AN: Although I thought about entering this over at the 60 Lines Challenge at LiveJournal, I sincerely doubt I'm going to write 60 chapters of this. Instead, while I will be following the themes, I'm just going to take this as far as its natural conclusion. Padding a fanfic is something I just don't think is right. It smacks of review mongering. That said, I would still like reviews if you have suggestions, or feel I have areas I could improve in, or see some errors I need to correct. I've never written Paulina before, so I'm sure my characterization will be off, and I appreciate any thoughts on how I could do better. I apologize this starts out on such a bleak note, as well.

Line prompt for this chapter: with dark circles under the eyes. (You're supposed to use the line in the fic, unlike a theme challenge, so the prompts might sound a bit odd.)

It all started with a joke.

Tucker didn't have anything in particular against Paulina other than that she'd hurt Danny and Sam. What he felt for her was secondhand hate at most, that kind of dislike that came from being protective of his best friends. His friends were like the siblings he'd never had. And although she hadn't done anything recently, there was just some part of him that longed to take a verbal shot at her. Call it protectiveness for his friends or pettiness against the popular girl; it could've honestly been either. Regardless, he'd seen her walking down the hall just as the late bell rang and he'd spoken without thinking. Tucker was never particularly good at insults, so the line he had ended up using hadn't even been original or clever, just a cliché.

"What's with all the black, Paulina? Did someone die?"

She stopped walking. Her shoulders shook, and she bent her head downward. And then she just broke, tears falling down her face as she buried her face in her hands. "Si."

"I - I'm so sorry. I didn't know, I- oh, God." To say he felt like the worst human being on the planet was an understatement. Come to think of it, she hadn't been at school the past couple of days… Tucker reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder, feeling like he had to do something to make up for this. "Come on. If we go outside and put some snow on your eyes, it'll look like you weren't crying. That way nobody will say anything."

"G-good thinking. I don't wanna face the girls' bathroom right now," she admitted with unusual softness.

When she wiped her eyes he noticed she hadn't even applied make up today. When Sam did that it usually meant she was sick. Tucker felt his heart sink. Paulina was serious, and he had just twisted the knife deeper for her. He felt like the loser she always said he was. Her hair hadn't been styled, just pulled back into a low ponytail at the base of the neck, and her face was downcast, with dark circles under the eyes. She didn't even look like herself, to be honest. Why, why, why had he said anything to her? Sam was apparently right when she said boys could be insensitive. He held the door open for Paulina, the winter air hitting them both at the same time. She inhaled and exhaled slowly before she stepped out, following Tucker to behind the school, where no one was likely to spot them. She looked small against the vast white backdrop of freshly fallen snow. For a moment Tucker just stood there, mentally kicking himself for opening his big mouth. In the cold light of day her tiredness seemed painfully obvious. He wondered if she'd gotten any sleep lately.

"I've never skipped a class before," Paulina said quietly, breaking the silence. "How much trouble do you get in for that?"

"Depends on the teacher, but… given why you're skipping class, I think they'll understand. If they don't, take it to the principal. If this doesn't count as an excused absence I don't know what does." He studied her face, trying to see if his words had in any way reassured her. He really was the wrong person for it, yet he'd rather die than leave anybody like this. It wouldn't be right, not after what he'd said. "I'm sorry, you know. I was way out of line."

"My mom…" Paulina started, and tears welled up in her teal-green eyes anew.

"Hey, you don't have to explain anything to me. I'm the asshole that made fun of you, remember? You-" That was as far as he got before she wrapped her arms around him, buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed, so hard her entire body shook with the effort.

After a pause as his mind processed this was indeed happening, he wrapped his arms around her awkwardly. Tucker didn't say anything like 'it's okay' or 'I understand'. He had no idea what it was like to lose a parent. And if it was anything near as bad as he'd heard from other people no, no it was not okay. Things weren't going to feel okay for a long time. Telling her it was okay was a lie. So all he could do was wrap his arms around her a little tighter, and let her leave tearstains on his jacket. Like he cared about his appearance. She had lost her mom. His problems were nothing right now by comparison, he just wished he knew what else to do. Tucker wasn't Goth, he hadn't studied mourning, and he'd been fortunate enough that he'd never lost someone in his family. What was he supposed to do right now?

"Sh-she was a police officer, b-back in Mexico, a-a-and," Paulina tried to explain, gasping for breath. "S-since she w-wouldn't be a crooked c-cop like the rest of t-them, her partner…" The Latina began crying anew. "Her own partner s-s-shot…"

Tucker brushed a strand of her hair out of her face. "Your mother was a hero, Paulina. And that man was caught, right? They'll have to try him. There'd be too much public outcry otherwise. She blew open all the corruption in the precinct with this."

"But w-why… why…"

"I don't know. I don't have any answers. All I know is, your mother is the bravest woman I've ever heard of, and if anyone teases you about this I'll glitch out all of their cellphones." The black boy sighed, but his eyes were serious. "It's the least I owe you for that jab earlier."

"…why didn't she move somewhere less dangerous?!" she burst out, half-hysterical. "My uncle in Riverside a-asked her so many t-times-"

"People needed her where she was. She cared too much about them to leave them unprotected," he said softly, rubbing her arm in what he hoped was a comforting way. He thought about Danny, and how the half ghost boy was considering not going to college because it would leave Amity Park unprotected. It was the same kind of situation, in a way. "When did all of this happen, Paulina?"

"M-Monday." It was just above a whisper.

And she was back in school by Thursday, trying to act like nothing happened. She was pushing herself too far too fast. He hugged her in earnest this time. She laid her head on his shoulder, content to stand there. Paulina was different without make up and overly stylish clothes. She looked more down to Earth, more vulnerable, like just another person. She wasn't some high and mighty popularity queen. She was a girl with the same emotions and pain and problems as anybody else. Who was this Paulina with tears in her eyes, soft spoken words and love in her heart, and why had she taken so long to reveal herself? Was popularity worth trying to act superior, snobby and cold?

It hit him then she probably couldn't even go to her popular friends with this because they'd use it as a chance to jockey for most popular kid in school. They might act sympathetic, but it would just be an act, nothing more. There would be no way to tell who really cared and who just wanted to look caring. They might even use her breakdown as a way to push her down on the popularity scale or start talking behind her back. They'd make up all kinds of stories if they saw her like this. She was trapped. She was alone even in a crowd of people, people she'd have to face day after day while maintaining a facade everything was alright. But things weren't alright, weren't even in the same zipcode as alright. What Paulina really needed a shoulder to cry on without consequences.

Tucker couldn't tell her why this had all happened. He couldn't make this okay. The one thing he could do was be that shoulder, even if he wasn't sure how he of all people had ended up in this position. It didn't matter. What mattered was the shaking girl in his arms, who had fallen so far she barely resembled her normal self. It was like the light had gone out of her eyes. Tucker would have given anything to hear her call him loser or see her roll her eyes. Something was just so wrong about seeing her like this that he couldn't help wanting to fix things. Tucker might be insensitive, he might not know how to deal with girls most of the time, but he wasn't cruel. The way she was right now was just something he couldn't walk away from. He'd have to look up grief and mourning on the internet, try to puzzle out what to do. Surely his fellow nerds had done research into this. There had to be more he could do. Some research might make this easier later.

For the moment, though, he just held her close and rubbed her back gently, and she seemed content with that.