Mark's next two classes went similarly, though no one in them came even close to being as vicious and catty as Karen. Fourth period, though, couldn't help but be different. Kristen was in his fourth period Chemistry class, and as the seats filled, the silence was thick enough to cut with a knife.
Kristen looked bad when she came in -- exhausted, dark circles under her eyes, her head hanging and shoulders hunched. She sat in the front row, over by the window, and the seats around her remained empty as Mark watched her worriedly. He wanted to comfort her, protect her, but at the same time, he didn't want to draw unwanted attention to her. She'd obviously had more than enough, already, and he wasn't going to add to it.
He was relieved when Kayla stalked angrily in, glared at the class, and took the desk beside Kristen's, reaching out to squeeze her hand. Aaron followed her quietly, making a point of sitting behind Kayla (and thus, beside Kristen as well) even though the desk on her other side was empty, and was his customary spot.
Kayla shot him a nasty look, and Mark sighed. "Well, let's get it over with. I'm sure you have questions; I'm willing to answer a few, if they're respectful."
Kristen lowered her head until she was completely hidden behind her hair, and Kayla clenched her jaw, looking like she'd just love to kill someone.
The only answer to his statement was an awkward silence that stretched uncomfortably long.
Mark raised his eyebrows. "No? Strange, my other classes have all been full of questions."
No one seemed to quite know what to say, though. They kept glancing over at Kristen, who refused to look up. Finally, one girl asked, "Is it true?"
Mark smiled slightly. "You'll have to be a bit more specific than that. I've lost track of the number of rumors I've heard today. Which one are you referring to?"
She gave him a disgusted look. "Oh come on."
He shook his head. "No, I'm serious. I've heard... oh, let's see. That Kristen and I are married -- true. That the school board is firing me -- false. That Kristen in pregnant -- also false. That I've proposed to the entire female complement of the ninth grade class..." He shook his head bemusedly. "I have no idea where that came from, but whoever started it should write a novel. Which one are you referring to?"
"So you two are married? Really? Legally?"
He nodded, and held up his hand so they could see the ring. "Yes, we are."
Another student asked, "You sure she's not pregnant? I mean, shit... she looks pregnant today. My mom looks like that every morning."
The tone of the question was more concerned than anything else, but Kristen still flinched and buried her face against her arms.
Mark shook his head, his eyes worried as they rested on her. "No, she's not. Or if she is, it's brand new and we don't know about it. She didn't sleep much last night." He sighed. "She was worried about what would happen today."
"You don't seem all that worried," came a challenging male voice from the back.
Kayla reached over, patting Kristen's back, her face tense with concern.
"I'm not," Mark said. "Other than worrying about how my wife is being treated."
"Jesus, what did you expect?" the boy asked. "If you really loved her, you wouldn't put her through this shit."
Inwardly, Mark flinched. He knew there hadn't really been a choice, but... part of him couldn't help but agree with that. What could possibly justify putting her through this? Surely it could have been avoided somehow? She looked utterly miserable...
He gave in to what he'd wanted to do since she came through the door and walked over to her, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder. "And what would you have suggested I do?" he asked, as she turned her head to look up at him, her eyes dark with pain and stress.
"Stayed away from her. You're what, 30, 40?"
"I'm 26. And..." He stroked her hair, looking down at her with soft, adoring eyes. "I tried. But I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. All I was doing by staying away was making us both miserable. So I talked to her father, instead."
Kristen smiled weakly at him, and rubbed her cheek against his wrist.
"Didn't he think you were some sort of pervert?"
He shook his head. "No. He was surprised, but once I explained... he understood."
A girl asked, "I don't get it... how come they didn't fire you? I mean, I'm glad they didn't... we all like you... but why?"
"Honestly? I'm not certain," he said. "They could have, if they'd wanted to. I didn't break any laws; we are legally married, with her father's permission. They grilled me about it fairly closely, and I think I convinced them that I did it because I love her." He smiled down at her again. "Which I do, with all my heart."
She took his hand in both of hers and held it tightly, closing her eyes.
"She wanted to marry, you, right?" The question was nervously blurted out by the thin, normally very quiet boy in the front row. "Your dad didn't make you, did he Kristen?"
She sat up, staring over at him in total shock. "Of course not! I've never wanted anything more. I'm so thankful he gave his permission... if I'd had to wait for Mark for three years..." She shuddered. "But he did, and I've never been happier in my life." She smiled weakly. "Even if today has been hell."
The boy looked at her piercingly, then nodded. "Okay. You just hear some nasty things about people sometimes. I didn't really think it was true, but... well, there are people to help girls in that kinda situation, y'know? If you'd needed them?"
Kristen smiled with genuine warmth. "Thanks, but no one forced me. This is what I want, truly."
"Well... okay. I believe you," he said. "But you look like shit today, Kris, you really do. It was kinda hard to believe you were happy when you look like you might throw up or pass out any minute." There were a few murmurs of agreement.
She straightened up. "Stress. Really, Brian. I so did not want to come to school today, but..." She shrugged. "But I couldn't avoid it forever."
On of the other boys asked, teasingly, "Sure you didn't marry him just to get an 'A' in chemistry? Everyone knows how you hate equations."
Kristen blushed, but she was smiling.
Mark raised an eyebrow. "I don't think you've thought that through. She has no excuse for forgetting her homework now. Can't claim the dog ate it -- I'd know."
The class laughed, and the tension in the room relaxed several notches. Reluctantly, Mark let go of Kristen's hand and went to begin the lesson. He couldn't keep his worried gaze from lingering on her, though, throughout the class period.
Finally, the bell rang for lunch, and the majority of the class ran for the cafeteria. Kristen, Kayla and Aaron stayed behind. Aaron closed the door as Mark knelt by Kristen's desk. "How are you doing, love? Is it bad?" he asked, reaching for her hands.
"It's... pretty bad," she said, then smiled tiredly. "It could be worse, though, I guess."
He nodded. "Karen had some pretty catty comments this morning, but the rest of the class didn't agree with her, and I think maybe I managed to squash her a little."
Kayla growled, perching on the edge of Kristen's desk. "Little bitch. Needs to find a dead rat in her locker."
Mark laughed. "Actually, she shot herself in the foot this morning. Even Chastity wasn't friendly towards her at the end of class."
Aaron sat in the desk beside him, looking worried. "Actually... Chastity says she's gone psycho. They've been friends for years, but now they're not even talking. She wanted someone to tell you, and I said I would... Karen was talking about pushing Kris down the stairs, to prove she was pregnant by making her lose it." Kristen gasped, shocked, and Mark's face hardened. "Really," he said, narrowing his eyes.
Aaron nodded. "I don't know if she would or not, but Chas seemed to think she might. She didn't think Kristen would believe her, so she wanted one of her friends to warn her. We have third period History together."
Mark nodded grimly. "Do you know where Chastity eats lunch?" After Friday, he'd started carrying a tiny tape recorder everywhere. He greatly wished he'd been doing so on Friday, too. If he could persuade Chastity to get Karen's threats on tape, he could use that to ensure she never got a chance to carry them out.
"Yeah, she goes home," Aaron said. "She just lives a quarter mile away, and rides her bicycle. Her mom doesn't like her eating school food."
"I see," Mark said, frowning. "Love, would you be okay with just Kayla and Aaron for lunch? I'd like to go talk to Chastity."
"Mark... it's okay," she said. "Don't worry. I'll watch out for her. I'm still being escorted around like a prisoner, anyway, so what harm could she do?"
"More than I want to risk." He caressed her cheek. "I'm not going to let anyone threaten you like that, not if I can help it. Will you be okay without me?"
She looked at the floor and bit her lip. "Um... can we lock the door and go in the lab? I... this morning took everything I had. It's not hurting anymore, not bad, but I don't think I can wait til we get home, not without getting sick. And I don't want to... not with someone else, not today of all days. Not ever, really."
Kayla interjected bluntly, "You were glowing like the sun when we left Sunday night. What the fuck happened?"
Immediately, Mark shook his head. "Not here. Not now." Her eyes narrowed, and she opened her mouth to argue with him, and he hurried to add, "Later, I promise. There's a reason I don't want to talk about it yet. Trust me."
Kayla glared at him, but nodded reluctantly. "Later, then. That isn't just stress, and I want to know what it is."
"No," he agreed. "It's not. But I don't want to risk discussing it now. I think that could make it worse." He turned back to Kristen. "And yes, love, we can go in the lab. No windows, it's own, separate lock... it's probably the safest place in the school."
She tried to smile for him. "I'll be okay with Kayla and Aaron, Mark, if you really think you need to talk to Chastity. I'm not feeling all that energetic, anyway. I just... don't want anyone else. And I don't want to get caught and prove all of them right." Her voice broke a bit at the end, and he pulled her into his arms.
"We can stop at her house after school," he said, kissing her hair. "I'd rather stay with you."
She smiled up at him, and her relief was plain. "Okay," she said, softly, then giggled. "Hey, a benefit from all this embarrassment -- you can spend lunch with me and no one can say anything. Not even Ward."
He kissed her again, smiling. "Especially not Ward."
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