Hell or High Water
Rating: M for Mature
Fandom: The Closer
Summary: A high school AU for The Closer. Brenda is the overachieving cheerleading captain and presumptive valedictorian who has her eye on Georgetown University. And she really, really hates the new history teacher who hails from New York. Why does Miss Raydor get under her skin so badly, especially when she hardly seems to notice Brenda in return?
Thanks to Luthien and luv_capn_raydor for beta reading!
Warning: Teacher/student relationship, though nobody is underage.
Part I: Undiscovered Countries
Brenda Leigh wasn't what you'd really call a people-pleaser. She had goals and plans that were much more interesting than sucking up to folks. And she liked to think about ideas and problems more than about people's feelings. Her mother Willie Rae said it was just as well that God had seen fit to make Brenda blonde, petite, and cute as a button. "We all have to be likeable somehow, honey," she sighed.
That didn't mean Brenda didn't find people interesting, though. She really did. Specifically, their tells were interesting. A few years back, when she was in middle school, she'd run across a book on psychology that had drawings of people's faces in it: what people looked like when they were angry, surprised, happy, and so on. Most of that hadn't been much of a surprise (happy people smiled? well she never), but she'd been fascinated by some of the tells she'd learned: liars avoided eye contact, even if they didn't mean to. They fidgeted and turned their bodies away from whoever they were lying to. Meanwhile, if someone was interested in you romantically, they were likely to point their feet towards you whenever they were sitting down. That sort of stuff.
She'd learned to watch people. She'd learned to listen. Her daddy Clay said that Brenda was just like an owl, sitting high up on a branch and watching the mice run to and fro below, missing nothing. "Look at this beak here," he said, tweaking her nose, making her giggle.
She made him proud. Brenda made both her parents proud. She'd been making straight As and was in all honors classes for her senior year of high school. And she was captain of the cheerleading squad. To top it all off, she'd just started dating Fritz Howard, the halfback. He'd been asking since her sophomore year, and she'd finally figured that it couldn't hurt to give it a shot for a year before she went off to college, wherever that would be. Georgetown, she hoped.
No sir, Brenda was not a people-pleaser by and large. But she sure got along okay. Her good looks and athletic ability meant that she always had plenty of friends, even if she wasn't what you'd call real close to any of them. Her smarts and her work ethic endeared her to her teachers. If she could sometimes be a little blunt, well, nobody took it too personally. She would have known if they did. She would have read it in their faces.
And on the whole, she didn't think she was that hard to get along with. She'd get on with you just fine if you let her go her own way (unless you were Clay or Willie Rae, and then naturally your word was law). So, as she got out of bed for the first day of her final year of high school, Brenda thought that matters were looking pretty good.
Then she met Miss Raydor, and that woman went and ruined everything in less than an hour.
Still. Even if Miss Raydor had been Atlanta born and raised-shoot, even if she'd hailed from Jackson or Birmingham and had the accent to match-Brenda had a feeling they wouldn't get along. At all. Which was odd, because while Brenda was great at forming accurate first impressions, they usually weren't so...emotionally charged.
But when Brenda took her front row seat and Miss Raydor strode in, every hair on Brenda's arms stood on end. She felt a crackle across the back of her neck all the way up to her scalp, like an unpleasant shock. And she knew that something bad was on the way.
Miss Raydor looked to be around thirty years old. Her hair, some shade between brown and red, was pulled back from her face and knotted in a severe bun. Slim, black-framed glasses perched on her nose. She had on a tailored navy blue blazer and skirt-most of the lady teachers wore dresses. And she wore a pair of sleek black pumps with higher heels than Brenda had ever seen on a teacher before. Looking so different from everybody else, such a fish out of water, she should have been a laughingstock from the moment she set foot in her classroom.
Nobody laughed. Not a one of them.
She called the roll and didn't mispronounce a single name, not even Bobbie Krzyzewski's. Then she clapped the gradebook shut, just like when Brenda's daddy loaded a clip into his pistol, and said: "Welcome to honors history, everyone. I'm Ms. Raydor." Miz? That didn't mesh with the rest of her accent, Brenda thought. "As you might or might not have heard through the grapevine, I hail from Buffalo. So...I'm a carpetbagger." Her lips quirked up, and a few people chuckled. Brenda blinked. "It will take me a while to learn all your names, so I'll need you to be patient. In the meantime, here's the syllabus." She picked up a thick stack of white papers from her desk. "Please take one and pass it back," she added, and began to hand the syllabi out to the front-row students.
Brenda was watching and listening as hard as she could, and was only getting more disturbed. Miss Raydor's voice was clear and precise; she enunciated everything, and her tone was even. Her face had on a bland, almost polite expression that was just this side of disinterested. She was completely at ease in the high heels, and even though it was August in Georgia, she didn't seem in the least bit overheated in her suit.
No tells. None so far, anyway. Brenda didn't like it one bit.
Passing out the syllabi, Miss Raydor stopped in front of her. She was looking down at the sheets as she counted out enough out to pass down the row. This close, Brenda could detect a faint trace of scent. That wasn't anything unusual in and of itself-lots of the lady teachers wore scent-but this didn't smell like flowers. It smelled almost like men's cologne.
"...six, seven," Miss Raydor muttered as she came to the end of her count. Then, before Brenda could prepare herself, she raised her head and looked into Brenda's eyes as she held out the slim stack of papers.
This time, Brenda felt the shock through her whole body. She felt a little as if she'd been hit really hard on the back of the head, like that time when she was seven and the roughhousing with her cousins had gotten a little too rough, and she'd fallen to the ground in a daze.
Miss Raydor cleared her throat and waved the syllabi in front of Brenda's nose, bringing her back to this world. Brenda heard herself gasp out loud-behind her, David Gabriel snickered-and she took the stack of paper and immediately turned around to pass it back.
"You'll need one too," Miss Raydor said dryly, and Brenda felt her face turn scarlet. Then she added, "Miss...?"
Brenda, in the act of taking a syllabus back from David with a shaking hand, turned to stare at Miss Raydor. "Huh?"
"What is your name?" Miss Raydor inquired.
"What? Uh." Brenda bit her lip. "B-brenda. Ma'am."
"As it appears on the roll, please."
Everyone was staring at them. At the cheerleader valedictorian making a fool of herself in front of the teacher from New York. Brenda felt her stomach getting hot and tight. "Brenda Leigh Johnson," she said through gritted teeth.
"Thank you, Miss Johnson," Miss Raydor said blandly, moving to pass the syllabi down the next row.
Miss Johnson? Was Miss Raydor making fun of her? Just because Brenda had spaced out for a second? How horrible, Brenda thought, looking down at the syllabus and not seeing a single letter. How like a Yankee. Her daddy would agree.
Then Miss Raydor continued, as she passed the syllabi down the final row, "I come from a tradition that addresses students by their last names. It is the sign of a contract between you and me. It means that I know you're capable of acting like rational adults, and will treat you as such, so long as you behave as such." She turned a very serious look on them. "You're seniors. And since this is an honors class, I know that most of you will probably go on to further your education next year. I'm more than happy to help with that if you need it-college applications, scholarships, and so on-but what will help the most is for you to get in the proper frame of mind, buckle down, and work hard. Even if you're not used to it." At this last, she glanced at Brenda again.
For heaven's sake! Did she think Brenda hadn't been buckling down since kindergarten? What did this woman know about her? Did she see the blonde hair and the cheerleading uniform and think...oh, of course she did. Miss Raydor thought she had Brenda all figured out already.
And then Brenda Leigh Johnson, who had been taught to revere her teachers only second to her parents and her preacher, who kept her ankles crossed and raised her hand before she so much as coughed in class, narrowed her eyes at Miss Raydor and sneered.
Miss Raydor raised an eyebrow behind her glasses. Her mouth quirked up in something that was sort of like a smirk. Haughty.That was the word. She was proud and haughty and from up north and she didn't think much about what Brenda thought of her at all.
Well, this was just going to be wretched. But Brenda Leigh always gave as good as she got and this would be no exception. She wasn't somebody to be written off, to be dismissed.
And she'd prove it.
"I don't see what's so bad about her," Fritz said during lunch, offering Brenda the candy bar his mom had packed for him. "She was fine in third period. Is she different with the honors class?"
"I thought she was okay too," David said, chewing on his bologna sandwich. "She said she'd help us with college applications and everything, and she doesn't even know us yet."
Brenda scowled. "She didn't treat you two like you were a dumb blonde." Then she sipped her chocolate milk, but even that didn't provide much solace. "I'm sick of that already."
"Well," Fritz said, "she'll learn differently fast enough."
"You bet she will. And she's from New York. Thinks she's too smart for Atlanta, probably."
"Is this another Yankee thing?" groaned David. "You swore you wouldn't do that in front of me anymore."
"Oh come on," Fritz said with a grin. "Chicago's not exactly Yankee. You're just Midwestern, that's all."
"No, no, no," Brenda said at once, remorseful. "I didn't mean to say that at all, David."
"And some people," Fritz continued, "don't actually care about the Mason-Dixon line at all, unlike your dad, Brenda."
"How come you're not in honors history, Fritz?" David asked through another mouthful of bologna.
"Can't hack it," Fritz sighed. "I've got honors English and math. I'm weakest in history and I need to keep up my GPA to stay on the football team, so." He shrugged. Then he glanced at Brenda. "We've got two classes together, though, and we're on the same lunch, so that's great, huh?"
"What? Oh. Yes, of course it's great," Brenda said.
Fritz squeezed her hand and smiled at her. David laughed. "Okay, I can take a hint, I won't be the third wheel tomorrow."
"I just don't need the competition," Fritz said. David rolled his eyes.
"David," Brenda said in her sweetest voice, "is that a Reese's cup in your lunch bag?"
David sighed and handed it over. "You better pack double the sweets tomorrow, man," he said to Fritz.
"Believe me," Fritz said, putting one arm around Brenda and squeezing her shoulder. "I plan to."
That afternoon, when classes were done, Brenda headed out to the football field, feeling almost lightheaded with relief. The memory of Miss Raydor's snooty face had been plaguing her all throughout the day, and around fourth period, just when Brenda had managed to think about something else, Miss Raydor had to go and walk down the hallway, head lifted high as if she owned the place. Brenda's stomach had curdled and all those angry feelings just came roaring right back.
Really, it was a good thing that Fritz wasn't in honors history. Brenda had a feeling she wasn't going to be on her best behavior, and that might shock him. Besides, she didn't need the—the distraction. It wouldn't do for her to take her eyes off that woman for one single minute, not when she needed to be on her guard. At least until she figured out Miss Raydor's tells.
But on the football field, Miss Raydor was nowhere in sight. And when Brenda had her cheerleaders all lined up in front of her, shoulders straight and awaiting her commands, Brenda was able to put that infuriating woman right out of her mind once and for all.
"All right!" she said, clapping her hands. "Let's go! Pair up, bases and flyers! Amy, you'll be base, Steffi, you'll fly—"
Amy opened her mouth to whine. Brenda looked at her.
"Sure thing, Captain," Amy said, and nodded at Steffi as she jogged into position. Good. Brenda supposed she could sympathize—she herself was so small and light that she was a perfect flyer, and never had to worry about holding anybody's butt up high in the air. But everybody had a job to do and there was no use complaining about it.
"Looks like you've got them off on the right foot," a familiar voice said. Brenda turned with a smile to see Coach Pope striding over while the football team gathered on the field. Behind Pope, Fritz waved at Brenda, who returned it.
Coach Pope put his hands on his hips and critically surveyed Brenda's squad. "Not bad, I guess."
"Thank you, sir." Brenda grinned at him. She liked Coach Pope. He was funny and always seemed willing to turn a blind eye to the cheerleaders' antics. Not that there would be a lot of those now that she was in charge.
Pope smiled at her. "Did you have a good summer, Brenda?"
"Oh yes, sir. We made it up to Tybee Island for a week in July."
"Tybee? Nice. Looks like you got a tan."
Brenda giggled. "I burned as red as a lobster. Momma pitched a fit when she saw."
"I'm sure she did. I guess it paid off, though. You're looking good."
"Thank you, sir." Brenda grinned again. The coach was such an old flirt, always teasing the girls. But he kept winning games. And he was harmless, really. Just having fun.
"Where's Coach Daniels?" he asked.
"Right here, Will." Brenda turned around to behold Coach Daniels heading onto the field, clipboard in hand. She surveyed her cheerleaders getting into position with amusement. "Just couldn't wait, could you, Brenda?"
"No, Coach," Brenda said, not sorry a bit.
"How was your summer, Irene?" Pope asked.
"Too short," Coach Daniels said, and he snorted in agreement. "Go do your job, Will. All right, girls. Let's make this year the best one yet!"
Brenda crossed her arms proudly and nodded at the squad. It would definitely be the best year yet. And nobody was going to ruin it for her. Nobody.
But somehow, over supper that night, Brenda didn't find herself talking about her squad, about Fritz, or about her classes. Instead, she found herself holding forth on her new history teacher while her parents listened to her in evident surprise.
"…and just so high-handed and snooty," Brenda concluded, reaching for a piece of cornbread. "I mean, you'd think she was Queen of England or something."
"She sounds aggravating," Clay said, "but that's your teacher, Brenda Leigh."
"I know, Daddy," Brenda sighed.
"It was only your first day," Willie Rae said encouragingly. "And she's new here. I expect she's got a lot to learn and she feels a mite out of place. Don't be too quick to judge."
"It ain't becoming to take such a powerful dislike to someone right away," Clay added. "Just keep hold of your temper and mind yourself. Got a big year ahead of you. And you ought to be thinking about those college applications. UGA's got a spot with your name on it, I know."
"I don't want to think of her going all the way to Athens," Willie Rae said.
"Honey, Athens is just an hour and a half off, give or take."
"I know, I know, but Georgia State is right here in town. Or even Agnes Scott, or Emory."
"Emory! You think we're made of enough money to send her to Emory?"
While her parents bickered, Brenda squirmed and thought of Georgetown. She hadn't told them yet about how she wanted to go there, although she'd let a couple of teachers in on it. She wasn't sure how. It was both far away and expensive. But D.C. was such an exciting place, and Georgetown just felt like a good fit, somehow. She'd sent away for a course catalogue this summer and currently had it stuffed under her mattress. Maybe she could get a loan. Or even a scholarship if she kept working hard.
She loved her parents and her home. She loved Atlanta, too. But the world out there was big and full of opportunities and experiences. She was looking for something—something great, something huge, something she could devote her life to. She just didn't know what yet. But she suspected it wasn't here.
"Brenda," Willie Rae said, "do you want a slice of pecan pie?"
"Do I ever!" Brenda said, returning to earth with a joyful jolt. "Is this the recipe you added chocolate to?"
"Just for you. I don't know where you put it, honey. Must be all those backflips. Help me clear."
Brenda hopped up to her feet and took Clay's plate from him while he polished off his iced tea. "May I be excused when I've done the dishes?"
"But you just said you wanted pie."
"I do, Momma, I do, but I have a lot of studying, and I just know that pie will help me concentrate better while I work. Can I take it to my room?"
"First day of school and you've already got a lot of homework?" Clay asked in surprise.
"Not a lot," Brenda said. "I just want to make sure I don't fall behind." She'd already read the first two chapters of all her textbooks, but there was no sense in getting lazy, and she wanted to review her German verbs again.
"Well, don't get crumbs all over everything again," Willie Rae said. "Last thing we need is ants."