A/N: Happy Birthday to me! This is my birthday gift to myself hehe. #3 in the School Series. Look out for Physics, coming soon!
She pretty much unequivocally hated Chemistry. She wasn't even sure why, exactly, she was currently sitting in the second row, at her own little desk, of the most intense Chemistry course her high school had to offer, listening to her teacher rant about thermodynamics and "delta G" like a maniac. Which, to all extents and purposes, according to all the school gossip and her friend who had suffered through his class last year, he absolutely was.
"Maniac," she muttered under her breath, and slowly peeled the plastic wrap from her book of Advanced Chemical Concepts, thereby making it impossible to return to the bookstore. Probably for the very reason of ensuring that they stay in this crazy course. "I'm in this for the long haul."
And he really was so weird.
It started after the first test—which she did quite well on, thank you very much—when he told everyone he would meet up with them outside of class to go over all the (copious) mistakes they'd made. Flo didn't exactly relish this concept, but a grade was a grade, and so if it took an evening spent with a chemistry teacher to get in to college, she's damn well do whatever she had to.
Meanwhile, this girl in her French class, a tiny skinny thing with hair that looked like it was about to pop off her head, oohed and aahed to her every day in the bathroom and asked how Mr. James was. "He's soooo cute," she would wail like an imbecile. "I've figured out his lunch period and I always go sit in the cafeteria during that time, and sometimes he'll say hi to me."
Flo would roll her eyes and moan about how Chemistry sucked and how she hated Mr. James with every fiber of her being. When she saw him on the path in between classes he would give her an awkward noddish head motion, complete with a strange half-smile-smirk thing, to which she could neither smile and chirp her usual "hello!" nor do anything else, so she would inevitably end up making a very strange face, and then getting a very strange look in return, and feeling altogether idiotic.
It didn't help that he seemed to enjoy the awkwardness of others, to feed off it like Dementors supposedly fed off of sadness. If she wasn't convinced half the time that he was himself just a dweeb, and so accidently created awkwardness in others, she would call him some sort of "Awkmentor" and make a huge joke about it. But with Mr. James, you could just never really be sure.
So they arranged meet in the library to go over this test. He had wanted to meet in the dining hall, for dinner, but she couldn't quite face the idea of practically dating a teacher, so she thought the library would be fine. It was okay, they went over the test and bantered a bit, whatever, but he kept looking up to say hi to kids as they came in, chatting with the 'jocky' cool guys as if he were one of them, and awkwardly greeting the girls. Flo sat in the armchair across from him, feeling dreadfully out of place, wishing she could just leave.
She mostly understood everything that they went over, but frankly, she didn't really even care anymore, she just wanted the ordeal to be over.
Finally, they were done with the test, but Mr. James didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave.
"You did very well on this test, Flo," he said in a tone that was obviously meant to be sort of soothing and reassuring, but which had exactly the opposite effect.
"Mmmm, not really," Flo muttered noncommittally, feeling awkward. "Not as well as some people."
He smiled mysteriously. "You did just fine. You were one of the top scores."
"Who got the top score?" She asked curiously.
"Can't tell," he said, but he was smiling, so she figured it was alright to continue.
"Aw, come on," she groaned. "Tell me!" She was about to add "it's not like we're going to mob them!" but he had already begun to speak.
"No," he laughed, trademark mysterious half-smile in place, but it wasn't a grumpy 'leave me alone' sort of snort. He got up and began to put on his coat and hat.
"It was one of those two Asian girls sitting behind me, wasn't it!" Flo cried, getting a little riled up. After all, everyone knew they usually did very well—while there were obviously exceptions, most of the Asians at her school had an enviable work ethic. She held her breath a moment after the comment, worried that perhaps that had been the kind of thing you should probably swallow, but he just laughed and shook his head, walking toward the library doors.
"Come on!" She called at his retreating back. That was when the previous comment surfaced in her mind, the 'it's not like we're going to mob them!' She often used a variation of this expression when hanging out with her friends, and she had been joking about with Mr. James as she often would with others. Unfortunately, her current study of U.S. history had expanded her vocabulary on this front, and so the phrase that she had begun to use instead of 'mob' was 'lynch.'
"It's not like we're going to lynch them!" She cried, laughing, totally unthinking of any racial connotations.
He stopped dead in his tracks. "Flo, come here," he said. "You need to calm down, and think about that comment," he said, or something to that extent.
She felt the blood drain from her face as her smile crumpled. "No, no, Mr. James, I didn't mean it like that—honestly, I'm sorry!"
He left, and she remained, sitting aimlessly in one of the chairs in the library, feeling like an utter idiot. Later she would cry to her friends, neglect to tell her mother, apologize to Mr. James whilst practically in tears, cringe whenever she saw him, and ultimately forget about the entire experience. But it was her first indication that Chemistry this year might not go precisely as planned.
Fall went relatively smoothly, but when swim season began, he started to give her strange looks when she walked in to the room, teasing her about her early college acceptance, her liberal views, and asking her about her season in swimming.
Flo couldn't decide whether she quite liked him or despised him, but she surprised herself when he asked her about her first meet and she told him, quite challengingly, that it's a home one on Saturday.
"I'll come," he says. "I'll come watch you."
"Um, okay," she replied noncommittally, pretty sure that he won't make it. It would really be odd if he did—she's going to be wearing a swimsuit and honestly, he's only ever seen her in baggy jeans and t-shirts.
She has bombed one test and aced another, and after a miserable quiz on Thursday she is shocked and, let's be real, 100% creeped out when she sees none other that Mr. James, clad in sweatshirt and sweatpants, sitting in the bleachers at her swim meet. Her mom is right behind him and right before her race, and when she looks to her mom for the traditional thumbs up and cheering support, she sees Mr. James' strange yet familiar smirk, too.
She's unsure how to go about this, precisely, but she swims decently for the beginning of the season and by the end of the meet he's gone thank god, and she can relax.
Flo can still feel his eyes on her, the way they took in her tall form, her quads contracting as she performed a series of brisk jumps before her race. She's never felt so exposed in a swimsuit before.
"I hate him," her friend's boyfriend confides in her as they all eat dinner together. "My roommate and I lived above him last year and we would bang on his ceiling with lacrosse sticks whenever we got angry. Sometimes we'd blast electronica in the middle of the night and jump up and down. He was terrible."
Mr. James is all Flo can talk about, lately. He is still incredibly strange and awkward, and to top things off his Chemistry course is ruining her life. It's in the diabolical way he seems to take perverted pleasure in the pain of his students—or maybe it's just impossible material, but whatever it is, her grades have been plummeting on those last few tests.
She has pretty much decided that she hates him, running from the last test to her next class as she hastily dashes tears from her eyes.
But things get weirder, as she and Evan and Kat continue to gossip. Emma Wills comes to join and they talk incessantly about college for twenty minutes, and Flo watches Kat get continually more stressed out. Then, Mr. James enters, and asks (in that way of his) if he can join. Evan gets a face like a thundercloud but Kat and Emma merely shrug, so Flo is forced to sit at a table with them until she can finish her meal and find a way to politely excuse herself.
This is a harder task than it appears, as Emma and Mr. James quickly become embroiled in the earlier conversation about college, with Mr. James giving her pros and cons about his alma mater and copious praise, and Flo feeling that odd coiling sensation in her stomach that seemed uncomfortably similar to jealousy.
"He's quite young, though," she tells Kat as they finally make good on their escape, ostensibly unwilling to be seen with Mr. James in public any longer than they have to. "It's a bit weird for him to be hanging out with students so much."
"That's just boarding school life," Kat replies. "One of my history teachers drove me back to my dorm in her car the other day, and it wasn't strange."
Flo frowned in thought, unconsciously flipping her long red hair over her shoulder. "I can't quite pinpoint it, but something is off about him," she finally confessed to her friend. "I can see why Evan hates him. I don't think I like him much myself."
"Really? I don't mind him. He's a little awkward, but he always says hello to me on the path."
"You just like him because you don't have the capacity to dislike anyone," Flo accused her.
Kat laughingly held up her hands. "You know that's absolutely not true, I'm the biggest gossip around."
"You gossip plenty," Flo teased, "but you don't believe any of it, or really care. It's not really malicious, with you."
"I suppose you're right, Kat acknowledged. But I also just don't understand this thing, whatever it is, that you have going on with Mr. James."
Flo stalked off at the insinuation that her dislike for him was a "thing," huffing her breath loudly to let Kat know she was particularly annoyed.
It must have been about that time when the email chain began. She can't remember exactly what she emailed him about, but his response was abrupt and somewhat sassy, and so was hers. They met for dinner "I'm jogging over right now," she emailed him when he changed the time last minute, knowing it would go straight to his iPhone.
He checks it in front of her, reading it aloud. The words slide from his lips, as he tastes them. They sound strange coming from him, not at all the way she intended them to be read.
"Sorry," Flo says, suddenly breathless. "I, uh, I didn't get your email…"
He smiles. She suppresses a shiver. "No worries."
They talk, go over some exam, and when she gets home he has replied to her email about jogging. She responds, and a hint of sassiness creeps in to her tone, as she lets him know how little she appreciates his attention. (While really, she is torn between relishing it, confusion, and a deep-seated dislike based on the large quantity of poor grades she is currently receiving).
Things slowly get tougher, and she begins to doubt her abilities, wondering how she'll do on the AP. He'll see all the scores, and he constantly threatens them with dire warnings, should they not get the top grade of a five. In her heart of hearts, Flo knows she will get a four.
Swim season finishes and she's relieved, but spring brings AP exams and crazy emotional highs and lows, as academics seems to take over her life and she no longer has any control. She runs from a Chemistry AP practice exam in tears, knowing that she has failed. He chases her down three flights, catching her at the bottom as she dashes angry tears from her eyes.
"Flo, look at me," he says, when she stubbornly stares at the ground, too embarrassed to meet his eyes. "Flo," he says again.
They are at the bottom of the staircase, in a building made of all glass windows. The post-class rush has dispersed, and no students remain in the glass building, though the occasional one meanders along on the path outside.
He places his hand underneath her chin and raises her face up, and Flo knows that no teacher should ever touch her in this way, but instead of protesting, or saying this, she places her hand over his own. Their combined hands slide a little, to the side of her neck, and now he's cradling her chin like a lover, looking deeply into her eyes.
"It'll be okay," he says, but all thoughts of exams have long fled from her mind. All she can feel is the warmth of his hand on her skin, the flush of blood in her cheeks, the heightened breath against her lips. She has no idea what's going on. "You'll do fine," Mr. James repeats, but Flo would be deceiving herself if she didn't acknowledge the lower, raspy quality of his voice that she'd never heard before (wouldn't she?)
"No I won't." She was breathless, and they both heard it.
And in the silence (blood pulsing, coursing, through her ears, pounding through her carotid artery, pumping through her neck) she takes a step closer.
They're practically embracing like lovers. Things have reached such a level of inappropriate, all the anti-teacher/student relations propaganda is thudding in her mind like a drum. But it is nothing compared to the thrumming of her blood and the hammering of her heart echoed in every extremity of her body, so she ignores it.
Mr. James has clearly undergone and then accepted a similar crisis, and so the moment is prolonged, stretching between the two of them until Flo can hardly take in any longer. If she breathes any more sharply, her chest will brush his.
She inhales sharply at this very knowledge, and her sweatshirt brushes his shirt. And then, finally, his other hand is on her neck, and he is pulling her face towards him. (Flo is tall, luckily, and so there is not a very long way to go.)
His breath is minty, with an overlay of coffee, and she briefly has time to register this before they are covering her own. The very wrongness of the interaction contributes to her excitement, and a tingly shiver runs down her spine. His hands fist in her long hair, and her own go around his neck, pulling him closer to her.
They back up in to a corner, shielded by a well-placed plant, and Flo feels like she's drowning. He's filling her senses, his smell and his hands, and she is helpless in his grip. His hands are at her hips, pushing up her sweatshirt, and hers have undone a button on his shirt before they break apart, staring at each other like criminals.
And then his face dips down, suddenly and illicitly, and his lips brush hers in a kiss so slow and sensual that she feels her knees trembling. It's the kiss of a man nearing maturity, a man confident in himself, who has kissed women before and learned the way to please them.
His lips drag over hers, catching her bottom one between his teeth, pulling a little until Flo inhales sharply and returns the favor.
The spark between them travels into her stomach, followed closely by his hands, which slide around behind her sweatshirt to caress her naked back, and then slip forward over her stomach to rest warmly on the skin there. Flo flushes, and every inch feels like it's burning, she's consumed, she really is not emotionally equipped to deal with what's going on right now.
They separate, finally, both beet red and breathing heavily, eyes darting as the reality of what just happened comes crashing down on both of them.
Flo can't speak—for once in her life, she has absolutely nothing to say. And then a look flickers across Mr. James' face, that awkward half-smile that she's never been able to deal with, never knew what it meant, could never ever handle it.
She knows what it means now. She laughs, and the smirk slowly spreads to a grin.