"Chelsea!" An arm slung over my shoulders as Ashley all but tackled me from behind.
"Hey, Ash!" I said, beaming at her.
Nolan barely glanced over at her. We were walking to the school indoor pool together after our chemistry class, and so far, he hadn't shown any signs of running away.
"Biology was so boring," she griped. "At least we get to be together in gym."
"Yeah," I said and nodded. "At least we aren't going to suffer under the hot sun today."
"Wait," she whispered, slowing down.
I looked at her curiously. "What?"
Ashley's eyes darted between Nolan and me repeatedly, as if she couldn't decide who she wanted to stare at more. "I can't believe I just noticed that you're walking to class with Nolan. No, scratch that—Nolan's coming to gym today?"
"He can probably hear you, you know," I whispered back.
Nolan yawned again.
"How?" she asked, gaping at me.
I had a feeling she wasn't asking me how he could hear her.
"I asked him until he said yes," I said, shrugging. "I wanted to know just what it was about gym he hated so much."
"I know you've become friends with him lately," she whispered, "but I can't believe he agreed. He never comes to gym."
"I know," I said. "I can't wait to see the expression on Mr. Robinson's face." And the faces of all our other classmates when they saw him.
She grinned. "You know what? Me too."
After changing in the locker room, we headed for the pool. Melissa was already there, having an animated conversation with Derek. Based on their frowns and narrowed eyes, I had a feeling that they were engaged in their usual bickering.
"Hey guys," I said when we reached them.
"Hey," Melissa said grumpily.
"What's up?" Ashley said.
"Derek's just annoying me," she said, rolling her eyes. "What's new?"
He snorted. "As if you don't do the same to me."
"I think it's cute how you guys only annoy each other this much," Ashley said, wiggling her eyebrows at them.
Beside her, I coughed. They both looked at her oddly.
"What is that even supposed to mean?" Derek complained.
"Wait a minute…" Melissa's mouth fell open as her gaze sharpened at something behind me. "Is that Nolan?"
"Seriously?" Derek said, craning his head—which was clearly for show since he was taller than all of us—and looking over our heads. "Is he really here at gym class? I have to be hallucinating. Quick, Mel, pinch me."
Dropping her gaze at once, Melissa seized the opportunity to deliver him a nasty pinch. "You got it, Derek! You can always count on me!"
"I didn't say to pinch me that hard!" he snapped at her, rubbing at the rapidly reddening spot on his skin.
A rush of affection warmed my heart as I watched two of my closest friends start quarreling again. I laughed and turned around to look for Nolan.
"I'm sorry, were pinches supposed to not hurt? I might just get you a dictionary for your birthday this year," Melissa said.
It wasn't hard to find him among our classmates, mostly because so many people were looking at him. The direction of their staring was good as a bright red arrow pointing to Nolan's location.
Like all the other boys, Nolan was wearing swimming trunks.
Although I was the one who told Ashley and the others that Nolan wasn't as scrawny as he looked, seeing him without a shirt and hoodie still shocked me.
His arms and torso were very toned for an average high schooler. It wasn't like he had six packs or anything, but the muscle that was present was pretty obvious. For someone whom I had seen sleeping all day in classes and just generally giving off a hibernation vibe, this wasn't what I was expecting.
The recollection of falling into his arms in a princess carry and the lack of strain on his face despite the impact and weight came to mind. Alright, so maybe those muscles really did make sense.
Still, it was jarring to reconcile this Nolan with the one who spent his days avoiding gym class like the plague. He clearly wasn't lacking physically, so it was weird how he always refused to come to class.
All the people who were within a five-foot radius of him kept glancing at him, probably in a mix of why-is-he-here and I-can't-believe-he-looks-like-that ways.
"Well, how about that?" Melissa said behind me, sounding impressed. "You were right, Chelsea. He does have muscles."
The few girls I'd seen eyeing him dreamily before were practically devouring him with their eyes, like they had to seize this chance to commit everything to memory because they had no idea when the next time would be.
"I told you," I said.
Nolan looked completely unruffled by the silent staring commotion around him. He seemed like he was spacing out, but then he caught my eye.
He made a small jerking motion with his head in a 'what's up' sort of gesture.
I grinned back at him.
Abruptly, I felt eyes on me. I glanced around to see a few girls staring at me. One of them was glaring. Yep, they were definitely his admirers. Why couldn't they just approach him themselves if they wanted to interact with him that much?
Mr. Robinson blew his whistle to get our attention. "Okay, everybody! Gather around please."
When he reached the end of his usual headcount, his facial expression changed vastly from that of hopefulness to surprised joy.
"Well, everyone's here today," he said, beaming in wonder around at us. "Is Nolan here today?"
"I'm here," Nolan said, and immediately the people who were standing the closest to him snapped their heads around to look at him.
As usual, he ignored them.
I kind of expected Mr. Robinson to get mad at Nolan for skipping class so often, but instead of blowing up, he just smiled more widely.
"Great! I'm so glad you decided to come to class, Nolan. If you came more often, you wouldn't have so many detentions to attend, you know. Anyway, let's get started."
Yikes. Evidently, Nolan was getting quite a bit of punishment for his little acts of truancy.
He clearly wasn't embarrassed by any of this, though. Nolan just stared at Mr. Robinson with indifference written all over his face.
"He does not care," Ashley whispered to me.
"Not even half an ounce," I whispered back.
Mr. Robinson led us to the competitive section of the indoor pool with lane lines. "We're going to be doing something fun today. I'll split everyone up into groups of four—no, you can't choose your group, Claire—and you're going to compete against each other in a medley relay."
Some of our classmates started talking excitedly, but there were a few others who groaned at the same time as I did. Mr. Robinson had done this competition thing several times during our swimming sessions, and he often grouped the good swimmers with the terrible ones to 'level the playing field'. I was decent at swimming, but that was all I was.
A medley relay required every one of the four team members to cover a different swimming stroke each during the race, and I hated it. More specifically, I hated being one of the people who dragged down their more capable teammates.
"Yes," Melissa hissed through gritted teeth as if she had just won a bet. "I love that. Derek, I bet that I'll win against you. I bet on the snacks that we'll have the next time we go out for a movie."
"It's a team effort," he said, rolling his eyes. "Even if you're quicker than me, if your teammates drag you down, you'll still lose."
"I'm just saying," Ashley said, but her voice was light with amusement, "but you don't even know if you'll be in different teams yet."
Melissa's face dropped. "Right."
"…Jordan, and Sheila," Mr. Robinson was saying as he made each group form a small line. "Kenneth, Melissa, Cheryl, and Derek, over here."
A frustrated cry escaped from Melissa's mouth. Both Ashley and I grinned.
"Guess you are going to be in the same team," I said.
Ashley raised her eyebrows. "I don't want to say I called it, but … I called it."
"Don't worry, Mel," Derek said to Melissa in a consoling tone, "I'll make sure you don't drag us down too much."
"Speak for yourself," she snapped, stalking towards Mr. Robinson. "You barely beat my track time last week."
"That was on land! We're going to be in water soon—if you haven't noticed!" He followed her.
She snapped back something I couldn't quite hear.
As I shook my head at them, Ashley chuckled.
"Before graduation," she mouthed at me.
"After," I mouthed back.
"Claire, Chelsea, Keith, and Nolan. Over here," Mr. Robinson said, gesturing beside the team that had just formed a line. "Now, please."
"Hi," I said to Nolan when we formed our little team line.
"Hi," he said before yawning again.
Mr. Robinson finished assigning the rest of my classmates into their team and then said, "Okay, you can decide among yourselves which swimming stroke you each want to do. I won't be dictating that. Just bear in mind that for this mini competition, we're going in the order of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle respectively. If you use the wrong stroke, you'll be disqualified. Let's spice this up a bit. The winning team gets a large pizza on me. So put in some effort, everyone!"
Everyone started murmuring at that last line.
That was basically the reason why Mr. Robinson had his fair share of student fans in the school, despite not having as handsome a face as Mr. Jameson. Melissa loved him not only because he was easygoing and fit, but also because he was genuinely generous. He really cared about student engagement in his classes, even if it meant that he had to pay out of his own pocket sometimes.
"Which swimming stroke do you guys want to do?" Keith asked.
Claire smiled. "I'm fine with any. You guys can choose, and I'll just take the last one."
If I remembered correctly, Claire was on the school team, so she was definitely great at swimming. I didn't remember if Keith was good at it or not.
"I'm pretty okay with freestyle," I said. "It's my best swimming stroke."
"I don't really care which one I do," Nolan said.
"Then I'll do breaststroke," Keith said.
"Backstroke for me, then," Nolan said.
Claire nodded. "I guess that leaves me with the butterfly stroke."
After leading us through some warmup exercises, Mr. Robinson blew his whistle again. He made us line up at the different pool lanes. The ones who were doing the butterfly stroke had to get into the diving position.
"Make sure you don't cheat by diving in before your teammate touches the wall or you'll be disqualified," Mr. Robinson said. "I'll be keeping a close eye on all of you."
As expected, when the race started, Claire showed off her swimming capabilities the moment she dove into the pool. Her confidence shone through as she made her way across the length of the pool at a faster speed than most of the other butterfly swimmers.
"She's really good at this," I said.
"Yeah, Claire's great," Keith said, beaming at her swimming figure.
"Mm," Nolan hummed.
I noticed that he wasn't just watching her. His half-lidded gaze swept around all the other competitors.
"Think we can win?" I said, grinning up at him.
His laughter sounded so refreshing. "I'm not that good at swimming. Don't expect too much from me."
"I knew that was why you didn't want to come," I said.
Keith stared at us with his mouth slightly agape, but he quickly looked away when he caught us looking back at him. I couldn't blame him. He'd probably never even seen Nolan smile, let alone laugh.
As Claire swam back towards us, Nolan got into position at the edge of the pool. He dove in the moment her hand touched the wall.
The way he moved his limbs was with an air of confidence, but he wasn't particularly fast. He was definitely a few notches slower than the more capable participants in the pool, but he was still a lot faster than those who looked like they barely knew what they were doing as they flail-splashed across the pool length.
"You swim pretty well for someone who never attends gym," I said. "Do you practice here secretly when no one's watching?"
He shot me an unimpressed look.
"What?" I said.
We watched Keith reach the other end of the pool.
"I was on the competitive swimming team in my previous school," he said finally.
He was actually talking about his past. For some reason, my heart started thumping hard against my ribcage.
"Wow, really?" I turned to look at him, but his attention was fixed on the pool. "Why didn't you join our swimming club? I heard it's pretty good."
Nolan shifted his gaze to me. His expression was unreadable.
"It's going to be your turn soon," he said abruptly. "You should get into position."
"Are—" you avoiding the question? was what I was about to say when Claire called me.
"Chelsea, Keith's getting back soon!"
"Alright!" I called back and went to the edge of the pool.
Nolan yawned and looked away, as if we hadn't just been having a conversation a couple of seconds ago. As Keith touched the wall, I dove in.
Of course, our group didn't win in the end. I did put in my best effort, but ultimately it just wasn't enough. Except for when we had gym classes in the pool, I almost never swam.
We left the pool with the lane lines for the regular one, which was a lot larger. When I rejoined Derek and Melissa with Ashley, they were squabbling over who was the one who dragged down their team even more. Mr. Robinson had us swimming laps across the width of the pool, and he went around to see if anyone needed help or correction on their posture.
We paused after swimming a few laps alongside each other.
"I love swimming," Melissa gushed, adjusting her goggles. "It feels so cool and refreshing."
"You love any physical activity," Ashley said.
"You're right," Melissa said.
"I still can't believe you managed to get Nolan to come," Derek said to me. "What exactly did you say to him?"
"Mr. Robinson is in such a good mood today," Melissa said. "I feel like today's full attendance might have something to do with that."
"Nothing in particular. I just pestered him until he gave in," I said, smiling at the memory.
"It's more shocking that he didn't just ignore you," Derek said.
"Apparently, he doesn't ignore Chelsea," Melissa said, nodding approvingly at me. "I'm impressed, Chels. I've been wanting to ask you something, actually."
"Hmm?" I looked at her quizzically.
"Aren't you two friends?" Melissa said, looking over my shoulder. "Why is he all the way over there alone?"
He was at the other side of the pool where barely anyone else was, swimming laps by himself.
"Good question," I said.
"Yeah," Derek said. "I thought he would be hanging out with you. You are the only one he ever talks to."
"He kind of doesn't like people," I said, eyeing him.
"And we kind of know that." Ashley snorted.
"I could go over, I guess … but I'm not sure he wants to hang out with us. We probably seem like a giant crowd to him."
Maybe I should try anyway.
"But he's all alone," Ashley said, watching him.
"You should ask him," Melissa said, snapping her fingers. "I'm dying to see him talk to you up close. He never speaks."
"He's not a museum exhibit," I said, rolling my eyes.
Despite my words, I actually wanted to invite him over. Whether or not we were alone, I still enjoyed talking to him. Now that I looked forward to seeing him in class every day, it seemed crazy that I used to dread going to class because of him.
I wanted to try and ask him, despite already knowing the outcome deep down inside.
"Hey, Mr. Robinson's headed this way," Derek said. "We should continue swimming."
"I'll go talk to him," I said.
"Bring him back with you," Melissa said. "I want to see him talk."
"He's not some kind of talking dog!" I heard Ashley say as I began swimming towards Nolan.
When I got within several feet of him, Nolan seemed to notice that I was approaching him, because he started slowing down.
Eventually, he stopped and just floated in one position until I reached him.
"Hi again," I said.
"Hi," he said, raising an eyebrow.
"I was wondering if you wanted to join me and my friends," I said. "We could race each other."
"No." The word left his mouth before I even fully finished my sentence.
"Ouch, that was direct," I said but smiled to show that I wasn't offended.
I really wasn't expecting him to say yes, anyway.
"I mean, not really," he amended.
This time, I chuckled for real. "That doesn't really soften the blow, you know. It's the same thing!"
"It should," he said. "I could have just stuck to 'no.'"
"Isn't it boring to swim alone, though?" I gestured around him.
"Maybe I like it that way," he said, swimming closer to me.
I frowned at the slow smile spreading across his face. "What are you—"
Nolan splashed water onto my face.
"Hey!" I spluttered, instantly flicking my hands out and splashing him back. "What was that for?"
"I felt like it," he said, backing away. "Are you done asking questions? I want to swim."
"Fine, let's swim," I said.
"Won't your friends miss you?" he said.
I glanced back at my other friends. They seemed like they were having fun swimming. Melissa caught my eye and raised a thumbs up at me. Feeling my cheeks burn all of a sudden, I swiftly turned back to Nolan. I hope he didn't notice that.
"Nope, they'll be fine without me for a few minutes," I said, shaking my head.
They were the ones who prodded me into approaching Nolan, after all.
I decided to try one last time. "Are you sure you don't want to join us?"
He looked at me appraisingly for a few seconds.
"Tell you what," he said, raising his hand to point to the other end of the pool. "I'll race you there. If you beat me, I'll go with you. Breaststroke only."
"You're on!" I blurted out before he could change his mind.
It didn't occur to me until we started our little competition why he was willing to bet on this. Nolan knew he would win. The moment we began, he sped ahead of me. I expended all my efforts into each stroke, but with my mediocre swimming skills, it was no use. By the time I was halfway there, he was already at the other end. My brain almost couldn't catch up with how quick he was.
"You're fast," I gasped out when I finally got to the end. "Were you holding back during the medley relay just now?"
Nolan yawned. "Who knows?"
"I'm not telling you," he said with a half-smile curving his lips.
"Oh, come on! You know, you're so good at swimming," I said. "I have no idea why you were so resistant to the idea of coming to class."
"I just don't like it," he said.
"Don't like what? Gym? Even when it's swimming class? That can't be it since you were actually in the swimming club in your previous school."
He shrugged. "You got to see me in gym, happy now?"
"Not as happy as Mr. Robinson," I said, nodding at our teacher who was a good distance away. "He looks like he's about to break out into song."
Nolan's snort was pretty loud. "I hope he doesn't get too happy. I don't plan on making a habit out of this."
I laughed. "That's a shame. I'm glad you came today. You're never this awake in other classes."
"Kind of hard to sleep when you're constantly moving," he said.
Cracking a grin at him, I said, "Good point. Now that I think about it, isn't that why you never attend gym?"
I laughed and said, "Don't give me that, I bet that's exactly the reason why. Okay, I should probably be going back to my friends now."
Nolan smiled slightly. "Have fun."
"Thanks, you too!" I added as an afterthought, "Remember that you can join us if you start feeling lonely!"
"I'll keep that in mind." He splashed me again before swimming off in another direction.
"Hey!" I protested, but he was already too far away.
Ashley and the others all stopped swimming and waited for me along the pool wall when they saw me returning.
"You didn't bring him back with you," Melissa complained when I got back to them.
"He refused to come," I said. "Was I supposed to drag him through the water?"
"You could have tried," Derek suggested.
Snorting, I rolled my eyes at him. "I don't have that kind of strength!"
"I should've gone with you," Melissa said, the disappointment on her face obvious. "We could have grabbed him by the ankles. Together we could have done it."
"I'm not so sure about that," I said, recalling the way he carried me while climbing up four stories worth of rope.
"Oh well," she said, and then she splashed off to swim another lap.
The pasta tonight tasted so good, I had to stop myself from licking the plate when I was done. Instead, I took a swig of my orange juice.
"Do you want to study together after we're done eating?" Ashley said to me.
"Sure," I said. "Want to come to my room?"
"That's fine," she said.
"I want to join you guys, too," Melissa said. "I have a biology test coming up next week. Ashley, you'll help me, won't you?"
"You only ever study when there's an upcoming test," Ashley accused.
Derek yawned. "Count me out. I have a project I need to work on tonight."
"I bet the deadline's near," I said, snickering.
Grinning wryly, Derek nodded. "In three days. You know me so well."
Ashley sighed. "You guys really need to stop procrastinating."
After we finished our dinner, all of us left the dining hall together to head to our dorms.
We were walking down the hallway of the main building when I saw something on a windowsill a few feet ahead of us. It was dark in color, but it was too large to be an insect. A spike of fear poked at my gut. Could it be a giant insect?
At that idea, I stopped in my tracks.
"What's that?" I said, too afraid to hide the trembling in my voice.
"What's what?" Melissa stepped forward and looked to where I was pointing.
Beside me, Ashley recoiled and leaned closer to me. "Is that an i-insect?"
Derek rolled his eyes and walked to the window. He stopped short just a couple of feet away from it.
"Don't approach it, Derek!" My volume was just a few notches below a shriek. "What if it flies towards us?!"
"I seriously don't get why you two are so afraid of insects," Melissa said, joining Derek. "Just squish them if they get near you. Is that so hard?"
I couldn't respond because I was doing my utmost best to suppress a whimper at the imagery her sentence conjured.
Frowning, Derek raised his head to look back at us. "It's not an insect. It's … a bat. I think."
"Definitely a bat," Melissa said decidedly. "Don't tell me you're afraid of bats."
"I only like fruit bats," I said, edging towards the window because curiosity had overtaken me.
I had never seen a bat in real life before.
"Disliking something isn't the same as being afraid of it, but okay," Melissa said.
It was twitching slightly as I looked down at its little gray furry body with a white front. It was about the size of my hand. Its eyes were closed as it lay on its back. Did bats normally do that?
"For someone who sounded terrified just a second ago, you're leaning way too close towards it," Ashley said.
"That was before I discovered it wasn't a bug." I said, watching it make a weak attempt at flapping its wings. "Do you think it's hurt?"
"Why is there even a bat here in the first place?" Derek said.
"That's honestly the most important question here," Melissa said. "It probably flew in through the window, right?"
Stepping up closer to me, Ashley said, "I've never seen a bat in our school before. Don't they live in caves or something? It seems a bit far for it to travel."
I peered intently at it. "What if it's injured?"
"You're not going to touch it, right?" Derek said, sounding apprehensive. "We shouldn't be touching wild animals."
Almost insulted by his insinuation that I didn't have common sense, I glared at him. "Of course I'm not going to touch some random bat of unknown origin! I was just asking."
"We should just go," Melissa said, shaking her head. "Someone will probably come across it later. I don't think we can do anything for it."
Slowly, the bat's eyes opened.
"Oh, hey, it woke up," I said in surprise.
"Stop standing so close," Ashley said, grabbing my arm. "What if it flies in your face?"
"Right, right…" I allowed her to tug me backwards just a little bit.
After a bit of struggling, the bat managed to heave itself onto its feet.
Melissa tapped her foot on the floor. "Great, it's not injured. I guess we can go now."
"Should we get one of the teachers to make sure it gets out safely?" I said, watching it teeter on all fours on the windowsill.
The bat halted its tentative movements and wobbled while holding its position.
"I'm not sure they would do anything other than shoo it out," Derek said skeptically.
Emitting a few screeches, it promptly began flapping its wings and started flying. It took a sudden dive as its flapping slowed, but it hastily picked up the speed again and went out from the open window. As it flew off, it continued in its little haphazard flying pattern, dipping downwards and then soaring up again, changing directions each time it did.
We all stared at the window in silence for the next few seconds.
"I thought it was going to fly towards me for half a second," Ashley said, her tone relieved.
"I've never seen a bat fly before, but do they usually do it like they're drunk? Because that one just did," I said, gaping at its now tiny silhouette against the dark night sky.
"Maybe it had some kind of disease or illness," Melissa said. "You know, like those cats or dogs that walk all unsteadily like the room's spinning around."
Nodding, Derek said, "Good thing you didn't touch it. What if it really was sick?"
"I already said that I wasn't planning to!" I said, scowling at him.
"Let's go," Ashley said, still looking outside the window. "I have a lot of revision to do."
"Yeah…" I said.
We continued walking, but I couldn't help but wonder what it was doing here in the first place. The school's main building was a fair distance from the forest.
AN: THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE STORY ALERTS :D i'm so glad people are actually reading this! also, thank you so much to my guest reviewer kuzhali for the previous chapter, it made my day to read it ฅ(ᐤˊ꒳ฅˋᐤ ) i'm glad you enjoyed reading about their little forest outing!
i plan on updating every two to three weeks (depending on chapter length), so please continue reading ʚ ⃛ɞ(ू•ᴗ•ू❁)