013 Simon - 6 -

Simon

I'm proud to say, I've finally got Noel down on the floor on all fours…

"This isn't gonna work," he warns me dubiously.

"Sure it will!" I urge him in my most cheerful voice.

"It won't."

I scoff and join him on the floor, nudging his shoulder with my own – as I take my place behind my Slinky.

(Had you there, didn't I?)

"Well, c'mon, we all know these things never work. But it's worth a shot!"

He smirks over at me. "It's a winding staircase, Si – if it don't work on normal staircases, how the fuck will it work on a winding staircase?"

I shrug. "Don't know until we try, eh?"

Two hours of guitar-playing and painting later, Noel and I are trying our equally nimble, dexterous fingers at something a bit more challenging. Since he's being stubborn and won't let me see his finished product until it's dry – probably not until it's been graded, for fuck's sake – I'm torturing him with this sort of stupidity. Not that it's really torture for him; I didn't even have to loan him one of mine, he had an old-school metal Slinky of his very own. That should say something about the mentality level we share.

We gear up, me making revving noises and everything for effect, not caring if it's one in the morning and the others on the floor in this corridor are sleeping – and then we set 'em loose!

Well, try to, anyway. Inevitably, after the first two or three steps, both Slinkies malfunction and end up just tumbling over each other into regular, immobile stacks – after bouncing off the side wall…

"Damnit!" I giggle as I go to retrieve them. "It's a winding staircase, Noel, I told you it wouldn't work!"

And as he rolls his eyes, Allison appears above him in her sweatsuit night attire, arms over her chest.

"Hey," I greet her, holding out a Slinky. "Wanna challenge the winner of the next round?"

She cocks an eyebrow at me, obviously disapproving. "No thanks. Just wanted to remind you that we're all trying to sleep."

I hold up my hands in defence. "Oops! Sorry, didn't realise…" Lying through my teeth – and she knows it.

She can't help but smirk. "Yeah, right. Mind taking it elsewhere, boys?"

"Sure, no problem." And as she heads back to her room, I call, "Sleep sweetly, dream girl! Oh, wait, or is that, `sweet dreams, sleepy girl'? Or, `wet dreams, sloppy girl'—"

She pauses in her doorway to give me that exasperated but indulgent smirk again. "Thank you, Simon. `Goodnight' is sufficient." And she closes the door.

"Oh, okay then – goodnight!"

I reach the top of the staircase and Noel gets to his feet.

"Don't think she heard you. Oh well. The back staircase is straight anyway—"

But I hold up a hand to silence him, then tip-toe down the hall to the closed door. And, taking a deep breath, I launch the door open and shout into the dark room, "GOODNIGHT, ALLISON!"

"Christ!" snaps Lily from the darkness, and I know she's the one who throws something hard at the door. "Fuck off, you son of a bitch!"

Remy, meanwhile, lurches up in her bed and babbles groggily, "'S 'at Simon? Fuck, man, lemme have my coffee first…" But she collapses back into her pillows with a chuckle.

Allison, of course, sits up and replies patiently, "Goodnight, Simon."

"HAVE A GOOD DAY TOMORROW!"

"Fuck off, you pratt!" Grouchy Lily.

"It's already tomorrow, you retard," Remy giggles.

"Again, thank you, Simon." Allison the mother. "Now close the door."

"OKAY, MUMMY!"

When I turn back to Noel, he's doubled over laughing, covering his mouth with a hand to keep quiet – dunno why, as I've already ruined this entire floor's peaceful night.

"C'mon," I wave at him, leading the way to the back staircase. "The other one's straight anyway. What were you thinkin', you fool? A winding staircase? Jesus…"

After that endeavor fails as well – though we do get further than only a few steps – we head down to the basement. He leads me through the makeshift lab to the side darkroom, where many of his photography projects (academic or hobby) are coming together. I marvel at his work – or, at least, try to, but he distracts me away from the rows of drying pictures he hung up this afternoon to produce a plastic bin full of cleverly hidden genuine 1980's Matchbox cars!

For almost two more hours, we try racing the little metal toys around the tiny room, then dare to take it further out into the lab. Between the Slinkies, the cars, and various other odds and ends we pick up off the floor or find on shelves (as long as they're not labeled, they're not dangerous or the property of anyone else), by four in the morning we're a heap of delirious giggles in the middle of the lab, covered by our own silly toys. I know I could stand to do this another five hours after all the coffee I had today. But I can tell Noel's exhausted. He never once suggests going to bed, though. So when I glance over at him after taking about five straight minutes to catch my breath, I find the boy passed out on the floor beside me, a grin still touching his lips.

It's such a cute little scene that I don't want to disrupt it. But I wouldn't want to just leave him down here alone the rest of the night – besides, sleeping on this floor can't be comfortable. So, very carefully, I manage to get the ragdoll into my arms – surprised he doesn't wake up – and make it up to the first floor. I probably could make it to the second as well, but when I reach the den, I decide to give myself a break; I set him carefully on his back on the larger couch, double-checking his pillow situation, then cover him with one of the thin but warm fleece blankets usually draped over the back of the couch. I notice a few flurries outside, and even if it's not necessary, I start up a small fire in the fireplace before settling onto the smaller couch set up perpendicular to the one Noel's on. I don't need a cover personally; the fire several feet away is enough. He shifts once or twice in his sleep, but doesn't wake up. And after a while, with the rising sun and the peaceful crackle of the slowly dimming fire, I drift off myself.

Good thing I don't have to get up today.

Yeah, I'll admit it: I've always had a soft spot for Noel. We're both generally very friendly, outgoing people, and I'd seen it from him interacting with others since Day One. But he always got a little quieter around me, like he was nervous or something, or shier than he usually seemed. So I guess I sort of surmised early on that he, well, liked me. Just a bit more than he liked most people. So he and I have always been close and affectionate, and I've always thought him to be the most adorable "little" guy I've ever known. Sure, Ryan's timid and cute too, but it's not quite the same to me. Noel's other qualities astound me, and I admire the guy for the art he can create.

Besides all that, he's just so sweet. It takes next to nothing to make him laugh, and he's got such a great one, too. Something stupid will happen – like someone, even himself, tripping slightly – and he'll just lose it. And then I'll lose it just because he's losing it, and that makes him laugh harder, which makes me laugh harder…So it goes.

And so it's gone for over three years now. But it wasn't until this past September that I realised just how close Noel and I had gotten. Or, well, how strongly I'd begun to feel about him, I should say.

Of course, it was instigated by Jen – what problem around here isn't? I came home after a long lecture to chug some iced tea in front of the fridge, and heard her whiney voice coming from the dining room – she was obviously in a bad mood (no news there) – and then I heard Noel in there as well, like trying to reason with her or something. So I paid a bit more attention.

"I just don't see why they have to put such an emphasis on these classes – they don't even matter!"

"Well, you do need the credits to graduate. I know what you mean, though – if it's not up your alley, or important to your major, why should we waste the money taking courses that—"

"Oh, I don't care about the money."

"Well, okay, some people are more privileged than others and don't have to think about the money—"

"Are you saying I'm a snob now? Just because I come from a wealthy family?"

"Well, no, just that you wouldn't have to worry about—"

"That's rich – no pun intended – coming from someone who doesn't like to be stereotyped!"

"I wasn't saying you're a snob, Jen, just that since you don't have to worry about money, you can afford to get all your credits…"

"Just because I'm rich, I can buy my way to a degree?"

"Well…in a way, as long as we pass, isn't that what we're all doing?"

"You snide little jerk!"

"But it's true – you have to pay to go to school here, and you have to pass to earn the credits—"

"You would know all about it, wouldn't you?"

"Oh, c'mon, I was agreeing with you, Jen—"

"Throwing in my face that I'm a rich kid, like that makes you better somehow! In some backwards way! I'm not the one who was put on academic probation for failing chemistry. Even I passed that class, even if it's not linked to my major in any way! You're just an artsy-fartsy freak who got in here because you're weird enough. Obviously the grades will filter out the people who don't belong!"

There was a stunned silence from the other room, and I didn't realise how tightly I was squeezing the handle of my iced tea jug. Not even thinking, I marched right into the room – just as Noel turned his back to climb the winding staircase, head bowed so he didn't notice my presence.

"All right, then," he was saying over his shoulder, his voice oddly strained. "You're right. Don't listen to me…" And his legs disappeared up the stairs.

There was a huff of annoyance beside me and I looked over to see Jen raking her fingers through her hair, her face bright red and lips tight in fury.

"Little brat…" It took her a few seconds to see me. "What do you want – h-hey!"

She jumped when my hand met her throat, and even if I didn't put any real pressure behind it, it shut her up. She gaped at me in silence as I glared at her.

"What the fuck was that about?" I demanded quietly, with a sharp edge to my growl.

She stammered slightly and I pushed her back a few steps – not letting go, but still not squeezing either.

"I didn't hear one negative word against you come out of his mouth," I sneered. "And you dare to call him names and put him down? That kid's ten times smarter, twenty times hotter, and a hundred times more talented than you'll ever hope to be. You're damn right grades will weed out those of us who don't belong here. If I hear you say or do one single thing against him, ever again, I swear to you – I don't care if I get thrown out of here, or thrown in jail – you will pay for it. And you know just how much I adore you – so all I need is one reason. You got me, bitch?"

Eyes wide as saucers, she nodded rigidly, and I dropped my hand. She let out a dramatic breath, as if I had been strangling her, and backed away from me in fear, as I continued glaring her down.

A second later, the door to Traci and Brad's apartments opened and our leader stuck his head out, eyes set on Jen instantly.

"Jen, my office – now." His glance flickered toward me. "Something wrong, Si?" he asked in a voice I knew by then meant he knew what had happened – everything…I was just glad he let me finish my threat before interfering.

I kept a somber face but shook my head. "Nope. Not with me. But I think I'll go see how Noel is."

He nodded his consent, adding, "Let him know I need to see him too, when he's ready."

I left a then-shivering Jen to meet her doom with the director as I went upstairs to hunt down Noel.

It wasn't hard to find him – went straight to his room and knocked, even more irritated by Jen's earlier behaviour when I heard his shaky voice call, "Go 'way…Wanna be 'lone."

I opened the door anyway, glad to see Zach wasn't there, and found the kid splayed on his belly on his bed, face buried in a pillow, only the dim light by his bed illuminating a shred of his side.

"Hey," I said gently. "That even apply to me?"

He froze up for a second, then his body relaxed (slightly) again. I heard a faint sniffle and he amended, "Well…if you…if you wanna…come in…I'm not much company right now though…"

I closed the door behind me quietly and tip-toed to his bed, sitting on the edge. "Oi, mate…Listen, don't pay her no mind. Jen's a braindead twat, we all know that by now—"

But his sniffle cut me off as his head flopped to one side. "She's right," he moaned, hugging his pillow tighter. "I've no right to be here – I'm just an idiot. I'm so bloody thick, dunno how I ever got in here—"

"Well," I cut him off before he could get any further insults in, "it certainly wasn't from the wallet in your daddy's back pocket, that's for damn sure."

He paused, then let out a sigh. "Traci must've just fucked up—"

"You know Traci – he doesn't fuck up. You're here for a reason, Noel: you're gifted—"

"I am not!" he exclaimed suddenly, hiccupping right after to prove the tears he was trying to hide. "I'm a stupid idiot, I can't understand the simplest things – I can barely understand people here when they talk, I can't keep up—"

"You know that's not true—"

"It is! I'm just…I can't have all those intellectual discussions the others do, I get lost or bored."

I quirked an eyebrow at his back, whether he could see me or not. "We've had some pretty riveting conversations. Maybe not about chemistry or whatever, and I don't just mean the times you make me nearly piss meself laughing…Seriously, you've got more depth than you give yourself credit for—"

"No," he protested again, as if not even hearing me. "I'm just so bloody stupid…"

When he finally trailed off, holding his head in his hands like nursing a migraine, I gingerly put my own hand on his shuddering back, startling him a little as I leaned over his shoulder.

"That's bullshit and you know it, Noel," I told him, rather kindly for the words I chose. Before he could protest again, I went on, "Maybe you struggle with some subjects – but that's okay. We're not all, like, geniuses in every area. I don't know the first thing about anatomy, and, bloody hell, once Matt starts ranting about space and time, my brain starts hurting. Even if it's interesting and I want to follow along, I just can't keep up sometimes. I'm more an inner-workings sorta person. But I do belong here—"

"Of course you do," he cut in. "Not only are you smart like that, but you're a brilliant musician!"

"And you," I said pointedly, tapping his shoulder with a finger, "are a brilliant artist. I've seen your work – the sketches, the paintings, the photography, even the costumes you and Gwen helped design for the drama productions. Even when you and Russell go back and forth, making up comedy bits or whatever – you're quick, mate, your wit and imagination are beyond most people's comprehension! Noel, you are gifted. And not everyone in the House likes chatting about…I dunno…light years and black holes and surgery and genetics…So you had some trouble with one class that just wasn't interesting or understandable to you – so what? You got tutoring and took it again, you did more than what you needed to. You didn't have to retake it, could've gone for something simpler, chosen a different elective, as it wasn't part of your major – but you did, you spent most of your entire bloody summer here slogging through that class again. That takes balls."

"Sounds more like a pathetic attempt to prove I'm not stupid," he muttered into his pillow. "And I don't even think it helped – must've failed it again too."

"After all that work you put into it? I hardly think so."

He was quiet for a bit finally, and I caught a glimpse of him nibbling on his thumb over his shoulder.

I continued, "You're tons more worthy of being here than that tart downstairs. So don't let anything she says matter – it's all white noise, static, that comes from that nasty mouth. Listen to mine, 'cause I'm smarter than her."

He chuckled slightly. "Well…that is true…"

"I am," I insisted proudly. "So when I say you're special, you're nowhere near stupid, and you do belong here, I'm obviously the one who's right. Aye?"

He let out another soft giggle, and taking that as a yes, I shifted my hand down next to his, catching his pinky with my own.

"Aye?" I urged again.

He hesitated for one shy moment, then flexed his little finger around mine. "Aye."

As if to prove my point, he went downstairs to see Traci then, and learned that he had aced his summer chemistry course – thereby relieving him of academic probation. The boy was ecstatic, leaping onto my back when he found me later to tell me.

Funnily enough, whilst Noel was in there with Traci, I happened to walk through the den to hear Jen (I kept my head low to avoid contact) wailing to Allison (who's just too sympathetic sometimes) that she was now on academic probation – because her grade in drama – her major – was a very low D by then.

Not only that, but Traci had apparently reamed her out as well for picking on Noel, warning her that if she did it again, to anyone, he would kick her out for meddling in the academic affairs of other students. And she had to go see Dr. Barrowman, her instructor, about her own new academic probation. (Okay, so I stopped at the top of the staircase to eavesdrop and get the whole story…)

Imagine that! She went and picked on Noel for failing a class he wouldn't have chosen to take anyway because he clearly isn't keen on science – and this tart can't even keep an average grade in her elected field of study! I suppose there is justice in the world…

That's the memory I wake to when I hear him yawning from the couch beside the one I'm in later that morning. I open my eyes and glance back at him with a small smile as he ruffles his hair, looking around himself in confusion. Then he turns to me and blinks.

"How'd we get up here?"

I raise my eyebrows. "Magic."