mark in gym class once and drew the correct conclusion that he was gay. He hadn't told anyone, and he thought he'd been careful – but Ricky saw anyway. Henry just assumed it was the price he had to pay to keep the other boy's mouth shut.
"It's nothing," he finally said to Kenny dejectedly. "I'm used to it."
"You shouldn't be." Kenny looked thunderous. "And I'm going to stop him!"
"J-just leave it," Henry begged him. "He'll tell everyone if you don't!"
Then the small boy clamped a hand over his mouth and started shaking again. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Now what? But he closed his eyes again and just willed the whole scene to disappear.
"Tell everyone what?"
Kenny's voice was gentle and Henry felt the hand again on his arm. Why is he being so nice to me? I didn't even know he knew who I was! He let the tears fall silently down his cheek as he kept his eyes closed and prayed this was just a nightmare.
"Henry, talk to me."
It was the first time Henry ever heard Kenny say his name. Few people said it, actually. He was called by his last name most of the time, or he was given unappealing pet names by Ricky and his friends. But very rarely did anyone actually address him by his first name. He looked up into Kenny's concerned eyes and sniffled back the last of the tears.
"You have to leave this alone, Kenny," he whispered. "Ricky threatened me a long time ago. This … what he and his friends do … it's not so bad. Really. And in a year, we'll be out of here anyway. I can take it that long."
"What does he know?" Kenny asked.
"Henry, it's okay to tell me." Kenny's face grew grim. "You're not the only one with secrets. Here, you tell me yours and I'll tell you mine."
Henry gasped at that. He has secrets? He doesn't seem to have much of a social life. What secrets could he possibly have? "I … d-don't know."
"I'll even go first," the other boy said, undeterred. He looked Henry square in the eye. "Why do you think I don't hang out with people?"
Henry shrugged again.
"They don't seem to accept … alternative lifestyles too well here and I'm gay."
He said it so matter-of-factly Henry had to rerun it in his head again to make sure he had it right. Kenny's gay? No way! But Kenny nodded his head in affirmation.
"B-but … does anyone … else know?"
"Everyone, probably," Kenny replied calmly. "I 'came out' back in sophomore year … when Christy Jones kept trying to get me to go out with her."
"No one bothers you though," Henry sighed.
"They tried at first. I'm not just good at football. I also have a black belt in karate and I box over summer breaks."
Henry glanced at the other boy's physique, noting not for the first time that he was more than athletically adept enough to prove himself if anyone tried to give him trouble. He wished again he'd had more of an interest in physical training.
"That's good … for you, I guess," he murmured.
"And I'm guessing that's your secret, too then," Kenny smiled sadly. "That's why you don't try to stop Ricky from bugging you."
Henry looked down again nodding slowly.
"Well, he's seen his last day of that," Kenny said resolutely.
"No, please, Kenny," Henry begged. "I can't stop him if he gets mad. And you can't watch me all the time."
Henry face his face flush again, and this time for an entirely different reason. He wondered again how and why Kenny knew all of those things about him.
"Please," he whispered.
"No." Kenny's expression was firm but his eyes held nothing but kindness for the smaller boy. Tenderness, even. Tenderness?
"He's not hurting you anymore."
"You can't always be there for me."
"The only times I'm not near you are when you're in your house, or going to or from school," Kenny said. "And we can fix that last part. The other, too, even. If you're okay with it, that is."
The smaller boy's heart pounded as he stared at the other in shock. Just how much time had Kenny spent following him?
"That would be one of my other secrets," Kenny smiled shyly. "Why do you think I'm always at the town library at the same time as you? Or usually in this one when you are?"
"You knew I had this period off, didn't you?" Henry squeaked.
Kenny nodded and now it was his turn to flush … something Henry couldn't help but find adorable.
"But why?" he asked quietly.
Kenny looked up at him thoughtfully. "Why not?"
Why not? Henry asked himself. Then he looked down at the hand Kenny offered him tentatively. Yeah, he thought as he placed his smaller one inside it carefully. Why not?