It was Lancer’s fault, really.
He assigned the class a partner-project for their final presentation, but being the annoying teacher he was, he had decided it was imperative that the students were assigned to pairs of his choosing. Aka, no working with friends.
Paulina tried her best. Truly, she did. She batted her eyelashes and put on her most polite tone when she said, “Pretty please with extra whipped cream and a cherry on top, can I work with Star instead of Loser Fenton?”
But, to her utter dismay, Mr. Lancer was a brick wall. No amount of wit nor charm could change his rubric, and so Paulina relented in a very much not dramatic final sigh as she resigned herself to be Danny Fenton’s English partner for the coming weeks.
Fenton was...well, he was weird. His parents hunted ghosts, he always slept through class, he was clumsy, and Paulina knew that in middle school Fenton was just like all the other boys who saw her as nothing more than a pretty face.
And that annoyed her to her core. She was a human, damn it! She had her own wishes and dreams and goals in life. Although she wasn’t vocal about it, she wanted to be a journalist when she was older. The kind that made it to shows like 60 Minutes, reporting on amazing stories from all around the world. She wanted to travel, she wanted to meet people, and she wanted to be the best at it .
She was still a long way off from that now though. First, she needed to survive through this stupid English project with that weird nerd who had gone through a not-so-secret crush on her before.
Though, when she looked his way now, Fenton didn’t look all too thrilled to be partnered with her either.
She would have called it odd, but that had been their dynamic for a little over a year now. She guessed that Fenton finally got the hint and dropped his love struck puppy act. Maybe he and Sam had finally confessed their undying love to each other.
It was probably for the best.
Fenton made no move towards her, instead choosing to stare dully into his notebook.
Paulina rolled her eyes and slid from her chair. She strode over to his desk, throwing a hand on her waist and looking down at him with an expression she knew would yield no arguments. “Alright, my house or yours?”
“Huh?” Fenton said, recognizing a little too late that she was there.
“For the project? The one we were just assigned? Hello, Earth to Commander Fenton! My house or yours today?”
“Today?” Fenton blinked. “You wanna start today?”
Paulina narrowed her eyes. “Why, got something better to do?”
“I’ll come over at four. I’ll be at cheer practice till then. If you want anything from Starbucks, just text me before then. I know Manson has my number, you can get it from her.”
She left him sitting dumbly in his chair. No one was getting in the way of her and that A, especially not some nerd who couldn’t even bother to care about school.
But, to Paulina’s surprise, Fenton actually opened the door for her when she showed up to his house that afternoon. Half of her expected him to blow her off, just ghost her and leave her to do all the work. And yet, he brought her into his kitchen, got out his notebook, and got right to work.
It was unnerving to see him so studious. She remembered Fenton as a nerd in middle school, but everyone knew about the absolute nose-dive his grades took once he got to high school. It wasn’t exactly a secret, what with him skipping class every other day.
The duo parted ways with a promise to meet up again over the weekend. Again, to Paulina’s pleasant surprise, he actually texted her to confirm their plans. And when Paulina stepped into the Starbucks that Saturday afternoon, Danny was already sitting at a table waiting for her, his notebook out and the project rubric between his fingers.
This much good luck was sure to run out, but Paulina just hoped that Fenton could last another few weeks before he inevitably dropped the ball.
Except, that never happened. Each time they set up plans to work on their presentation, Fenton would show up, he would focus on the work, and they’d part ways with plans to reconvene later. It was uncanny. It was so unlike everything Paulina had come to know of Fenton through these months.
And Paulina wondered if maybe, just maybe, this was who Fenton really was.
Under all those disciplinary actions, the dropped beakers, the tardies, the unfinished assignments and failed grades, if this was hidden underneath.
So then that begged the question: why didn’t he show this side of himself more? Why was he failing if he was clearly capable of doing the work?
And so Paulina sat there, just a week before they were set to give their presentation, scrutinizing Fenton’s features as he recited a passage from the book they were analyzing. She noted the bags under his eyes, the bruise on his cheek, the way his face seemed to tighten every time he coughed.
He had arrived a few minutes late that day, and she remembered how he entered the classroom, his gate just a little too stiff to be natural.
Someone had hurt Fenton, Paulina realized. Someone had beat him up.
For reasons she didn’t know, hot anger flashed over her. Someone beat up Danny, a kid who was clumsy and could be a bit slow on the uptake, but someone who Paulina had come to understand was a rather kind and gentle classmate.
Yet someone didn’t care.
So the next day, maybe she stormed up to Dash a little too aggressively to demand, “What the hell did you do to Fenton?”
There was Dash, right on queue with his cocky laugh and a, “That nerd had it coming to him!”
“Are you kidding me?” Paulina yelled. “A week before our English final presentation and you punch Fenton across the face? Are you stupid?”
Dash’s smile dropped instantly, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Paulina, I didn’t—”
“You know how much this class matters to me, Dash! You know I wanna move up to honors next year! I can’t do that if you’re giving my English partner a goddamn concussion while we’re preparing to present!”
“Paulina!” Dash grabbed her arm.
“No!” Paulina ripped her arm away. “Don’t touch me, and don’t fucking sabotage—”
“I didn’t beat Fenton up!” Dash shouted.
Paulina’s eyes narrowed.
Dash held his hands up in a surrender. “I swear I didn’t beat him up. Ask Kwan if you don’t believe me. Honestly, I haven’t touched him in months. The—the coach told me that if I did well in school this year, I’d probably get recruited to college. I didn’t want to risk Fenton messing that up. I swear!”
Paulina stared at him for a moment, waiting for him to crack. But Dash’s panicked face held.
“Whatever.” She whipped around. “Tell your stupid friends to keep their hands off my project partner.”
“Consider it done!”
Paulina stormed off, ignoring the wide stares from her peers and the whispers of, “Did she just defend Fenton?”
She tried to block them out. They weren’t important. Her grades were important, her future was important, but those idiots? No, they meant nothing to her.
That afternoon, Danny was early. He was sitting there in the empty classroom when Paulina walked in, his head down to his paper, and didn’t even look up when Paulina gave her cheerful, “Hello!”
Well... that was weird. Sure, a few weeks ago, Danny mostly ignored her cheerful greetings in favor of getting ahead on the project, but Paulina liked to think that a mutual respect, or—god forbid—a friendship had been forming between the duo.
“Oof, cold shoulder? So not your speed, Danny,” Paulina said, plopping down to her seat.
Danny tensed, “I...uh, sorry. I’m tired.”
“Sheesh, alright.” Paulina slid her notebook out. “So we were working on the symbolism slide of the powerpoint, right?”
“Yeah,” Danny passed his notebook over to her. “I started parsing through the book at lunch today and found some good passages. Take a look.”
Paulina went to study the paper, but something else caught her eye.
Something on his arm.
Something that looked like a burn.
“Danny?” Paulina stared wide-eyed at the space of molten skin between his sleeve and hand. “What the hell happened to your arm?”
“Oh, I—” Danny slipped his arm under the desk. “I, uh, sorry. You see—”
“Whoa!” Paulina only caught a glance of his face before he ducked down again, but that split-second was enough. “What the hell? What happened to you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Paulina saw red. “Oh, that idiot! I’m gonna kill him!”
Danny looked up, the multicolored patchwork of skin on his face finally fully visible to Paulina. “Kill who?”
“Oh, look at you! That asshole!”
Fenton winced. “Am I...am I missing something here?”
“I’m gonna kill Dash!”
“I told him this morning to keep his hands off you! I made that asshole promise to me, and I told him to pass the message along to his stupid friends too!”
Something in Danny’s expression softened. “You told off Dash?”
“Well of course I did!” Paulina said hotily. “You’re my project partner! What kind of person would I be if I let you get hurt?”
“Oh well…” A smile quirked on Danny’s lips. “Thanks for that, but it wasn’t Dash.”
“Well then who was it? I’ll kill them.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”
“You’re right, death would be too generous. I’ll just destroy their reputation instead!”
A bemused look overtook Danny’s face. “Yeah, I have no doubt you would.”
“Tell me right now, Fenton. Tell me who did this and I’ll make them pay. You won’t have to worry about them ever again once I’m finished with them.”
“Oh, I…” The smile fell from Danny’s lips. “It wasn’t anyone. I just...fell.”
“You what?” Paulina’s voice rose in disbelief.
“Yeah, you know how clumsy I am.” Danny rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. He laughed awkwardly, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I just—you know. I was walking in the hall, fell down some stairs, hit the stair rail at the bottom. Just typical weirdo Fenton stuff! Nothing you need to destroy anyone over.”
“Don’t play with me. You didn’t fall.”
“I did fall though! It was...yeah, you know how it is. I was walking and talking at the same time and just slipped and fell! Ah, stupid Fenton, am I right? Just always...falling.”
Paulina’s glare was hollow. “How dumb do you think I am, Danny?”
Danny froze, his rambling stuttering off into a tense silence. “What?”
“I said—” Paulina rose from her chair. “—just how dumb do you think I am?”
“Uh, sorry. I’m sorry. Look, I think we may have gotten on the wrong topic here.”
“No!” Paulina slammed her hand down on Fenton’s notebook. “This little tirade? This sham you’ve been pulling for the past two years? It’s bullshit, Danny, and you know it.”
“I don’t—I don’t know—”
“Yes, you do know! You know exactly what I’m talking about,” Paulina hissed. “We’ve been working together for weeks now, and you think you can just sit here and say you fell? To me?”
“Well, sue me, Paulina!” Danny snapped. “Why do you even care, anyways? We’re not exactly friends.”
“Because you’re my project partner! Your grade is my grade, idiot!”
“Gee, I’m glad you only care about people when it affects your grade.” Danny shoved his notebook into his bag. “What an amazing quality to have.”
Paulina stepped back as if she’d been slapped. “That’s not true!”
Danny ignored her reaction, instead choosing to angrily zip up his backpack. “In case you haven’t noticed, your boyfriend’s been beating me up since we were five. I’m not sure why you’ve decided to care now, but if you want something to be mad at, maybe try being mad at the years of shit I’ve taken from you and your friends.”
Paulina stood there seething as Danny pushed past her and stocked off into the hallway, slamming the classroom door shut behind him.
There was the Fenton she’d come to know in high school, this was the Fenton she remembered. The one who avoided questions, who put himself down to avoid suspicion, who left in the middle of class without saying anything, who no one could rely on.
But, perhaps more now than ever, Paulina could see just how much of a sham this whole act was.
Just how much he was using this face to protect himself.
But from what? From who?
Paulina tried not to dwell too much on the bruises, especially since they were gone the next day and didn’t reappear for the rest of the week. Of course, Dash swore up and down that he had nothing to do with Fenton’s appearance, and Paulina believed him. Dash could be a bit bullheaded, but he was still one of her closest friends.
For the remaining week they had to put their presentation together, Danny kept to himself, and so did Paulina. Whatever semblance of a friendship they’d built had disintegrated, and both parties seemed content to let it fall.
It made sense, logically speaking. Paulina was popular, Fenton wasn’t. Paulina was an extrovert, Fenton was an introvert. Paulina thrived in attention, Fenton shied away from it. They were like oil and water, a friendship just wasn’t possible.
The presentation day came, and the two spoke with confidence that could only have come from weeks of preparation. Paulina couldn’t help but glow under Mr. Lancer’s impressed nod. Their high marks from the project were enough to fulfill Paulina’s recommendation to the honors English course for the next fall.
And then the school year came to a close and finally, after months of hard work, they could finally relax.
But not before they celebrated first.
One of Dash’s good friends, Dale, had taken it upon himself to host the massive end of the school year party for the rising junior class at Casper High that year. His parents, being the weird sort of chill parents they were, offered up their lake house with the promise that there would be no drinking and driving.
The teens were ecstatic.
Everyone— everyone— went to the party. Jocks, nerds, band geeks, theatre kids, every clique was represented at the lake house. And why wouldn’t they come? It was the end of the school year celebration! A time to rejoice in having survived another round of homework, tests, quizzes, and essays.
It was also a time where Paulina was once again reminded that yes, the theatre kids could in fact go shot-to-shot with the football team.
Fenton was there with his little group, but Paulina paid them no mind. This wasn’t the time to be worried about him, nor was it the time to feel any sort of guilt at the way their budding friendship just collapsed. She had her friends, why add another?
And it was just preposterous to imply that she missed Fenton.
Because she didn’t.
And yet, when the night was drawing to a close, Paulina somehow managed to find herself down by the lake where a skinny, black haired teen was sitting alone.
She stood behind him, unsure if she wanted to initiate contact. He’d made it clear from their last argument that he still held years of resentment towards her and her friends, and Paulina knew from experience that all that resentment couldn’t go away in one alcohol-filled night.
She turned to walk away, but something stopped her. Before she could question what she was doing or why, she found herself sitting down on the damp grass next to him.
“What are you doing out here?” Paulina asked.
“Oh, uh, hey Paulina! Fancy seeing you here.” Danny gave her a small wave.
“You too.” Paulina stretched her legs out in front of her, leaning back on her hands. “Some party, right?”
“Yeah, Dale was really nice to host this.”
“He’s a great guy. His parents too.”
“I bet.” Danny said. “How are your friends holding up?”
“Well, let’s see. Star just spent a half hour trying to convince me that aliens exist, and Dale’s currently comforting Kwan who saw a video of a puppy rescue on the side of the road and started crying, so I’d say they’re holding up pretty well.”
Danny guffawed. “No way!”
“I swear!” Paulina laughed. “This isn’t even the first time something like this has happened either. I swear, every other time we drink, Kwan always ends up in a corner somewhere watching animal videos on his phone and crying at how precious the animals are and ‘please, Paulina, can’t we just adopt one?’ He’s gonna be the death of me one of these days.”
Danny giggled, his laugh light and airy. Paulina watched him, amazed that they were able to just start talking again as if their fight had never happened.
“So what about you?” she asked. “What happened to your clan?”
“Sam had to drive Tucker home. He got too overconfident in pong.”
She snorted. “Dash is the same. He’s always like, ‘one more round, I’m gonna crush it this time’ and then twenty minutes later I find him asleep in a bathtub or something.”
“Dash drunk sleeping in a bathtub? Oh, that’s a sight I’d like to see.”
“I can assure you that photos exist.”
“The perfect blackmail.” Fenton shot her a grin. “Remind me to get one of Tucker next time he does something stupid.”
“And what makes you think you won’t be right there on the floor with him?” Paulina sassed.
“Hah! You’re probably right!” His smile fell, and he looked at her questioningly. “Hey, will your boyfriend be okay with you out here with me?”
“Oh, Dash? He’s...actually not my boyfriend.”
“Wait, what?” Danny jolted upright. He spun around to face her. “But I thought—”
“Yeah, everyone does. But we’re not dating.”
“Then why don’t you say something? Squash all the rumors?”
Paulina averted her gaze back onto the lake. It was a gorgeous night. Stars speckled the sky in a spectacular display, illuminating the Milky Way behind them. Amity Park was too industrious to see the galaxy, and Paulina couldn’t help but marvel at its sight.
It was gorgeous. Vast. It seemed to never end. She remembered reading somewhere that the Milky Way could only be seen if there was no moon out.
Luck must have been on her side that night.
“Unless...you don’t want to.” Danny’s voice dawned a tone of realization. “But why?”
“I got tired of it all,” she admitted, her honesty surprising herself. “Guys only wanted to talk to me because they thought if they were nice enough, I would get in their pants or something. I got accused of friendzoning more people than not. Honestly, it was so annoying. I felt everyone saw me as some stupid object. So when the rumors started going around this year that Dash and I were dating, and a lot of guys in our grade started backing off, I just...didn’t fight it. I thought maybe finally everyone would see me as a person. Maybe people would take me seriously.” Her gaze dropped. “I don’t know if it worked, but at least now people don’t see me as some sort of prize so much anymore.”
Danny was silent for a moment, and Paulina immediately regretted her admission. Maybe it was the alcohol loosening her lips, but she doubted Fenton of all people cared. They weren’t even friends.
One side of her wanted to get up and leave, go back to her friends inside the house, but the other side of her was too embarrassed to move.
“That makes sense, honestly,” Danny finally responded.
A wave of relief washed over her.
“And I’m sorry that there was a time where I couldn’t see past your looks too. I was young, but that’s still not an excuse.” He shifted. “I’ve had some...things happen the past year, and they’ve really taught me a lot about judging a book by its cover.”
“What kinds of things?” Paulina said, hoping her voice didn’t betray too much curiosity.
There went that hand behind his neck again. He was nervous, Paulina noted.
“Oh! Uh...it’s a long story, but I just wanted to say that I understand. I get what it feels like to be judged based on surface-level stuff. I mean, Paulina, you’re really smart. I don’t know if I told you this, but I’m really glad we ended up partners on that English project. I would have been so screwed with anyone else.”
“Thanks, Danny,” she said, trying to fight the blush that she knew was tinting her cheeks. “I’m sorry for being nosy at the end there. I didn’t mean to corner you like that. It was really stupid of me to pry when you obviously didn’t feel like talking.”
“No!” he exclaimed “No, don’t apologize! I was just being sensitive. Honestly, I knew I looked like shit.” He sighed, running his fingers through his hair. “Look, I didn’t fall obviously. I wasn’t trying to play you, I just panicked. But...I’m okay now, really.”
He looked at her, and Paulina noted how his blue eyes seemed to dance under the light of the stars. How he sat up straighter, his shoulders rolled back and head held high. How yes he was thin, but not scrawny like he was back in freshman year of high school. He seemed toned, lithe, almost like a gymnast.
Danny had definitely grown up in the past two years, but then again, so had she.
“I’m glad you’re okay, and I’m also glad I got to be your English partner too,” she said.
They sat by the lake watching the stars until the chill of the crisp spring air began to set in Paulina’s bones. She left Danny in favor of the warm house, but not without saying, “I’ll text you sometime.”
The summer came, and the ever so slightly intoxicated promise to hang out slipped Paulina’s mind. After all, she had months of sleep to catch up on.
Fortunately for her, Danny remembered.
It was a silly text, a meme about Shakespear. Paulina responded with the appropriate emojis, and tried to convince herself that the smile she wore was due to the funny image, and had nothing to do with the boy who sent it.
And a week later, he sent another one. This time, Paulina asked to grab a coffee with him. Catch up.
To her surprise, Danny agreed. They met up at the Starbucks and what Paulina thought would only be a quick catch-up session turned into a three hour long hangout.
Despite his awkward demeanor, Danny was rather talkative. Especially when the topic revolved around space. Apparently, he wanted to work for NASA someday. He said it came from a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, but overtime his interests shifted into rocket design and engineering. It helped that—according to Danny—his dad had built the equivalent of an ecto-rocket in his basement.
Paulina confessed that she wanted to work for 60 Minutes someday as a journalist. She dreamed of traveling around the world, collecting stories and meeting people. She explained that as a kid, she used to have to travel around the world for her dad’s work before he finally settled in Amity Park. And although she’d been living in Amity for years now, a part of her still missed those days where she was constantly exposed to new countries, languages, and cultures.
Danny listened attentively, reacting at the appropriate times and pressing for questions whenever she would trail off. Even though he had a reputation of never paying attention to teachers, he seemed to genuinely enjoy listening to her.
Eventually they parted ways, but they promised to hang out again.
And again they did.
There were some topics that Danny seemed to skirt around, such as why he sometimes would show up bruised, or why he seemed to struggle to stay in class despite his dreams of working for a prestigious agency like NASA.
But Paulina was willing to ignore those demons because she liked Danny, and she didn’t want to say anything that would push him away. And, despite their differences, he seemed to like her back.
Summer drifted to fall, the leaves started to turn, and soon it was too cold to hangout outside.
Which was how they found themselves here, in Danny’s room, laying on Danny’s floor watching Youtube videos, their math homework long since abandoned beside them.
It was a nerdy video, one about bizarre planets that existed in space. One that Paulina would never have watched on her own, but Danny seemed positively riveted at.
His eyes were bright and attentive, and every so often he’d point to the screen and go, “Look!” as if Paulina wasn’t watching the same video.
His excitement rivaled a child on Christmas. And as interesting as the video was to watch, Danny was even more so.
The video ended, but Paulina hardly noticed. All she could see was the grin on Danny’s lips, the freckles dotting his cheeks, the way his hair sat on his head like a soft cloud.
“So? What did you think?” Danny asked.
“Cute,” Paulina responded. “You’re cute.”
Danny blinked, his mouth turning to a little “o” shape as red tinged his cheeks. He started to stutter, to try to brush Paulina off, but she held onto his shoulder and said, “Danny, I think you’re cute.”
“Oh,” he said, his eyes wide. “I think you’re cute too.”
Paulina closed the gap between them, closing her eyes. His lips felt soft against hers, and her heart fluttered in her chest. Her hands trailed up to his hair, and she curled her fingers through his soft hair.
He was gentle, as if he were afraid to hurt her, and his skin felt cool against her own. Secretly, Paulina had always loved that about Danny, the fact that his body temperature seemed to run lower than normal. And now she could cherish this all to herself.
Danny’s hand wrapped around her back, gently pressing her closer. His touch was electric, and Paulina could have melted right there. She pressed further against him, deepening the kiss.
They stayed in each other’s arms, enjoying the moment for just a few moments longer before Danny pulled back. He looked at her, his eyes sparkling, and said, “You’re beautiful.”
There were some things Paulina didn’t understand about Danny. There were some things he was still closed off about, things he didn’t want to speak about. And eventually, Paulina would bring those things up, she would get answers. Eventually, she would uncover all the secrets, all the layers to the enigma that made up Danny Fenton.
But right now?
Right now she was just going to enjoy the moment.