Special thanks to michael-leonard for editing. Any remaining faults are my own!
"So as 'x' approaches infinity, I get... two pi?" Dena said hesitantly.
"Are you guessing it's two pi? Or do you know for sure?" Mr. Melnik challenged her.
Quickly but deliberately, Dena worked through the equation in front of her again, double-checking that each step made sense. "I'm sure. It's two pi."
"Correct!" Mr. Melnik smiled broadly through his huge bushy beard. He was one of the most beloved teachers in the school and had been teaching Advanced Placement Calculus as long as the school had offered it. He was also immense, pushing three hundred pounds at only five feet eight inches tall, and could give Santa Claus a run for his money in the jolly fat man department. Just like everyone else at the school, he had to look way up at Dena.
But, unlike most other people at the school, he never patronized Dena. Nor underestimated her intellectual prowess because of her physical gifts. He pushed her, challenged her to do her best work, and kept her honest so she never let herself off the hook on her math homework. Mr. Melnik offered after-school tutoring sessions to all students, but this offer was rarely taken advantage of. However, Dena had been coming every week since her transfer. Math was her most difficult subject.
Dena stared down at her work doubtfully. "When you explain it, it all makes sense," she said. "But I'm worried about the AP exam. I'm not sure I should have taken AP math. I've never been really good at it. It's hard for me."
Mr. Melnik nodded. "It's hard for everyone, Dena. Mathematical thinking doesn't come naturally to our squishy brains."
Dena bit her lip in frustration and squeezed her big fist. "It's not hard for Sheldon," she said.
The math teacher grinned. "Sheldon struggles, too. But it's true that he does seem to have a knack for it. He's a bit of a special case. He also has something better than a gift for math. As an athlete, I think that you of all people, Dena, can understand."
Dena raised her eyebrows in surprise and looked down at the math teacher sitting across from her. "What?"
"He doesn't give up," Mr. Melnik said. "And neither do you. That's what all the great mathematicians have in common. Take this integral you just solved, Dena. That one problem represents thousands of years of the smartest people in history working on it. And now, because of all these tools that all of those brilliant people have thought up, you can solve this problem and a lot more too! But every single one of those tools had to be invented, through long hours of agonizing work. It takes hard work, Dena; almost everything worth doing does. I know you can do it, too. You're brilliant and one of the hardest-working students I've ever seen. You're in here with me every week working on your most difficult subject, and getting an A. I have no doubt you will do well on the exam. You can do anything you put your mind to."
Dena smiled at Mr. Melnik's earnest philosophy. She couldn't help but be buoyed and persuaded by his honest enthusiasm. She finished a few more problems on her own, said goodbye, and left.
Dena walked to her locker to drop off her books and pick up her climbing gear. Tonight was a rare night off from practice, so she was meeting Bobbi Jo at the climbing wall. She thought back on what Mr. Melnik had said about Sheldon. It rang true with everything she knew about him. He didn't give up and he always did his best. During one of their long, intimate chats he had confided in her how nervous he was when he took on the math team captainship, and how he studied every leadership book and website he could find for months to make himself worthy of the role. She smiled to herself, feeling a rush of affection and admiration for her diminutive, brilliant, supremely geeky boyfriend.
That warm affection turned to apprehension when she saw Leon coming down the hallway near her locker. She paused with her hand on her locker and watched the bully approach. She hesitated before speaking to him, but then thought of what Sheldon would do in this situation, and what Mr. Melnik would say about doing the hard thing. She made her decision.
"Hey, Leon," she said just as he stalked past.
Leon turned to her in surprise. "Hey," Dena said again, studying him. He forced himself to look up at her, which he obviously hated. It aggravated him that she was so much taller than him. The last few months hadn't helped with that. Dena was growing at a ferocious pace and she'd added another inch in height and ten pounds in weight. She stood at six feet, ten inches and weighed an overwhelming two hundred eighty-five pounds of lean muscle. Even relaxed, standing with her long arm resting against her locker, her powerful muscles bulged and rippled under her pale skin.
Dena waited apprehensively. She was curious about what he would say, but also felt a twinge of dread. He might say something horrible.
Leon reluctantly craned his neck back to look Dena in the eye. His mouth was set in a grim, serious line. He looked like he had something to say, but he hesitated. "What do you want?" he finally asked.
There were a thousand mean things Dena wanted to say, but she knew that while destroying him would make her feel better, it wasn't the right thing to do. She tried to think of something good, so she reached for the one good thing she knew about Leon: his friendship. "You should forgive Greg," Dena blurted out.
Leon looked started. "What? Why?"
"He's your best friend. You should forgive him." Dena didn't know if she should say more. She looked down at Leon, who seemed to be thinking it over.
"It's none of your damn business, anyway," Leon muttered.
"You're right, it's not," Dena agreed. She thought that would be it, but to her surprise Leon stayed.
Leon finally cleared his throat and reluctantly spoke, as if the words caused him pain. "Thank you for not telling anyone what happened when... that day. You know. I never said it before, but that was decent of you."
Dena nodded. She had never mentioned the incident to anyone. Not even after the school already knew. "You're welcome," she said softly. "I'm sorry it got out anyway."
Leon watched her closely for any sign of sarcasm, but she seemed completely sincere. "Yeah, that jealous little fucker really... one little fight and Greg just had to go running his mouth all over school."
This was the first time Dena had just talked to Leon like a person. He was still rough and unlikable, and she didn't forget that he'd viciously attacked her and Sheldon. But she appreciated his blunt honesty, and his thanks seemed sincere. So she tried a little blunt honesty in return. "You're an asshole, Leon, but so is he. Assholes have to stick together."
Leon grunted. "Yeah," he said slowly. "You're probably right." He barked out a surprisingly self-aware laugh. "I really hate that!"
Dena laughed in surprise. "I know," she said between giggles. Even Leon cracked a smile. She finally stopped laughing. "I never told anyone what happened. Why do you hate me so much?" she asked.
"I don't hate you," Leon said. He shrugged at Dena's raised eyebrow. "It's your boyfriend. You're just... in the way."
Dena was stunned. "You hate Sheldon? Why?"
Leon's look darkened. "You wouldn't understand anyway," he growled. Dena watched helplessly as he stalked away.
Bobbi Jo began her final ascent. She was tired; there were limits to even her very muscular and strong body. She was a big strong Amazon but she was also heavy, with lots of very non-muscular curves. She simply wasn't built with the frame of a natural climber like Dena, but she worked hard at it through sheer love of the ascent.
Dena admired her friend's strength and grace as she watched Bobbi Jo's careful ascent. She felt a twinge of jealousy -- and maybe something else -- at how damn good her gorgeous friend looked from behind as she climbed the wall, her big muscles rising and falling under smooth womanly curves, her big blonde hair bouncing rhythmically with her lunges.
When it was Bobbi Jo's turn to anchor and Dena's turn to climb she flew up the wall, then rappelled down, then quickly up again, in rapid ascents. She wasn't trying to show Bobbi Jo up, but everything physical that Dena did was like showing off simply because of her overpowering athleticism.
Bobbi Jo was a good sport though, and suppressed her natural competitive instincts enough to feel happy for her big strong friend. There was something almost beyond reality when watching Dena. As if Bobbi Jo wasn't watching a normal person, but some being of superhuman grace and strength, that took the sting out of Dena's explosive, overwhelming, hypnotic power. Dena was nearly one hundred pounds heavier than Bobbi Jo but her climb looked effortless. Her body had grown almost superhumanly strong and her physique was becoming freakishly muscular. She looked like an anatomy chart, all bulging muscles and big blue veins under paper-thin pale skin.
Later in the locker room Dena and Bobbi Jo sat together in the sauna, enjoying a rare moment of relaxation in agreeable silence. Dena looked down at her powerful body. She was proud of her physique, but in the way of insecure teenagers she didn't consider herself attractive. She knew she had long legs and a small waist with a V taper down her muscular back, but she could only think of the flaws in her body: her too-pale skin, her almost-nonexistent breasts, her too-large mouth.
"Hey," Bobbi Jo said, surprising Dena out of a self-critical reverie by cupping her cheek and pulling her head down. Dena's heart beat faster as, for a second, she thought Bobbi Jo was going to kiss her. Instead Bobbi Jo pulled her hand away and asked, "You remember Cheryl, the lesbian from Springfield?"
"Sure. Kind of hard to forget."
Bobbi Jo giggled. "I know. Before I met you she was the biggest girl I'd ever seen! How tall are you now?"
Dena blushed. "Six-ten," she admitted sheepishly.
"Hot." Bobbi Jo grinned wolfishly.
"Shut up," Dena muttered, looking away.
"I slept with her," Bobbi Jo said casually.
"Who? Cheryl?" Dena asked in surprise.
Bobbi Jo nodded. "I hope you don't mind. She offered, and I just thought... if Connor can have his gay fling... It sounds stupid now..." She trailed off into silence.
"Why would I mind?" Dena asked. In truth she felt a small twinge of jealousy she didn't want to examine, but she wasn't sure if she was jealous of Bobbi Jo or of Cheryl. Or both.
Bobbi Jo shrugged. "No reason."
Dena wasn't sure if Bobbi Jo wanted to talk about it. "How was it?" she asked uncertainly.
The beautiful blonde flashed an infectious grin. "Weird. And... fun," she concluded. "I don't think it's for me though. I like dick too much. Almost as much as you!" she teased.
Dena blushed even more furiously. Somehow Bobbi Jo had wheedled details out of Dena that she couldn't remember giving.
"You and Sheldon will come with Connor and me to prom, right?" Bobbi Jo asked. She knew her status with Connor confused Dena and made her uncomfortable, though her big friend tried to hide it. She envied Dena her uncomplicated relationship with the little nerd. Of course she should have known better; love is seldom uncomplicated.
"I... I don't know if I'm going. If we're going."
"What?" Bobbi Jo asked in alarm. "What do you mean? You have to come!"
"I don't know if he wants to go with me; he hasn't asked me," Dena said. She hadn't realized how much it had been bothering her until she said it out loud to Bobbi Jo.
Bobbi Jo stared at Dena for a long moment before a grin slowly spread across her face. She giggled at first, then roared with laugher.
"What?" Dena demanded miserably.
"You... You two deserve each other!" Bobbi Jo gasped out. She looked at Dena's forlorn expression and dissolved into uncontrollable giggles. "You're both idiots!"