I own nothing. Not really any spoilers. I tried to write this as a seven-year-old might plausibly narrate it, hence why the language is so basic. I'm not sure how well I succeeded, so let me know! Enjoy.
Miss Thomas, Duke decides, is not a nice lady.
Unfortunately, there's not much he can do about it as she stands in the front of the room, hands on her hips, preaching about the 'unnatural' people of Haven while staring directly at Nathan.
She hasn't said his name, but everyone knows she's talking about him. It's hard to miss, the way she's staring down at him in the front row. Nathan's bright blue cast doesn't help much either.
Duke's very glad to be normal and sitting toward the back. He's sure that he'd be really upset by now. Nathan doesn't look upset, though- he doesn't look anything. He's just sitting, leaning forward, and staring right back. Duke thinks that's impressive. Jenna, who sits next to Nathan and occasionally oozes a thick pink ooze, is already sniffling and she's not even the target today.
Miss Thomas is currently saying that people who aren't normal are being punished for doing bad things. Which is stupid, of course, because Nathan only does bad things when Duke talks him into it, and Duke does bad things all the time, but Nathan's the one who can't feel things anymore. But he can't tell Miss Thomas that, and he's pretty sure she wouldn't believe him anyway.
Julia raises her hand timidly. "Erm, Miss Thomas? It's time to get ready for recess."
Miss Thomas stops mid-insult, looks at the clock, and nods. "Yes, yes. Go to your cubbies, put on your coats. Mittens and hats too!"
Duke decides he likes Julia, at least today.
He stands next to Nathan when putting his coat on. Nathan doesn't look as fine up close as he does from far away. His chin keeps twitching. Duke helps him tug the scarf up to help hide it. Once that's done, Nathan looks mostly fine again.
The recess teacher comes to get them to lead them out of class. Nathan keeps on looking mostly fine until they're outside, well away from Miss Thomas. Then he quickly turns a corner, out of sight of everyone else. When Duke follows him, he finds Nathan crying into his gloves.
Duke immediately grabs him and yanks him into a tight hug. "Mrs. Thomas is a bad lady," he says into the hood of Nathan's coat.
Nathan's sniffling. "Lots of people think so," he tells Duke thickly. "My dad told me that I shouldn't tell a lot of people because they'll think I'm bad."
"That's dumb! It's not bad kids it happens to, or it would happen to me!" Duke assures Nathan, who nods seriously. "Miss Thomas is just stupid. She says we should be nice to each other, but then she's really mean to you! It's not fair."
"Yeah. And we're supposed to tell the teacher if someone's mean to us. I dunno who I tell when the teacher's mean," Nathan confesses.
"You could tell your dad," Duke suggests, even though he doesn't like the suggestion. Nathan's dad is kind of scary.
Nathan doesn't like the suggestion either, probably because Nathan's dad scares Nathan too. "No, he won't do anything."
"Then there's only one thing to do," Duke declares, pulling back from Nathan but keeping his hands on the other boy's skinny shoulders. "We'll do something really mean to her so she won't dare say mean things to you anymore!"
Nathan snorts. "Like what?"
That's Nathan's problem, Duke decides. He's really good at causing trouble- planning, and being patient for the right time. But he's just not creative.
Unfortunately, Duke can't think of anything either. "I dunno. What does Miss Thomas like?"
"I dunno. She likes chocolate. And her cat," Nathan suggests.
That has possibility. "We should do something to her cat," Duke declares, and then a moment later, "We should shave her cat."
Nathan laughs. "Really?"
"Yes! Can you get a razor?"
Nathan considers this. "Yup… Really?"
Duke giggles and shoves him. "Yeah. Really. Tomorrow after school, we're gonna to Miss Thomas' house and shave her cat."
Nathan nods. "Okay."
Duke thinks that this is the quickest he's every persuaded Nathan to do anything bad. He gives his friend another quick hug, then carefully wipes the tears and snot off his face.
"There. No one will know," Duke reassures him.
"Good," Nathan says, straightening up and folding his arms. "It's easier when they think I don't care."
Duke nods, knowing this about Nathan. Knowing that Nathan and weakness are opposites, or at least supposed to be. "Yeah."
The first part of the plan goes well.
Nathan steals one of his dad's electric razors and takes it to school in the front pouch of his Scooby Doo backpack. They make it through the day- Miss Thomas sticks mostly to math and spelling and the other things Duke doesn't care about, but leaves Nathan and the other kids who do weird things alone. This does not mean that Duke has forgiven her, and from the look in his eyes, Nathan hasn't either.
They leave when school gets out. Although second graders are technically supposed to go on the bus or be picked up by a parent, no one really pays that much attention and it's not hard for them to slip away. Miss Thomas has to stay and grade papers or go to meetings or whatever it is the grown-ups do after school, so she won't be home for a while. Plenty long enough, Duke assumes, for them to shave the cat and run.
They walk to her house- it's a long walk, especially over the unplowed sidewalks, and by the time they get there, Duke is shivering. Nathan's not. Nathan doesn't do that anymore.
The cat- Duke doesn't remember exactly what it's called, Willard or Wilhelm or something- is delicately walking along what was once the garden, tail in the air.
Duke approaches slowly. He doesn't have a lot of experience around cats, but his Aunt Dakota has a cat that hisses whenever he gets near and, several scratches later, he's decided that people should be careful with cats. Duke isn't good at being careful, even at the risk of getting scratched, but if the cat runs away they won't get to shave it, and Duke really needs to do something to make Nathan be happy again, so he makes himself go slow.
This cat is, so far, nicer than Aunt Dakota's cat and he's able to pick it up, petting its head. "Fire up the razor," he tells Nathan. Nathan pulls it out of his backpack and turns it on, fumbling a little at having to do it one-handed, but he gets it done.
"Good Wilbur," Nathan mutters to the cat. Wilbur, that's it. The second that Nathan pushes the razor to its skin, quickly taking off a strip of hair, Wilbur panics and viciously scratches Duke's face. Duke shouts, but doesn't let go.
Nathan drops the razor and grabs the cat, who begins attacking him instead. Nathan doesn't yelp or do anything, really, just sits there and calmly lets Wilbur tear his face and neck into ribbons.
Duke gapes at him. Sometimes, he forgets how weird it is that Nathan is like this now. Nathan's always been really tough, like one of those guys in the movies Duke's dad watches who walk away from fireballs all slow and calm, but now he's practically a superhero.
Even if Nathan doesn't care, Duke doesn't want his friend to get too hurt, so he picks up the razor still buzzing away on the ground and begins quickly taking off as much of Wilbur's hair as possible. Wilbur is not a fan of this process and begins tearing viciously at Nathan. Sometimes Wilbur gets Duke, too, which hurts. It hurts a lot, but it's not as bad as seeing Nathan cry earlier, so he grits his teeth and keeps going. At one point, Wilbur sinks his teeth into Nathan's arm, drawing blood. Nathan doesn't even seem to notice. Duke is really impressed.
Since Wilbur is moving a lot and Duke is unfamiliar with handling a razor and avoiding Wilbur's face and claws, he doesn't get off nearly as much fur as he had gleefully imagined earlier, but the cat definitely looks really, really bad.
Nathan suddenly drops Wilbur, who scampers, his blue eyes getting really wide. "Run!" he orders. Duke turns just enough to catch a glimpse of an outraged Miss Thomas before he and Nathan burst into a sprint.
Nathan's only been like this for a couple weeks and he's not good at running again yet. After the second time he trips, Duke grabs his hand and pulls him along. This helps for a bit, but then Nathan trips again and falls out of Duke's grasp and into a snowbank. Duke spins, turns and runs back for his friend. He grabs Nathan's hand at the same time Miss Thomas grabs his coat.
"Duke," she says angrily. "I didn't think you would do something like this."
He glares at her and doesn't let go of Nathan's hand.
Half an hour later, they're sitting outside the principal's office. As soon as Miss Thomas wasn't listening, Nathan had whispered, "Don't say anything" so Duke's keeping his mouth shut, even though he's sure he has more experience at getting in trouble than Nathan does.
Nathan's dad shows up first. He looks more sad than mad and, for the first time, Nathan starts squirming.
"Hi, Dad," Nathan says really quietly.
"Nathan. What happened?"
Nathan shakes his head stubbornly.
That's when Duke's dad shows up. Duke's really glad to see him- he'd been gone for a couple days, doing something he doesn't talk about. He's leaving a lot more now, and it always makes Duke scared that he won't come back. He doesn't even look injured this time, just tired.
"Duke," he says, tiredly, not looking particularly concerned that Duke did something bad again. Duke knows he should be glad, but he isn't.
Principal Bolt comes out of his office. "Mr. Crocker, Chief Wuornos, thank you for coming."
"Rafael," Nathan's dad greets, shaking Principal Bolt's hand. "I'm sorry about all this."
Principal Bolt smiles. "Ah, well, they're young and it could be a lot worse. Come in, come in."
They all walk into Principal Bolt's office, where Miss Thomas is already sitting, arms crossed, glaring at them.
Duke hops into the chair that's much too tall for him, swinging his feet nervously.
Principal Bolt looks at Nathan first. "Nathan, do you want to tell me what happened?"
Nathan's eyes dart from the principal to his dad before quickly declaring, "I invoke my Fifth Amendment right to remain silent."
Duke has no idea what a lot of those words mean, and thinks that maybe Nathan is way smarter than him.
Principal Bolt laughs and rubs his forehead. "Garland. Why exactly does your seven-year-old know his Miranda rights?"
Nathan's dad shrugs defensively. "It's a good thing for people to know! Nathan, that only works when you've been arrested. Not when you get sent to the principal's office."
Nathan's eyes widen, apparently not having anticipated this. "Oh. So I have to talk?"
"Well, you don't have to talk," his dad replies, "but it would probably help."
Nathan considers this for a long moment before announcing, "I don't want to talk," and crossing his arms.
Principal Bolt chuckles some more. "Right. If you change your mind, you can talk any time, all right?"
Duke doesn't know why he's even bothering. When Nathan doesn't want to talk, Nathan doesn't talk. Duke is slowly figuring out how to make him talk even when he's mad, but nobody else knows how to do it.
Nathan proves Duke right by shaking his head stubbornly at Principal Bolt.
Principal Bolt grins and turns to Duke. "All right, Duke, how about if you tell me what happened."
Duke looks at him for a long moment before deciding that he seems all right and tells him, "Miss Thomas is really mean and deserves it."
Miss Thomas reacts by giving Duke a really mean look, so he gives her one right back.
Duke's dad jumps in and says, "That's not okay, Duke, you shouldn't say that about your teacher. Apologize!"
"No!" Duke yells. "Not ever."
Principal Bolt raises a hand. "Duke, why do you think that Miss Thomas is mean?"
"She says mean things to Nate and he didn't even do anything!" Duke tells Principal Bolt eagerly, thrilled that a grown-up seems to care.
Principal Bolt seems to take this very seriously. "What kinds of mean things?" he asks.
"She says that people who do weird things are bad," Duke explains. "But Nathan's not bad, and I'm bad, but I don't do anything cool, so she's wrong."
Duke's dad, for the first time, jumps into the conversation. He looks mad and freaked out. He points at Nathan. "That kid's Troubled?!"
Duke blinks at him. "What?"
"Does he do anything that most people can't do?" Duke's dad demands.
Duke shrugs. "He doesn't get hurt even when he's supposed to."
His dad does not look happy about this.
"Mr. Crocker, this is not the time for that discussion. Duke, I'm sorry Miss Thomas said things that made you or Nathan sad, but it's not okay to do things to her for revenge," Principal Bolt says firmly.
"I don't want her to say mean things anymore, and nobody else would listen," Duke tells him.
"I'll listen," the principal promises. "If she says anything else you don't like, you can come talk to me, and I'll deal with it. I promise." Principal Bolt extends a hand as if to shake on it. Duke leans forward and shakes it like he's supposed to. When the principal's arm is extended, Duke spots something black on the inside of his elbow under his sleeve, like a stain or something. Before he can get a better look, Principal Bolt pulls his hand away.
"Nathan, are you bleeding?" Nathan's dad asks.
Nathan shrugs, sticking to his promise not to say anything. And also possibly because he doesn't know.
"The cat bit him," Duke provides.
Nathan's dad sighs. "Rafael, if that's all, I should probably take my son for shots."
"Of course. This did not occur on school property, so I'm just mediating," Principal Bolt tells him. "I'm sure you'll make sure this doesn't happen again."
"I'll do my best," he mutters.
"Right," Principal Bolt says. "I'll walk you out." He does.
Suddenly it's just Duke, Duke's dad, and Miss Thomas.
"Valerie," his dad says, sounding tired.
"Simon," says Miss Thomas. She sounds mad. "How could you allow something like this to happen? You're out there doing the Rev's good work, while your son is- what? Defender of the Troubled?"
Duke rather likes that. Defender. It sounds like a superhero. He'd probably have to be the sidekick, because Nathan has a superpower and he doesn't, but it's still pretty cool, even if Miss Thomas thinks it's a bad thing. Especially because Miss Thomas thinks it's a bad thing.
His dad sighs. "Look, I didn't know the kid was Troubled, all right?"
"But he's your son, and you haven't explained to him that it's unacceptable for a Crocker to be rubbing elbows with… those."
"He's seven, Valerie. He doesn't understand," Duke's dad tells her.
Duke wants to protest that he does understand, he's not a baby, but he's not actually sure what they're talking about, so he doesn't say anything.
"He needs to understand, at least some of it. He's a Crocker. He can't be friends with freaks like Nathan. The Rev will agree with me, and you know it," Miss Thomas says.
Duke wants to loudly protest that it's not okay to call Nathan a freak, but the agreement on his father's face stops him short.
"The Rev doesn't need to hear about it. I'll make sure nothing like this happens again," he says quietly.
Miss Thomas shakes her head. "That's not enough, Simon."
"I know." His dad sounds a little annoyed. "I know who he has to become. I'm his father. You think I can't make sure he does? I'll make sure it happens."
"Hm. You'd better," Miss Thomas says.
All of this sounds vaguely menacing, but Duke doesn't care. He's too busy concocting fantasy scenarios of himself and Nathan as superheroes. He and Nathan would make really good superheroes. After all, today went fine. They defeated the mean teacher and her angry cat. Nathan isn't sad anymore. Duke is no longer scared that his best friend is going to get hurt because of his problem. They won.
Even as his father marches him out of the building, gripping his shoulder a little too tightly, Duke thinks that everything is gonna be just fine.