James K. Polk knew, as soon as he entered the hallowed gates of Columbia State Preperatory School for Gifted Boys, that he wasn't in middle school anymore. And he certainly wasn't in the public coed school were he'd expected to go, where he'd have Sarah's kind company. He felt acutely uncomfortable in his dress slacks, button down and wool blazer that all served to intensify the mid-August heat so typical of the south. His schedule was already damp, crumpled in his palm.
There were already groups of boys gathered in front of the looming brick building, which looked more like a penitentiary than a place of education. They all seemed to know each other, greeting each other warmly and tugging on their blazers like they would embrace an old friend. James leaned against the gate, silently observing, keeping to himself.
"Why hello, there!" A southern voice from right beside him startled him into looking up into a pair of enthusiastic grey eyes. "You must be a freshman! What weather we're having today, too! Not much of a welcoming atmosphere if they haven't fixed the A/C over the summer after Clay blew the circuit board. Did I see you at orientation night?"
James wasn't quite sure how to respond to the stranger's sudden effusion.
"I was, um, out of town for orientation night, so.."
"Oh, that's a shame. The school's fairly difficult to get around in, but I'm sure we can find somebody to take you to your classes! I'm Robert Hayne, head of freshman orienteering," he said, thrusting out his hand.
"Well, James, what do you have first hour?" Robert asked, snatching his schedule. 'Oh, physics! You overachiever you. I'm sure that John here-" he grabbed the arm of a tall, sullen student walking past "-would be delighted to walk you to the science department, wouldn't you, John?"
John said nothing, but his icy glare spoke volumes.
"Well, keep yourself hydrated, James, and ask me if you have any questions!" And with a smile that barely contained his enthusiasm he ran off.
John looked down at James, dark eyes narrowed and calculating, turned on his heel and followed Robert into the building. James, for lack of a better thing to do, hoisted his backpack over one shoulder and followed.
He spent first period sandwiched at a table between John Calhoun, who never said a word to him, and a fellow hyperactive freshman named Stephen Douglas. James spent most of the class nervously re-arranging his folders in his bag and cursing himself for forgetting his lunch on the table at home. His next class was gym, unfortunately; fortunately, uniforms weren't required for the first day of school. He esconced himself in the corner of the gym on the bleachers while his fellow students, all laughing and talking and pushing each other, coagulated into their groups.
James watched, to his surprise, as an upperclassman detached from one of the groups and dropped his bag next to James.
"This seat taken?" He asked, and James shook his head. The other man was tall and broad shouldered, with a shock of thick, dark hair and brilliant, dark eyes. "I thought that you looked a little out of place here."
"I think I might have missed the memo. I don't really know anybody here." James said, resting his elbows on his knees.
"Don't worry, kid, it takes a while to fit into these cliques. We may be guys and all, but it's really like Mean Girls in here. You have to know the rules of the game."
As much as James resented being called 'a kid,' he desperately wanted to know the social scene.
"For instance, never go into the hallway outside of the lunch room after school. That's where people go who want to, you know, defend their honor and whatnot. I've seen blood drawn down there in those fights." James nodded. "and don't mess with Jackson's gang, if you can stand it. They're the ones who start most of those fights."
The boy pointed to the far corner of the gym. A tall, lanky young man with wild red hair and a worn leather jacket (obviously violating the dress code, James thought) was leaning against the wall, looking criminally bored. And criminally sexy, but that was beside the point.
"Him and his lackeys, mm, Benton, Eaton, Kendall, Blair… Just – if they're flagrantly violating the dress code, it's best to stay away from them. If any of them gives you bother, tell them that you're a friend of Clay."
"And… you're Clay?"
"Nnsense, old sport. I'm Daniel Webster and I hate both of them. I just try to keep freshies like you from getting bodyslammed in the lunchroom hallway." Dnaiel stood up, winked cheekily and grabbed his bag as the bell rang.
"Andrew Jackson…" James mused, watching as the redhead strode out of the room. Perhaps it would be an interesting year after all.
The year had started out on the wrong foot for Henry Clay. At least him accidentally shorting out the circuit board (while trying to fix it, he still held) hadn't broken the air conditioning for good. Nor, had he noticed, had it cut out the power to the copy room, which he'd obtained a key to. The fruits of his labor were clutched in his hands, all 150 glorious copies. He wouldn't make the same mistake that stubborn asshole Quincy did last year, refusing to do anything to make students vote for him. No, sir; Henry Clay was nothing if not an affective organizer.
He strode out of the copy room, stuffing his prize into his bookbag, only to collide mid-hallway with an unfortunately familiar fellow student.
"A bit early for putting up posters for student president, isn't it?" John asked dryly and Henry stooped to frantically gather up fliers. "I guess you're catching on to Jackson's tactics. Though I doubt that those posters are the only thing you'll use to get into office." Henry didn't miss the coldness in the other boy's voice.
"I won't try anything you didn't, Mr. Vice President." He sneered back.
"What, like running back to Quincy? God knows he doesn't have the votes to get you onto the student council, much less the presidency. At least I know where my true friends lie." Calhoun sniffed, and stalked off in a huff.
"GO SUCK JACKSON'S DICK, WHY DON'T YOU!" Clay yelled after him as he staggered back to his feet.
So much for 'staying friends.'