One minute, he was trying to explain Black Star's obsession with Vines to the tall girl at his side - Tsubaki, she'd said her name was. She'd transferred in with her brother Masamune, who'd immediately been snapped up by the football team - and then, before he'd even scratched the surface of Star's madness -

The fragile peace that had characterized Soul's high school experience until that moment went up in unceremonious flames when Giriko, star quarterback and complete sleazeball, put a rock through the back window of a car in an attempt to show off for Soul's older brother Wes.

Not just any car, either: a pristine Jeep Grand Wagoneer, white paint more perfect than any factory-fresh vehicle could dream of, license plate I1221ME, now grinding to an indignant halt in the gravel of the high school's student lot.

"Well, we're dead," Soul said, earning a look of worried incomprehension from Tsubaki, both for his words and the way he'd come to a hopeless stop on the sidewalk. "She's going to kill everyone here on principle," he explained, narrowing his eyes in Giriko's direction as he calculated how likely it was that he'd be able to brain the laughing football player before Maka Albarn did it for him.

Tsubaki looked at him, at the Jeep, raised an eyebrow at Giriko's braying laughter, and made a kind of confused shrugging motion. "Who's going to kill us?"

Soul dragged a hand over his face. "So you haven't been here long enough to hear about Maka Albarn, then," he said, sighing. "Her father was black ops and taught her everything he knew. I heard he threatened to garotte the principal if he expelled her for getting into fights, and that's the only reason she's still here."

"What," Tsubaki said, half incredulous disbelief and half dawning terror.

"Seriously," Soul said, discarding the suicidal notion of getting between Albarn and her prey and focusing on the ticking time bomb that was her Jeep instead. "I bet the only reason nothing's happened yet is because even her father can't help her if she feeds Giriko his spine in broad daylight." He leaned in close, said the next in a whisper: "Her godfather's the football coach, you know - they call him Frankenstein. Word is he helps dispose of the bodies Albarn leaves behind because they let him use them for experiments."

"But Coach Stein is so nice," Tsubaki said, horrified, and Soul shrugged, moving back out of her personal space.

"It's never the ones you expect," he said. "Hey, you stay here, okay?"

He was gone before she could finish asking him why, sprinting across sun-heated asphalt, hand closing on an immaculately-chromed door handle before he could remind himself of the eight million ways in which what he was doing was suicidal, sliding across soft cream leather and coming to an abrupt and blood-chilling halt as soon as Maka Albarn's cataclysmically furious green eyes met his.

"Don't think I don't know that this is because of your brother," she snarled, belatedly yanking the Jeep into park with enough force that Soul flinched. "You've got a lot of nerve, getting in my car like you think it's okay. Do you even fucking know - "

"No, look, I'm sorry about your car, Giriko is a waste of a mind," Soul said in a desperate attempt to distract her before she killed him. "I have a proposition for you. I can't kick Giriko's ass with his buddies there, so how about I give you fifty bucks and you help me out."

She gave him the kind of considering glare that Smaug must have given Bilbo, negotiating for his life in the depths of Erebor. "You want to pay me to kick Giriko's ass," she said, hands still on the steering wheel, fingers smoothing over its curves with deceptive care.

"Is fifty not enough, because - "

She silenced him with a sharp gesture, already shrugging out of her leather bomber jacket to reveal a tank top, snug along the curve of her waist and hip, and a surprising amount of muscle definition.

"There's nothing I'd enjoy more," she said, cracking her knuckles, cutting the engine, and opening her door. "Hope you're ready."

Soul swallowed hard and followed her example, leaving his flannel shirt behind as he climbed back out of the Jeep and circled round to where Albarn was opening the back hatch, completely unruffled by the pack of football players heading their way. Soul caught a glimpse of Tsubaki, watching them worriedly from a safe distance, and Wes, giving him a negligent wave before disappearing in the direction of the senior lot - and then his attention was captured by the sound of metal on metal.

"Whoa, wait," he said, something that felt like panic springing to life in his belly as he realized she was turning around to face Giriko, a lug wrench in her hand. He hadn't meant for it to escalate like this -

"That's real brave of you, Albarn," Giriko sneered, close enough that he didn't have to yell, and Soul had somehow managed to forget how tall he was. "Shoulda figured your rep was all talk."

"Don't get me wrong," Albarn said, swinging the iron bar in her grip a bit, getting its heft. "I'd love to punch your teeth in, but I don't think you'd give me a fair fight. If it's all of you against me and Evans here, I'll keep my weapon, thanks."

"Maybe if you weren't such a bitch these things wouldn't happen," Giriko drawled, shit-eating grin at its height, and the only thing that stopped Maka from obliterating him was the fact that Soul caught her arm in a death grip and managed to pull her off-balance before she could lunge.

"You asked for my help, Evans," she snarled, rounding on him. "Now you're trying to act like I shouldn't break his face for calling me a bitch because I'm pissed that he broke my window?"

"You can't kill him here," Soul said, letting go of her arm because god help him, she was stronger than he was - and she was right. "I don't care if Coach Stein covers for you, you can't kill someone in front of this many witnesses."

"What are you talking about?" she snapped, eyes flicking between him and Giriko, who was edging closer.

"Please don't kill him," Soul said, rubbing at his face, suddenly tired.

Albarn gave him the side-eye, but her attention was primarily on Giriko, who was almost within easy striking distance. "You wanna fucking go?"

Giriko gave her a sick grin that made Soul's hair stand on end and stopped a few feet away from them, puffs of dust rising and then settling around his obviously-new sneakers, his hands still stuffed in the pockets of his letter jacket. "I'll deal with you in a minute," he said, and his eyes settled on Soul. "This doesn't concern you, Soul."

"I told you I never wanted you within twenty feet of me ever again," Soul growled, free hand in a white-knuckled fist, and the look Albarn was giving him somehow made the memory of the last time he'd spoken to Giriko that much worse. "To not so much as even look at my brother."

Giriko stared at him for a second and then laughed, head thrown back to guffaw long and loud while Soul seethed. Eventually Giriko calmed down enough to speak again, wiping tears from his eyes, shoulders still shaking from residual mirth. "Oh, I'm sorry, do you still live in a world where you think people will believe you if you spill your pathetic little sob story to the school? Are you actually convinced they'll care? You're nobody, Evans. They won't even take the time to tell you to shut up, so why don't you run along home and listen to some Linkin Park about it. Besides, last time I checked you didn't own your brother, who, by the way, was hanging out with me because he wanted to. Literally nothing about this is your business."

"Except for the part where you're fucking with my brother," Soul said, words escalating into a furious yell by the end, and if his voice cracked somewhere in there, well, Giriko could get fucked.

Albarn was still watching him, or at least she had been when he started talking. By the time he finished, Giriko sort of leaning away from the sheer fury in his words, Soul realized two things: one, he'd let go of her elbow in favor of balling both his fists and stepping forward, ready to swing; and two, she'd tossed the lug wrench into the back of the Jeep and was in the process of delivering a truly beautiful roundhouse kick straight to Giriko's liver and shortribs, if Soul's grasp of anatomy served.

Giriko crumpled into a miserable ball of profanity with gratifying speed, and Albarn stepped back with a disdainful sniff.

"Consider this," she said, eyes lifting to the group of stunned football players milling about behind him, trying to decide what to do. "If you weren't such an arrogant bag of dicks, you wouldn't be pissing blood tomorrow."

Giriko uncurled enough to make a grab for her ankle, letting out an enraged howl of pain when her hobnailed boot crashed down on his hand instead. The noise seemed to galvanize his cronies, who at last gathered their courage and surged forward as a group, mostly intent on Albarn, who executed a neat turn and closed the distance between her and Soul in a blink.

"Move," she hissed, grabbing his arm and throwing herself backwards into her car.

Soul stumbled, got dragged a few steps, then collided with the Jeep's bumper and took the path of least resistance, folding his knees and rolling into the back with far less control than he would have liked, to say nothing of his completely nonexistent grace. At least he didn't get glass embedded anywhere vital. Keeping a cool facade had probably become an impossibility as soon as Albarn had started glaring at him, though, so he tried not to let it bother him as he watched her slam and lock the back door.

"You left your stuff in the front seat, right?" she asked, climbing over the back seat so she could lock the rest of the car, just in time for half the football team to start pounding on her windows. "Pretty sure we won't be going back for it if you didn't."

"Yeah, that's - that's fine," Soul said, pausing to flip off the group of other teenagers yelling threats from outside. "I really hope you didn't break any of Giriko's ribs."

"What, really?" She climbed back over the seat, settling beside him and regarding her broken window and the boys outside it with equal loathing. "After all that, you hope he's not hurt?"

Soul snorted. "I hope he can't move for days," he said, hands curling into fists again. "I hope he never gets up. But if you hurt him too bad, we're going to be in a lot of trouble."

Albarn shrugged, seemingly unconcerned about the pack of boys abusing her car. "I didn't kick him as hard as I could have, and I only stepped on his hand enough to get the point across. He shouldn't have any broken bones or real internal damage."

Soul looked at her then, found her a little unkempt, mouth set in an angry line and hair coming out of its neat bun, but otherwise composed. He raised an eyebrow. "And if you'd kicked him as hard as you could?"

She gave him a profile stare. "Cracked ribs, maybe some bone shards in places they shouldn't be. Depending, his liver and kidneys might be in rough shape. I don't know how much muscle he has, so it's hard to say. Some guys can take a hit, some can't. He's a big boy, he wouldn't die."

"Remind me never to piss you off," Soul said, eyes back on the broken back window and the lanky boy who'd pushed his way to the front of the group, long black hair shifting as he eyed the hole Giriko had put in the glass. Tsubaki's brother; had to be. Soul knew all the other football players by sight at least, if only because he did his best to never cross paths with them.

Albarn snorted from beside him. "You owe me money," she said, as if that explained everything. "Pay up and I won't have to break your kneecaps in the night."

Soul's response was interrupted by Masamune shrugging out of his letter jacket so he could wrap it around his elbow, intent immediately clear.

"They're ambitious today, fuck," Albarn spat, and Soul heard her go scrambling over the seats in a rush to get the Jeep cranked and as far away as possible from the clusterfuck of a situation Giriko had created.

Soul had to admire her ability to function under pressure, because he was more or less frozen in place, watching in horrified slow motion as Masamune conferred for a moment with the rest of the football players before raising his wrapped elbow, a mad glint in his eyes. Someone was screaming something unintelligible, but Soul couldn't have said if it was Albarn yelling at him from the front seat or something more distant, perhaps the unyielding hammer of the educational justice system finally descending upon them.

The engine came to life with a bone-rattling roar; Masamune set his feet and took aim -

The distant yelling became very clear and very close with startling speed, and Soul realized with a sinking sensation in his belly that he recognized the timbre of the approaching Tarzan scream.

"What on earth is that ungodly - "

Albarn cut off so abruptly that Soul would have found it funny had he not been busy burying his face in his hands and trying to pretend that none of the events going on around him were actually happening. He didn't look up when the crowd outside stopped pounding on the car and started making confused noises; he didn't even twitch when a series of loud bangs that was Black Star climbing on top of the Jeep sounded from above his head, followed immediately after by his friend's manic cackle. Soul did look up when he heard Black Star hollering at somebody to take his hand, though, and was rewarded with a bemused and almost apologetic smile from Tsubaki as she let Black Star haul her onto the Jeep's roof.

Albarn gunned the engine with the Jeep still in park, a warning to the gathering crowd, and then they were off with such abrupt velocity that Soul found it in his heart to worry about Black Star falling to his death, but only because that would mean Tsubaki might, too.

/

Wes texted him while he was sulking in the back of the Jeep, doing his best to ignore Black Star and the way Albarn hauled her car around turns at what felt like Mach 5. The message was nothing but a smarmy confirmation that Wes had driven their shared car home and that their mother was on emergency call for the evening, a dodged bullet that almost made him willing to acknowledge the catastrophic turn his afternoon had taken. Almost. Black Star was still in a leopard print Speedo, though, and he was still expounding on how amazing he was at top volume, so instead Soul tuned him out, yelled his address in Albarn's direction, and prayed that Black Star would stay more interested in impressing his new crush than in pestering him.

"You can get fucked," were Soul's immediate words to Wes upon walking through the door to find his brother sprawled across the couch, leering at him upside-down with his head hung over the armrest. "You know I hate that creep's guts, why were you anywhere near him?"

"He keeps talking to me," Wes said, returning his attention to the television. "And he's hardly unattractive. Did I miss the part where someone has to be a saint in order for me to be interested? I mean, I know he's had his share of girlfriends and he has a flock of girls following him around every day, but he's coming on kinda strong and that's never really stopped me from being able to convince - "

"Stay away from him, Wes," Soul snapped, fighting the urge to start throwing things. "I don't ask much of you, you know, I let you take the car all the time and I cover for you with Mom and I just want you to do this one thing - "

"It's not my fault that you're pissed because he pushed you around on the playground or something," Wes said, all the easy humor turned to anger when he shifted to look at his brother again. "You won't tell me why he's such bad news, and now you're trying to guilt me into doing what you want? You need to get it together, bro. And speaking of people whose company is unsavory? You probably shouldn't hang out with Albarn. She's got a bigger file in the principal's office than Giriko by far, and I bet her daddy'll knife you if he sees you with her."

"That's none of your business," Soul said, hands clenched tight around the straps of his backpack and trying to fight the rising color in his cheeks.

Wes raised an eloquent eyebrow at him and turned back to the TV. "Funny how that works, isn't it? Mom won't be back tonight, I don't think. There's pizza in the kitchen."

Soul stood in the living room entryway for several minutes, impotent rage roiling in his stomach more with every second his brother spent ignoring him, and at length stomped into the kitchen and took the entire pizza box up to his room as a petty fuck-you for having lost an argument he started. Just to continue the trend, he threw his backpack into a corner with enough force to provoke a distant protest from downstairs, and was almost, almost on his way to pizza-induced oblivion when his phone startled him by making the standard text sound instead of Black Star's screamed alert of BEEP BEEP, MOTHERFUCKER. He set the pizza down with a noise of deep disgust, got off his bed, and pawed through his backpack until he found his phone and its waiting text, this time from a blocked number: Got your number from B*. I'll come get you in the morning. Going to need to stick together till the team finds a new target.

"Great," he groaned, flopping back onto his bed, careful not to upset the pizza that now seemed like the only good thing left in the world. He'd allied himself with the school delinquent, put himself at the top of the football team's hit list, and his mother was going to skin him when she finally got the inevitable call from the principal's office concerning his behavior. Rather than think too much on it, he piled all the blame squarely on Giriko, stuffed himself full of pizza, and only let Wes have the leftovers a few hours later after his brother spent a good ten minutes hammering on his door and threatening to take the lock apart.

Even then, it wasn't anything Wes did that made him relent; it was the fact that Soul had come to an abrupt realization that made spitefully withholding food seem much less important than making Wes go the hell away so he could find his phone and text Black Star.

Since fucking when are you cozy enough with Albarn to give her my phone number?

It wasn't long before he got a response because Black Star was all but grafted to his phone, a rapid succession of buzzes sending him scrambling towards his desk.

She evN lifts, bro, I can't teL her no.

Soul rolled his eyes, settled into his desk chair, and opened the next text.

Besides, we're n dis 2geder nw.

His brother was a douchebag, the football team was out for blood, Maka Albarn had somehow become one of his only allies, his mother was going to end him, and Black fucking Star was, as always, communicating with him via song lyrics. Soul took a deep breath, reminded himself that breaking his phone wouldn't actually make Black Star stop being Black Star, and continued.

It isnt jst bout U & Giriko bn drmatik NE mo. Pstd d Vine w 1 of d anon accts, bt wrd gts round.

Word gets around. As if anyone could manage to mistake Black Star for someone else.

I dnt giv a dam bout my bad reputatn - Im Usd 2 dem bn aftR U & me, bt ven2ly theyll go aftR Tsubaki & thts nt ok, she isnt spos pRt of dis. So I gave Albarn ur #, shell pik U ^ n d mornin, & well figur out a plan 1ce we knO how bad it iz.

Soul stared at his phone for at least a minute, probably more, horrible flashbacks replaying in his mind of what had happened the past few times Black Star had decided to come up with a plan. Those memories tended to involve fire, the words "DO IT FOR THE VINE," imminent bodily harm, the kind of lectures from his mother that could only be called nightmare fuel, infinite hours editing video, detention, and on one memorable and scarring occasion - but they did not speak of the Bratwurst Incident.

His phone buzzed, jolting him back to the present.

Team's Bin uppity l8ly NEway. nEd 2 remnd dem dat Im d leadR of d pak. Go git ur bUtE sleep, big dA 2moro.

Soul had no response other than incoherent profanity, so he opted to take Black Star's advice in this one isolated incident where it was a viable course of action instead of outright suicide. By the time he'd gotten ready for bed his phone was howling at him again, though: B4 U Leav 4 ur hot D8 w Mr. Sandman, watch d Vine. tink U missed it cuz U wer 2 bsy havN a nrvous breakdwn n Albarn's bkseat. gud tng Tsubaki's d defintn of grace undR pressure, peon. I mite hav 2 replAc U 4 Bn an unwrthy cmraman.

Soul poked his laptop awake, texted back (sounds like someone has a crush), and located the Vine, posted to one of Black Star's multiple dummy accounts. The kid might be dumb, but he wasn't dumb; he knew better than to link back to himself on the internet. At least this way he could claim he had no idea he was being filmed, and somehow he usually had an alibi for Soul as well. Not that Soul was above claiming he had no idea what Black Star did with the videos, either, not if it meant keeping his ass out of the fire. This time, though… what a damned mess.

And then there was the Vine. All thoughts of how screwed he was went out the window in six short seconds as Soul watched Black Star, Tarzan yodel earsplitting even when recorded by his phone, catapult himself through the crowd around the Jeep, grab Masamune, and pull him into a perfect suplex before scrambling on top of the Jeep and performing a series of celebratory hip thrusts in Giriko's direction. It was the hip thrusts that really made it, Soul thought, staring at the leopard Speedo his friend was wearing as if at a train wreck. It was the hip thrusts that were going to get them murdered instead of just roughed up.

He was still staring at the repeating video when his phone screeched again: her lip gloS b poppin, dnt h8.

Soul buried his face in his hands for a minute, very deliberately reached over and turned his phone off, and crawled into bed praying sleep would come quickly.

/

Soul was managing to be sullen while eating spookylicious pop-tarts when Wes ambled into the kitchen the next morning, expression suspiciously blank except for the way his mouth was twitching upwards at the corners and the almost manic glint in his eyes.

"Your ride's here," he said, turning looking away at the end and clearing his throat in such a way as to draw a killing glare from Soul.

After a suitable length of time spent glowering at Wes, who was all but quivering with repressed laughter, Soul pushed his chair away from the kitchen table and stuffed the remaining pastry into his mouth, grabbing his backpack from the foot of the stairs before heading out the door, pretending all the while that he wasn't just trying to escape his brother's mockingly-suppressed mirth.

He stopped on the front steps, though, staring at the behemoth currently gracing the curb, some kind of half-rusted monstrosity that had been a glaring version of sea-foam green in its heyday, accented now with peeling chrome. Even in the low half-light just before dawn it hurt his eyes. Past that there was - everything else, basically: ancient whitewalled tires, tailfins for god's sake, the fact that the entire marching band could probably fit inside, the engine snarling fit to explode even at idle -

Then Albarn leaned across the front seat and yelled "Get in the car," and Soul nearly choked on his pop-tart before lurching back into motion, hardly even noticing when the wet grass soaked through his shoes.

"What is this," he said once he'd removed the half-eaten pastry from his mouth, wrestling the passenger door open with a squeal of protesting hinges.

"My father's next project, currently being used as storage," Albarn said, fingers tapping on the steering wheel, watching as Soul tossed his bag into the back seat and then did a double take when he realized that there was barely room for it in among all the weird stuff crammed back there. "As you can see, he hasn't gotten around to restoring anything yet." She turned her attention back to the road once Soul buckled his seatbelt, put the car in drive with an alarming lurch from the transmission, and frowned as she pulled away from the curb. "I wanted to drive something that wasn't a rust bucket, trust me, but he insisted that I drive 'something no one was going to bother with,' so here we are. It's a Rambler Ambassador, by the way, and it's older than both of us combined."

Soul picked at one of the multitudinous splits in the upholstery. "Yeah, I got that impression," he said, and took a bite of his breakfast. "So your father restores cars when he isn't murdering people?"

"Yep," she said. Didn't miss a beat, just paused for a stop sign, made her turn, and proceeded towards the school. "And soon he'll have my back window fixed and I won't have to put up with this junk heap any more. Until then, try not to get me involved in any more situations that require a fast getaway, because I can assure you that will not be happening."

"I didn't - " Soul started, but she interrupted him with insulting ease, the simple shift of her sharp eyes in his direction enough to make his mouth close with a snap.

"I'm not interested in your rendition of why you're the victim here," she said, and didn't even sound annoyed. "The fact is, we're stuck with this situation regardless of who's to blame, so we need to deal with it. Between you getting involved, me laying out Giriko, and your charming friend's antics, the team should be about ready to crucify us. I'd suggest not going anywhere alone for a while."

Soul took a savage bite out of his pop-tart and slid low in his seat, glaring at the awful woodgrain of the dashboard. "Are you offering to be my safety buddy?"

Again that look. "Are you trying to pretend that you'd survive the rest of the week by yourself? More importantly, do you really think I'm going to let you out of my sight when you still owe me money?"

Soul grumbled and didn't respond, and Albarn didn't push it. She parked in a remote corner of campus that Soul hadn't known students had access to, bullied him until he let her confiscate his flannel because it was apparently 'too obvious,' as if his idiot pale hair wasn't conspicuous enough, and didn't even comment when she let her hair down and stowed her bomber jacket in the back of the car.

"I'd dye your hair if I thought you'd let me mess up your expensive bleach job," she said, giving him a critical once-over. "And you're too much shorter and messier for anyone to mistake you for your brother, even without the flannel. You're like a walking target, honestly."

"Firstly, this is not bleach," Soul snapped, feeling immediately and intensely vulnerable without his flannel. "I can't help the way I was born. Please, you thought Wes and I had matching dye jobs? Are you on cocaine?"

"Seemed more likely than partial albinism," Albarn said, shrugging. "Let's get moving. I got us here early so we could hopefully grab all our books before someone does the mature thing and dumps Coke in our lockers."

"Oh god," Soul said, unearthing his backpack from the encroaching mountain of junk in the back of the car. "I can't afford to replace my books, let's fucking go, they'd do it too - "

"Don't run," Albarn said, catching hold of his shoulder before he could take off. "Honestly. Then they'll know it's you. Play it cool, Evans."

"Fine," he snarled, pulling free of her and stomping across the gravel lot with Albarn striding along beside him with a queen's composure. They passed the tennis courts, the teacher parking, the track, the bus lanes without coming under attack; Soul paused outside the 400 building, hands nervous around the straps of his backpack, and glanced at the girl beside him.

"We can go to your locker first," Albarn said, eyeing the first bus of the morning as it chugged towards them in the gloaming.

"All right," Soul said, and ducked inside, letting out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. The 400 building was home to the art kids, to the orchestra and band and a few language classes, and he'd spent most of high school hiding in its corners hoping for a little peace and quiet. His locker had been there since freshman year, a result of having made his piano skills useful to both the orchestra and band since middle school.

"How do you even get a locker in here?" Albarn asked, taking in what had to be unfamiliar surroundings: worn stone floors, hallways that intersected oddly because of the theater taking up the front of the building, cinderblock walls so old they'd been repainted enough times that the paint chips revealed a history like the rings of a tree.

"Front part is sophomore lockers, back part's for music and drama students, mostly," Soul said, making his way towards the back of the building. "The orchestra and band directors like me."

"Do they," Albarn said, the slight upward inflection a request for more information if Soul had ever heard one, and he was about to explain when they rounded a corner and there was his locker and also Black Star, who lit up like a firecracker when he caught sight of Soul.

"Welcome to the party, peon!"

Soul flinched at the megaphone-level of noise that was Black Star and trudged onward, giving him a tired, inadvertent smile when Star grinned and gave him what was meant to be a bracing slap on the back as he reached his locker, and jumped when he realized Tsubaki was standing just behind him.

"Good morning, Soul," Tsubaki said, smiling that vaguely apologetic smile she always seemed to be wearing.

"Hey, Tsubaki," he said, and watched with increasing levels of incredulity as Black Star walked past him, nodded to Albarn, and engaged in a silent and excessively stoic fistbump with her by way of greeting.

"I'm opening my locker now," Soul said, and put in the combination before his morning could get any weirder.

A cloud of confetti drifted out in a silent rush, leaving him blinking and covered in gleaming bits of plastic.

"Cute," Albarn said, picking a bit of it out of his hair. "Ghosts. Very clever."

"At least it wasn't anything that would hurt your textbooks," Tsubaki said, shrugging while Black Star hit the floor laughing.

He insisted on filming Albarn once they got to her locker, then conned Tsubaki into holding his phone because he was still laughing too hard at Soul's misfortune to keep it steady. As with Soul, her locker was filled with confetti, but hers was little gleaming skulls.

"This is idiotic," she said, brushing silver bits of plastic from her clothes. "I was expecting them to do something a little worse than just being obnoxious."

"This is a warning," Soul said, waiting for her to cram her textbooks into her backpack just in case before they set off for Black Star's locker. "I don't know why they'd bother with a warning, but obviously they have, because there's no way Giriko's letting this go."

"Masamune was very angry," Tsubaki said, looking worried, head swiveling to the side as Black Star let out an indignant harrumph and stomped down the hallway to his own locker. "They're definitely planning something." She sighed. "I guess we'd better follow him, we don't have much time before the buses let everyone off."

They found Black Star standing in a little heap of confetti, running a few bits of it between his thumb and pointer finger with a thunderous expression on his face. "This is painfully unoriginal," he said, flicking one of the pieces at Soul, who caught it and snorted when he held it up to examine it: black stars.

"Stick with Albarn today, Soul," Black Star said, pulling textbooks and a messy pile of paper and notebooks out of his locker, uncharacteristically serious. "You two exchange schedules and figure out where you can meet up between classes. If the team's out to get us, you're gonna need backup. I'll stick with Tsubaki and we'll see how today goes. Better get going, though, since they know where our lockers are."

Soul nodded, was about to let Albarn know that he had precal first period, and was promptly interrupted by his phone buzzing - a text from Wes, of all people.

I convinced them not to destroy your lockers, but you're on your own now. Pretty sure I agreed to some kind of not-date with Giriko in exchange for the favor. You're welcome, little bro.

"Don't break your phone, Broseidon, I need some of the footage on it," Black Star said, back to wearing his usual arrogant grin. "What's your brother want?"

"He's the reason they didn't trash our lockers," Soul said, stuffing his phone back in his pocket. "But apparently that's all he can do."

"I accept his tribute to my greatness, and to your overall innocence," Black Star said, arms crossed, nodding magnanimously. "Extend my gratitude and - shit, it's the fuzz!"

Soul never did know how his friend managed that disappearing act, but he did know that he never appreciated it, and this particular time was no exception.

"You have a date with Ms. Mjolnir," said an imperious voice from behind him, and Soul sighed, stared up at the ceiling for a moment, and turned around, resigned.

"Give it a rest, Anya," Soul grumbled, sighing again, louder, when she looked down at him and sniffed.

"I'm sorry," Maka said, turning around as well, arms crossed and fire in her eyes, "are you trying to tell me that I'm the one in trouble because Giriko busted out my back window?"

"No, Maka," Anya said, flipping her long blonde hair back over one shoulder, sick of dealing with them already, "you're in trouble because Giriko nearly ended up in the hospital because you tried to kick his ribs in. Evans is in trouble for starting the fight you and Black Star finished. Don't argue with me, just get moving. You know the way. Be glad you're being sent to the counselor and not the principal."

They both knew the way quite well, and definitely knew better than to try and skip the appointment. Anya didn't go with them, apparently content to let them go to their fate unescorted, so there was no one but Soul to object when Albarn took a very unnecessary detour to the library on the way.

"We can't hide, you know," Soul said, pausing outside the double doors. "Why are we here, again?"

Albarn rolled her eyes. "Like I'd try to ditch Ms. Mjolnir," she said, and opened the door, tilting her head to indicate that Soul should get his ass moving. "Trust me."

His morning wasn't going to get any worse, that was for sure, so Soul just gave her an unamused look and walked into the empty library, waving to Blair, the librarian, before studiously averting his eyes. High school librarians shouldn't, in his seventeen-year-old opinion, be allowed to have that kind of cleavage, but here he was anyway, trying to avoid a multitude of awkward situations at seven in the morning.

"Maka, kitten, I was hoping you'd stop by," Blair cooed, and Soul's attempts at keeping his eyes elsewhere fell apart when he nearly gave himself whiplash twisting around to stare incredulously. "I heard about yesterday. Here, take this to Marie. It'll make things easier."

"Sure, thanks," Albarn said, taking a paper bag from Blair before turning to Soul and making that head gesture again. "Let's not keep her waiting."

Soul didn't need to be told twice. He exited the library with a hurried goodbye for Blair, who gave him a positively demonic smile, and managed not to ask about the paper bag for all of two minutes.

"It's not for us to know," Albarn said, eyes directed heavenward. "We have an arrangement. I ferry these packages from time to time, and Ms. Mjolnir makes my life easier."

"They're using you as a mule," Soul said. "This is extortion."

"Please," Albarn said, rolling her eyes. "If Ms. Mjolnir wants her copy of - " she glanced in the bag, "Bitanic delivered discreetly, I'm certainly not going to complain when she gives me a break as payment. What, you thought it was drugs or something?"

"No - I - are you serious?"

She shrugged. "I'm sure you can understand that a shared interest in, shall we say, romance of a certain bent might cause problems for a school counselor and a librarian."

"Yeah, but - "

"But nothing. If you speak of this to anyone else, I will personally come after you, so zip your lip and try to comprehend a world where women like - well, in Blair's case it's porn, and in Ms. Mjolnir's it's more romance, but you get the idea." They stopped outside Ms. Mjolnir's door, and Albarn gave him the eyeball. "Do you need a moment to compose yourself? Need I remind you that we're not supposed to know what's in this bag?"

"Let's just go," Soul said, and pushed the door open.

Ms. Mjolnir's assistant looked up from her computer when they walked in and went from welcoming to extreme disappointment so fast that Soul balked, which earned him a rough shove when Albarn plowed into him and didn't take kindly to the obstruction.

"I thought we agreed that you weren't going to be seen in here again, Soul," Nygus said, the tiny beads braided into her hair clicking together as she turned to face them.

"Yeah, well, you ever hear of extenuating circumstances?" Soul asked, throwing himself into one of the room's chairs with a huff and very pointedly ignoring the way Albarn was looking at him, as though he owed her some kind of explanation.

Nygus was the only person Soul had ever met who had such dark skin and such startlingly pale eyes, so when she rolled them it was very expressive indeed. "That's what they all say," she said, and moved on to Albarn. "And Maka - I see we've decided to make this a weekly appointment."

"This wasn't my fault," Albarn snapped, making a sharp, exasperated gesture with one hand. "Giriko threw a rock through my window, why am I the one - "

Nygus interrupted her by picking up a stack of papers and dropping them against her desk to settle them. "Giriko will get his, but in the meantime you nearly put him in the hospital, and that's the kind of thing that gets you at the least a visit to the counselor," she said, and Soul found himself distracted by her nail polish, a pale orange with - were those bats? "Be glad you aren't seeing the principal. Marie had quite the argument with Giriko's parents last night. They want you expelled for hurting their precious boy, you know."

Albarn settled into the chair next to Soul with a sigh. "I don't suppose there's any way we can work this out without calling my father?"

"You nearly broke Giriko's ribs," Nygus reminded her, and she sighed again, sank lower into her chair, and adopted an expression Soul categorized as 'annoyed cat.'

"Nygus!" came an impressively loud shout from behind the door to Marie's office, and all three of them jumped.

Nygus was accustomed to Ms. Mjolnir, though, and shook off her surprise quickly, moving to open the door in a flash. "Ma'am?"

"I need another term for 'quivering member,' I've already used it too many times" Ms. Mjolnir said, and Soul tried to sink directly into the floor, cheeks heating as he did his best to pretend he wasn't there and none of this was happening.

Albarn had the temerity to laugh, the first time Soul had heard such a sound from her. "I prefer 'needy appendage,'" she called, and was rewarded with a triumphant shout from the counselor's office.

Nygus stood in the doorway to Ms. Mjolnir's office for a moment, expression a hilarious mix of 'why me' and a kind of murderous exasperation, then at length she shook her head and stepped aside. "Go on in, she's on the clock and she may as well earn her pay."

Soul levered himself out of his chair and preceded Albarn into Ms. Mjolnir's office, a gesture he saw as quite gallant seeing as it meant he put himself directly in the line of fire.

"Soul," the counselor said, looking up from her laptop, morning sunlight catching the gold logo embossed on her eyepatch rather fetchingly so that it gleamed the same gold as her hair - and she was actually quite pretty except for the whole quivering member thing. "I thought you were done trying to compete for longest rap sheet in the school. What possessed you to get involved in this mess?"

"Giriko will never mentally progress past five years old, he threw a rock through Alb - Maka's window because he was trying to look cool for my brother," Soul snapped, dropping into yet another chair, carefully engineered to look comfortable and be anything but. "I don't want him near my brother. Or me."

"I hate to be the one to break this to you, but your brother's virtue is far from intact," Ms. Mjolnir said, unable to suppress her pure-evil smirk for a moment. "No use crying over spilled milk, my boy. Wes is a rogue and you're going to have to accept that."

"This is not a romance novel," Soul said, hands white-knuckled on the armrests of his chair. "Giriko is a bad person. Wes can make himself the town bicycle if that makes him happy, but I draw the line at Giriko going anywhere near anything I care about."

"I'm going to have to leave the talk about why you can't treat other people like things for another time," Ms. Mjolnir said, and turned to the other teenager in her office. "Maka, I'm not sure you understand just how serious this situation is. If Giriko wasn't refusing to go to the hospital, we'd have a real problem. As it is, he doesn't have any broken ribs, and since you were obviously provoked we can cut you a little slack, but his parents are out for blood and this school doesn't condone violence."

Albarn stared her down, almost petulant, for about a minute before finally saying, "If I don't make them pay to fix my car, will they stop trying to punish me for teaching their son that he can't break other people's toys without consequences?"

Ms. Mjolnir brightened considerably. "Yes, I think we can come to an agreement if you're willing to let that slide. I think having to miss a couple games or play in quite a bit of pain will be punishment enough for Giriko."

"Fine."

"All right, then." She dropped a pair of folders onto her desk, one crisp and the other well-worn, but both of comparable thickness. The two teenagers eyed their folders and each other with a notable degree of speculation. "I'll make a note in your files, you'll probably be serving detention for a week, and we can get on with our lives, hopefully. Soul, I'll leave your mother out of this if you manage to let this whole situation go as is, but I'd imagine you'll have to explain to her yourself why you have detention. Maka, I'm going to have to call your father. I will do my level best to keep him from paying the school a visit, all right?"

She rubbed at her eyes, then her temples; said, "Yes, that would be for the best," without looking up from the floor.

Soul raised an eyebrow at her, then turned back to the counselor. "And what if the team isn't willing to make peace?"

"If Giriko will, they will, and trust me, Giriko will," Ms. Mjolnir said, terrifying for a moment in her intensity before she snapped back to her usual smiling self and waved them towards the door. "Now shoo, dears; I have things that require my attention."

/

No one made peace, despite Ms. Mjolnir's optimism and seeming determination to nip the feud in the bud. The team stalked him. They were always there, lurking down a hallway and in Soul's peripheral vision, but they stayed away if Albarn was with him, so Soul ran to their meeting spots between classes, dignity be damned. He couldn't get to his locker because it was surrounded every time he checked, and his backpack weighed approximately thirty tons thanks to all his textbooks. They tripped him whenever he got up to do anything. He made the mistake of pathing under one of the balconies on the second floor of the science building on his way to lunch, and found himself buried by what had to have been an entire bucket of pink and purple glitter. The entirety of his day after that was spent shedding glitter every time he moved and ignoring unkind sniggers everywhere he went. Albarn was getting it, too, despite her reputation, though the team kept their hands to themselves after the first one pinched her and found himself with an almost-broken hand and her elbow under his jaw for just long enough to make a point.

Black Star took pictures of the glitter once he stopped laughing. Tsubaki and Albarn sighed - one upset, the other angry - and did what they could to get the stuff out of his hair and clothes.

His mother didn't notice, because she wasn't there when he got home from detention, and Wes wisely elected to keep his mouth shut; Soul took the longest shower of his life and only got out because the water had turned freezing and not because it had stopped being full of sparkles.

Albarn picked him up again on Wednesday and they arrived at school to find that half their homework had gone missing, pilfered from the teachers' desks without a trace - which meant that the team had started calling in favors just to make their lives miserable. Soul went to his locker and found that some creative individual had tagged it with a crude skull and crossbones, then ran himself to class with pursuing footsteps right behind.

Perhaps in a few days they might have let it go, once they saw the nervous wrecks they were making of their victims, but Soul would never know. Black Star had invented a new game: stalk Giriko right back, hand Tsubaki his phone, and see how many times in a day he could run past the quarterback and slap the hideous bruise Albarn had given him with that kick, a maneuver that always resulted in Giriko falling over, swearing, tearing up, or all three.

On Thursday, Soul realized that the stalking had taken on a different tone when, accustomed now to the game of cat and mouse they were playing, he altered his route to accommodate the fact that there were a couple jocks waiting along his intended path - and found another waiting for him with a grin on his face, knuckles cracking gunshot-loud above the noise of the crowd. He executed a smart about-face, decided to take himself outside, and realized after a few more reroutes that he was being herded. He escaped that trap only by taking it upon himself to bull his way over a fence and through a hedge at top speed, emerging with his hair full of leaves and sporting a fresh set of scrapes but mercifully alone and able to meet Albarn just in time to get to class without further incident.

"This isn't working," he told her, Black Star, and Tsubaki when they met in the parking lot after school for a pre-detention status update. "They almost got me today, and I don't think my grades can take much more missing homework. I know my back can't take much more of hauling around all my books at once."

"Your back is weak," Black Star said, and took a moment to flex a bit for Tsubaki's benefit. "But you're right about the first thing, and hitting Giriko in the bruises isn't pulling in viewers any more. We need to step up our game."

Albarn snorted. "And how do you suggest we stand up to the entire football team? None of us are exactly winning popularity contests around here, and numbers are what we need."

Tsubaki cleared her throat. "Perhaps the band? They have the numbers, at least, and from what Masamune says they don't seem very kindly inclined towards the team."

"The band doesn't do anything for outsiders, not even let them in the band room," Albarn said, on top of Black Star's "The band is still pretty pissed at me for the spit valve incident," but they were both silenced when something clicked in Soul's head and he clapped his hands together.

"Of course," he said, grinning, ignoring the way Albarn was eyeing him as if expecting him to start foaming at the mouth. "If we can get in to talk to the drum majors, maybe we can convince them to help us out. They hate the football team, and at least then we'd have a safe place to hide."

"Soul," Black Star said, "even I know better than to try and talk to the drum majors. You'd have more luck getting a private meeting with the principal. I snuck into the band room once, remember? Me. How are you planning on getting in there? I don't care if you're the director's favorite, I know the only way your happy ass gets in there is when he specifically tells them to let you in."

"I might have an in," Soul said, and didn't even try to figure out how infinitesimally small their chances of actually being allowed into the drum majors' presences were. "I know a bass player in the orchestra who's always whining to me about these twins on the drum line - "

"Evans," Albarn said, her tone uncharacteristically gentle, like she was telling a small child that the Easter bunny wasn't real.

"No, fuck both of you," Soul said, what was probably irrational hope swelling underneath four days of layered paranoia and anger. "I'm gonna do it. We'll never know if we don't even try."

Albarn sniffed, crossed her arms, and looked away, clearly washing her hands of the entire situation.

Black Star eyed him for a long minute.

"I think you should," Tsubaki said while Star was still being stoic. "It's the best solution anyone's thought of so far."

"Do it," Black Star said, reaching out to give him what was meant to be a supportive punch to the shoulder. "This is ten percent luck, after all."

"I hate you," Soul said, because why was it always song lyrics, and they headed off to detention.

/

He dragged Albarn to the orchestra room the next morning when they got to school, praying that Kilik would be there and not - anywhere else, really. The orchestra members weren't as weirdly clannish as the band, but that wasn't really saying a whole lot. Soul had seen the intersectional rivalries and he knew that the cellos all wanted to murder the first violins, but they still set all that aside when outside threats made themselves known. The trick was finding the orchestra member in question: unlike the band, they didn't all use the orchestra room as a permanent residence.

"Hey," Kilik said when Soul walked in, Maka hard on his heels. He put down his bass and vacated his stool faster than Soul would have thought possible or - at the least - safe, and met them a few feet inside the door, leaning on the orchestra's battered piano. "What are you doing here? You're gonna start a riot if the team tries to follow you in here."

"Yeah, right," Soul said, rolling his eyes. "They're scared of Albarn all by herself, they wouldn't take on her, me, and you. Or did you forget the part where you do goddamn MMA?"

"Beside the point," Kilik said, rolling his thickly-muscled shoulders and adjusting what had to be the nerdiest pair of glasses in the entire school.

"You do MMA?" Albarn asked, interest piqued, and leaned in front of Soul to hold out her hand. "We oughta go a few rounds sometime. My father's been teaching me since I was little."

Kilik gave her a weird kind of conflicted look, coal-dark eyes unsure for the first time since Soul had met him. Ultimately he took her hand, though, his huge dark fist dwarfing hers - he had something like a foot on her, after all - and gave her a crooked smile.

"Sure thing," he said, "assuming you guys make it out of this alive. Now, what can I do for you?"

"We need to talk to the drum majors," Soul said, and Kilik did an ungraceful double take.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I left my total nutcase to actual sense dictionary at home this morning. You what?"

"I need you," Soul said, very slowly and with perhaps more bite than was necessary, "to nerve up and go talk to one of those twins you have such a painful crush on, because I need to make a deal with the band. Ya dig?"

"What's in this for me, piano man?"

Albarn gave him a look, and Soul really couldn't blame her. They weren't exactly in a position of strength where bargaining was concerned. Still, it'd be nice if someone would give him some credit.

"Assuming you get it together enough, I'll make sure Black Star leaves you alone when you show up with two dates to homecoming," Soul said, unable to contain a smug smirk. Nobody else could make that claim.

Kilik was giving him a very unhappy look, probably because Soul had outed his super secret crush to Maka Albarn of all people, but nobody else was close enough to hear - and seriously, as if a giant pseudo-incestuous pack of musicians would bat an eyelash at it anyway. Still, Kilik took a deep breath, scrubbed at his cornrows a bit, and squared his shoulders. Soul would have given him a slap on the back or a fistbump or at least a thumbs up if they hadn't been locked in very tense, very serious negotiations upon which his very existence hung at this point.

"Not just homecoming," he said, and Soul knew they were in. He just barely managed not to get ahead of himself and indulge in a celebratory fist-pump as Kilik continued with, "I want Black Star to leave me alone at least until after Christmas break."

"I can do that," Soul said, more than willing to bet that Black Star really had little to no actual interest in Kilik's strange and complicated romantic life. It was good for him that Star had such a crazy reputation, though, or he wouldn't have had anything to bargain with. The band wasn't exactly known for helping outsiders out of pure altruism, and Kilik probably didn't like him enough to beg favors from his sorta-kinda-crushes without some external motivation. "Deal?"

"Against my better judgement," Kilik said, and gestured across the room. "C'mon, we'll go out the other door, it opens up right next to the band room."

"You know that I know that," Soul said, and was rewarded with the exact same kind of annoyed eye-roll that Albarn kept sending his way.

"Just because you know doesn't mean Albarn knows," Kilik said before turning away, picking a careful path through the room's haphazard landscape of dozing students, instruments, backpacks, and scattered stands and chairs. He paused by the door to send a text and motioned them into the hallway.

"Even you can't just let yourself in, huh?" Soul asked, leaning against the lockers across from the heavy double doors of the band room.

"I could," Kilik said, crossing his arms while he waited, "but this is easier and more polite, not that you'd know much about that. I'm not about to just waltz in there with you. I can hang out in the band room because I have friends in band, but they'd never forgive me if I brought in the kind of drama that's following the two of you around right now without even asking."

"Point," Albarn said, settling against the lockers alongside Soul and giving the hallway a once-over. "So now we wait until somebody decides to let us in?"

"Not quite," Kilik said, but was interrupted when one of the doors in front of them opened, admitting a slim boy, dark-complected but not nearly as much so as Kilik, his wild shock of pale hair deliberately tipped in pitch black and mostly hidden under a gaudy beanie.

Kilik lit up like a struck match; the boy gave him a flashing grin before turning ice-pale eyes to Soul and Maka.

"So, the hot topic comes to us," he said, giving them a knowing look. "I assume these two were your favor, Kilik?"

"For now," Kilik said, smirking, and Soul had to give him credit for being smooth even in the face of a somewhat confusing potential relationship. "They need backup." He glanced at Soul. "Soul wants to talk to Kid."

"I can take them to Kid," the boy said, nodding, multitudinous earrings clicking together as he moved. "No problem. Not like it's my job to convince him to listen to them. I'm sure he'll be interested enough to give you at least a full minute to make a case, though. He's been following this whole situation quite closely." Again that lightning-quick grin. "If you didn't come to us, I'm pretty sure he was a day or two away from sending someone to fetch you."

"Let's get a move on, then," Albarn said, pushing away from the lockers. "It's been a rough week."

"Your friend is still shedding glitter, so I've no doubt," the boy said, and moved aside so they could pass. "Come on in, and we'll get you to the boss. You coming with, Kilik?"

"Nah," Kilik said, already turning to go. "Tell T I said hey, and I'll be by for fifth period if you guys have time."

"Of course," said their unlikely savior, and Soul glanced at Albarn before he headed into the band room, labeled in his head as the belly of the beast.

Soul had never met the senior drum major, mostly because his dealings with the band had involved the concert band, which was like casual band lite during the marching band's off season. Typically he only spoke to the director and the occasional section lead when he was brought in to perform; he didn't hold the clannishness against his fellow musicians, but it would have been nice to have some idea of just what he was getting into. All he did know was that one did not defy the drum majors, the senior one least of all. The band had the numbers to save them, though, so -

"Pay attention," their escort hissed, and Soul snapped to. The band room was weird, and not just because of its inhabitants; the main doors opened onto the border of a strange classroom area, complete with desks and whiteboard, and a much more high-ceilinged rehearsal space that probably took up a quarter of the 400 building all on its own, surrounded by small shed structures to hold instruments and stacks upon stacks of chairs and stands. The desks in the classroom area were usually, in Soul's experience, pushed to one side to make room for more useful furniture, a conglomeration of inflatable chairs and beanbags, the occasional air mattress, one actual couch, and - against the far wall, near the doors to the storage closet and the director's office, one huge wreck of a leather recliner, pitch black and dwarfing the small figure enthroned upon it.

"Stay here," said the boy once they'd reached what might be considered a polite distance. Soul stopped obediently, glancing at Albarn to make sure she didn't put up a fuss, and stuffed his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels while he ignored the suspicious and curious stares he was getting from the natives. They all probably knew exactly why he and Albarn were there - probably knew way more than they had any right to. That was the nature of the band, somehow, and it was part of why Soul was hoping they'd take him on as a charity case - they had connections and numbers. He sighed under the crushing weight of his backpack and nodded back when one of the junior drum majors gave him a sidelong stare or at least what Soul assumed was a sidelong stare; Harvar was hardly ever seen without his sunglasses, and how he got away with it was a mystery that would likely never be solved.

Their escort stood in front of Kid for what seemed like forever, certainly far too long for there to be any hope, but Soul stayed, stubborn, and exerted all the willpower he could find to keep a cool exterior. Albarn was - well, not nonchalant, but far more at ease than Soul felt was wise. She'd waved and nodded to more than a few of the room's denizens, though, which kind of didn't make sense given her violent and solitary reputation. Soul didn't worry about that because he didn't have time to worry about it; as soon as the thought crossed his mind, they were waved over.

"Time to beg," he said, and Albarn made that noise again, the same one she'd made when Soul insisted they come here: a disdainful sniff. "Look, you just stay quiet, all right? I'm sure your kill count isn't going to mean much to him anyway."

"You are out of your mind and clearly operating under some pretty extreme delusions," she replied, and they walked forward side by side before they could be accused of keeping anyone waiting.

Kid was a semi-mythic figure around the school, depending on what circles you ran in. As the senior drum major, he was the be-all end-all authority for the marching band, and not to be trifled with even during the off season. It was rumored that the director didn't even bother doing anything any more, not with Kid at the helm and Ox and Harvar backing him up. Soul certainly didn't see Mr. Buttataki very often - even during rehearsal it was Kid directing - and rumor around school was that he was dead or perhaps not actually real. Kid was the one who came up with all the marching band's new routines, the one who drilled them mercilessly until they were so good the band room was basically littered with trophies on every available flat surface, the one who made sure they practiced and did their homework, because he wasn't going to stand for having them kicked out for delinquency in their other classes. He'd been doing it directly for two years, and Soul suspected he'd been indirectly pulling the strings since the day he started high school.

Kid was also, Soul realized as he approached the chair, extremely goddamn short, which he guessed he'd never noticed before on account of being across the room from him and only seeing him up on his podium at games. Not just short but skinny, a slight figure clad in all black, pitch-dark hair streaked haphazardly with white and pale eyes almost never leaving the tablet in his lap.

"So," he said when they got close, still not looking up, tablet stylus whirling in dizzying patterns between his fingers, "let me speed this process up and tell you what I already know. You can add anything you think matters afterwards. Agreed?"

Soul nodded, realized Kid couldn't see him, and had his mouth half open to respond when Albarn rolled her eyes at him and said, "Fine."

Then Kid looked up, and pointed his stylus at Albarn like a weapon. "You," he said, "were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you've got more than your share of enemies. Giriko put a rock through your back window in what was far from his first attempt to get back at you for all the times you've beaten him or some other member of the team up."

The stylus shifted, pointed at Soul. "If you hadn't gotten involved, Albarn would probably be having a much easier time of it, but you did, because - and everyone knows this, honestly - you and Giriko had some kind of BFF falling-out and now you don't even want him looking at your brother. So you dropped the new girl like she was hot and hopped into Albarn's car, and somehow you managed to convince her to help you kick Giriko's ass. She was understandably angry enough to agree."

He sighed and spun the stylus through his fingers again, sitting back in his chair. "And of course, where Soul goes, Black Star goes, hence the school's newest series of Vine sensations and the reason you're here. I take it that the team has escalated matters enough that you've realized you're outgunned?"

"There are too many of them," Albarn said with a shrug. "Quality is not always a counter to quantity."

"So you two want our protection," Kid said, eyebrows high, expectant.

"Come on," Soul snapped. "Give me a break. You guys hate the football team, why is this such a big deal? It's not like you don't know us already. Think of it as an opportunity. You could use this to get the entire team so badly they'll never think of harassing anybody ever again. I've got information that could ruin Giriko."

Kid very politely did not roll his eyes, but Albarn did. "I'll agree, the situation has potential - and the very real possibility to get us in trouble and cause infighting, no matter what information you think you have that I don't," Kid said, leaning forward as he spoke, eyes flitting back to the tablet only briefly. "Some of my people do like certain members of the football team, you know. We are not divided factions in a video game. What you're after is a favor that you don't have to return and maybe plausible deniability, sounds like."

Albarn gave Soul a look. "Weren't you the one who said it was time to beg? You're not very good at this, Evans."

That had the fortunate side effect of making Kid laugh in addition to making Soul nearly flip the nearest table. "She's right," he said, and Soul twitched, just slightly. "However. Albarn has defended my people on more than a few occasions, and your piano playing aside, your exceedingly blunt advice to Kilik over the past few weeks regarding his current situation has been quite helpful if my drumline is to be believed. So I'll be happy to take the heat off you - and Black Star and Tsubaki, I presume? - for now. I'll let everyone know that you're all to be allowed into the band room until I tell them otherwise, as well."

Soul's shoulders sagged with relief so intense that it overrode his incredulity at Kid's ability to get information. "Thank you so much," he said, not bothering to try and maintain dignity. "I thought I was going to have to carry all of my books around forever, I thought that I was never going to get the glitter out of my hair - "

"I thought we were going to end up late to class literally every day," Albarn added, cutting him off before he could get too pitiful about his gratitude.

"I don't mind helping you out," Kid said, allowing himself a lopsided smile. "We do have a longstanding dispute with the team, you know. Granting you sanctuary doesn't really cost us anything. What you seem to have in mind regarding Giriko very well may, though, so I'm going to have to put it to a vote before I can tell you whether or not we'll be willing to fight on your behalf." He glanced to the side, watching a group of band and colorguard members play cards for a minute. "They'll probably be in favor, considering. The team hasn't been kind to any of us lately, including the guard - and maybe especially the cheerleaders."

"The cheerleaders?" Albarn asked, surprised.

Kid returned his stare to her, expression shifting from eternal poker face to something more like barely-concealed anger. "Don't tell me that you expect a group of spoiled teenage boys to act civilized around a group of attractive girls in miniskirts," he said. "No, the entire team doesn't do it, and no, not all the cheerleaders get harassed, but - nonetheless, Patti has been bringing her squadmates with her more and more often these days. I'm glad that Liz is in colorguard, since they might not have anywhere to go otherwise. With that in mind, I'm sure you can see why your odds of having enthusiastic backup are pretty good."

"No kidding," Albarn said, looking at the cheerleader in question: a short, buxom girl who was all smiles, surrounded by a group of her friends and sitting next to an older girl that Soul assumed was her sister - taller, less buxom, less sunny, but they shared an unmistakable resemblance.

"Anyway," Kid said, "let's get this show on the road." He tucked the tablet stylus behind his ear and gestured to Harvar, death's-head rings flashing on his fingers - where had he even gotten giant skull rings, anyway? Before Soul could decide whether or not he wanted to know, Harvar was kneeling beside the chair, maybe giving them the eye from behind his sunglasses and maybe not as he listened to Kid's request.

"Sure," he said, and stood, stretching. "No problem."

Kid watched him go, then nodded to himself. "That'll take about a day to get around," he said, already back to scrolling through something on his tablet. "Leave your stuff in the storage room next to the director's office, no one will touch it." He fell quiet, absorbed in whatever messages he was reading; Soul stood in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes before glancing sideways at Albarn, who just shrugged. Soul stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels, trying to decide if they were dismissed or not.

"Okay," Kid said just as Soul was starting to feel like they needed to slink away before they wore out their welcome. "Hopefully you'll be safe to get to first period now. It might still be kind of dodgy, though, so watch it."

"Right on," Soul said, and immediately hated himself for letting Black Star rub off on him. "Should, uh - should we come back at some point?"

"You'll be back," Kid said, eyes flicking across the screen. "Don't worry, I'll let you know if I need something from you. If I had to guess - " he trailed off, sighed, tapped the stylus meditatively against his chin. "Bring Black Star and Tsubaki here after last period. We can squeeze this in before practice starts."

"Ooooookay," Soul said. "See you later, then."

Kid made a dismissive gesture and Soul turned to go, then grabbed Albarn's elbow when it looked like she wanted to stay for some reason and led her to the storage room. It was open but dark, and turning on the lights illuminated a motley assortment of music stands, damaged equipment, instrument cases, and arcane musical accessories that he couldn't name. Some of them were even on the shelves. They found an empty section of shelving that wouldn't involve a probably-fatal series of acrobatics to get to and filled it with books and binders and their lunches - and then stood there, shuffling about; Albarn poked at a dented flute and Soul pulled out his phone, fired off a text: 20% skill. The band is going to get the team off our backs.

"I'll walk with you to first period," Albarn finally said a few minutes later, bored of picking through band-related debris.

"Okay," Soul said, grateful for an excuse to do something - grateful that he had something to distract from the way that Albarn, relieved momentarily from the combat conditions they'd been operating under, had gone weirdly soft around the edges, relaxed and unthreatening. Soul found that he hadn't really noticed the bottleglass green of her eyes before, or her wry little almost-smile as she looked at the blinding array of stickers on the broken tuba case she was prodding. He shoved those thoughts away, though, and got moving - then paused halfway through the doorway to glance back at her over his shoulder. "By the way, what was that about you defending some band kids?"

"Are you sure you can bear having the mystique killed for yourself?" came the cynical response, and her green eyes were hard and closed-off again, the almost-smile twisted back into her usual combination of annoyance and boredom as Albarn pushed him out of the doorway so she could close it behind them. "I promise you it's nothing nearly as interesting as me being a crazed killer of my classmates who only stays in school because the administration is terrified of my black ops father and his friend, the mad scientist coach."

"I never said you were a murderer," Soul prevaricated, because he kind of had.

"I am aware of my reputation," she said, shrugging her backpack on with a sigh of relief at its greatly reduced weight. "How about we meet for lunch like we've been doing, and I'll tell you the truth behind this idiotic legend?"

"Sure," Soul said as they made their way back across the band room, threading a path through a quilt of backpacks and instrument cases and sprawled students.

The boy who'd escorted them in appeared as if by magic just as they reached the door, a crooked grin on his face and black-tipped hair in charming disarray. "Congrats on convincing the boss," he said, raising a hand for a celebratory fistbump and winking at Soul when he pressed a folded note between his fingers with the motion. "See you later."

"You know," Albarn said as they walked back out into the hallway, "it only took ten minutes in the band room to exponentially increase the level of weirdness in my day. Did he just pass you a note?"

"Yep," Soul said, "and I'm going to get rid of it right now before any more crazy rubs off on me. Pretty sure we've got more than enough of that right now."

"You have more than enough every day, since you associate with Black Star," Albarn said, but she followed him back into the orchestra room anyway and pretended nothing unusual was going on while Soul passed Kilik his note.

They made it to first period largely unmolested, not counting a few instances of turning corners to find themselves being eyed up by some team members. Black Star texted him back on the way: dn't git cocky & dn't prtnd lIk ur madd skilz smhow savd d dA. Albarn prbly did it whIl U tried 2 akt kewl.

Then, while Soul was trying to fight his way to second period and looking to see if Albarn was going to meet him or not because habits were habits, after all: We gota do mo thN dat. Cn't act lIk w'r givN ^ & jst wnt 2 b lft aloN. hOp ur pro Enuf 2 cnvnce d B& dat we nEd 2 gt our eye of d tigR on.

He'd forgotten to tell Black Star about the meeting, of course. He forgot all over again when he finally caught sight of Albarn and couldn't keep from grinning, especially when she just rolled one shoulder in an indifferent half-shrug and said something about not assuming that they were safe yet.

I'm going to assume you're suggesting some kind of training montage leading into a triumphant comeback, Soul texted back a minute later, since Albarn was too busy watching for attackers to talk much while they walked. Further, I'm going to assume you only think it's a good idea because you can use it as an excuse to get up in Tsubaki's business.

PLEEB, said the text he got in response just as he was heading into class. Dnt STARt no shit wnt B no shit.

Soul's startled bark of laughter at the text was uncool to say the least and got him a killing glare from his teacher, but it was worth it to know that he'd managed to get to Black Star for once. He coasted on that victory and his newly-acquired sense of freedom all the way to lunch, at which point it all vanished in a weird combination of apprehension and intense curiosity when Albarn's presence on the landing halfway up the outdoor stairs to the science labs reminded him that she'd promised an explanation.

He still paused on the edge of the courtyard, curiosity be damned, and checked the bushes and under the stairs for potential ambushers, looking hard to make sure no one was lurking near the cafeteria doors - of which, he had decided during the past week, there were far too many. But there wasn't any danger that he could see, other than the benchwarmer junior varsity kid giving him a resentful glare from the center set of doors, so he climbed up to where Albarn sat watching him.

"They're not going to bother us," she said when he got close enough, before he'd even made it to the landing where she sat, legs threaded between the railing bars, feet kicking in empty space and not looking at him past a quick over the shoulder flicker of bottle-green. "Looks like Kid actually has as much influence as he thinks."

She was eating a hero sandwich, an inane detail Soul would remember, just like he remembered the way her fingers were arrayed around the bread so as to make sure the thing held together long enough for her to eat it, just like he remembered knowing, somehow, maybe through the set of her mouth or the way she wasn't looking at him or some ineffable feeling, that she was, incongruously, nervous.

He moved from where he'd stopped when she spoke, walked over and settled next to her once he'd set his backpack down, shoving his feet between the bars with more awkwardness than he'd have preferred, all told. Albarn took no notice, though, eyes fixed on the courtyard below as she took determined bites of her lunch.

"You're lucky," Soul said, opening the plain bag that held his food to find an equally plain bologna sandwich. "I haven't had a sandwich with that many ingredients since this whole thing started."

"Papa makes my lunch," she said, distracted, then blinked and looked at him full-on for the first time since he'd joined her. "Wait, what does the team hating our guts have to do with your sandwiches?"

Now it was his turn to look elsewhere. "Wes makes our lunches," he admitted, grimacing when he took a bite: dry bologna on wheat, because Wes was vindictive enough that he wasn't even using mayo. "He's been pissy ever since he convinced Giriko not to fill our lockers with paint because he had to agree to a bro-date or something to get him to do it."

He swallowed the bite of dry bread and probably-questionable lunch meat and turned to find Albarn still staring at him, brow furrowed, perhaps a little incredulous. "Your brother is sabotaging your lunches because he agreed to hang out with Giriko, which he was already doing?"

Soul sighed. "You don't understand," he said. "Wes doesn't date. My brother is not romantically inclined. He's pissed off because whatever he agreed to do was apparently too much like actually being in a relationship for his comfort."

"So he did you a favor, but he's angry about it," Albarn said, one brow sweeping upwards in judgement.

"Look, it's complicated, and I'm not the one who agreed to story time at lunch," Soul said, trying and failing to finish his sandwich without his mouth feeling like the Sahara. "Maybe some other time I can try to explain my brother and how he feels about relationships and why Giriko is a problem."

"I'd love to hear about your Giriko problem," Albarn said, and now her raised eyebrow was for him. "Especially seeing as it's what landed me in this stupid situation in the first place. That can wait, though. You're sure you want the boring truth behind my ridiculously exaggerated reputation? Isn't it more fun for everyone else to think that I'm a trained assassin or whatever it is you've all decided?"

"Well, obviously," Soul said, giving her a grin that just a few days prior he would have expected to get him killed. "But you said you'd tell me. So tell me something true, Albarn."

"If you're sure you can handle the truth," she retorted, eyes flashing in the afternoon sun, and - nah, surely it wasn't the first time he'd seen her smile.

Soul drank most of his water in one go in an effort to unstick his sandwich from the back of his throat and gave her his best impersonation of Black Star's arrogant smirk. "I'm a big boy, I can take it."

She didn't laugh or make the obvious comment, but it didn't matter; the look she gave him said it all. Soul looked away with a snort and busied himself with the rest of his lunch, which was actually just an apple and a tapioca pudding cup.

"So," Albarn said, and Soul didn't need to look up to see her smirk. "I was homeschooled sophomore year. No, it wasn't assassin training, and that isn't what we're here to talk about. When I came back this year, everyone had decided that my father was black ops and I'd been getting ninja training or something. They seem to think I kill people for fun and, apparently, give Stein the bodies for necromantic experiments or some nonsense."

Soul might have bitten into his apple with more force than was strictly necessary.

"I assume that these rumors started and kept going thanks to an incident about two days after I came back. I was minding my own business, walking to the back lot where I'd parked the Jeep, when there was a - ruckus, from over near the football field." She finished her sandwich, licked a bit of mayo off her fingers - Soul suppressed a surge of searing condiment-related jealousy - and took a swig of water before she continued. "It was a couple dudes chasing down one of the band's younger drummers. Whatever you think my father taught me, he did teach me how to fight, so I got in between them."

"Wait," Soul said, remembering an incident back towards the beginning of the school year. "Was that when the JV quarterback couldn't play for a month because he'd mysteriously wrecked up his shoulder? I heard he had quite a shiner, too. Something about falling down some stairs. Wes was...skeptical."

"Well, he couldn't very well admit that a girl had kicked his ass while he was trying to bully someone," Albarn said, and something about the glint in her eye made Soul's hair stand on end. "So that was the start. You know how word gets around when the band's involved. Kids kept running to me when they were in trouble, and I kept fighting off the guys harassing them."

"And the guys kept making shit up to explain why you won instead of them," Soul finished, comprehension dawning, incredulous. "So you're actually some kind of - white knight champion, saving bullied kids?"

"I didn't ask for this," Albarn said, rolling her eyes, seemingly annoyed.

"But you didn't back down, either," Soul pointed out, and his tapioca pudding didn't taste so awful somehow when it was chased by twisted amusement.

She snorted. "What kind of person lets somebody suffer when they're perfectly capable of helping them?"

"That's not why you helped me," Soul said, and she rolled her eyes again.

"Of course not," she said, pulling a bag of habanero cheddar potato chips from her backpack. "You didn't need help. You just gave me an extremely convenient excuse to beat Giriko bloody for fucking up my car because he wants your brother to think he's cool for some reason. Also, you owe me money, don't think I forgot."

"I would never expect you to forget," Soul said, dry as dust, still wondering where he was going to get that money, if he'd manage it before she came to break his kneecaps in the night. "You keep reminding me about it, is there a date by which you want payment in full?"

She ate a few chips, rolled one shoulder, tilted her head a bit, didn't care. "Nah. Even if you gave me the money we'd still be stuck in this situation. I figure you'll take care of it as soon as you can, and I'm stuck with you until this blows over regardless."

Well, that was - tacit acceptance, Soul guessed. Some low-grade implication that she didn't hate him.

"So anyway," she continued, crunching through the chips with no regard for their heat, "that's why Kid knows who I am. I'm still in school because usually the guys I knock around are too embarrassed to try getting me in trouble when it would involve admitting they lost a fight and also probably get them in more trouble than me." She offered him a chip; Soul took it and regretted it immediately when it set his entire mouth on fire. "Usually, anyway. Ms. Mjolnir has a file on me that's inches thick, but none of it is major offenses. Papa has had to pull a few strings, though. Luckily the principal likes him."

"So you're only sort of a delinquent," Soul surmised, chugging the rest of his water in vain hope of subduing the pain in his mouth.

"There's no justice in punishing everyone involved in a fight if the only reason it started is because someone decided to be an asshole," Albarn said, voice acrid, and Soul had no retort for that. "So. What's with you and Giriko, anyway? I'm never going to believe that you have some altruistic interest in your brother's nonexistent virtue."

"I'd rather not get into it," Soul said, and filched another chip, heat exploding in his mouth when he bit down on it. "I'm going to have to explain it to Kid anyway, so let's just wait until later on when everyone's in the same place so I won't have to repeat myself."

"Sure," Albarn said, and let it go just like that, easy as breathing. The rest of lunch passed in more or less companionable silence - as companionable as one could be with Maka Albarn - and they parted ways for their last class of the day with a reminder to meet at the band room once the final bell rang.

/

Soul's last class was across campus from the band room, which meant a nearly ten minute trek before he reached his destination. That was enough time, apparently, for Black Star to get there and make a complete ass of himself, demonstrated by the Vine link he texted Soul just before he reached the 400 building.

"Oh my god," Soul muttered under his breath in utter disbelief, watching an endless loop of Black Star, having apparently been introduced to the band's lead flute player, Kim Diehl, yell, "Damn, Kim, you sure are the Diehl," upon which she shrieked and whirled, pink hair in disarray, and shoved him into a pile of instrument cases.

You're going to get us kicked out of the band room literally right after we were given permission to enter it, you're ruining EVERYTHING, he texted back, perhaps slightly flushed in his panic - okay, maybe it was more like complete embarrassment at his insane excuse for a friend, but either way he got his ass in gear and ran the rest of the way to the band room. Maybe if he got there quickly he'd be able to grovel enough to keep Kid from leaving them all trussed up in front of the football team's locker room.

Except Kid was waiting in the hallway when Soul showed up, a sight that essentially froze his blood in his veins. Black Star was nowhere in sight, either, which Soul assumed meant that his body had already been disposed of.

"Look, Kid, I'm sorry, Star's - "

"Oh, he's fitting right in," Kid said, half-smile wider than Soul would have thought possible, let alone likely. "Pretty much everyone already knows about Black Star, and considering the sheer volume of videos he's posted lately that involve him harassing Giriko, they were all more than willing to welcome him with open arms. Why, were you worried about his bit of performance art with Kim? She's fine. Jackie was more than pleased to console her afterwards, not that she was particularly upset."

Soul blinked. Took a deep breath. Decided not to think too much about anything Kid had just said. "Oh."

"Anyway, we don't have a lot of time before practice," Kid said, and pushed away from the wall he'd been leaning on, pulling back the sleeve of his shirt to consult a gleaming ebony and silver watch that probably cost more than the car Soul shared with Wes. "Hopefully Albarn will - " He was cut off by a chime from his pocket. "Ah. That'd be Ox, which means she's here. Come on, we can talk in the office."

"God," Soul said, following him into the band room, "are you for real? Is this - "

"The real life?" Kid asked, an odd glint in his eyes.

By the office door, Kilik's twin love interests grinned at each other and turned to look at Harvar, who gave them a thumbs up and a quick one-two-three count with his fingers before they crooned, obnoxiously in tune with each other, "Is this just fantasy?"

"Oh no," Soul said, coming to a horrified halt halfway to the office.

On the other side of the band room, Ox straightened where he was holding the door for Albarn, the room's lights gleaming on the shaved skin of his head as he took a huge breath and, with operatic volume and theatric tone, belted, "Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality."

"What," Soul said, and a chortling Kid came back to wave his people into silence and lead him into the office by the arm. "I didn't know that Ox could sing," was all he could say when they were inside.

Kid gestured to the room's battered couch, where Black Star was already sprawled, though he was very carefully not touching Tsubaki. "Oh, he's a star baritone," Kid said, and wove his way around the director's desk to settle into his ancient office chair, avoiding the room's scattered papers and books and music scores with a look of distaste.

"Tell me next time you do that so I can record it," Black Star said, cuffing Soul's shoulder in lieu of a civilized greeting. "Do you even know how many hits - "

"I'm sure my people will provide you with ample opportunities in the future," Kid said, back to his typical flawless composure just in time for Ox to knock on the open door, Albarn beside him. "Thank you, Ox. Hopefully this won't take very long. Try and herd everyone in the right direction if I'm not out in ten minutes."

"Absolutely," Ox said, pushing his glasses up his nose so he could give them all a look before he turned to go, shutting the door behind him with a very final-sounding click.

"So," Kid said, leaning back in the chair, contemplative in the sudden silence afforded by the door shutting and, for once, not touching his tablet, which sat in the desk's only clear space. "Everyone seems sympathetic enough. They're more than willing to hassle the team, given this good an excuse, and willing to make sure they know that it's because of the way they've been treating you four, in addition to their other recent...indiscretions."

"I don't want the team," Soul said, leaning forward, aware that Albarn was giving him a wary stare from where she was still standing by the door, aware that Black Star was rolling his eyes and that Tsubaki seemed a touch concerned. "This isn't about the team. This is about Giriko. The band can heckle the team on their own time - you were going to do that anyway, don't pretend that you weren't, and don't pretend you don't know that they'll all back off if Giriko does."

"Yo, I'll be more than happy to help you guys give the team hell," Black Star interrupted, raising a hand as he spoke. "Let's not waste this opportunity."

"Noted," Kid said, but he was still looking at Soul. "All right, I'll admit that it would be worthwhile to target Giriko specifically. If we can get the lead quarterback to stand off, the rest should follow him." He paused, skull rings flashing as he leaned forward, and settled his elbows on the desk, fingers steepled. "To be honest, I've been hoping to do this for some time. I'm tired of my people getting into - scuffles. Problem is, Giriko's not exactly an easy target. He's always with his teammates, so we probably won't have enough opportunities to harass him until he gives up, and I don't have much for incriminating information that we could use against him. He's done plenty of things that would be blackmail worthy, except for the fact that he doesn't care that we know. I'd need something personal, and I don't have it."

Soul was halfway to blurting out something inane like 'well I guess even your information network has its limits' when he noticed the way Kid was watching him, with sharp, hooded eyes, and realized that he was the information network.

"Yo," Black Star said again, and this time he was giving Soul what was really an undeservedly annoyed look, "you better start talking, fool. The Godfather here isn't going to go out of his way to help you make Giriko's life suck. You gotta serve choice info up on a silver platter, Broseph."

"That was...indelicate," Kid said, with a sigh that was a stunningly eloquent combination of exasperation and disappointment. "Nonetheless, he makes a point. If you want assistance with your...war of attrition, you're going to have to give me something to help effect it, Soul."

"And he's gonna have to actually work for it," Black Star added, arms crossed, nose up, smug and grinning when Soul tried to give him a withering glare that, as usual, did absolutely nothing.

"Fine," Soul said, not even caring that he was sulking, slouched low on the couch with his arms crossed, Albarn giving him a look from the door that said she was already completely done with his bullshit. "Giriko and I used to be friends."

Somehow Star managed not to comment. Kid raised one eyebrow in silent inquiry, and Soul took a deep breath, sighed explosively, and kept talking.

"Okay, we were best friends, starting in first grade. We were inseparable, and since his parents don't care much what he does as long as his grades stay decent and he goes to college on a football scholarship, he practically lived at my house." He paused, watched Kid's fingers skate across the screen of his tablet as he slotted the edge of it into the first joint of his fingers and hit the power button. "At the time, it didn't make any sense to me, because he has a huge-ass house full of every toy a kid could want, but - it's a shitty situation, I get it. He's still an asshole. Anyway, Dad disappeared in middle school, and I was pretty fucking upset about it. He'd stayed just long enough for me and Wes to get really attached, then he just ditched us. We didn't know why, still don't."

Soul shifted on the ancient couch, wishing he could just sink into it and not have this conversation, but it was way too late for that. "Mom worked all the time after that, and when she was home practically all she could do was sleep. I didn't starve because Wes started cooking. He got his permit as soon as he could and got her to give him money for groceries." He scrubbed a hand through his hair and tried to kill the urge to go tableflipping batshit insane on Tsubaki and Albarn and even Kid for the way they were looking at him, with varying degrees of sympathy and what they probably thought was understanding but which really came off as judgement.

"That's not the reason I'm telling you this story, though, so don't worry about it," he said instead of going ballistic, settling his hands in his lap and hoping not to crack a knuckle with how tight his fists were clenched. "So I was upset. And Mom was about to have a breakdown, and seeing your mother cry a lot wears you down when you're thirteen. So I talked to my best friend about it. After all, I thought we were on that level, considering how much time I'd spent letting him rant about his family to me. So what Giriko does, as I'm having a total meltdown, is try to get into my pants."

Black Star's smothered, snorting laughter interrupted him, and Soul rolled his eyes, very used to this routine. Star knew and had always known, and, after making sure that Soul hadn't been damaged by the experience, had proceeded to find it suffocatingly hilarious.

"Before you ask," he said to Kid's somewhat slack-jawed expression - and forget looking at Albarn - "no, I was not molested. We were thirteen and Giriko remains extremely confused about his sexuality and the difference between friendship and romance. Long story short, I threw him into the coffee table, we both freaked out, he ran off. When I finally got him to answer the phone I told him that we weren't friends any more, and if he didn't want me to tell the entire school what had happened he'd better stay the hell away from me and everything associated with me."

Kid cleared his throat, glanced at his tablet, and looked everywhere but directly at Soul for a few seconds until he regained his composure. "So what you're telling me is that we can use that, then," he said, and his eyes narrowed a bit. "I'm not going to out him, Soul. That's not acceptable and you know it."

Soul sighed again and rubbed a hand across his face. "Yeah, I know. Seventeen year old me isn't as big a dickbag as thirteen year old me. Also I'm not making threats out of sheer panic any more, which helps. Fill his locker with dick confetti or something. If you keep doing that sort of stuff, he'll eventually crack under the pressure and call off the team, I'm sure of it. Also, I have some really hilarious pictures of him as a kid that would ruin anyone's social life."

The vague threat in Kid's eyes turned to wary humor. "That will serve," he said, propping his chin in one hand, eyes back on the tablet. "He does need some consequences for what he's been doing - we can't just let it keep happening. I'll arrange some unpleasant surprises. Nothing drastic, but something that will make a point - for him and the members of the team who have been causing trouble. A warning shot, if you will."

"Can you give me a schedule on that?" Black Star asked, phone already in his hands. "I really need to get at least some of this recorded for posterity, yanno. I promise I won't name any names."

"I would think not," Kid said, setting his tablet down, stare so neutral when he looked at Black Star as to be more than a little frightening. "We do still remember the spit valve incident, to say nothing of the little stunt you pulled with the colorguard's equipment and the mascot costumes."

Was that sweat beading on Star's temples?

"Of course I won't mention anything important," Black Star said, and his nonchalant facade wasn't fooling anybody.

"I'm trusting you on that," Kid said, and stood, stretching a bit of tension from his shoulders. "We'll be in touch once we figure out what we're going to be doing, probably by Sunday."

"Do you need our numbers?" Tsubaki asked, though something in the way she said it made it not really a question.

Kid glanced at her and managed a surprisingly benevolent smile. "Would it make you feel better to give them to me?"

"It'd make me feel better if you quit acting like you freakin' own everything," Black Star muttered, arms crossed, eyes on a far corner, outdoing Soul's sulking by orders of magnitude.

"We're in this together now," Kid said, smirking, and winked at Black Star when he gave him an incredulous stare because of course he never missed a song reference, especially not when he himself had quoted it a few days prior. "Don't worry about me, Black Star. As you are fond of saying, don't start no shit, won't be no shit."

"Can I just sign something in blood so you never do this again," Black Star said, and practically bolted for the door when Kid waved them out, already more interested in his tablet than them. Tsubaki followed him, laughing, his backpack and phone in her hands.

"Oh, and Soul," Kid said as Soul stood and made to follow Black Star and Tsubaki at a more sedate pace. "Should you find anything out that you think we can put to use, let me know. Tell Kilik, he'll pass it along."

"Sure," Soul said, and exited stage right before his afternoon could get any weirder. Albarn was right behind him, which made sense given that she was his ride home, but - well, Soul didn't really want to discuss the conversation they'd just had, and he knew better than to think she'd leave it alone.

She didn't. "Before you do something catastrophic to your blood pressure, I think that what Giriko did was pretty terrible," she said, surprising him into staring at her, which nearly resulted in him tripping over someone's backpack as they headed for the band room's back door. "I suppose he wasn't sorry?"

"Giriko doesn't know how to be sorry," Soul snapped, regaining his balance with a decidedly uncool series of flailing hops. "He told me I was overreacting, then he told me that I took it the wrong way because I was so upset - he told me it was my fault in about a thousand different ways. Threatening to tell everyone his secret was the only way I managed to get him to admit he'd done anything to be sorry for, and even then I think it's just because he was trying to save his ass. He'll say anything to get out of trouble."

"I always knew he was a winner," Albarn said, nodding to him when he held the door for her. They made their way to the Rambler without incident for the first time since the whole sad affair had begun - though they were still being watched, evidenced by the letter-jacketed figures that lurked on the periphery. Still, no one tried anything, and Soul was happy to take that as a victory, especially considering that they had to walk past the stadium to get to the back lot where Albarn parked.

"Getting the band in on this was a good idea, by the way," she said, wrenching open the driver's door of the car with a deafening shriek of rusted hinges. "I'm impressed that you pulled it off."

Soul grinned and settled into the car's decrepit passenger seat with a shrug. "I'd like to claim that it was all part of my genius plan, but honestly I was just desperate - and thank god Kilik apparently is too, because otherwise we'd be screwed."

"We'd have figured something out," she said, throwing the car into reverse with a jarring lurch.

When Soul had made sure he still had all his teeth in his head and that his spine was in fact intact, he gave her a sideways grin. "I suppose you could have always just defeated Giriko in single combat and claimed your rightful place as team alpha."

"Don't think I haven't considered it," she responded, and cranked up the mystically-functional radio before Soul could respond with anything other than hysterical laughter at the idea of her in charge of the football team.

"So," Albarn said when she'd finessed the Rambler into a whiplash stop in front of Soul's house and turned down the music, "given our apparent safety, do you still need me to come get you on Monday?"

"I, ah," Soul said, struggling to maintain his cool when faced with the unexpected prospect of having to resume riding to school with his brother, "would it be a problem? Wes is still kind of less than pleased about that whole thing where he agreed to some kind of pseudo date with Giriko if he'd keep the team from pouring paint or something in our lockers."

"No problem," she said, and gave him a wry kind of almost-smile. "Your brother's really not the dating type, huh?"

Soul snorted. "That would be putting it mildly. He wants friends and he wants sex, and never the twain shall meet." He grabbed his pack and wrestled the door open, even got a few steps away from the car before he heard Albarn's door screech.

"Hey," she said, arms on the car's rusted-out roof. "If your brother's pissed at you and has as busy a social life as you claim - " Her fingers drummed on the metal, and if he didn't know better Soul would have thought she looked a bit tense. "I assume you won't really have access to the car. You wanna - I dunno, go mini-golfing or something tomorrow?"

Soul kind of - ground to a stop, stood in his front yard staring, and Albarn seemed to take that amiss.

"I mean," she said, "Papa's replacing my window tomorrow, and who knows what else he's going to do, and I really don't feel like getting roped into helping so he can lecture me for hours on end about ladylike behavior."

Soul blinked. "But isn't he the one who taught you to - "

"Yeah. Look. I never claimed that my father made sense. Anyway, it's not important, if you don't want to I'll just - "

"No," Soul said, in a hurry and perhaps with a bit more feeling than he'd intended, and she snapped her mouth shut and raised an eyebrow at him. "No, I want to go, I was just kind of - confused?"

She shrugged, and though she wasn't smiling and kind of looked ready to bolt, the severity had left her face once again, the same way it had that morning in the band's storage room. Soul found that he kind of liked it.

"I'll text you tomorrow, then," she said. "Early afternoon, all right? After lunch."

"Sure," Soul said, and Albarn nodded, climbed back into the car, and that was that. He watched her drive off, still trying to process what had just happened, and had his vaguely panicky thought patterns rudely interrupted by BEEP BEEP, MOTHERFUCKER screaming from his pocket.

f I go 2 bed bby cn I tAk U w me, read the text, and Soul felt his face spasm a bit.

Please delete my number from your phone, he texted back before stuffing his phone back in his pocket and heading inside.

"Soul," Wes said as soon as he made it through the door, and Soul stopped in the foyer, gracing his brother with a resigned stare. "I need the car this weekend."

"When don't you," Soul replied, and headed past the living room in hopes of finding something in the kitchen that might be able to make up for the week he'd had. "I don't care, though. Albarn's - "

"Oh right," Wes said, suddenly in the kitchen with him, half-draped across the island, languid in the evening light and wearing a shit-eating grin that made Soul want to go for the knife block. "Albarn. So I see we both have hot dates this weekend, then, if she's your solution to me having the car."

"I desperately need you to stay away from Giriko, he's the worst," Soul said, and growled when Black Star's text alert interrupted him. "If my strong advice isn't enough to keep you from consorting with my sworn enemy, then do it for no other reason than you've seen the shit he pulled this week. Why would you even want to bother after that?"

"I'm not looking for marriage material," Wes drawled. "Neither is Giriko, for that matter. Boy's confused and so far in the closet he may as well have a mailing address in Narnia. Our interests happen to match, thanks to that: lots of benefits, not so much friends, at least once he stops pretending this is a platonic thing."

Sry f dat gave U falz hOp, t wz 4 Tsubaki, read Black Star's text when Soul opted to check his phone rather than acknowledge that those words had actually come out of his brother's mouth. If U liked it thN U shlda put a rng on it.

"I can't decide if you or Black Star is actually more damaging to my sanity," Soul said, scrubbing his hands over his face.

"Yeah, look," Wes said, dropping some of his usual smarmy charm in favor of actual gravitas, "this you and Giriko thing? You still won't tell me anything about it. All I know is that Dad left and then you two weren't friends any more. It's a shame that you don't like my taste in partners and all that, but like I said on Monday, all you're doing is making unreasonable demands without giving me any actual reasons - "

He was interrupted by the whirlwind arrival of their mother, who was through the front door and in the kitchen with them in a blink. "What are your plans for the weekend, boys," she said, still moving a million miles an hour as if she were still at the hospital delivering babies and advising teenage mothers. It wasn't exactly a nurturing, motherly kind of concern, either; rather, her primary intention was to prevent them from ending up in an ill-advised relationship at a young age that ended in kids. One bitten, twice shy, Soul supposed; she wasn't much past thirty-six, had had Wes at nineteen and still managed to become an obstetrician.

"Hey, Mom," Wes said, and if his smile was a hair too broad to be honest, it was still mostly honest, because Wes was a good son and loved his momma and hugged her tightly every day when she came home if he was awake for it. "I made dinner, there's a pan of bacon mac and cheese in the oven that should still be pretty warm."

"You must have a busy weekend planned," she said, though she looked tired and more than a little pleased at the idea of warm, homemade food for dinner instead of takeout or something she had to find the energy to make herself. "Please remember to pack condoms, dear. I added some thins and some ribbed ones to the stash. Do you need lube or anything?"

"I'm all right, Mom," Wes said, grin moderating into something genuinely affectionate while Soul contemplated how many times he'd have to slam his head into the counter in order to achieve unconsciousness and, thus, escape from the conversation. "You know I know better. But maybe you should talk to Soul once you eat, if you aren't too tired - he's got this girl he's - "

"I will kill you," Soul snarled, unwilling and completely unable to even fathom how he would explain Albarn to his mother without getting his ass in trouble.

"Son," his mother said, and both of them basically snapped to attention. "Soul, you know not to get some girl pregnant, right? I don't have to make you take care of the surrogate for a week, do I?"

"No, Mom," he said, really wishing he'd opted for the head-trauma-escape-route version of the conversation.

"I don't want you feeling like you can't have a girlfriend," she continued, letting Wes help her out of her coat while she eyed the oven and its theoretical mac and cheese, "or a boyfriend, I might add - but I need you to know how not to wind up in a bad situation. I am the last person to judge you for not wanting children but wanting a physical relationship, Soul, so please - "

"Mom," he repeated, and she sighed, went after dinner instead. "It's not a relationship."

"Now, honey, just because it isn't romantic doesn't make it less of a valid relationship, just ask your brother - "

"Mother," he said again, and she glanced at him over her shoulder while she spooned out food. "For all I care right now I will die a virgin, so help me," he continued, annoyed, wishing he could be anywhere else, wishing he'd died in a flaming car crash in Albarn's terrible car rather than have to endure this. "We're hanging out because if we're together the football team leaves us alone. That's it. Once this whole mess blows over - I know that Ms. Mjolnir called you even though she said she wouldn't - we'll probably stop talking to each other."

"That's what they all say," she said, spooning cheesy noodles into her mouth straight from the pan. "I am picking up what you are laying down, boy, don't think I don't know. I need you to be safe, not trying to convince me that everything is fine. If your brother has picked up on it, there's no way there's not something going on." Wes gave him a nasty grin from the background that made Soul itch for murder. "I spent half my day today delivering babies to teenagers, and I don't need you thinking that sending selfies to some - some ratchet girl is going to end well, Soul, I don't care how yolo you think you are - "

"Dear lord, mother, who the hell do you think - "

"Language, boy - "

"No, who the hell do you think I am, who do you think Maka Albarn is? Her father is some kind of black ops elite navy SEAL ninja assassin, he taught her who knows what, she could snap my spine if she wanted to - this is not a relationship, we have an understanding that has nothing to do with getting laid and everything to do with mutual self-preservation - "

"Mom, I have a date next weekend," Wes said abruptly, taking pity on Soul for some unfathomable reason. "I'll be out from six thirty on Friday till whenever I come home on Saturday, if you don't mind."

"Condoms, dear," she reminded him with a heavy mom-sigh, and Wes made the proverbial 'cross my heart' gesture, which seemed enough to placate her. "Soul, obviously whatever you say I have to believe, but please do not get some girl pregnant, I don't care if she's a jujitsu master black ops assassin."

"Yes," Soul finally said after several seconds in which he devoted all of his energy to staving off an aneurysm. "Yes, Mom, I understand."

"Good," she said, and took her giant bowl of food to the living room.

Soul and Wes eyed each other from opposite sides of the kitchen island.

"I have a date and it's your fault," Wes finally said, looking surly and uncomfortable.

"Yeah, well, no one asked you to sell yourself for my benefit," Soul snapped, more than slightly rankled by his mother's well-meaning admonitions.

"I like to think that you'd do the same for me," Wes said, and gave him a meaningful look over the pan of noodles before wrapping it up to go in the fridge. "And considering the situation, you really didn't deserve that kind of trouble when all that you did was convince Albarn to give Giriko an ass-kicking that he really did deserve."

Soul sighed. "Well, at least you're not some lovestruck dumbass who thinks their new crush can do no wrong," he allowed, already reconsidering the food.

"Not me," Wes said, grinning again. "You know better than that."

"Yeah," Soul said. "Well, good luck with that, I guess. I'm going upstairs."

"Have fun tomorrow! Remember, no kissing on the first date!" Wes called up the stairs after him, and Soul only barely managed to talk himself out of covering his brother's room in glitter or silly string or political stickers.

Still. He had limits. He was not a saint.

Wes has a date with Giriko Friday night, he texted Kilik - not Black Star, who would find out via more appropriate channels like Kid, who would hopefully keep him from doing something like showing up at Giriko's house with toilet paper and silly string. At 6:30. Think you can pass that on to the kingpin?

Consider it done, said the almost immediate reply. That left Soul alone in his room, staring at his poster-covered walls and at his phone, unaccustomed to the fact that Black Star was not texting him at max capacity describing where and when he required Soul's presence that weekend. Maybe he'd meant it when he mentioned replacing him as a cameraman.

That caused an unexpected pit to form in the vicinity of his stomach; it wasn't as though Soul had many friends to begin with, and replacing Black Star was an impossibility of epic magnitude.

He was dwelling on that, uncomfortable, when he phone howled profanity at him yet again. It was actually a relief, which just went to show that Black Star had managed to corrupt his mind past all saving.

Btw, Albarn tld me bout ur d8, it said, destroying any sense of relief, and Soul nearly threw his phone out the window. Dnt tink I'm letN U off d h%k jst cuz tsubaki's gud w/a cmra. jst thawt I'd gv U a ltl tym off, ur knda strssd out & thts nt gud 4 makin art. 15% concntr8d pwr f will u aint gt.

He stared at the screen for long enough that it seemed unnecessary, more torn than usual between burning hatred and hysterical laughter at Black Star's texting habits, then closed out of the text thread without responding and opened a new one, directed at Albarn's now-unblocked number: What made you think telling Star was a sane idea?

Please, she responded almost immediately. If I hadn't, he'd have you running in circles already.

Soul scowled at his phone, realized no one could see him, sighed heavily, and texted back: You're paying for my game tomorrow.

Yeah, sure, she replied a minute later, and there was no attached emoji but he could feel her smirking. I take it your brother is still insisting on hanging around Giriko?

He's a hunter, Soul sent back with an accompanying unseen eyeroll, then dropped onto his bed and contemplated whether or not he owned a video game that would allow him to indulge in the levels of violence he felt had a chance of making him feel better. They have some kind of date next Friday, Wes is pissed. Apparently this is what Giriko wanted in return for not trashing our lockers.

He was digging through his video games when she responded: Must be tough.

That made him laugh a little, and he settled on Dynasty Warriors as a good candidate for mind-numbing stress relief, burrowing into his bed with a controller and a bag of chips from his 'my family is making me want to watch the world burn' stash. Maybe it wouldn't be such a terrible evening after all.

/

The weekend passed in a largely unremarkable fashion, if one discounted the fact that Maka 'black ops' Albarn showed up at Soul's house and took him to play mini golf. She paid for his game with minimal heckling, and they only almost came to blows over who got the green ball. He regained his self-preservation instincts partway through, though, when he remembered that she could probably kill him ten different ways with her golf club should she feel the need to employ a weapon and not her bare hands. Discretion being the better part of valor, he yielded the golf ball and chose red instead. They played through the pirate-themed course, since it was the easier one, and Albarn beat him at mini golf by a really embarrassing amount that Soul vowed never to reveal to anyone. Especially not Black Star.

Albarn took a picture of the score card 'just in case,' and Soul gave her a poleaxed look. "It's like you plan to betray me," he said.

She gave him a smile that would have looked good on a sphinx and proceeded to get a hole in one on the bonus hole. "I think I'll keep the voucher for now," she said, tucking the little printed card into her messenger bag along with the score card.

"You're planning something, aren't you," Soul said once he'd tried to replicate her hole in one and failed miserably. He followed her back into the lobby, returned his club, and still hadn't gotten an answer. "Seriously, what's going on? Are you in cahoots with Black Star?"

That made her laugh, a still-unexpected and strangely enjoyable sound. "Only for workout routines," she said, and held the door open for him with a smirk. "They have a deal here: if you bring in five bonus round tickets for both courses, you get hats."

He stopped halfway through the door to give her a deeply distrustful stare. "Hats?"

"What, you think I wanted the coupon for a free playthrough? I have a pile of those." She herded him outside. "Papa always insists we use them for a second round. He's never once let me get a hat. Something about spending more time with me. Joke's on him, though, I've been hiding them."

"That's kind of cute," Soul said, wrenching the passenger door open and settling carefully on the front seat lest he cause its splitting cover to disintegrate entirely. "Ugh, I hardly even notice all the noise this heap makes any more."

"That's how you know it's time to get rid of it," Albarn said, finality in her voice. "And speaking of which, I need to take you home, because Papa's probably got the Jeep ready and I am not exposing you to him a minute sooner than I have to."

"Thanks, I think," Soul said, and twenty minutes later found himself back on his doorstep, with Black Star occupied, Wes gone, and his mother watching deliberately terrible movies in the living room.

"Hey, honey," she said from the couch, cocooned in blankets, only the top of her head visible over the armrest. "Did you have fun?"

"Well, she won by so many points I may never play mini golf again," Soul said, giving his mother a thoughtful look. "But other than that, yeah, it was nice to spend time with someone who isn't as insane as Black Star. You have a rough week? Seemed like you worked a lot of hours."

"You know how it gets sometimes," she said, and it was apparent as always that Soul's deep sighs were a learned behavior. "I did have one lady tell her husband that she was going to kick him in the testicles every thirty seconds so he could feel what she was feeling, though. That was pretty good." She twisted enough to look at Soul's horrified expression and laughed. "In her defense, he was trying to act like her labor pains weren't that big of a deal. Trust me when I tell you: they are a big deal."

Soul stood in the foyer and asked the universe for strength. "I know, Mom," he said, and rather than hang about for more birthing stories - she gave him a very amused look, hadn't he left that behind when Albarn drove off? - he opted for heading into the kitchen. "You want some hot cocoa?"

He spent most of the remainder of the weekend on the couch with his mother, making fun of romantic comedies, making her cocoa, and occasionally letting her extort footrubs. She didn't get much time off, after all, and he - didn't spend all that much time with her, really, being a teenage son with friends, gosh. But Black Star stayed quiet, true to his word, and Albarn didn't get in touch, and the band apparently felt no need to contact him, so Soul had an unprecedented stretch of free time that he wasn't even sure how to fill. His mother seemed happier for it, at least.

/

Monday morning saw a pearly white Grand Wagoneer waiting for him, woodgrain gleaming nearly as brightly as its paint - which had nothing on the glint in Maka Albarn's eyes when Soul exited the house, still chewing on a pumpkin pie toaster strudel. He actually stopped halfway across his yard when she caught his eye, pastry stuck in his throat, and made several promises he would never be able to keep to the universe at large if it meant he got to school in one piece. She didn't have a chance to yell at him to get moving this time, though; just the look she gave him when he paused was enough to make him stutter back into motion.

He noticed, sliding across the cream leather of the Jeep's interior, that she was wearing her bomber jacket again, had her hair up in a bun, and was back to wearing those hobnailed boots that had made him flinch the moment he'd seen them. How she wore those things to school without getting sent home he didn't know, but -

"You expecting a fight?" he asked, settling his backpack between his feet.

"With Giriko around, I don't know what to expect," she said, throwing the Jeep into gear and sending it away from the curb at approximately the speed of light. "Really, I'm just glad that detention week is over and the school authorities are done staring me down every time they see me. I was trying to look less like I was going to throw down on those idiot jocks at any moment. Life's a lot easier when they think I'm harmless, so I was trying to look the part, at least a little."

From somewhere in the depths of her seat padding, Soul snorted. "You could be wearing an Easter bunny costume and you'd still never look harmless," he said, and dragged himself forward against the force of her acceleration so that he could get comfortable. She gave him a dirty look that he managed to ignore, and after a few minutes of her slightly annoyed silence Soul asked after the Jeep just to change the subject.

"Oh, Papa replaced the glass," she said, eyes flicking to her rearview mirror. "He also put in some new parts he had machined." Her smile made Soul's hair stand on end. "More than a small upgrade, that."

"At least something good came out of this entire stupid mess," Soul said, hands white-knuckled on the door handle as she took the turn into the school parking lots at thirty.

"Eh, it hasn't really been so bad," she said, shrugging, and Soul gave her a wary look, remembering very clearly that she'd been ready to feed him his own liver when they first met based purely on the fact that Giriko had broken her window to impress Wes. "I can't say I like detention, but we didn't get suspended or anything, and I got Giriko pretty damn good. Also I got to play mini golf with someone who isn't my father, which I think might be a first. So. Not all bad, really."

Soul was going to reply, really he was, but she whipped the Jeep into a parking space with such abrupt velocity that his teeth crashed together and only some quick wits saved him from cracking his skull on the window.

"Good god, woman, what on earth - "

"It's just good to be back in a real car again," she said, as if that explained everything, then grabbed her stuff out of the back, cut the engine, and disappeared into the chilly morning before Soul could gather his wits enough to say anything in response. Instead he fumbled his door open and ran to catch up, noticing for the first time that her jacket had a patch on the left shoulder: a stylized, not exactly threatening-looking skull that was, nonetheless, a skull.

"What is with people at this school and skulls," he said, staring down at it. "First Kid and now you. Where did you even get that?"

She tilted her head just enough to give him a cool look that made him regret opening his mouth. "Papa's ex-military," she said, again as if that should explain everything. "Sometimes he gives me things. Sometimes they're too cute for anyone in their right mind to even look at, and sometimes they're skulls."

"If you say so," he said, pulling at the buttons on the cuffs of his flannel as they crossed the still-filling bus lane. "Do you think it's safe to put our stuff back in our lockers?"

"I don't know," she said, pausing at the sidewalk juncture that would take them to the band room. "In theory, it should be, and it's not that I don't trust Kid, it's just that I really don't trust Giriko to - "

She was interrupted by Black Star's text alert, and gave him a look - he presumed for not setting his phone to vibrate, to say nothing of Star's incredibly annoying voice - that made his face burn while he fumbled the thing out of his pocket and switched it to silent mode before he checked the text. It wasn't even a message, just a Vine link, and -

"Oh my god," he said, and couldn't stop himself from laughing hysterically as the video looped, showed him Giriko opening his locker to a shower of multicolored confetti dicks again and again. Somewhere a million miles away he heard Albarn ask him what was going on, but he was laughing too hard to explain. After a moment she pushed into his personal space, wormed her way under his elbow because he wouldn't let go of his phone, and stared at the screen in silence for a few loops.

"Not bad," she said, not hiding her crooked grin. "The team will write it off as a prank, and Giriko should get the message."

"His face," Soul said, in tears, and forced himself calm when his phone lit up with another text from Black Star.

Oshi, it read, and Soul stopped laughing. BetA run BetA run, looks lIk he t%k it prsnl.

Albarn went very still where she was still pressed to his side. "You think he can fight with his ribs still busted up?"

"Oh, yeah," Soul said, cold panic settling in his belly. "If he's not dead, Giriko can fight."

"Then we need to get to the band room," she said, voice taut but otherwise calm as she ducked out from under his arm so she could grab him by the shoulders and shake him back to his senses. "Soul. We can't stay here."

"Somehow this wasn't what I expected to happen," he said, and let her grab him by the elbow and turn him towards the 400 building via sheer brute force. "He's going to destroy me."

"He'll have to get through me first," Albarn said, and let go of his elbow with a sigh. "Soul. I really don't want to have to carry you there."

Soul somehow managed to exit out of the text thread, though he was still standing there like an idiot, staring at his now-blank phone screen and wishing he didn't have to die on a Monday. "He'll go through you," he said.

"Did you somehow think he wasn't going to come after you when you asked Kid to help you fuck with him?" He could feel her giving him a scathing look. "Or do you suddenly feel bad about this for some reason? Because last time I checked Giriko was a total skeeze who bullies people and harasses cheerleaders for fun."

"I didn't expect it to go down like this," was what he said at last, because he hadn't. "I sort of expected that he'd take it like a normal human and back off. Whatever Kid did made the whole team step off, so this shouldn't've been any different."

"Right," Albarn said, and grabbed his arm again, this time hauling him towards the 400 building and safety. "You're an idiot. Whatever it was that Kid did to get the team to leave us alone obviously didn't hinge on deep dark secrets, and this is probably the exact reason why. You seriously didn't think about this? You went in there looking to start a fight and thought that Giriko would settle for glaring from a distance because of the band?"

Soul stumbled, flailed, earned a what-the-fuck look from a passerby, got dragged a few more steps, and swore. "I - stop, you're going to make me fall - yeah, I did think that. Are you telling me you knew this was going to happen and you just now decided to tell me it was a bad plan?"

Albarn let go of his arm and shoved him forward, practically walking on his heels to make sure he kept moving. "I thought you knew, because I didn't think you were this dumb," she said, tone acid, back on full alert. "Giriko acted like he didn't care and you called his bluff, give me a break. I didn't say anything because I was fine with kicking his ass for your sake when he inevitably came after you."

He tried to twist around because a comment like that deserved a look that at least attempted to convey how surprised he was, but she just rocked back on one foot and kicked him square in the ass to keep him moving.

"This is not a rom-com, creampuff," she said, and Soul could just hear the sound of running footsteps in the distance. "We don't have time for that. Move it."

The footsteps got louder. Soul ran, pounding on the back door of the band room until someone let them in, pitifully thankful that those doors didn't open from the outside. They slipped in, the doors shut, and they were five steps into the room when Giriko crashed into the doors behind them, screeching threats and, by the sound of it, really trying to batter the doors down with his bare hands.

"That was too close," Albarn said, giving Giriko a chilly look.

"It's still too close," Kid said from behind them. Albarn turned, gave him a flat stare; Soul opted for confusion. Kid sighed, rubbed his temple with long fingers. "I don't need this, not this early in the morning. That boy will get in here whether we want him to or not," he explained, watching Giriko snarl at a freshman who got too close. "I don't want him in here. It's not that we can't eventually stop him, it's that he'll break things and possibly people. So. Soul, you should have known this might happen when you asked me to do it."

"Are you really giving me the 'be careful what you wish for' line as you kick me out of my only safe haven?" Soul almost-yelled, voice perhaps a little squeaky towards the end.

"You got it," Kid said, and turned to gesture towards the room's inner doors. "You made your bed, now get out of here before your bad decisions screw us all over. This situation is far out of my control. Albarn, good luck. I'm sure the bruised ribs will make Giriko reconsider at least briefly before he gets into another fight with you."

"If not, I'll give him more," she said with a shrug, and glanced back at the door again. "Can you maybe buy us a little time?"

"That I can do," Kid said, smirking, and called the twins over. It only took about half a second of explaining for them to immediately grasp what he was asking, and then they were plastered to the door glass, making faces and mocking gestures that made Giriko howl - and, more importantly, obstructed his vision. Kid raised his eyebrows at them, and they bolted for the inside doors.

All told, the twins managed to buy them maybe thirty seconds. Unfortunately, Giriko did play football and he really wasn't as stupid as Soul tried to pretend, so he figured out that little game pretty fast and went sprinting around the side of the building in hot pursuit. Kid had thoughtfully used those thirty seconds to fill the side hallway that led to the other doors with people and instrument cases as best he could, but in vain; Giriko skipped that entirely, having been well-trained in heading the enemy off at the pass, and nearly caught them as they crossed the courtyard outside.

"500 building," Albarn yelled in his ear as they veered away, heading for the back entrance to the school and the front of the arts building. "At least we can lose him in the traffic."

Soul didn't have enough breath in his lungs to bother arguing, just turned when they came around the 400 building and ran like he meant it - because he really did. At least Giriko had been too enraged to recruit anyone else to help him, or they'd be proper screwed. As it was, keeping ahead of an unencumbered quarterback with a backpack on wasn't a particularly easy task, even if Giriko was still nursing some really impressive bruises on his ribs.

They rounded another corner with Giriko gaining on them - and found Black Star standing in the middle of the path, grinning ear to ear.

"YO," he yelled, pointing at Giriko as Soul and Maka dodged around him and slowed briefly, wondering just what was about to happen.

Giriko slowed down too, perhaps thinking he was finally going to get his fight, but Black Star only grinned wider as he came closer.

"STOP THE PARTY," he howled, at what had to be megaphone volume, and Giriko slowed down even more. "I DON'T WANNA HURT NOBODY."

Quietly so as not to attract attention, Soul buried his face in one hand and wondered if getting pulverized by Giriko might be preferable to this.

Giriko had stopped entirely and was staring at Black Star with confused rage all over his face. Star laughed so loudly Soul flinched, and held up his phone. "Check out my new Vine, dipshit." While Giriko's face was contorting into a mask of pure outrage, Black Star winked at Soul over his shoulder. "You might wanna get going, Brocephalus."

They took off again, beelining across the cafeteria courtyard; Giriko resumed the chase after only a few seconds, though it might - the universe willing - have been a long enough pause to save them. As Soul was wondering just where exactly Albarn planned to enter the 500 building, which held the cafeteria that they were literally right next to, he saw the unexpected: Tsubaki poked her head around the far side of the building and waved to them. He glanced over and saw Albarn nod, and they changed course.

"Don't stop," Tsubaki said as they rounded the corner. "I'll get you a couple seconds - "

Then they were past her, Giriko was around the corner, and Tsubaki let out a theatrical shriek that was followed immediately by the distinct thrashing noises of someone who has just been knocked into a very large holly bush.

"Bless her," Soul panted, and they ducked into a side door.

"I don't think we can lose him completely, though," Albarn said, slowing to a much more sedate jog on account of them being in a hallway that actually had a few people in it. Not many, though, because -

"In here, dears," said a saccharine voice, and a door opened to Soul's immediate left. It was not, Soul realized when he caught sight of Ms. Mjolnir, a suggestion. They slowed, gave each other identical 'we're fucked' looks, and headed into her office.

"Didn't realize where we were," Albarn said under her breath, and Soul sighed.

"Have a seat, children," Ms. Mjolnir said, settling into her plush office chair, her smiling expression one of pure poison. "What brings you to my little corner of the school today, and in such a state?"

"Giriko was trying to kill us," Albarn said, not even short of breath and sounding entirely disinterested.

"He thinks we did something to his locker," Soul elaborated before Ms. Mjolnir could do much more than raise an eyebrow. "Which is stupid, because we can't get to his locker."

"Right," she said, and reached for her phone, dialing an extension and keying up speakerphone.

The phone rang once, twice, and a sultry voice that Soul would have expected from a phone sex line picked up. "Blair," Ms. Mjolnir said, and the voice on the line let out an inquisitive noise. "I need you to bring me Giriko. He should be near my office somewhere."

The librarian purred an affirmative, promised Ms. Mjolnir a present, and hung up the phone.

"Now," Ms. Mjolnir said, giving them a marginally more friendly smile, "I know you don't have access to his locker. I also know you're buddies with the band, and the band manages to have access to everything."

Albarn muttered something that earned her a very sharp look and an "Excuse me, Miss Albarn?"

"I said," she reiterated, voice much louder, "that the band's 'special access' includes juicy excerpts from your romance novel, Ms. Mjolnir. How is Baron von Turgidwurst doing these days?"

Soul had the distinct pleasure and very memorable experience of seeing Ms. Mjolnir blush, though she regained her composure with admirable speed.

"Now, Maka, let's not be silly," she said. "Look, you two - I need you to stay out of trouble, all right? You're on thin ice after last week. You're lucky no one insisted you be expelled."

"If he comes after me, I'm not just going to let him beat me up," Soul said, narrowly beating Albarn to it.

Ms. Mjolnir sighed. "I'm not asking you to take a beating, don't be dramatic," she said. "All you need to do is run near a teacher, he won't try anything if you do that. And anyway," she continued before Soul and Maka both could protest that kind of cowardly behavior, "hopefully once Blair brings him here you won't have to resort to that. I know it hurts your brave little teenage hearts to ask adults for help, trust me." She gave them the beady eye. "Especially when it's your fault. Don't think I don't get it."

They were interrupted from further debate when Blair knocked on the door and shoved a blushing Giriko inside with a predatory grin and a wink.

"I'd say take a seat, but there aren't any more," Ms. Mjolnir said, voice significantly cooler than it had been a moment before. "I'm given to understand that you think these two did something to your locker, which, might I remind you, exists behind a locked door in a building they can't get into."

"Whatever," Giriko snarled, glaring pure hatred at both of them. "That doesn't mean they didn't get someone else to do it."

"What is 'it,' exactly?" she asked, the very picture of concern. "Did someone destroy your things? Is there graffiti on your locker?"

"No," Giriko said, and looked away, jaw clenching under the day-old stubble he hadn't bothered to shave.

"Well, what did they supposedly do?"

Giriko muttered something and Soul found himself having real trouble not bursting into loud and very rude laughter.

"You're going to have to speak up, dear," Ms. Mjolnir said, voice back to that cloying you're-gonna-die sweetness she'd employed when she first called Soul and Maka into her office.

"Somebody filled it with confetti," Giriko grumbled, staring at the floor.

"Well, that's not so bad," Ms. Mjolnir said, leaning back in her chair. "After all, these two had to deal with the same thing just last week, and they came out of it okay. Are you sure that's all that happened? I can't imagine that being enough to send you running all over campus trying to catch them for something they can't have done."

Giriko went a bit red in the face, then doubled over to claw at something stuck in his sock. "Here," he said, and tossed a gleaming bit of confetti onto the counselor's desk. "It's everywhere. That's why I went after them."

"Well," Ms. Mjolnir said, picking up the bit of plastic. "That's certainly a bit rude, but Giriko, honey - surely you're accustomed to such things, being a boy - "

"Yeah," Giriko snapped, flushed all the way to his ears, and the bell for first period rang. "Yeah, I am. I won't do it again, Ms. Mjolnir. Can I go to class now?"

"Of course, pumpkin," she said, and gave him a sunny smile. "But if I hear that you've been anywhere remotely near either of these two, things are going to get bad for you, understand?"

"Yes, Ma'am," he said, and practically ran out the door.

"There, see," Ms. Mjolnir said after a moment, smiling like a cat with cream. "Easy as pie. Now get out of my office, you two, and I'd better not hear about you getting into any trouble with Giriko, hopefully ever again. Okay?"

They gave her hasty affirmatives and got out nearly as fast as Giriko had, and Soul sighed in relief to find that said football player wasn't lurking in the hallway, waiting to thrash them.

"Still want to put your stuff back in your locker?" Albarn asked, and Soul just shook his head and was glad that she walked with him to first period.

/

Monday passed without further incident. Alban showed up Tuesday morning without even asking; Soul supposed it had become a habit she didn't care to break - that or it was because he still owed her money and she wanted to remind him via her driving habits that life was short. To his surprise, Tuesday passed without incident as well, at least up until the end of the day. Kid had extended his apologies that morning, inviting them back into the band room as per their previous deal since Giriko was no longer running on pure berserker rage. Since he'd never known Kid to stray so far from the band room and had heard rumors that he lived there, seeing him on the other end of campus when they parked the Jeep had been a bit of an experience.

"Thank you for the heads up on Giriko's plans Friday, by the way," Kid said over his shoulder as he headed back to his lair. "We've got something in the works, but nothing final yet. Keep your head down."

And then. Oh, and then. The football team had practice that afternoon, a fact Soul was very aware of thanks to the fact that avoiding the team had become a survival tactic, and when he got to the band room and found Albarn waiting but neither Black Star nor Tsubaki anywhere nearby, he could only groan.

"It's possible he's not doing something that will get you killed," Albarn offered, holding the door open so he didn't have to interrupt his doom and gloom routine to trudge through.

"Black Star is literally never doing something that won't get me in trouble," he said, waving to the twins, to Kilik, to Kid as he headed for the storage room.

Sure enough, he was swapping out textbooks when his phone buzzed at him. A quick glance revealed only a picture of a car - a brand new Ford Escape in piano black, license plate CHAINZ, complete with a plate frame meant to look like chromed chainsaw blades and a lot of their school's football stickers stuck to the back window.

"That's Giriko's car," Albarn said, glancing at his phone as she grabbed her own books.

"Is there something about it I should know that would make this picture relevant?" Soul asked, tucking away his phone so he could get his backpack situated.

She shrugged. "Not that I know of. It's new. Pretty shitty. SUV with a little four banger engine and front wheel drive, couldn't get out of its own way if it had to. I'm sure it gets him where he wants to go, though, and it can fit a bunch of his goon squad, so he's probably happy with it."

"That's really not reassuring," Soul said, zipping up his pack. "That means Star's probably about to - "

He was interrupted by buzzing and rolled his eyes heavenward before pulling his phone back out of his pocket.

"Oh, god," he said a moment later, flipping through the pictures he'd been sent. "We need to go. We need to not be anywhere near this school when Giriko gets out of practice."

"What?" She moved back over to him and seeing Maka Albarn look completely dumbfounded almost made it worth it, or maybe Soul was just getting used to the idea that Giriko was going to murder him. "Yeah, okay, let's go."

They paused on their way out to gape at Black Star's handiwork, since it was on the way - he'd stuck eyelashes on Giriko's headlights, a little crown-shaped pink ball that said princess on his antenna, and, apparently, smeared glue across his back window in the shape a heart before dousing it in pink glitter and leaving it to dry.

"The impressive thing," Albarn said, walking at a pace that was running by any other name away from the scene of the crime, "is that he did it so fast. And that none of the things he did will actually leave any permanent marks, assuming Giriko knows how to get craft glue off of glass and doesn't try to rip those lashes off."

"I wouldn't count on him being patient enough for that," Soul said, and lapsed into silence trying to keep up with her.

Later that night he was treated to his brother storming into his room, fit to breathe fire. "I swear to god, Soul," he snarled while Soul was still blinking at him in surprise from where he'd been playing video games on his bed, "I am going to have to spend all of Friday night listening to Giriko complain about his car in excruciating detail - not only is he insisting we stay in, which probably means sit around eating crappy pizza and watching equally crappy movies, now this is going to be the only thing he talks about - "

"Wes," Soul said, which had the surprising effect of actually interrupting his brother. "I didn't do anything to his car. I didn't even know anything was going to happen to his car until I saw it. And are you serious, he isn't even taking you out?"

"He's nervous, is all," Wes said, expression softening fractionally as he calmed down. "First time jitters? Nah, this probably doesn't even count as a first time. Anyway. Sorry for yelling, if you're innocent. I've been trying to keep him from killing you or your friends, you know, but he's got the worst temper on him that I've ever seen."

"He always has," Soul said without thinking, and sighed. "Though Albarn's not far behind. She just controls it better."

"Good luck to both of us, I suppose," Wes said, grinning when Soul glowered at him, and left.

/

The most notable thing about Wednesday was that Soul spent part of it taking videos of Black Star using Tsubaki to do overhead presses, which he supposed was some weird form of courtship. Tsubaki seemed to find it endearing rather than disturbing, so Soul decided it must be fate. He also told Kid about the part where Giriko was planning on being home all night for his hot date, which the drum major accepted with a stately nod, a little bit of a smirk, and assurances that he somehow already knew that.

Soul knew that Black Star and Tsubaki were meant to be on Thursday when he got to school to find Black Star with a handful of rhinestones, arguing with her as to whether or not the temporary star applique would stick to Masamune's ass if he cupped his hand just so and got in a really good slap. The resulting Vine was one of his greatest hits and, according to Tsubaki, got her brother to stop being an ass to her for a few days.

Then Friday rolled around, and Maka gave him a meaningful look once she'd slammed the Jeep into its parking spot that made him pause halfway through opening the door.

"Listen," she said, and he slid carefully back into the seat, attentive. "Kid's got plans tonight. In the interests of you having plausible deniability, I didn't tell you that, and I'm not telling you anything else. Let's skip out of here at lunch and go catch a movie, maybe play some mini golf, okay?"

"Are you offering to be my alibi?" Soul asked, and remembered the days when he'd thought she was a trained killer and of course would be on top of alibis. Those halcyon days seemed so long ago.

"You're gonna need one," she said, rubbing her jacket's sheepskin cuff at her left wrist and not quite looking at him. "Kid hasn't told anyone about it who isn't in the band, and not even all of them, because he didn't want anybody spoiling it. And - it's not like you're not invited, it's just that I don't think it would be a good idea for us to be involved. Contrary to what everybody seems to think, they will kick me out if I get in too much trouble, and between Papa and Ms. Mjolnir I would really rather not attract any more attention for a while. I'm sure you can understand where I'm coming from."

He hesitated. Honestly, after two weeks of total madness, Soul was really tired of the whole mess; he was even tired of maintaining his anger at Giriko now that it'd been dragged out into the light for other people to examine. Which wasn't to say he didn't still want to punch Giriko right in the dick, but - well, four years had apparently turned seething murder-outrage into a kind of low-level dislike that didn't translate all that well into action any more. It didn't help that Wes had been, on the whole, fairly tolerant of the whole situation.

"You know Black Star will probably tape everything anyway," Albarn said, mercifully interrupting his meta-analysis of the self.

"Yeah," he said, slouching in the seat, and dragged his fingers through his already-messy hair. "All right. After - whatever the band does - let's see if we can get Giriko to agree to some kind of truce, I'm sick of this."

"That's remarkably magnanimous of you," she said, looking more relieved than he'd expected, considering. "The dollar theater is showing Hocus Pocus at one, we should be able to just make it if we hustle out of here when the lunch bell rings."

"Okay," he said, not commenting on her choice of movie because he didn't want to die, and they headed for the band room as per usual. He also did what he considered the smart thing sometime during third period and texted his mother, saying he felt awful and was going to go home at lunch, which would take care of any inquisitive phone calls from the school administration should they feel moved enough to investigate.

Kid never told him what he had planned. Soul ran to the Jeep when the lunch bell rang and found it already running, jumped into the passenger seat with a grin, and sat through Hocus Pocus without complaint because one, it was actually funny when Wes and his mother weren't around, and two, it made Maka laugh. He sat through Sleepy Hollow afterwards, too, because why not, and - well, if Albarn kind of scooted in close and might have dropped her head on his shoulder, that was a definite perk, if one liked the idea of almost-dating someone as inherently terrifying as she was. Apparently he did, because after a few minutes of paralyzed uncertainty he lifted his arm out from under her and settled it gingerly across her shoulders.

Albarn checked her watch afterwards, shrugged, and suggested they go play the wild west course at the mini golf place without missing a beat or acting like she'd spent most of a movie cuddled up to him.

Seventeen holes into being completely dominated at putt putt, Soul's phone nearly shook itself apart from a rapid fire series of messages, startling him into hitting his ball clear into the little creek that ambled through the hole they were playing.

wt d feck iz yor prblm, dooshcanoe

nt shwin ^ 2 ur own rvnge pR-T R U shttn me

DIS iz d gddam 5% plSUR pRt & ur fkn missn it

Soul started to respond, tried to type out something that would explain that he was trying to be the better man, but nothing was stopping Black Star. Albarn stared at him with increasing concern as message after message slammed his phone and he went progressively paler.

wat knda man R U, tAk rspnsibiliT 4 wat UV wrot

I knO not evry1 cn b a god lIk me bt DIS iz lame evN 4 U

Ultimately Maka took his phone, scrolled through the messages, and gave him a querying look. He gave her a helpless one right back, too confused to know how else to respond.

Eventually she sighed and dug into her messenger bag, pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and smoothed it open before handing it to him. Soul took it and gaped. "Oh god," he said, staring at the party flyer in his hand, advertising a DJ and free drinks at Giriko's place starting at six. "No wonder Kid didn't tell anyone - no wonder - Star is going to kill me, Giriko's going to kill me - "

"So what are you going to do about it?" she asked, balancing her club on her shoulder. "Kid made sure everyone saw those."

"I don't know what I'm going to do about it, but Black Star has a point," Soul said, sinking onto a bench beside the course. "This is happening because of me. It's kind of - fucked up of me to set all this up and not even be there, don't you think? I mean, I don't want to be there because I don't want to die, but that's pretty much inevitable at this point, so I might as well own up to it instead of hiding across town while everything goes nuclear."

That earned him a sigh, and Maka checked her watch with an air of resignation. "Well, we'll be fashionably late, but if you really feel like this is important we can be there in half an hour."

"You don't have to stay," Soul said, stomach knotting in anticipation of the beatdown he expected to receive upon arriving. "But I do need a ride."

She was silent while he texted Black Star back to tell him that he was right, and that Soul was on his way.

"Nah, I'll stay," she finally said as Soul's phone buzzed with Black Star's response. "I think you're right. We need to see this through to the end." She glanced at the course. "Starting with this mini golf game. You're out, but I can finish real quicklike."

"Sure, go for it," Soul said, then glanced at his phone and debated drowning himself in the moat.

Ur frgvn, nw git d feck dwn here, DIS bod glttr aint gnna app itslf.

Then, a minute later: ALLs0, ur bro iz ALL bout dat bASS, dsnt he plA violin?

Soul buried his head in his hands and silently gave up on everything good in the world.

/

They arrived to chaos. Giriko's parents had a very nice house that was, unfortunately for them, somehow not in a gated community, and it was overflowing with high schoolers in varying stages of inebriation. Soul never figured out who brought the beer, just like most of the partygoers never figured out why he showed up in a pirate hat with Maka Albarn at his side, her new cowboy hat at a rather rakish angle. They attempted to march through the front door in a show of bravado, but the scene inside made both of them pause to blink in wonder - though it might also have been horror.

Someone had set up a disco ball in the living room. Someone had brought a smoke machine and set it merrily chugging away at the top of the pretentious imperial staircase, along with -

"Is that Kid?" Maka asked, squinting through the nauseating combination of a strobe light and a revolving rainbow disco light that was currently assaulting their eyes.

"What?" Soul replied, too busy staring at the impromptu karaoke stage that had been set up where once there had been a tasteful living room set. He could, he thought, dimly make out the less than dulcet sound of someone trying to belt Fall Out Boy lyrics with enough volume to be heard over whatever the DJ was mixing - which was also irrelevant, because the bass was cranked so loud that nothing else really got through. None of that boded well for the family's baby grand, which was still in the living room - thank god, moving it would have knocked it so far out of tune that it'd be useless, given how the musically ignorant tended to treat instruments -

"Come on," Albarn said, almost-yelling over the music, and grabbed him rather than try to use her words. They bulled their way through the crowd, avoiding spilled drinks and grabbing hands - and, once, kicking someone who tried to steal Maka's hat - until they reached the stairs. At the top they found the smoke machine and also Kid, who had grabbed a decorative table and a chair from who knew where and set up shop where he had a clear view of as much of the party as possible.

"What are you doing?" Soul asked, at roughly the same time that Albarn made a face and asked, "Is that scotch?"

Kid didn't even look up from his tablet, which he'd actually hooked up to a slim portable keyboard that he was typing on at what appeared to be at least warp factor seven. "Yes, this is scotch, and what I am doing is of little to no concern to you. Before you ask me any other inane questions, I got it from the liquor cabinet, which has a really shitty lock on it, and Black Star is in the back left bedroom waiting for your assistance. Before you attend to him, though, take this to Giriko, who is in the kitchen."

"Uh, don't you think I'm not exactly the ideal person to be taking anything to Giriko?" Soul asked, accepting the bottle Kid pressed into his hands. "Is this tequila?"

Kid stopped typing and looked at him, and Soul took a step back. "Yes, that is tequila," he said. "It's very good tequila. Scotch for deadlines and high stress work, tequila for heartbreak. I am given to understand that your brother gave him the 'let's just be friends' speech, and he seems to have taken it badly. I'm pretty sure he's not in any shape to be attacking people at the moment. Tell him it's with my condolences. That was poor timing. Also, in the interests of having him actually accept your offering, leave your hats with me. I can assure you that they'll be taken care of."

Soul glanced at Maka, who shrugged. He sighed, pulled off his hat, and handed it to Kid. "All right. Maka, I'm going to carry this, since you're the one most likely to win a fight against four chains down there."

"Okay," she said, and pulled her hat off with extreme reluctance. "I'm trusting you with this, Kid."

Kid accepted her hat, expression sage. "No harm will come to it. Godspeed," he said, fingers flying over his keyboard again.

He followed Albarn as she shoved her way back down the stairs, looked at him for directions, and then forced her way over to the kitchen - where Giriko was, indeed, hiding, sitting on the granite countertop next to the sink and staring at the fridge as though it had wronged him. He had, in fact, scared everyone else out despite the tray of jello shots on the counter, and only the fact that Maka grabbed him by the wrist stopped Soul from exiting in great haste when Giriko looked at them.

"Yo," Soul said, raising his free hand in a kind of hi-please-don't-kill-me gesture when he saw the awful combination of hurt feelings and pure rage in Giriko's eyes. "We, uh, we come in peace."

"This is for you," Maka said, taking the bottle from him and offering it to Giriko, who gave her a look like he wished she'd just die before accepting it. "Kid sends it with his condolences." Giriko gave her an eat-shit sneer and slid off the countertop, digging around for a shot glass. "Don't hurt yourself, all right?"

"Fuck you, Albarn," he snarled, and threw back a double shot of tequila before giving Soul a poisonous stare. "Fuck you too, Soul, and your cocktease brother."

"Oh, so we're admitting that now?" Soul said, and maybe it was uncalled-for when Giriko was already upset, but then again maybe Giriko was a great big bag of dicks. "Hey, it isn't my fault you have some kind of weird complex - is it white-haired boys or is it me? Actually, don't answer that question. It isn't my fault or Wes's fault that you're a fucking trainwreck, Giriko, don't bring me into this mess. Nobody here just randomly decided to make your life shitty, you brought that on yourself. Drink till you feel better, and get it the fuck together."

"I paid you not to let him come here, Albarn, at least get the fuck out of my kitchen," Giriko snapped, and the world ground to a slow, agonizing halt.

"It wasn't like that," Albarn said when Soul turned to her, looking, of all things, frantic, an expression Soul hadn't thought she was capable of wearing.

"What," Giriko said, spite dripping from his tone, "did you think she actually liked you? Give me a break, Soul. I paid her to make sure you stayed the hell away from me tonight, for all the good it did."

Soul was halfway through the door before Giriko finished talking, shock and a growing sense of betrayal snarling together in the pit of his stomach. Without checking to see if Albarn was following him, he stalked up the stairs, flicked Kid off in passing, and let himself into the back left bedroom without so much as knocking.

"Yo," Black Star said from his position on the bed, and was immediately scolded by the two girls standing in front of him.

"What the fuck is going on in here," Soul said, almost but not quite able to ignore the sick feeling in his belly.

"These lovely ladies are Liz and Patti," Black Star said, clad only in his leopard speedo once more and sitting very still while the ladies did his eyeliner. "They're sisters. You might have met them very briefly while you were begging Kid for sanctuary. Liz is a cheerleader, Patti is colorguard, and they're basically Kid's keepers. They have very generously offered to help me out."

"Also, we're done," said the taller sister, presumably Liz. "The rest is up to you."

"Wait, what," Soul said, but they were already on their way out. Liz gave him a bone-chilling smile as she brushed past; Patti offered a sunny grin and a peace sign, and he ignored Albarn when she slid into the room. "Black Star, what the hell's going on?"

"Tsubaki's setting up the camera, and I need you to finish making me fabulous," he said, and threw something at Soul that he caught by reflex.

"You want me to put on your body glitter," Soul said in dawning horror, eyeing the plastic container of purple glitter gel that he'd caught and so, so deliberately ignoring Maka. Giriko'd paid her, had he?

"Obviously," Black Star said, rolling his heavily-kohl'd eyes. "I'm not going to ask Tsubaki to dirty her hands like that."

Soul rubbed his face and sighed. "Fine, why not. Maka, go away - "

"Actually, Maka," Star said, interrupting with an odd look for Soul, "Do me a favor and go find Justin Law, you know him? I need him to cut off that karaoke system and the DJ. Actually, make it just the DJ. And make sure Giriko's in the living room, all right?"

"Whatever," she said after an interminable pause, and left the room with the air of someone escaping one bad situation for another only slightly less awful one.

"Oil me up, baby, and don't get your weird relationship issues on me," Black Star crowed once she was gone. Rather than try to argue, Soul put on his best brave face and proceeded to coat his mostly-naked friend in scented glitter as quickly as possible so as to save what was left of his sanity. He was more than happy to let Black Star shoo him out once the deed was done, and, not knowing what else to do, located Albarn crouched behind a speaker, yelling at Justin Law over the music.

Justin was an A/V kid, usually never seen nor heard, but Soul knew of him in a roundabout way. He did most of the setups for the drama productions, and handled a lot of the goings-on at the stadium, too. It was no surprise that Kid had recruited him to set things up for the party, though he seemed reluctant to do anything that qualified as doing 'what Black Star wants.' Soul couldn't blame him.

Still, Albarn was nothing if not insistent, and about the time that Tsubaki indicated from the balcony that she was set up and ready to go was when Maka managed to bully or bribe Justin into cooperating. When Maka went to tell the DJ that he was clear to take a break, Soul just moved to the foot of the stairs and stood aimlessly, unsure of what exactly to do in such a situation. After a minute someone tapped his elbow and he turned to find Kid standing next to him, a tumbler of amber liquid in his hand.

"Here," he said, and Soul took the glass for lack of any other option.

That was a mistake, as it turned out: whatever it was burned like fiery death when he swallowed it, and Kid stood by, smiling faintly, while he sputtered and coughed.

"Scotch for deadlines, tequila for heartbreak," the drum major recited, and his smile broadened. "And cinnamon whiskey for betrayal."

"You're fucking twisted," Soul wheezed, still choking, and Kid, without a word, bowed just a little and took himself back upstairs.

Around the time Soul's eyes stopped watering was when the music wound down, and he looked across the living room to see Wes of all people sitting on the couch where it'd been pushed against the wall, an arm around Giriko's shoulders, courting death but nonetheless looking surprisingly earnest as he spoke. Soul hoped that whatever he was saying helped, because there was nothing anyone else could do, and then -

And then the lights went out, save for the disco ball and the little party light, and Black Star came sliding down the bannister in naught but his speedo, glitter, and a blue feather boa. The crowd, drunken and crazed as it was, parted to let him through as he landed neatly and paced to the karaoke stage, pausing only to blow the occasional stunned onlooker a kiss.

Wes stopped talking, eyes fixed on Black Star like a man looking at the end of the world.

Giriko stopped moving entirely, stopped looking pissed off, stopped doing anything but breathing tequila fumes in Wes's face as Black Star gave someone a thumbs up and a low-key beat started up. Someone in the crowd tossed him the karaoke mic, and Star favored Giriko with an almost sultry grin, if Black Star was a man capable of 'sultry.'

"This one goes out to our dear host," he purred, rubbing the boa across his lips as he blew Giriko a kiss, and every vestige of color disappeared from Giriko's face.

Soul actually didn't see Black Star climb onto the piano mid-performance. He didn't see him hang off the edge of it to sing the last half of You're Just Too Good To Be True, because he got out while the getting was good. Maka wasn't around to see Star gyrate and rub his own leopard speedo-covered crotch to the stripper-beat version of the guitar bridge, and neither of them saw him hook his boa around Giriko's neck, complete with hip thrusts, to finish big while Wes laughed hysterically from a foot away.

They were gone, mercifully, before Giriko had a full-on drunken meltdown and started screaming, before he ran every single person out of his house and threatened to kill every one of them if they talked about what they'd seen. For all that Soul wasn't exactly inclined to say a single civil word to her, Albarn was his ride and she was the only other person smart enough to get the fuck out before everything went to hell. She drove him home in silence.

"Soul," she said once they were stopped outside his house, "it really wasn't like that."

"I'm sorry," he said, and his tone was just as mean as he could have hoped, "wasn't like what? What about Giriko paying you to con me into a date to keep me occupied was unclear? What about that shouldn't give me the impression that everything you've ever said to me might be a lie? How long has he been paying you to fuck with me?"

"Just tonight," she said after a long pause, expression grim. "And I swear it had nothing to do with him paying me. I just figured I'd let him give me money to do something I was going to do anyway."

"I'm sure that's how it was. I guess I should have expected something like this from you," Soul said, and saw himself out. She at least had the good taste not to try and follow him inside.

Black Star kept the footage of his little performance, but even he was hesitant to make it public without some kind of resolution. Soul spent the rest of the weekend in a bit of a haze, waiting for the other shoe to drop, but Wes had nothing to say, really. His brother was more relieved that he'd been saved the awkwardness of a lingering post-coital breakup than he was angry at the interruption.

"It was in pretty bad taste, though," he said Sunday afternoon. "I mean, you guys couldn't have known, but he's a total wreck now. He wouldn't even let me come over and help clean up the mess."

"Yeah, well, the whole thing's a mess," Soul said, still staring at his ceiling like he had been for hours, and Wes sighed and left him alone.

Albarn had the nerve to show up at the house Monday morning, Jeep idling on the curb; Soul didn't even answer the door when she knocked. His brother, thankfully, didn't ask for an explanation when Soul climbed into the car with him a little bit later, and he didn't try to start a conversation on the way.

Soul had worried that an unpleasant surprise might be waiting for him somewhere in the hallways, but all was quiet - eerily silent, really, and Soul paused outside the band room for a long minute before deciding to take himself elsewhere. He caught sight of Giriko more than once over the course of the day, which was kind of a relief considering he'd half suspected that the boy was going to just disappear forever after the weekend he'd probably had, but his ex-friend didn't even bother to give him a dirty look. His eyes, when Soul met them, were dull and kind of hopeless, and Soul found himself agreeing with Wes that they'd overdone it by more than a little bit.

He was still worrying about it at lunch when he met up with Black Star and Tsubaki, who'd decided that it was probably safe enough to take a seat inside the cafeteria for the first time in two weeks.

"Look at this," Black Star said once they'd settled in with their food, handing Soul his video camera. "It was really a pretty good party, I mean, practically the entire band got up and sang the Time Warp, complete with dancing." There was a brief lull while Soul tried not to choke on the video evidence of Kid leading the band in a rendition of a Rocky Horror song, and then Black Star poked him in the shoulder. "Hey, where's Albarn, anyway? She didn't come to work out on Sunday."

"Since when are you two working out," Soul growled, and subsided when Star gave him his best foolish-mortal look. "Turns out Giriko was bribing her to lead me on until I was more interested in going out with her than cockblocking him."

"And you believe that," Black Star said, accompanied by Tsubaki rolling her eyes; after a few seconds he shrugged, dropped it, and swiped the camera back to show him a different section of the recording. "Anyway, check this out - that dude's normally so quiet, I had no idea he was capable of that. Maybe I should look into letting him work with me."

'That dude' was Justin Law, and the tape was of a point Friday evening before Soul had arrived.

"He set up the karaoke system and the sound," Tsubaki offered while Soul squinted at the tiny screen and tried to make sense of the garbled audio it was playing. "That was his test to make sure everything was working."

Soul blinked at her and then at the camera. "Well, I've never heard a screamo cover of Toxic, but he's actually very good at it," he said once he'd made sense of what he was seeing and hearing.

"Pretty sure that's better than the original," Maka offered from where she'd managed to basically sneak up behind him, nearly startling him out of his chair and earning herself a scathing look for her trouble. "You could probably make some full length cover videos that'd get you some serious hits, Star."

"Yeah, but I don't really like the idea of someone else being the main attraction on my own chan - "

He was stopped from saying something eye-rollingly egotistical by cacophony from the other end of the cafeteria, a low roar that escalated into total chaos as what appeared to be an outrageously unfair fight spread across the lunchroom in a fair bid to include everyone in its path.

"Hey, that's Giriko," Black Star yelled, and leapt out of his chair, cackling madly as he bounded towards the source of the madness, essentially throwing himself into the center of a black hole just to see how it worked. Tsubaki snatched the camera from Soul and threw herself after him. Soul gave Maka a what-have-you-done-now kind of look; she shrugged, eyed the encroaching mass of brawling teenagers, and, in a motion that was too fast for Soul to follow properly, leaned into the aisle and grabbed hold of someone who'd been heading for the back wall to hide.

"What the hell's going on?" she snapped, and the freshman she'd caught cowered a little.

"I don't know, I heard someone yell that Giriko said he was gay," the boy said, and flinched when she stood up, eyes snapping. "I told you I don't know! It doesn't make sense, but the team's fighting with him, that's all I know I swear!"

She let go of him and he scrambled for the restrooms at the back of the cafeteria. Soul looked at the riotous mass of students and back at her, uncertain; she looked only at the brawl.

"That's definitely the team," she said after a moment. "At the core of it, at least. And I'm pretty sure they're after Giriko. I'm going to go sort this out. If he's being attacked because he came out, I've got a lot of skulls to crack. If not, I'll figure it out."

Soul blinked up at her, looked again at the growing mass of yelling, fighting teenagers, and stood up as well. "I'm going to go find Kid," he said, and she seemed to think that that was an acceptable course of action.

"I'll do my best to get you through that mess intact," she said, and rather than act like an asshole Soul decided, again, that discretion would serve him better. He nodded, and they waded into the breach together.

/

Rumor had it that Maka Albarn took down the entire football team by herself. Rumor also had it that it took every counselor, several teachers, the vice principals, and eventually even the principal himself to break up the fight.

What actually happened was: Maka got Soul through the melee, but not intact. Somewhere just past the worst of it someone got thrown into them and Soul went down hard, ankle twisting underneath him with the kind of pop that meant nothing good could come of it. Maka knelt beside him, demanding to know if his leg was broken, and all he did was cuss under his breath until she demanded that he say something that made sense.

"My ankle's probably sprained," he said, still on his belly on the cold floor and a bit delirious from adrenaline, "but this is the fifty percent pain part. Giriko's been stuck there since Friday, and I'm not about to complain that now it's my turn, too." Something whizzed over their heads. "I'm gonna get out of here and go find Kid. You go sort things out. I'll be fine."

To her credit, she took him at his word. It was kind of nice to have someone with enough faith in him not to question his word - or perhaps she'd figured that he was too delirious to be saved. Either way, he military crawled his way to the exit and hobbled to the band room as quickly as he could.

Rumor was correct in one instance: Giriko had told all of his teammates that he was gay, and the revelation had sent them into screaming, angry confusion.

"'We defended you, bro,'" Giriko pantomimed later, half snarl and half laughter. "'That's fucked up, man, you share a locker room with us.' Well, fuck them, like I said. Why should it change anything? I'm still the same goddamn guy. They can get bent."

What had happened after Soul left was, apparently, that Maka and - of all people - Justin had wrestled half the team off of their own quarterback and held seemingly all the people in the cafeteria off while Giriko collected his wits.

"You deserve a lot of things," Maka said when Giriko demanded to know what the fuck she was doing, "but not this. Now shut up and help before I change my mind."

"I'm not letting Giriko in here," was Kid's response to Soul's report and implied request. "Just because he decided to stop living in denial and was brave enough to come out doesn't mean he's not an asshole any more, and this isn't some kind of halfway house." Soul kept staring at him while Patti fussed over his ankle, pronouncing it probably not sprained, and Kid sighed. "I'll manage something."

In the end it didn't matter. Black Star's camera got confiscated and the video on it meant that Ms. Mjolnir had to see the perpetrators in shifts because all of them wouldn't fit into her office at once.

Soul endured what felt like hours of yelling from his mother when she found out that he'd been suspended, right up until she ran out of steam, sat down, and asked him for his side of the story. He took a deep breath and told her the whole thing, starting with the reason why he and Giriko weren't friends, and by the end her anger was more or less spent.

"Well, you're still suspended, and you still have a lot of extra schoolwork to do because of it," she said. "They've agreed to let you attend homecoming this weekend, though, so be glad for that."

"Why on earth would I go to homecoming?" Soul asked. "I've literally never wanted to go to a school social event, Mom."

She shrugged. "They seemed to think you'd care," she said, and left him in his room with a stack of textbooks, a soul-crushing pile of busywork, and an increasingly unpleasant number of texts from Albarn that he was determined to ignore.

He did text Kilik, though, to inquire as to whether or not he was going to be at homecoming; his friend's negative response was a relief. Soul wasn't sure, at this juncture, if Black Star would listen to him if he made a request.

He didn't think about the dance again until the next day when he got a text from Black Star: Ur goin t hmcmin, psnt, tsu's goN wit me & if U dnt tk Albarn ur a f%l. she wnt teL U bt hr daddys chaperonin & hes makin hr go NEway. Brrw ur bros old suit nd stp prtndN lk ur not trUly mAdly dEEply 0vr hr.

It was unfortunate how often Black Star had good points, but Soul was still sulking and upset and more than prepared to disregard that comment right up until his doorbell rang on Thursday afternoon. He ignored that, too, until it rang several more times and Soul remembered that he was the only one home.

"Yo," Giriko said when he opened the door, and only quick reflexes let him catch the door before Soul slammed it shut. "Yo," he repeated, wedging the door open with his shoulder, and Soul relented with a huff, retreating a few steps. "Geez, dude, I'm not here to kick your puppy, calm the fuck down."

"What the fuck are you here for, asshole," Soul said from the middle of the foyer, unwilling to let Giriko any further into his house than was necessary and feeling absolutely no sympathy for the stunning black eye and collection of bruises that the other boy was sporting.

Justin put a hand on Giriko's shoulder and some of his furious bluster drained away. "He's here to apologize," he said, managing to give Giriko a look that was simultaneously affectionate and extremely annoyed. "He's just excessively bad at it."

"Yeah," Giriko said, and took a deep breath, obviously counting to ten before he let it go in an attempt to corral his temper. "So. I'm sorry that you freaked out and quit talking to me and tried to blackmail me into - ow."

Justin removed his elbow from Giriko's ribs with a sniff. "You only get one more try," he said, and Giriko gave him the kind of look that Soul reluctantly classified as whipped, and then he put some really stunning pieces together in his head.

"Wow, are you serious? You and Justin - no offense, man, I just - "

"You shut the fuck up," Giriko snapped, anger refocusing. "This guy beat up half of my offensive line, and if he hadn't I'd probably be in a body cast right now, so step off." Another very deep breath. "Can we just agree that what went down in middle school was really shitty and we both fucked up and we should just get on with our lives, please?"

"Sure," Soul said, and Giriko gave him a surprised look. "I'm really sick of this whole situation, Giriko, so yeah. Let's just let it go. It's not like you've got any more chance with Wes, anyway."

That made Giriko flush and Justin give him a reproachful look.

"Anyway, look," Giriko said, "now that that's out of the way, I wanted to tell you not to be mad at Albarn. She wouldn't even take my money, seems real upset about it. I'm not all that great with people, but I'm gonna have to say that she wasn't lying when she told you that the reason she dragged you out on a date had nothing to do with me bribing her."

"I'll think about it," Soul said to cover the weird mix of surprise and relief he was feeling. "So now that you've accepted yourself or whatever it is you did, are you going to stop being a dickbag to everyone?"

"If you keep provoking him, you're going to get punched and I'm not going to stop him," Justin said, and Soul rolled his eyes.

"Seriously though," he said, "as long as we're having life advice sessions - stop terrorizing people for fun, Giriko."

Soul didn't normally think about the fact that Giriko was a big guy, but he drew himself up a bit and Soul remembered, abruptly, that Giriko had some height and more than a little bit of muscle weight on him. "I'll do that, Soul," he said, "if you'll stop acting like a spoiled kid and talk to your girlfriend."

Soul stared at him, but staring down a guy like Giriko was essentially impossible. "Whatever," he said at last. "Congratulations, though." A pause, in which Giriko and Justin both gave him the eyeball. "I mean that. I'm glad something good came out of this unholy stupid mess."

"I - thanks," Giriko said, and glanced at Justin, who shrugged. "We'll leave you alone now, but - I dunno, I'll text you sometime, maybe."

"Maybe," Soul agreed, and shut the door behind them.

/

The next time he saw Maka Albarn she was loitering in the gym bleachers, nursing a cup of punch and studiously avoiding human contact - a feat, considering the very tall, very redheaded, and very solicitous man standing guard next to her.

"Oh, wow," Wes said from beside him, eyebrows seemingly trying to climb into his hair. "Is that her father? Goddamn, if I didn't already have daddy issues I think I'd have just developed them. Albarn doesn't look bad, either. You should introduce me to Papa there once you work up the nerve to talk to her."

"Please never say that ever again," Soul said, horrified and scarred to the very core of his being, and put as much distance between himself and his brother as he could without straying into Albarn's direct line of sight. He suffered through several terrible songs and the proximity of seemingly all of his classmates, most of whom seemed inclined to stare at him as though he'd grown an extra head, before Albarn's father at last caught sight of Ms. Mjolnir and left his daughter to her own devices. After that, it was just a matter of waiting for the opportune moment and throttling down panic and the conviction that she was probably going to remove his head from his body the minute she saw him.

Be cool, he reminded himself, and started climbing the bleachers at an oblique angle, hoping to stay out of sight until the last possible second. Maka heard him coming, though, and turned, face a picture of filial annoyance; said, "Papa, please," and then, "oh."

Thankfully she was surprised enough that his blinking silence went unnoticed because she was doing the same thing, though he assumed for different reasons. In Soul's case it was because he hadn't really had a clear view of her up until that moment, and was woefully unprepared when it came to dealing with Maka Albarn in an impressively well-fitted black dress.

"Hey," he managed at last, mentally awarding himself points when his voice didn't crack. "I, uh - care to dance?"

"That depends," she said, a bit cold, looking like she wanted to kick him right in the balls, which was understandable. "Are you going to act like a civilized human being?"

He held up one hand and tried to look as sincere as possible. "Promise."

Maka held his gaze for a moment, then her eyes flicked over him head to toe and Soul felt his ears burn. "You clean up nice enough," she said cautiously, and he realized she was wearing makeup when she looked back up at him and he got distracted by the contrast her eyeliner created. His silence apparently translated well, because she edged closer and lifted black-gloved hands to fuss with the black silk of his tie. "Though you could stand to learn to tie this knot better."

"It's - this is Wes's old suit, why would I know how to work a tie," he said, self-conscious all over again.

"Please never say that to my father," Maka said, and Soul managed to actually inhale again when she stepped back. "Your brother has good taste, lucky for you. The red shirt's a bit bold, but - well, if you're going for pinstripes, may as well go all the way." She gave him a rather impish smile. "I'll have to thank him later. Shall we?"

He let her lead him into the crowd, which actually parted to let them pass, and laughed.

"I think your reputation's rubbed off on me," he said when she gave him a querying look.

"I think you earned this all on your own, buddy," she said, and turned to face him. It took a second, but they got themselves sorted, and Soul managed to put his hands on her waist like he always slow danced with girls who could break a quarterback's ribs with a roundhouse kick.

"So Giriko and Justin came by my house," he said after maybe thirty seconds of awkward silence, and Maka gave him another one of those cautious looks, like she was worried he might bolt and never come back if she talked too much. "Giriko said you wouldn't let him pay you."

"Of course I didn't," she said, and didn't even have to articulate the 'are you insane' portion of her statement. "I didn't tell you that that wasn't the reason I wanted to go out just to hear myself talk. Whatever else you might think about me, I'm not a pathological liar. I just liked the idea of letting him pay me to do something I was already planning to do, especially since you not being there wasn't actually going to save him from anything." She shrugged, which had the excessively distracting effect of making the sheer black stuff covering her shoulders do interesting things where it met her dress at her bustline and also, more importantly, made the material of her gloves ride up the sides of his neck a bit where she had her hands linked at his nape.

Which was why, instead of responding appropriately with something like 'I'm sorry I was a complete horse's ass about this whole situation,' he instead said, "Is the DJ playing Truly Madly Deeply?"

Maka blinked up at him. "Yes," she said slowly, brows furrowing. "Why?"

"Nothing," Soul said quickly, praying that he wouldn't have to explain Black Star's text to her. "Anyway, look, I am sorry. I'm kind of dumb when it comes to these things."

"I haven't exactly been a saint," she said. "How about we just let this go?"

"Let's," he said, and was rewarded with a blinding, very relieved smile and the unexpected feeling of Maka Albarn leaning into him, head on his shoulder, the full line of their bodies touching. He swallowed hard, reminded himself to keep it fucking cool for god's sake, and tried to figure out just how things had come to this.

"You know," she said after maybe fifteen seconds of quiet, "if this were a rom-com you'd be kissing me right now."

"This sure as shit isn't a rom-com, as you reminded me some time ago," Soul said automatically, still trying desperately to think about anything that wasn't how close together they were instead of parsing her statement.

That made her chuckle right in his ear, for fuck's sake, and Soul spent several minutes mentally critiquing the decor, which consisted mostly of mood lighting and decorations in the school colors. After that he switched to staring down the gawkers and - once - sticking his tongue out at Black Star when he and Tsubaki happened to pass close by and Star gave him a thumbs up immediately followed by a much more suggestive hand gesture that made Tsubaki jab him right in a pressure point without losing an ounce of her considerable poise.

Then, when Truly Madly Deeply was long over, halfway through Iris, he realized what, exactly, Maka Albarn had said to him.

He shifted his shoulders a bit, equal parts nerves and bracing himself, and she lifted her head, moved back a bit to give him a look that was half quizzical and half wry -

Soul kissed her before he could think about it, before he could lose his nerve or think about basically the whole school and probably her father and also Black Star seeing him do it.

She kissed him back and then laughed, which made him pull back, blushing and nervous and trying to play it off.

"Cute," she said.

While he was still trying to respond to that statement in a way that wasn't staring with his mouth open she dragged his head back down via his tie and kissed him so thoroughly that he nearly had a coronary when Black Star's voice said, "Well, I guess that means she's no longer wishboning," from immediately next to him.

"Well, that's all right," Tsubaki said while Soul was still trying to remember how to breathe. "Now she gets to - what was it you said, ride the bonecoaster?"

"I will kill you," Soul said, and Maka favored all three of them with a completely unimpressed look while Black Star cackled.

Tsubaki winked at Soul. "Hey Star," she said, and he shut up and turned his attention back to her, allowing her to begin the process of leading him away. "Did you know that if you stab an iPhone battery, it explodes?"

"It's like they were made for each other," Soul said in awe, watching Tsubaki steer his friend away.

"Yeah," Maka said, and cleared her throat. "Look, can we get out of here? I'd really prefer my father not find us, and I think seeing Giriko and Justin cuddled up together like buff kittens in the bleachers is literally rotting my teeth."

"What, you don't want to see my brother crowned homecoming king?" Soul asked, grinning, and didn't resist when Maka dragged him out to her Jeep.

He did pause to take a picture, though, when they got to her parking space and found that Black Star had scrawled '100% reason to remember the name' across her shiny new back window.