"Hey, are you ready?" Max scrunched his nose at Tim, half way out of the passenger door of his mother's car. So far he had only managed to get his feet on the curb, though he hadn't shifted him bum too far from the seat just yet.
"You can wait another day?" His mother offered, but he knew that he really couldn't. He'd already had so much time off. If he let himself take one more day, then what was going to stop him from doing the exact same the day after, and the day after that? Plus, all his absences would be the perfect time for all of those rumours to start up again. Tim had insisted to him that the 'whole gay thing' hadn't reared its head in the last few weeks of term, but who knew what had festered in the break. Max gave his Mum a forced smiled and sucked in a breath, making himself move. He wandered awkwardly at Tim's side through the school gates. It was strange how it never looked any different. He could remember his father saying that when he had attended his high school reunion, he had found the school ground and the people exactly the same. Max hadn't been away nearly that long, but he had still expected something to be different. Maybe it was just him who was different.
At first the two of them were ignored, hundreds of students already too occupied with rushed reunions to notice them. Most of the other years groups probably wouldn't have recognised him, even if they had heard about his fight. As he got to his locker, Max began to feel the weight of eyes upon him, classmates whispering to each other and giving him uneasy smiles. One girl from his class, Jasmine, whom he had barely spoken to at all, came up and wordlessly gave him a hug. She smiled and departed just as quickly and quietly.
"It's like they think I went off to war." Max grumbled as he finally managed to open his locker, pulling the book from his bag and stuffing them in, throwing his bag into the empty space. It always ended up squishing his lunch a little, but he didn't care.
"You might as well have," Tim hummed from a couple of lockers down, performing the same morning ritual. "I mean, you took on the school's biggest bully-"
"And got my ass kicked." He corrected Tim quickly, nodding his head over his shoulder and moving off towards homeroom as the bell sounded.
"Yeah I know, but you didn't wuss out and hide. You told the police who did it."
"Tobias did that." Max admitted sheepishly, but Tim didn't even seem to take in the news.
"He doesn't say anything about it. He just says he helped you get back onto school grounds." Max felt his cheeks warm. Even though Tim knew all about him, he was still glad that it didn't need to be mentioned between them. He slowed down, pulling up short just before the classroom door.
"Look. Tim. I don't think I ever said this to you. But, I'm sorry. You were right about Harley and I didn't listen. So I wanted to let you know that from now on I will always listen to you." Tim just gave a lopsided smile and shrugged.
"I would have preferred if I was wrong you know. Hell, I would have even been the little flower boy at your wedding if that is how it turned out." Max sputtered and felt his cheeks redden.
In homeroom Max was greeted warmly, a couple of students commenting that he looked well. Even though they didn't ask directly, he could still see the curiosity on their faces. They wanted to know what had happened to him, wanted the gorey details. Should he say anything to them? He wasn't sure if they were happy or disappointed about Harley's departure and his return, or even if they had been friends long enough to care about his well being more than common courtesy. Very slowly he told the others of how he had made a mistake and trusted someone he shouldn't have. He told them he had been jumped by Harley and two of his big friends, and that he didn't remember much after that. It was a lie, but it felt kind of nice to say it. Without Harley here he didn't have to worry about the truth being revealed, and this story made it sounds like he was just unfortunate and not a victim.
"I think we all know it was going to happen someday." Max heard someone murmur over the general gasps and exclamations of disbelief. "Harley was a super angry kid. I think it was only a matter of time before he throttled someone. So… uh. Sorry it ended up being you." Max smiled and shrugged his shoulders, finding his seat in the room, glancing up at Tobias wandered in.
For the first class of a new term, Tobias looked annoyingly awake and energetic. He smiled and greeted everyone enthusiasticly, giving Max a small smile and brief nod of his head.
"Welcome back." As quickly as he had swept in, Tobias grabbed the newsletter and began reading. Max propped his chin on his hand and listened, secretly glad that no one had made such a big fuss over his missing days. With any luck, he could slide right back in to his normal routine.
The usual rush of action followed the last class bell, students rushing to stuff their work into their folders, gathering up their book and tearing out the door.
"Don't forget your homework is due in class tomorrow, before lunch!" Tobias yelled out, resigning himself to the fact that half of them probably wouldn't have heard him, and that he would be chasing work up later. Wandering the classroom, Tobias gathered all of the novels which had been left about, workbooks and papers, and tucked chairs back under desks. At the end of the day the classroom always looked like a tornado had swept through. He turned back to his desk, preparing to scrub the whiteboard clean and prepare for tomorrow.
"Hi. Tobias." Tobias frowned slightly at Max, watching him curiously as he lingered near the classroom door, unsure if his student had left and returned, or had been waiting for him there the whole time.
"Hey Max, how can I help you?" Tobias continued to tidy up, watching Max from the corner of his eyes as he stepped further into the room and shut the classroom door behind him. A brief flash of curiosity and panic lanced through him, wanting to tell Max that it wasn't proper for a student and teacher to be alone in a classroom together. Particularly a male teacher who doubled as a homoerotic author and a vulnerable, inspirational gay teen. Tobias stopped what he was doing, setting the board eraser down and moving to sit behind his desk. He wanted to put a safe distance between the two of them, without looking like he was doing just that. Max shuffled awkwardly over, perching himself on the desk that he usually occupied. "What's up?" He prompted again, watching the way Max gnawed at his plump lower lip.
"Um. I wanted to say thank you properly. Mum said I should have gotten you chocolates or something, but I wasn't sure what kind you liked." Tobias couldn't help but smirk.
"How are you holding up?" He asked softly, reclining back in his chair.
"Better. I'm not so jumpy anymore, but being at school is weird."
"Are you having any trouble with other students, or rumours?"
"No, not really. Everyone seems pretty chilled out. And Tim says all the rumours died out before I got back… Thanks."
"What for?" Tobias blinked.
"For not telling everyone that I really am gay. Even though you kind of told the police, but kind of didn't at the same time." Ah, so that had been the reason for closing the door. Max must have still been paranoid about others hearing them, even though they were speaking relatively quietly. Noise did carry quite far in an empty school.
"Max," Tobias shook his head and folded his hands together on his lap. "It isn't my place to say anything to anyone about your sexuality. That is your business. If anyone is going to say anything about it, it has to be you." Max looked both embarrassed and relieved, his cheeks red and his lip slightly swollen from where he had been chewing on it.
"I knew you would really, I just got scared of – I don't even know what."
"I get that." Tobias shrugged his shoulders, setting his glasses down on the table and rubbing the bridge of his nose. Max sat back properly on his table, swinging his legs absently.
"Were-" Max hesitated, took a soft breath and cleared his throat. "Were you scared when people found out about you?" Tobias raised an eyebrow, unsure whether he should share such an intimate part of his life with his student.
"Yes. Like you, I kept my homosexuality a secret pretty much all through high school." He began, frowning a little bit at the memories. "I even had a couple of girlfriends just to hide behind. But eventually, I got a crush on another boy. It didn't go very far, he told me where I could stick it and threatened to bash me if I ever spoke to him again." Max sighed softly and lowered his head, staring down at his toes, looking miserable. "Sometimes you forget that a school is such a closed community, that everyone is so afraid of standing out and being labelled as different. Gay, Lesbian, Artistic, Nerd, Teacher's Pet, Jock, Whatever. If you are not part of the 'popular' crowd then you run the risk of being singled out. It's easy for me to say it now, but none of it all matters when you leave school. You keep your close friends, but you forget everyone else. I'm fairly sure I only remembered my bullies when they served me chips at Maccas." Tobias grinned a little to himself. "Whatever happens in the next few years don't have to influence the rest of your life if you don't want it to. I wish someone had told me all of this when I was your age, when I was going through these struggles. There is nothing wrong with you, there is nothing bad about you. Being gay doesn't define you, it is just another part of who you are."
"Does it get easier outside of school?"
"You will always run into homophobic idiots who somehow think they are entitled to an opinion on your life, just look at our politicians, but in general people are more accepting. Find someone who will support you, and you will be fine." Finally Max looked up, shrugging his shoulder slightly.
"I don't think that my parents will accept it."
"Parents can surprise you. My parents were a little bit shocked, my mother most of all. But they came around."
"Look, don't worry about it until you are ready to start telling them. Otherwise you will just make yourself sick." Tobias smiled and put on his glasses, looking at Max properly as his eyes focussed behind the lenses, sharpening every detail of Max's contemplative expression. "Do you feel any better?"
"Yeah," His student murmured, managing to muster up a small smile as he rose from his desk. "I think I definitely owe you some chocolates now."
"Chocolates are so romantic." Tobias quipped before he could stop himself. He hesitated and looked at Max, who seemed to be trying to decipher if he was serious or joking. "Chocolates sound great, but you really don't have to. I'm just glad you are alright." He rose from behind his desk also, wandering over to the door and pulling it open, letting some fresh air into the room. "Now get outta here cause I have work to do." Max grinned and ducked his head as he passed, waving a quick goodbye before jogging down the hall.