chapter 10 - a perk?

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"Are you okay?" Linh asks, her eyes wide with concern.

"I'm sorry, I didn't see you guys there." The guy in the letterman jacket mumbles, scratching the back of his neck. The movement somehow amplifies his already-imposing figure. He towers over us, easily more than six-foot-five, with broad shoulders that strain the worn leather. One side of the jacket has a large H embroidered on it, while the other side proudly displays the unmistakable logo of our high school football team.

Linh shoots him a withering look. "Ruben, I always tell you to be aware of your surroundings."

"No worries." I force on a smile, the sting of Ace's words lingering.

"Do you guys have a love-hate relationship going on?" Her gaze darts from me and the direction Ace had disappeared in.

"What do you mean?" I blink, confused, wondering how she managed to glean that from the entire situation.

"The dramatic rescue, the intense eye contact..." Linh describes, but I have no clue what she is going on about. "Then he ditched you like last week's trash. It sounds like a classic love-hate situation to me."

Ruben nods his head in agreement. "Yeah, dude seriously didn't even blink when he grabbed you."

"What? No!" I sputter. "It was just...a reflex. We don't get along. If anything, he's a bully."

"I've known Ace through school and sports, but he isn't a..." Ruben begins to say as my eyes flit to the double-sided wall clock hanging in the corner of the hallway.

"I have to get to class," I declare before he can finish his sentence and grab my stuff from the floor. "It was, uh, nice meeting you both. Maybe we can be friends."

Ruben raises a hand in a half-wave, half-salute as Linh simply nods with a friendly smile. "Thanks for the help, Elle. See you around."

Linh turns to Ruben. "Let's get the rest of the letters up and the lights."

"Sounds like a plan, president."

Hugging my books close, I round the corner and glance back. The two are already moving in sync, placing the remaining letters on the wall. A warmth blooms in my chest. It seems like they make a good pair who ground themselves, are friendly, and don't get too caught up in the typical high school drama.

The cafeteria is always loud, with obnoxious laughter and self-absorbed conversation. Chad leans back in his chair, nonchalantly swirling a Larq water bottle. He's regaling the group about his upcoming ski trip to Aspen, peppering his conversation with talk of private jets and après-ski entertainment. At a different table, Tiffany animatedly recounts the details of her surprise party in the Hamptons, her voice dripping with nonchalance as she name-drops celebrities who attended.

I don't actually know their names; I just made them up.

I slide into the seat opposite Jade, placing my metal lunch tray in front of me, filled with golden-fried pork cutlets, rice, veggies, and a bottle of vanilla latte-flavored almond milk. Like most days, I plan to devour everything on my tray so that not even crumbs are spared. Imagine a Viking pillaging a smorgasbord—that's how my parents say I eat.

"The perk of the scholarship is the free lunches." I pick up the glass bottle of almond milk. "And I get to try different things." My eyes then go to the vibrant pink bottle of pomegranate water kefir on Jade's tray. "What's water kefir?"

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