With unhappy reluctance, Mark decided the next day that he couldn't really miss work again. Kristen watched him sadly as he dressed. He buttoned his shirt, then bent over and kissed her. "I'm sorry, love."
She smiled weakly. "It's okay. Just carry me down to Daddy's office before you leave, 'k?"
"Of course." Carefully, he carried her down the stairs, tenderly placing her on the couch and tucking a blanket around her, making sure she was settled with everything she needed, then forced himself to leave her. She was still glowing softly.
As soon as he walked into the school, he was sure that he'd made a mistake. The teenagers were all clustered in quiet, frightened groups, whispering and darting suspicious glances around. It was real fear, too, not just ghoulish thrill. A chill went down his back, and he cursed quietly under his breath before trying to find out why.
The gossip was easy to come by. About half a dozen people who lived in the 'town' part of Prudence woke up to find their doors painted with large X's, in what appeared to be dried blood. This was something new, something that had never happened before, and people were really shaken by it. The only pattern that anyone was able to find was that the victims were all people who hadn't attended last night's Wednesday church service, but other than that, there were no similarities between the houses marked. It wasn't everyone who didn't attend, though, because Mark knew that Steven's house wasn't touched, nor was his when he drove by it. Still...
Before going to class, Mark took the time to call Steven and give him a heads-up on the situation. Steven, like him, figured it was just a matter of kids playing pranks, but there was no reason to take chances -- he'd keep an eye out.
There were two other surprises waiting for him at work, as well. First, the superintendent, Mr. Steger, had decided to return to Prudence early. He'd been due in on Monday, but thought that it'd be better if he came in early to get started on paperwork. Second, the school counselor had left a note saying she'd like to talk to him during his conference hour. Remembering the way the woman had treated Kristen, he folded the note with a grim smile.
Fortunately, Kristen's early morning glow meant that he didn't need to run home to feed her, and he was able to go to the woman's office, instead. He leaned on the door frame, looking at her for a moment before going in. He'd seen her before, of course, but, in deference to Kristen's wishes, had tried to avoid her.
Known to all as "Ms. Angie," she was a favorite of the students. She was in her mid-thirties, a very conservative looking woman with soft brown hair and large, innocent-looking violet eyes. Pretty, in a "girl next door" kind of way, he thought, idly, without any warmth, then said, "You wanted to see me?"
She jumped, looking up at him nervously, then smiled. "Yes, come in, please," she said, motioning to a chair with one hand, fiddling with a pen with the other.
He closed the door and sat down, leaning back and relaxing, and watched her. He had no intention of making anything easy for her.
She fidgeted with the things on her desk for a minute, avoiding looking at him, then sighed. "Mr. Hasseran, this is a very difficult subject for me, please have patience and hear me out."
He raised an eyebrow curiously. "Okay?"
"I... certain rumors have come to my attention," she said. "Please understand that I'm not accusing you of anything, but I do have reason to believe in this case that they might well be true."
He expected the stab of anger that shot through him, but he didn't expect it to be so hot, so violent. Still, he was careful not to let it show as he asked, calmly, "Rumors?"
She firmed her lip and nodded. "Rumors involving... a teacher here... and one of his students."
"Me and Kristen," he said, flatly, his eyes glittering.
She flinched. "I will not name names. Gossip is not a valid source of information. There is no legal requirement for me to report gossip. I was speaking of a... a hypothetical situation."
"Ah. I see," Mark said, his voice cool.
"And, if such a thing were happening," she said in a rush, "if a teacher were to be unable to resist, for some reason, the offers of one of his students, well... teachers are only human, and to fail once may be a crime, but it is understandable. However, to pursue an on-going relationship would be a different matter entirely. A young girl is emotionally vulnerable to an older man. Such a thing could be very damaging to her, could make her dependant on the man to such an extent that when he broke off the relationship, it could be devastating to her, possibly even fatally so."
He listened to her little speech, the anger coiling up his spine, simmering, heating, but not quite boiling over into uncontrollable rage. Not quite. He managed to hold his temper, just barely; maybe it was because, to his utter confusion, she seemed honestly concerned.
Mark nodded. "I know what you're saying, Angie. I can assure you that nothing illegal or improper is occurring between... the people you may have heard rumors about. There are situations which would give rise to such rumors, yes, but then... anyone who spends any time at all with one of the students in particular could have such rumors, I think, no matter how well the students know the teacher. I mean, everything I've heard about you says that you're a wonderful person, a wonderful counselor, for example. The kids love you. They trust you. Yet, if you were to spend any time at all with, say, Kristen, I suspect the same rumors would start up -- even though the kids know better." He smiled inwardly at the slight twitch she wasn't able to suppress.
"Mr. Hasseran... Mark... I really hope so. Because I... we... have to think of the good of the student, and do what is best for her, no matter what it might cost m... us personally."
Hmmm, he thought, then looked at her, his face practically radiating sincerity. "I suspect you may have heard rumors about me and Kristen. I can assure you, in all honesty, that there is nothing at all illegal or immoral occurring between us. We do end up spending a certain amount of time together, but I'm sure you know what her father expects. I am not, despite anything the rumor mill might suggest, having an affair with her. I won't insult your intelligence by denying her..." He paused for a moment. "I'm not even sure what to call it. 'Appeal' seems inadequate, somehow. I'm sure that you've felt it, even though you're a woman. But..." He shook his head. "I'm not going to hurt her. No matter how... attractive she might be, it wouldn't be right to take advantage of that and then leave her."
She flushed guiltily, and Mark smiled, raising an eyebrow. "I see you have felt it," he said.
She stood hastily. "Well. I see you have thought about this, and you seem to be fully aware of the dangers involved. I just wanted to be sure you realized how damaging such a thing could be for a young girl, but I see that you do. I'm sorry if I underestimated you, but it's best to be safe on things like this. I won't keep you further." She smiled tightly.
Mark had absolutely no intention of leaving without twisting the knife a bit further. He nodded. "Yes, I do understand how damaging it could be. It could... if I gave in, and then rejected her... she trusts me." He shook his head. "It would devastate her," he said, watching Angie closely.
Her tremble was slight, but it was there. "I'm glad you understand that," she said quietly.
He nodded again. "I've spent a lot of time talking to her, you know. She's... well, would you believe that she thought for a while that maybe it was wrong for her to... change her ways? That she owed it to the boys to go back to her old ways?" He shook his head sadly. "I tried to get her to come talk to you, but apparently, she was too embarrassed -- or did she come talk to you about it, and just not tell me?" He raised an eyebrow inquiringly.
Angie paled visibly. "No, she hasn't talked to me."
He sighed. "Damn. I don't understand it..."
She straightened up, regaining some of her composure. "It may be that Kristen isn't comfortable talking with women. Many children who lose their mothers at a young age are that way."
He looked thoughtful. "Possibly. I'd just thought maybe you could explain to her why she doesn't owe anything to the boys who used her for sex, then kicked her out and wouldn't have anything to do with her."
She flinched, then covered the motion by putting her hand to her forehead. "I... I wish I could. I'm sorry, Mark, I have a nasty headache."
"Are you okay, Angie? Maybe you should sit back down," he suggested with sweet concern. "I am concerned about one thing, though. You said you had some reason to believe the rumors you were hearing were true?"
She sat down abruptly, cradling her head in her hands. "Just... just the extreme attractiveness of the girl involved, and the fact that her... experience... might lead a man to think that she wasn't as vulnerable as she, in truth, likely is."
"Ah," he said. "Well, honestly, from talking to her, I'd say she was very, very vulnerable, especially to anyone she trusted."
Angie sighed deeply. "Yes, I'm sure she is."
He stared at her in silence for a little bit, wondering if her guilt was for giving in, or for hurting Kristen, finally concluding that it was most definitely both. Very, very quietly, he asked, "Why did you do it?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said, sharply. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll see if I can leave early." She stood up and headed for the door.
"She told me."
She froze, her back to him.
"I told you," he said, "I've spent a lot of time talking to her. She told me. Why did you do it? Not giving in, I understand that. But what you did afterward... why?"
She didn't answer, didn't say anything, but her shoulders started to shake. He stood and walked over to her, looking down at her. "You're lucky. She doesn't hate you. If she hadn't forgiven you... I'd have convinced her to tell her father." He looked into her eyes. "Why?"
She whispered, "I was scared... terrified. I'd never felt anything like that before."
"She thought you were right, you know. She thought she was a demon."
She squeezed her eyes shut. "I'm not sure she isn't. But if she is, it's not her fault."
"Look at me, Angie," he demanded, and she did, looking up at him with some of the most pain-filled, guilty eyes he'd ever seen. "You realize," he said, "that if I thought you were likely to do that to some other student, it wouldn't matter whether she forgave you or not? I don't mean the sex. If you'd just slept with her, and told her thanks, I think she'd have been fine. It was the cruelty afterwards that was inexcusable."
Angie nodded miserably. "I know. I panicked. There's no way to justify it."
"And you never apologized." He sighed. "To be really blunt, I'm having to do a lot of your job with her. I don't think she'll even be able to trust you enough for that. I don't mind; I really like her. She's... have you ever seen her artwork?"
She nodded shakily. "Yes. It's beautifully expressive."
"She's really good," he said. "I don't mind helping her, but between that and her father expecting me to protect her..." He shrugged. "I don't think there's any way to avoid the rumors."
She shook her head. "No, I don't think there is." She hesitated before saying, "Mark, her... pull... is unnatural. I don't think she realizes how strong it is. If you're telling the truth, and you're not having an affair with her, be careful. I'm not sure it can be resisted if she turns her full attention to you."
"I am careful. I try to have a chaperone with us whenever possible -- you know Kayla? I figured, if it was a boy, well, the rumors would just be worse."
Angie nodded, relieved. "Kayla's a good girl. Extremely sensible."
"I really like her, too," Mark said. "Brilliant. And she seems to know a little about everything."
Angie smiled hesitantly. "Yes. I've noticed the two of them becoming friends recently. It's probably the best thing that could happen for Kristen."
"Oh?" he asked, wondering if she was making the increasingly common assumption that the two girls were 'together'.
Apparently, though, she wasn't, because she said, firmly, "The girl needs a friend. Someone she can trust. Someone who's never had a problem telling anyone no."
Mark nodded. "I agree. Kayla does seem to be good for Kristen. And I've noticed that Kristen's doing better in my class -- not than she was doing badly to start with."
"She's always been a good student, Mark."
"Yes, but she's getting better. I think maybe having more time to study is helping."
She smiled again. "Good. I'm glad. I wish..." She looked away, voice trailing off. "Anyway. I'm extremely happy for her."
"You wish?" he asked.
She sighed. "I wish I could help her. But quite bluntly, I do not trust myself around the girl."
He nodded. "I understand that. Sometimes it's been difficult... but I can honestly say I've never done anything with her that I shouldn't. If I had to, I could go to her father and give him a minute-by-minute description of the time we've spent together. And if you've ever met her father..." He shuddered a little.
"I rather like the man, actually," Angie said. "He's a bit absent-minded, but compared to some of the parents here... well, a touch of eccentricity is more or less harmless."
"Oh, I like him well enough," Mark said, smiling, "but I never want to get him mad at me. Ever. I take it some of the parents aren't so harmless?"
She frowned. "I'm afraid that's confidential information. Let's just say that there are things that I do not approve of, but are, nevertheless, perfectly legal."
"Ah. I see. Well, without breaching confidentiality, if there's ever anything I can do to help, let me know."
She smiled tightly. "Just continue to provide contrast, Mark. You've given a lot of the students, particularly the girls, a new outlook on things."
He flushed, surprised. "Well. I'm not sure what I'm doing, but I'll try to keep doing it."
"Good." She smiled at him again, and he found himself returning it.
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