Principal Oromis' office was stuffy and felt closed in, per usual. Horrible, wood-paneled walls from the 1970s seemed to close in around Murtagh where he sat uncomfortably in the chair in front of the principal's desk. The old man himself hadn't shown yet. Typical, Murtagh thought sullenly. He drags my ass out here on a Saturday, and then he's nowhere to be found.
About five minutes later, the door to the office swung open and Principal Oromis strode in the small space. For a man of his age, he was surprisingly tall and lithe, like a willow tree. His face was normally set into an impassive look, and today was no different. But Murtagh knew there was a stern, hard man underneath that peaceful mask.
"Thank you for coming today, Mr. Morris," he said in a quiet voice as he sat in his leather, high-backed chair. It creaked slightly under his weight, but the old man didn't seem bothered by the chair's obvious age.
"Not like I had much of a choice," Murtagh muttered sullenly, crossing his arms over his chest and shrinking down further into his chair, if that was even possible. Principal Oromis glanced up at him slightly, but if he was annoyed, he didn't let it show.
"I presume you know what I wish to discuss with you?" Murtagh grunted in response. "Your grades last year were, to put it mildly, less than desirable for someone in your... position."
"You can stop walking on eggshells around me," Murtagh growled in a low voice. "Everyone else does it; I don't need it from you too." Oromis pressed his already-thin mouth into an even thinner line, and Murtagh thought he could just see a little twitch of annoyance in his eyebrow. "I know damn well enough that my grades were shit last year," he continued, not even caring about his language. He was well beyond that point.
"Well, Mr. Morris, I'd like to know what exactly you plan on doing about it?" Principal Oromis steepled his hands in front of his face, eyeing the young man carefully. It was well known amongst the staff at Ilirea High that Murtagh Morris was... well, "troubled" was the word they most often used. The truth was, ninety-percent of the teachers didn't know the half of it.
He gave the principal a noncommittal shrug. "Dunno," he muttered. "Maybe I'll consider doing some of those take-home assignments your teachers just love giving out."
"Mr. Morris," the old man said, softer than before, "I can understand your frustration; really, I do. But in this school, I expect my students to strive to succeed. Not necessarily excel, but at least succeed. There are numerous tutoring programs at your disposal, and plenty of the teachers are more than willing to stay after school to offer help and additional instruction. Extracurricular activities can be excellent for helping sharpen your focus."
"You sayin' you want me to do sports again?" he practically hissed, jumping up in his chair so he was leaning forward and on the desk. "Everybody in this god forsaken town knows what a shitty idea that is, unless they want a repeat of two years ago." His blood was boiling at the memory, but Murtagh pushed it back down. It didn't bear thinking about... not right now, anyways.
"No, Mr. Morris," the principal said calmly, seemingly unfazed by Murtagh's outburst, "that is not what I'm suggesting. As Mr. Greywood tells me, you are a very proficient painter. There are a few art clubs which I think you should consider joining. Are there any other hobbies or activities you enjoy?"
Murtagh stared at the old man long and hard. "Shooting," he said evenly, completely straight-faced. "You got a hunting club around here?" That seemed to unsettle Oromis slightly; he had no way of knowing Murtagh had never held a gun in his life. Bow and arrow, sure... but never a gun.
"Murtagh, I want you to think long and hard about your future. What are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish? I know there are... extenuating circumstances that put you in this position—" he paused momentarily "—but we won't be able to allow you to continue here next year. You'll need to get your GED if you don't graduate."
He felt his heart drop a little. It wasn't that he cared particularly, but he knew his mom would be so disappointed if he didn't walk across the stage to get his diploma this year. After all she'd been through, after all she'd done for him, he owed her that much. So, with great reluctance, Murtagh clamped his mouth shut and nodded, averting his eyes from the principal's piercing blue gaze.
"Very well," Oromis said, shuffling some papers on his desk distractedly. "I will see you next Tuesday, Mr. Morris. Think on what I said, about the extracurricular activities we have available. It will do you some good."
Murtagh didn't bother with a response; this conversation was over. He stood swiftly out of his chair, swooping down to pick up his helmet off the floor, and then barreling out of the office as fast as he could.
What a joke that had been... Who did that man think he was telling him what he needed to do? As if he had the slightest clue what was and wasn't good for him. He knew that his mom had sat down with the principal and vice principal his first day of Freshman year. She'd told them both the horror story of his childhood... But he knew for a fact there were things they didn't know; things he hadn't even told his mom, and really had no intention of telling her.
The empty school hallways made him uneasy as he stormed through the building, making his way to the northern end and the student parking lot. He passed by the gym, catching some snippets of sound from the jocks working out down in the weight room. On his right was the Performing Arts wing, and the sounds of faraway music came floating through the silence briefly. Those music and theater kids were crazy, practicing all hours of the day and night. He definitely didn't have the patience, or the talent, to try his hand at that.
Really, the only thing he was truly good at, was painting and drawing. He preferred charcoal, above everything else. The way the substance looked on the paper, deepening the shadows and making the highlights look that much clearer. And he preferred water colors when painting; something about the way they bled through the lines appealed to him, like they knew they didn't have to be contained, but there was still an element of structure. Or maybe that was just sappy bullshit. He wasn't sure.
The parking lot was full of those damn marching band kids, blaring their instruments and throwing those flags and weird, fake guns into the air. He'd never understood what that was all about, but he had to admit it looked nice... sometimes.
Down on the field, he could see the football team running drills, the coaches screaming til they were red in the face and the kids just laughing along with one another, like they didn't even care. A pang of guilt ran through his chest as he watched them. He should be down there, laughing right along with everyone else; with his brother, who'd managed to become the star of the team through a mixture of good luck and pure, natural talent. But no... he'd screwed that up too.
It hit him like a freight train, the memory so fresh he could have sworn it had happened yesterday. He was on the field, two minutes to go in the third quarter and they were down by ten. His step-dad was screaming from the sidelines, yelling at the defense to hold them off, hold them off! The quarterback of their rival school, Alagaësia County, was set for the snap behind his center, checking to make sure his receivers were in position and ready to run on his command.
Murtagh drew in his breath, crouched in the grass and the rain and raring like a seriously pissed-off bull. This was the game that would determine who would go to the playoffs this year. Ilirea High hadn't made it in years, and he was bound and determined to make sure this would be his year; his year to show his step-dad that he was more than what he thought of him; he was more than what Morzan had thought of him.
"Set..." The opposing quarterback made one last glance at the play clock. 5... 4... 3... 2... "Hah!" Everyone snapped into motion in an instant, grappling and running and trying to adjust mid-action. Murtagh's blocker tried to get a hand on his jersey, reaching out futilely as he sped out and around. The quarterback was in his sights, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he waited for a receiver to come open. So close... Just a few steps further, and then he's mine...
The crack sounded a lot louder in his ear when he took the kid down. Eragon had told him later that he'd heard from the stands, though how, Murtagh wasn't really sure. The ball had flown out of the quarterback's grip, bouncing along the grass to be scooped up by the right-side linebacker and run into the opponent's endzone for a fantastic touchdown. Murtagh hadn't seen any of it. His eyes were trained on the kid that lay crumpled beneath him, eyes staring blankly at the sky and breathing ragged.
"H-help," he cried weakly. "I need help." Murtagh stood and stared in horrified wonder.
"Hey, man, you okay?" he'd asked stupidly. Obviously, the kid wasn't okay. But he'd been so high on adrenaline at the moment, he hadn't noticed how badly he was not okay.
"I... I can't feel my legs." It all went a little fuzzy after that. Murtagh remembered that the stadium was deathly quiet, except for the coaches and trainers that had suddenly run on the field from the other team's sidelines. He'd backed away slowly, grappling desperately with his helmet to get it off his head. The damn thing was suffocating him... or maybe it was the slowly creeping realization of what he'd done. It wasn't long after that when the sirens came blaring from the other side of town.
He'd learned later that the kid had been paralyzed from the waist down; Murtagh had cracked his spine in three different places, and the kid would never walk again. It took him a full six months before he'd gotten up enough courage to visit him in the hospital. The kid—his name was Brady—had assured him it was an accident, and he didn't blame Murtagh for it. Brady was nicer than he'd ever be, and the guilt had never gone away. Even now, looking down on that damn field, he could feel it creeping into his chest and into his mind, gnawing away at him like some hungry beast.
"Hey, Tag!" The voice right behind him startled him out of his thoughts. Murtagh jumped nearly out of his skin and whirled on the speaker. "Whoa!" Thorn said, taking a step back and holding up his hands in a gesture of peace. "Sorry, man. Didn't mean to scare ya."
Murtagh gave a sort of half-smile that he'd figured out over the years made people a little less jumpy around him. What he hadn't counted on, was that anyone would find him halfway approachable. But Thorn certainly had, and they'd struck up an easy friendship in the last few years. Besides Eragon, Murtagh counted him as his only friend. And really, Eragon was his brother; he didn't exactly count.
"What's up, Thorn?" he said, giving him their usual greeting of a sort of high-five/handshake hybrid that turned into a pat on each other's backs. "You hangin' out with these band kids now?"
"Yeah," he drawled, looking back over to the parking lot where his bandmates were currently taking a short water break. "Hey, they ain't so bad though. Some of 'em are even kinda cool." Murtagh watched his friend's gaze settle on one person in particular, a petite girl with dark hair and pretty eyes.
"Yeah, I bet," he said, punching Thorn lightly on his shoulder. The younger boy turned back to him with a sheepish grin.
"What're you doin' here, man? It's Saturday."
"Nice observation, numbskull," he said sarcastically. "Nah, Principal Oromis wanted to talk to me about my plans for this school year. He says they aren't gonna let me come back next year if I don't get my head outta my ass."
"Yeah, makes sense," Thorn mused quickly with a wry smirk. "It's a little creepy, you hangin' out around here with all these younger chicks."
"Dude," Murtagh growled, "I'm gonna be nineteen, not ninety. You make me sound like I'm a frickin' fossil."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm just kiddin' with ya." Thorn shot a look back at the drumline and saw they were gathering their various instruments to get back to work. "Oops," he said quietly, "gotta go. I'll see ya tomorrow, okay?" Thorn was already jogging back to the other band kids, so Murtagh just waved his hand in acknowledgement.
He made his way over to where he'd parked his bike. There wasn't really any designated motorcycle parking, which seemed stupid to him, but the drama teacher had been kind enough to offer him the covered area that led to the back of the theater. There was a huge garage door, and room enough that he could maneuver his bike so it wouldn't be seen easily from any angle. The drama teacher, Miss Angela, had made some remark about his bike being a "two-wheeled death machine", but she'd been nice about it all the same. But, to get to the theater garage, he needed to parade past all the band kids in his leather motorcycle gear. This would be fun.
Murtagh was used to the stares and whispers, especially after he'd paralyzed somebody for life. But they'd started long before that whole incident. It was a well known fact in Ilirea that his biological dad, Morzan, had been the sleaziest scumbag to ever disgrace their pristine, idyllic town. Most of the people in said town didn't have a much better opinion of his son.
"There he goes," someone whispered off to his left. He kept his head down, letting his longish hair shield his face and eyes. "Don't look at him funny," a girl giggled, "he might sick his mafia buddies on you." More giggles from a number of girls. Eyes, following him and boring holes into his skull. God, he was gonna lose it. There was an intense pressure mounting at the base of his skull, making the edges of his vision go fuzzy and dark. The anger was rising, and he didn't know how much longer he could take it.
"Hey!" This time, he knew the call was directed at him.
"What!" he roared, whirling around to face his mockers head-on. Instead, he was met with soft brown eyes, dark skin, brows pulled together in concern... Was there fear? No, it wasn't fear. It was...
"You dropped this," she said, extending her hand and blocking out any other questions circling through his head. He looked at her hand, covered in a fingerless glove with weird padding. In it, was another glove, this one black and expensive leather. He recognized it as his own.
"Oh," he said stupidly, eyes still locked on her outstretched hand. "Uh... thanks." He reached out quickly and took it back, then dared to look into her eyes once more. This time, she was smiling softly at him. In comparison to his usual first-meetings with people, this might as well have been an alien abduction. Why the hell was this chick being so nice to him? Didn't she know the stories? The rumors about this supposed monstrosity?
"You're welcome," she said cheerfully, then turned swiftly on her tippy-toes and ran back to the gaggle of girls with their flags and guns. He was too stunned to speak or move, so he just sort of stood there awkwardly for a few moments before mentally punching himself and hurrying to his bike. He thought he could hear more giggling and then a stern voice cutting those giggles off, but he couldn't be sure once he put his helmet on. That thing blocked out most sounds, and had saved him from scathing looks and cutting remarks before.
Who was that girl? And why the hell had she been so nice to him? The roar of his bike starting up brought him back to reality momentarily. He didn't waste any time speeding off from that hellish place, heading towards the local rec center so he could blow off some steam. And the whole way there, his head swam with thoughts of a pretty girl that had decided she didn't believe the rumors about him. That was the only explanation he could come up with, for why she'd approached him so casually like that. His hands trembled slightly where they gripped the handlebars. What the hell was wrong with him?