21: The Antidote to Righteousness (Caleb)

"Uh, is right here okay?" I ask, gesturing to the picnic bench table with my food tray. I do not know why I am asking, I told him to meet me out here, but then we ran into each other on our way outside and I am just trying to fill the silence.
I am wondering to God I did this? I don't have lunch with people. I eat breakfast inside but the rest of the time I come out here and listen to music. It's the break in my day that makes the rest of school even slightly tolerable, and here I am awkwardly forcing social interaction instead. The day is unseasonably warm and I can't tell if it's that or standing next to Noah that's making me sweat under my jacket.
This was a bad idea. I'm never listening to Dr. Samson again.
"Yeah, this is good," he mutters, setting his tray down and swinging his skinny legs over the bench. The nerves coming off him are like painful sound waves off of a loudspeaker - it makes my teeth chatter and my rib cage shake and I really am never listening to Dr. Samson ever again.
"This is a nice spot," he says when we have settled across from each other. He is taking in his surroundings (avoiding looking at me, I think) and squinting into the sun almost like he doesn't spend a lot of time outside. Which I know is not the case.
"Yeah," I respond automatically, staring at the dark circles under his eyes. "Yeah, I like it out here. It's quiet."
The waves of anxiety pull back a bit and a tingling itchiness reaches under my skin. Curiosity. It doesn't make me twitch in the way it usually does, but I squirm a bit, wondering what it is that he's curious about.
I do not have to wonder, because his eyes open from their squint and look directly at me (making the squirmy feeling worse). He does not have his lenses in and the disparity in the blue of his eyes is really obvious. He says, "I'm surprised you don't eat with the sports guys more, you play quite a few sports after all. They definitely seem to have a good time during lunch."
The last part comes out a little bitter and don't even need to feel the poker of anger from him to know that he's resentful.
"They're not all bad, you know," I say, trying not to break eye contact even though there's something about looking directly at him that feels like standing at the edge of a cliff. "Nobody even really likes Christian all that much. And Vincent is an idiot who'll follow anybody around," I add for good measure, and because it's true.
"If they're so great, then why aren't you eating with them?" he asks, a challenge in his voice. He is baiting me and I do not get why so I try to push through the curiosity and nerves and find what he is feeling underneath all of that.
I hit a wall. Like, a real, physical wall. That's what it feels like, at least. Behind the nerves is hard, thin steel. Noah's trying not to feel something and it is but it is not working all that well.
"I like being alone," I blurt out when I realise I have failed to pick up the gauntlet he threw. It's the wrong thing to say not only because it is so fucking dumb but also because something shutters even further in him, the steel growing thicker.
"Oh," he says, a complete sentence. "I can leave if you want..."
As he trails off, I realise he is disappointed and then I know what the wall is about - he doesn't trust me. He probably thinks I have asked him to lunch to be mean or pull a prank or have something to use against him. The X-Men are the elite of the school, they are the frontline troops in protecting mutantkind. And that makes them targets in the school for the assholes you find in any highschool. No one messes with Harry Rutherford, no one, the guy is a wizard and that spooks everyone. Jamie Braddock has always confronted anyone stupid enough to be wilfully disrespectful. But Noah, he is the quiet one, and some take that as a sign of weakness. So, no wonder he does not trust me.
But why did he say yes to this in the first place?
"No, that's not what I meant," I rush to explain, remembering how he felt when he went all ‘frightened woodland animal’ before and not wanting to give him a reason to run away. "I just meant…” Now it's my turn to trail off. I do not know what I mean to say - I can't tell him that I avoid eating in the dining hall because being in crowds is hard because of my power. That carrying on a conversation with more than one or two people is nearly impossible, especially when everyone is feeling something completely different.
"I get it," he nods, unscrewing the cap on his iced tea. "You can be alone with one person."
He says it so matter-of-factly but it sends me reeling. That's exactly it. With one person, my power can be nice, sometimes it is easier to connect, to get ahead of the conversation, to understand someone. In a group, it becomes noise.
"Yeah," I say, unable to keep the surprise out of my voice. "Yeah, um, how did you know that?"
"In combat training you sometimes get this look on your face when you're in a group," he says, staring into his small bowl of yoghurt as he idly swirls it around with a spoon. "Like you're powering down or something. People will be goofing off around you and you're just off in your own little world."
"What?" I ask blankly, unsure how to take... well, any of that, really. That's the second time today he's made it sound like he watches me.
"Um, no, I didn't mean…” he starts, wide eyes snapping up from his desert to look at me. The moment our eyes connect, I'm slammed with the hot, face-melting embarrassment that's running wild through his body.
"I just - not that I-" he continues, and I don't know if I should jump in or what.
"As a trainer I have to be observant." He stops abruptly, like that's enough of an explanation.
"Okay," I say, giving him a pass. He knows I'm not buying it - I can still feel the terror and caught-out feeling from him - but I can't exactly throw stones about being observant. Maybe if I let him get away with this, he won't notice my more observant moments.
"It's just- well, I keep an eye on your friends sometimes," he says eventually, and can't help my eyebrows raising at that. "No, not like, in a weird way. They like to wind me up, so I just keep a lookout, you know? If I can see them coming, I can usually avoid them. And so I've noticed stuff. You're not like them. Or, at least I mean, I don't know you, so I just mean that you don't ever seem as into that little clique as the rest of them."
He is babbling and fiddling with his watch - a massive, leather-banded thing wrapped around his bony wrist as he talks. I can feel the impulse in him to get up and bolt, so decide it's probably time I let him off the hook.
"They're not my friends," I say. Why did I say that? Why do keep opening my mouth to say something to this guy only to have something completely different come out? "Christian and Vincent, I mean." I keep going, because why the fuck not, I guess. "Yeah, hang out with them and everything but you're right, I guess. It's not really my scene."
Mouth, meet brain. Brain, meet mouth. You guys should get to know each other a little better.
Noah smiles a tiny bit as he picks his yogurt back up and I feel something uncoil inside of him. He likes being right. Though I could have guessed that from everything about him, it still gives me a warm feeling in my gut. And that's when the random thought pops into my head of wanting to make him smile again.
As I'm sitting here, I realise that I want to impress Noah. That's why I'm running my mouth about Christian and why seeing his lips curl around a spoon feels like a victory. I am not exactly sure where that impulse is coming from, he is an X-Man after all, but I want to chase it until Noah starts smiling more than he frowns.
"Do they bother you a lot?" I ask, because I guess we're really getting to know each other now.
"Define 'a lot,'" he snorts. Noah's smirking now, in a way that I think could be described as ‘wry,’ and it gives me that edge-of-cliff feeling again.
"You don't seem that bothered by it."
"I'm not, guess." He shrugs, taking a swig from his iced tea. "At least, not most of the time. They're idiots. No offence."
"None taken. Like said, I'm not exactly best buds with those two."
"Right." He narrows his eyes at me, like he still doesn't quite buy that. “So anyway, most of the time I'm able to shrug it off. It's not like some huge deal or anything."
I When I bother to pay attention, my power works like a flawless lie detector. There's a little spike of anti-calm that pops up in people, and nine times out of ten it's because they're full of shit.
Noah is so full of shit.
"You're full of shit,” I say. Mouth, brain - what did we just talk about?
"What?" He jolts, every emotion in his body spiking again, and I want to slam my head into the table. The Great Amazing Feelings Boy totally face-plants. Again.

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