“Whoa, where’s the fire?” he said.
“Sorry—gotta go, late for school.”
He looked confused. “Daniel’s car’s not here. I didn’t think anyone was home.”
“A friend’s taking me,” I said as I bent to pick up the papers. I shuffled them and turned them over to my father.
“Thanks, honey. How’ve you been? I never see you anymore. Stupid trial.”
I bounced a little on my feet, eager to meet Noah before he got out of his car. “When is it?”
“Opening arguments in two weeks, with one week scheduled on the docket,” he said, and kissed my forehead. “We’ll talk before I leave for base camp.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Moving to a hotel for trial prep.”
“But don’t worry, we’ll talk before I leave. You go. Love you.”
“Love you, too.” I pecked him on the cheek and brushed past him into the foyer, slinging my bag over my shoulder. But when I flung open the front door, Noah was already there.
These were the things that added up to Noah that morning, from bottom to top:
Shoes: gray Chucks.
Pants: charcoal tweed.
Shirt: slim cut, untucked, thin and pinstriped dress shirt. Super skinny tie, knotted loose around his open collar, exposing the shadow of a screen-printed t-shirt beneath it.
Days unshaven: somewhere between three and five.
Eyes: blue and infinite.
Hair: a beautiful, beautiful mess.
“Morning,” he said, his voice warm and rich. God help me.
“Morning,” I managed to reply, squinting. From the sun, or from staring at him for too long. Flip a coin.
“You need sunglasses,” he said.
I rubbed my eyes. “I know.”
Suddenly, he crouched down.
“What are you—”
In my rush, I hadn’t tied my shoelaces.
Noah was now tying them for me. He looked up at me through his dark fringe of lashes and smiled.
The expression on his face melted me completely. I knew I had the goofiest grin plastered on my lips, and didn’t care.
“There,” he said as he finished tying the laces on my left shoe. “Now you won’t fall.”
When we pulled into the school parking lot, I began to sweat despite the blast of the air conditioner. Dark clouds had filled the sky during our drive, and a few splatters of rain hit the windshield, prompting teeming multitudes of students to bolt to the front gates. I was nervous—terrified, really—to walk into school with Noah. It was so public.
“Ready?” he asked, with mock seriousness.
“Not really,” I admitted.
Noah looked confused. “What’s wrong?”
“Look at them,” I said, indicating the hordes. “I just—everyone’s going to be talking about it,” I finished.
He half-smiled. “Mara. They’re already talking about it.”
That didn’t make me feel any better. I chewed on my lower lip. “This is different,” I said. “This is putting everything out there. On purpose. By choice.”
And then Noah said just about the only thing that could make me feel better. “I won’t leave you. I’ll be there. All day.”
He said it like he meant it. I believed him. No one seemed to care what Noah did at Croyden, so it was not a stretch to imagine him sitting in on my classes. But I’d die if it came to that.
Noah grabbed his blazer from the backseat, shrugged it on, opened my door, and then there we were, standing side-by-side as every stray eye turned in our direction. Panic constricted my throat. I looked at Noah to gauge his reaction. He looked—happy. He liked it.
“You’re getting off on this,” I said, incredulous.
He arched an eyebrow at me. “I like being beside you. And I like everyone seeing us together.” He placed an arm around my shoulders, drawing me closer to him, and my anxiety dissolved. Somewhat.
As we approached the gate, I noticed some guys loitering by their cars parked near the entrance. They all had the wide-eyed cud-chewing look in common as they turned to look at us.
“Dude!” A guy named Parker shouted to Noah as he jogged in our direction. Noah cocked an eyebrow at him.
Parker’s eyes met mine for the first time since I’d arrived at Croyden. “ ‘Sup?”
Did people really say that? “Hey,” I returned.
“So you guys are like—?”
Noah glared at him. “Go away, Parker.”
“Sure, sure. Hey, um, Kent just wanted to know if we’re still on for tomorrow night?”
Noah half-turned his head to look at me and said, “Not anymore.”
Parker looked at me pointedly. “That blows.”
Noah rubbed the heel of his palm into his eye. “Are we finished?”
Parker smirked. “Yeah, yeah. See you guys later,” he said, winking at me as he left.
“He seems … special,” I said, while Parker went to rejoin his pack.
“He isn’t,” Noah said.
I laughed until a voice from behind cut it off.
“I’d hit that.”
I kept walking.
“I’d hit it harder,” said someone else. Blood whooshed in my ears but I didn’t look back.
“I’d hit that so hard whoever pulled me out would become the King of England.”
Noah was no longer by my side when I turned. He had Kent from Algebra pinned against the car.
“I should injure you considerably,” he said in a low voice.
“Dude, chill.” Kent was completely calm.
“Noah,” I heard myself say. “It’s not worth it.”
Noah’s eyes narrowed, but upon hearing my voice, he released Kent, who straightened his shirt and brushed the front of his khakis.
“Get fucked, Kent,” Noah said as he turned away.
The idiot laughed. “Oh, I will.”
Noah whirled around, and I heard the unmistakable impact of knuckles meeting face. Kent was on the concrete, his hands clutching his nose.
When he started to get up, Noah said, “I wouldn’t. I’m barely above kicking the shit out of you on the ground. Barely.”
“You broke my nose!” Blood streamed down Kent’s shirt and a crowd formed a small circle around the three of us.
A teacher parted the throng and called out, “Principal’s office NOW, Shaw.”
Noah ignored him and walked over to me, inordinately calm. He placed his good hand on the small of my back and my legs threatened to dissolve. The bell rang, and I looked at Noah as he leaned in and brushed his lips against my ear.