Deak and Lavi stared out the windows to their left as their math instructor droned on. It was a core class and neither of them were very interested in rehashing old news. The great thing about math was that it never changed. That left them plenty of time for absent boredom.
The twin redheads sat toward the back of the class with Deak in the seat ahead and Lavi in the seat behind. They had a fairly wide breadth around them to allow for motion. The men weren't exactly like everyone else and so they needed special accommodations.
With both of them being fourteen feet tall and muscled out from hyper puberty it was only reasonable that they needed a little extra room. They didn't even think about it anymore because it had been so long since the college had adjusted for them. Everyone always adjusted for them, it went without saying. The twins didn't expect anything less anymore.
Despite this, they could appreciate that their neighbors were far enough away to allow the brothers to speak in hushed tones without anyone else noticing.
"Will this blabber fest never end?" Lavi hissed. "I look forward to the day of actually getting some electives."
Deak just shrugged. "It doesn't matter. That will probably be boring too." He absently scratched at his massively hairy chest through his shirt. Every major part of he and his brother were coated in curly red hairs. Sometimes it made them sweat a little extra, but today the classroom temperature was cranked and their skin actually prickled with goose bumps from the chill. Deak thought it was ridiculous to run the air conditioner in the spring because it wasn't even that warm yet.
Lavi let out a long breath. "I guess you're right. It'd be nice if something interesting ever happened around here."
Unfortunately for the brothers, it seemed like nothing ever would. Their lives had become really predictable ever since their growth spurts. They'd always been considered cool guys, but after they got huge people started wanting to be around them more and more. The twins were constantly dealing with people trying to befriend them or gift them something or do something to earn favor. On the best of days someone would get bold and try to lead a social uprising against them or blackmail them in misguided attempts to overthrow their invisible thrones of leadership. Those endeavors never lasted long though and the brothers had to settle for finding amusement in more petty day-to-day matters.
Their peers didn't make things any easier. It was like clockwork the way they would follow and pester the twins each and every day. The only reprieve they got were moments like these in class. Sometimes they could concentrate on their work, but they were smart and could get away with minimum effort. It almost made them crave the groveling because then they could at least be annoyed. That was of course until the groveling started again, then they wished they were anywhere else.
That day after class was no different than usual. They were swarmed by classmates asking if they needed help or wanted to have lunch together. The guys just shrugged everyone off. They hadn't decided where they wanted to go or what they wanted to do with the rest of their day. They had plenty of time to decide though. One of the perks of being the most popular guys in school was that they got to decide on things when they felt like it and their peers were grateful just to be included.
The guys let their paparazzi chatter and the brothers just coolly discarded suggestions. Though the men liked to mope about the congregation, it bestowed them with a certain amount of satisfaction as well. They got their kicks from making the petty feel pettier.
"Do you want to come out to the skating rink?" One ambitious follower walked alongside Deak, practically sprinting to keep up with the twin's long stride. "A bunch of guys will be there. It's supposed to be a big deal."
"We don't really do skating," Lavi answered for his brother. "Kind of hard to find them in our size."
"My dad could make you a custom pair," another man chimed in. "He does all kinds of custom equipment."
Both twins shrugged in unison. "Even so, I doubt they'd be ready in the next hour or so," Deak sneered.
"Perhaps you'd like to come to lunch with a few friends instead?" This voice came from the back of the group and the redheads didn't even acknowledge it.
"If you're hungry, you could come with us–"
"I know a great place!"
"What sort of food are you hungry for?"
All of sudden there was an eruption of food suggestions and everyone was talking over everyone else. Deak secretly loved watching them squirm. It was all they deserved for being so shallow. He knew full well that they only wanted to spend time with him and his brother because they were sexy and popular. Not a single worm in the group even knew what the brothers liked to eat. That was proof enough that they didn't deserve his company.
"I got you your lattes!" A high-pitched voice interjected as a nerdy underclassman scrambled into the heap with offerings of coffee. He held up the oversized cardboard cups and steam rose from the sip tabs.
"About time," Deak growled. He reached down his massive hand and gripped the cup that was marked with his name. He held it between two fingers. The coffee looked like a miniature even at its specialty size.
"Thanks," Lavi offered. He grabbed his own and knocked it back in one drink. He let the hot fluid roll over his tongue and singe his taste buds. Then he crushed the cup by clenching his hand and tossed the scraps into a nearby garbage can. Deak repeated the motion.
"More hazelnut next time," Deak said with annoyance.
"Y-yes, sir," stuttered the nerd. Then he walked alongside them until Lavi casted him a side-eyed glance.
"You need something? We're sort of busy." Lavi scowled and leaned against a nearby wall, his brother leaned up beside him while the peons scrabbled around below.
"Sorry! I'll get going. Nice to see you again!"
The twins rolled their eyes as one of their many minions set off. It was annoying how easy it was to get nerds and losers to do their bidding. There were only two types of people in the world after all. There were the phonies that would do anything to get a taste of the twin's popularity and there were losers who would do anything to avoid a taste of their fury.
All things said and done, while the twins loathed the predictability and fakeness of their peers, they still loved the power and they did what they could to enforce it. Being at the top was irritating, but being anything less was unacceptable.
So it was only natural that they had a poor reaction to any whiff of competition.
They hung out in the hall for a while and maintained idle chatter with their lessers. They smugly let everyone know that they just didn't feel up to doing anything fancy that day. Naturally that barely sent off anyone and various students offered to stay and keep them company. The guys didn't protest, they knew it would be the same as always and they didn't really want be alone anyway. Being surrounded by people that didn't really like you was better than being alone. Still, they were only able to entertain so many people at once and others often ended up falling into subgroups.
Deak was nodding along to some conversation about a new game with one of the said subgroups while Lavi pretended to listen to some girl that was making a sad attempt at hitting on him.
That was when they overheard the first talk of it.
Some other clique walked by their group and a loud girl among them said something about a weird new kid. It was just that kind of audio that sometimes floods over a sea of white noise and stands out. It isn't special, just words on another frequency. It wasn't much, just a seed that planted and started to germinate in the back of their minds. They didn't even really think about it.
There was a new kid, so what? This was college not high school, so new kids happened all the time.
It wasn't until they broke off with a smaller group to get snacks at the campus cafe that the words started to gel and take a shape that looked something like imposition. They were ripping open bags of chips and dumping them onto their huge tongues when they heard the table next to them gossiping loudly.
"Have you seen him? I mean, he looks like a freak," said a high-pitched girl with a ponytail.
A guy nodded his agreement. "He talks like one too, but they say he's a flippin' genius."
A blond shook her head in disgust. "I seriously doubt he's that smart. If he was a genius he wouldn't dress like that. Serious newb mistake."
The table busted into judgmental laughter and the twins were pulled back to their own group by some question about their weekend. They still didn't put too much effort into tying anything together yet. The campus was big and the conversations could have been about two totally different new people, still it made them curious.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon, the brothers started picking up on more discussions. Everywhere they went it seemed like someone was taking about the new boy. The twins had no idea what they were hearing. There seemed to be a mixed consensus of whether this kid was interesting or just obnoxious. Most people had something negative to say, but they could all seem to agree that this mystery boy was brilliant. The twins started actively eavesdropping just to try to work things out. Gossip on campus wasn't unusual, but it was odd to hear everyone talking about the same thing. Especially if that thing wasn't the twins themselves.
Eventually the chatter grew so frustrating that Lavi and Deak decided to confront the matter head on. They pulled aside one of their usual followers and questioned him.
"Do you know what all the talk has been about lately?" Deak asked.
"What talk?" The follower seemed eager to please.
"New kid talk. We haven't heard this much gossip about one guy in ages. What's the deal?" Lavi questioned.
"Hmm?" The man seemed to consider this for a moment and then it clicked. "Oh, you're talking about the freak. Yeah, I guess there has been a lot of talk about him. I don't know much, but he's supposed to be some sort of prodigy or something. He's only sixteen and supposedly a genius. He's taking advanced everything and he's some kind of wicked loser. I think he's only drawing so much attention because he's unique looking."
"Unique how?" Deak clenched his fists at his sides. The kid may have been a target for now, but unique could transform into interesting if the newbie played his cards right and the twins didn't want anyone pulling focus.
"He's got some weird hair color or something. I haven't seen him. I just figure that’s got to be it. That and people are jealous. Nobody likes a know-it-all and I hear he's really pretentious."
"Doesn't sound like something to get so excited about," Lavi grunted.
The informant shrugged. "I don't know what it is. People just like to talk about him."
Baffled by this information, the men retreated to an empty clubroom to talk it over amongst themselves.
"How do we feel about this?" Lavi asked. He sat on the oversized half-moon couch designed to accommodate a large group or both of the twins.
"Not sure. Sounds like people don't really care about him, but that doesn't mean they won't change their minds," Deak supplied.
"Who does he think he is anyway? Got people calling him a genius. Think he told people he is?" Lavi sneered and plucked at a loose fiber on the couch.
"Could have, otherwise how would people know? I bet he's really full of himself."
"Probably thinks he's a brainiac, but I bet he's no better than any other self-proclaimed. I bet he's actually really dumb."
"Maybe he needs to be taught a lesson before his head gets any bigger?" Deak smiled wickedly.
Lavi mimicked his expression. "I'd say that sounds like the best thing I've heard all day."
Eventually they came to the same conclusion. This guy couldn't be anything special. He was just some brat telling folks he was smart to get attention. No one got away with stealing thunder from the twins, especially not some twerp that just arrived. The burly brothers were set to make this guy pay for being the talk of the day. They also figured they could find out the kid's motives if they roughed him up a bit.
They summoned forth some of their minions and gave them their directive to collect the new kid. They didn't know his name, but they knew he had some weird hair color and was likely staying on campus late for advanced economics. The drones knew where to look and at least one had seen him around so they accepted the mission and set off to collect like the good little ass-kissers they were.
Meanwhile the boys stayed in the clubroom and prepared for what they wanted to say to the so-called genius. "What do you think he'll really be like?" Lavi asked.
"Who knows? But he's been talking himself up for sure so he's probably obnoxious. Plus he skipped two grades so I wouldn't doubt he's nerdy."
"Seems like people are really put off by him. I'm sure we can set him straight and then no one will want to talk smack about him. In a way I bet we're doing him a favor," Lavi laughed cruelly.
It took a little while but eventually the yes men returned with their prize. Two of the big minions held the boy aloft between them. What they carried was a disheveled boy with pure white hair, large clunky glasses, and a mouthful of rickety, over-sized braces. The boy had watery eyes and looked terrified and confused. His clothes were ruffled and there was a dark red mark running down his face that looked like it might bruise if left unchecked. The minions dropped him on the ground before the twins and then were dismissed by a wave of Deak's hand.
"Well, what do we have here?" Lavi stood and his already intimidating physique rose up to its full fourteen-foot height. He looked ominous leering down at the shaken boy. The redhead cracked his knuckles. "Looks like a huge geek to me."
The boy pushed up his large glasses and stuttered. "I don't understand what's h-happening. Who are you? What did I do?" The large hanks of metal on his teeth made him speak with a slight lisp. He trembled on his knees, too afraid to stand.
Deak spared him the trouble and reached out to pull him up by his shoulder. The glasses-clad boy winced at the tight grip and stumbled and almost fell down again when Deak gave him a shove. "Bet you think you haven't done a thing wrong. Right, Mr. Special?"
"We hear you're a genius," Lavi laughed coldly. "Is that so?" Suddenly, he was behind the victim and he gave him a shove forward so he stumbled and almost fell against Deak's hip.
"I-I don't know. No–I just..." The white-haired boy's eyes watered more furiously like he was just on the verge of sobbing and holding back only on sheer willpower.
"I just-! I just-!" Lavi mocked. He caught the boy by the shoulders when Deak shoved him back violently. The more boisterous twin dug his huge fingers into the tiny boy's arms and shook him once. The kid rattled like a doll and started to tremble. Lavi threw him back.
Deak caught him with one hand. The kid threw up both of his own to defend himself. He wore an oversized sweater that concealed his arms and hands, but when he gripped Deak's wrist to push the twin off, Deak could see and feel the unusual texture of the boy's left hand. It was dark red and full of ridges and deep grooves and cinches of flesh. Deak recoiled a bit and shoved the boy harshly against Lavi. "You're just some freak. We know you've been telling people you're a prodigy and it's bullshit. We don't like people thinking they're all high and mighty."
"I don't," the boy gasped.
The twins had a good laugh as they tussled the helpless boy between them.
"Oh, hear that? He doesn't think that! That's totally why everyone's been saying it. They made it up all by themselves!"
"Our mistake. I guess you're just so smart everyone couldn't stop talking about it!"
"The t-teacher just told everyone I skipped the last two years of high school!" The boy tried to plead his case as he was manhandled. A few tears ran down his cheeks and he sniffled and gasped against the assault as he struggled to maintain what little composure he had.
"Lying little shit. We heard about how great you think you are! Just who the hell do you think you are anyway?" Lavi jeered.
"Allen Walker," the boy sputtered as he was thrown once more.
The twins both stopped cold in their tracks.
It wasn't possible. The name brought a thousand memories to mind. The twins had known an Allen Walker once. Walker had been a little brunette with a load of spirit. He'd been their best friend. They'd lived on the same street and spent almost everyday together. He had been the twins' first crush. Then they'd had to move away and they hadn't seen Allen since.
"What?" Deak's voice was soft and he sounded baffled. He looked down at the shivering wreck between he and his brother and couldn't catch his breath. This wasn't right. Allen had been playful, kind, adventurous, if always a little shy. He'd been important to them. This terrified mess couldn't be their childhood friend. Could he?
The boy shivered under their intense gazes. "Allen Walker," he repeated. He straightened his lopsided glasses, but they still didn't sit quite right. He wiped his tears and tried not to panic. Still, it was horrifying to be the object of these two giants’ ire. He only wished that he had known what he'd done. It didn't matter really, he was used to being bullied.
"No way," Lavi whispered. Though now that he was really looking at the boy, it seemed undeniable. Beneath the white hair and embarrassing corrective equipment there was a hint of something familiar, a sweet, cute boy. Lavi took a step back.
He suddenly didn't know what to do. His objective had been to scare the crap out of this kid and mark him so no one would dare talk about him or try to elevate him because of his intellect. However, knowing that this was Allen Walker, the one he used to know, changed everything.
Deak felt a similar cluster of confusion. He was happy to see Allen again, but ashamed of what he'd just done. He was relieved he hadn't beaten the boy, but concerned about how to back away from what he'd just started.
Neither twin said anything at first.
Allen saw the confusion and recognition on their faces and finally felt he had an instant to process what he was seeing as well. Without the blur of being thrown around he got a better look at the massive men and something strung his heartstrings and made him feel like breaking down all over again.
"Are you two Lavi and Deak?" Allen's voice was tiny and rattled. He was overwhelmed with disbelief. They'd lost touch years ago and he never thought he'd see them again. Yet, here they were and it seemed they hated him. "Seriously? I mean, I thought you looked familiar but–"
"We are so sorry!" The apology came from two twins at once. They glared at each other for a brief instant, but quickly decided it wasn't the time to fight over something so silly.
"We didn't realize it was you!" Lavi knelt down on his knees. It was a gesture he reserved for small children and animals to make them feel less intimidated, but he felt like Allen needed that comfort now. "Did we hurt you?"
Deak remained standing and didn't let his emotions out so easily, but the guilt was still clear on his face. "We misunderstood. We were told you were a braggart, some privileged brat."
Allen felt like his nerves were unraveling. "P-people don't–people don't like me much." It was all he could think to say by way of explanation. It was true though, people often disliked him for some reason or another. Be it his hair, or glasses, or braces, his intellect, his age, or his arm. It was always the same way, people just loved to start rumors, to judge him, to hurt him.
Lavi was still looking at him expectantly and all he could do was shake his head from side to side to indicate he wasn't hurt even though he was aching all over from the rough treatment.
"What happened to you?" Lavi managed to ask. "You look so different."
Allen gathered his voice and tried to explain. "It happened after you moved away. There was a fire. I still don't know how it started, but it was awful." Allen struggled not to let his voice get lost in his throat. "It killed my father. It swallowed up the whole house. It–" He rubbed his left arm through his sweater and reluctantly pulled up the sleeve to show the twins the burn up to his wrist that actually went all the way to his shoulder. "It also turned my hair white. From shock, the doctors said. The glasses and stuff are just–I need them, you know? I don't have a lot of money so..." He started to hiccup with dry sobs. "Anyway that's what happened."
The twins felt horrible for what they'd done and said. Then even Deak knelt down then to pat the boy's shoulder. "We're sorry," Deak said. "We didn't realize. We just got misinformation about you. We didn't know what happened to you."
"We're so happy to see you," Lavi confessed.
Allen's tears finally escaped at those words. He felt like the whole day had been an emotional roller coaster. He'd been happy to join the nice school because of his grades, then embarrassed by the attention, then miserable from yet more bullying, then hopeful when a few people had dared to be nice, then terrified by these giants and their goons, and now he was overwhelmed with happiness and confusion at seeing his old friends. He had so many questions about their size, how they'd been, why they had been so mean, but he couldn't ask anything. He fell down on the ground and sobbed and then everything went black.
The twins were frightened when Allen went slack suddenly and they checked him to make sure his pulse was okay.
"He just passed out. Must have been the stress," Deak said with a hint of guilt.
Lavi pulled the unconscious boy into his arms and cradled him. "I can't believe we almost broke him."
"He's been through so much, it's no wonder we didn't recognize him."
"We have to do something to make this up to him," Lavi said.
"Agreed. From here on out we'll protect him from bullies like us and from stupid rumors like the ones that got us here. Deal?"
"Deal. And if he'll let us, I'd like to get to know him again. I want to be close like the three of us used to be."
Deak nodded and the twins looked down at the white-haired boy fondly. "I think catching up is long overdue."