Abraxas hated math. They'd started making noises about how maybe it was the tiniest bit possible he might have a, whisper it, learning disability when he was only six. His mother had had the first teacher to broach the possibility her only son, the Malfoy heir, the latest in a line of political players and philanthropists, fired. She'd had her fired that very day. No one could be allowed to suggest Abraxas was anything less than perfect and a perfect child didn't have any problems.
By eight he had a private tutor.
Avon Fields High School for Boys only accepted him because he was a legacy. Math facts eluded Abraxas. Numbers slid through his brain like water through a colander, leaving no trace of their passing. "We don't really have the resources for a student with special needs," the Dean had said. He'd then smiled at the blond boy looking up at him, a slight figure lost in the leather armchair on the other side of the desk. "Do you like sports?" he asked with hearty over-joviality making it clear he assumed the answer would be 'no'.
"Best lacrosse player you've ever seen," his father said as he wrote out a check and handed it over.
The Dean's eyes didn't flutter or widen when he saw the amount. He just folded the paper rectangle, tucked it into a pocket, and said, "Welcome to Avon Fields, Abraxas."
The problem was that the dean hadn't been lying when he'd said they didn't have resources for anyone who hated math. Fractions confused him. Long division just got longer. The day the teacher introduced letters into the equations, Abraxas went back to his shared room, curled up on his bed, and wondered if his parents had enough money to buy him a degree the way they'd bought him admission.
The roommate who'd never acknowledged his existence other than to threaten if Abraxas touched his stuff he'd live to regret it was out, so he could wallow in his inadequacy in peace and he did. He lay and looked over at the other boy's things. Tom Riddle didn't have many. He'd arrived with one duffle bag, some books, and a butterfly knife. Rumors were he was a prodigy, one of Avon Field's few scholarship students. A brute on the lacrosse team had said he'd been pulled out of foster care and that Abraxas should be careful because "he's probably a criminal."
He might be, but he was already in advanced math. Abraxas could just hear the boy laughing at him if he found out something as simple as '10-x=7" made his rich, sheltered roommate want to curl up and die. The imagined mockery drove Abraxas to get up and sit at his desk, as if staring at the homework would resolve it into meaning.
By the time Tom returned, Abraxas had just started filling in random numbers and letters in the answer column. This was just one more way he failed as a Malfoy. He could probably make it through boarding school carefully hiding the other issue. He'd just parrot back what the others said about girls and no one would ever find out. The math thing was harder to conceal.
Tom spared what he'd probably intended to be just a quick glance at Abraxas' homework. He stopped and looked at it more carefully, then, over Abraxas' protests, yanked the paper away from him.
"Leave my stuff alone," Abraxas said. He tried to hide his embarrassment with every arrogant, affected vowel he could summon. It didn't work and his probable-hoodlum roommate just snorted.
"You have more stuff than you know what to do with," Tom said. "And these are wrong."
"I'm not good at math." Abraxas knew he sounded sullen. He tried to grab the paper back but Tom stepped out of reach.
"If you'd just written one number for every problem you'd have done better." Tom pulled a pen out of pocket and when his shirt rode up Abraxas could see a series of bruises, some fresh, some yellowing, lying along his ribs.
Abraxas was bad at math, but he was good at people and he might be slender but he'd been playing lacrosse since he could walk. He lunged and grabbed Tom's wrist so the other boy couldn't twist away. "What happened to you?" he demanded.
Tom's eyes promised murder. "Some people feel I don't belong here," he said.
"So hit back!" Abraxas knew bullying went on. He'd landed a facer on the first boy to taunt him for his math issues, and given a bloody nose to the second, and thus moved himself from the class of bullied to bullies, at least in theory. He really just stayed out of the fray most of the time, but you couldn't let people beat on you. If you did, it wouldn't ever stop. He was terrified what would happen if anyone found out about him, and establishing himself as someone who fought back had struck him as important.
Tom yanked his arm free. "If I get caught, there's no rich daddy to bail my ass out of trouble."
Abraxas nodded at that. That made sense. He admired the pragmatic self-preservation of that. It still couldn't be allowed to stand. If his roommate was fair game, he might be as well. "Tell me who did it," he said.
Tom said one name.
"I'm going for a walk," Abraxas said.
He found the boy Tom had named behind the building that housed both the swimming pool and the hockey rink. He got a black eye of his own, but also drove home the lesson that no one picked on a Malfoy or a Malfoy's roommate. When he got back, rubbing at his knuckles, Tom had corrected his math homework.
"I can show you how to do it," Tom said. "The math teacher here's a bit of a dud."
"Thanks," Abraxas said. He hesitated. "Just don't get caught. When you hit back."
Tom looked at him.
"We spend a lot of time with you showing me math," Abraxas said. "Because I'm so dumb at it. Lots of times you couldn't be the one they blame because you're with me." He hesitated. "If you want."
"You'd swear to that?" Tom watched the slow bloom of the swelling around Abraxas' eye. "Why should I believe you?"
Abraxas shrugged. There really wasn't a good reason. Certainly not one he planned to share, and sometimes you just wanted a friend.
"I know," Tom said.
Abraxas got very still. "Know what?" he asked.
"Boy in my group home was," Tom said. He took a breath. "He was an asshole. You aren't. I don't care."
Abraxas said, "Don't tell."
Tom nodded. "Want me to go over those problems with you?" he asked.
By dinner Abraxas almost understood what x meant. By breakfast he'd learned why Tom carried a knife. By graduation they were inseparable, and Abraxas' mother talked about her son's 'very good friend' with a pained twist to her thin lips. "He's a genius," she'd tell her friends over tiny sandwiches and strong sangria. "I'm so glad Abraxas made such a good friend, one who's going places. I'm sure he'll be the best man at the wedding when Abbie settles down."