Originally posted: 6-27-06

Hey, long time no see! I hope people are still reading this… though my utter lack of posts since last August hasn't really given anyone reason to, I'm afraid. But now I bring you an update, and I think this chapter is pretty good. Not as long as the last one, but definitely as meaty.

After this, there's only one more chapter and a short epilogue. Those seem like easily obtainable summer goals, for a dedicated person. But since my summer will be fairly busy (and since I'm not the best updater in the world heh heh heh) I don't know how much I'll be able to manage. I'd really like to finish this story sometime soon, though. I guess we'll see…

A million thanks to everyone who reviewed the last chapter. You guys make it all worthwhile!

Eh… I tried not to come across too preachy in this chapter, though I'm afraid it couldn't be helped. But just remember kiddies: Drugs Are For Thugs! Dope Is For…Dopes! And all that good stuff…

(ahem) So without further ado…



Spinning for Hours


by Sir Mocha



Chapter 18: Family Values

Theo and I walked down the street. It was late, but I didn't think either of us was particularly eager to get home. It was a clear night, and I think the rest of town was still awake with us: lights were glowing in houses, music was emanating from open windows, and from a distance I could hear the sounds of police sirens. Another typical night in Springfield.

"…and then I took the check from Mr. Burns' cold, slimy hands and tore it up. It would have put me through college, but I couldn't stand the thought of making money by slaughtering sea creatures," I said softly.

"See? I knew you weren't a quitter!" he said, his hand in mine.

"I can stick to my principles, I know…" I explained, "but I'm still worried that Finch is going to let it slip what we did." I turned away, biting my lip.

"Well, Lisa… I'm not trying to be blunt, but it's not as if we're the most popular people in school. I mean, after the Knowledge Bowl…" He trailed off awkwardly.

I halted in the middle of the sidewalk, focusing my attention on Theo. He glanced back at me, curious at my abrupt stop, then did a double take when he noticed the tears welling in my eyes.

"Lisa," he said, looking pained, "I'm sorry. What I just said, it –"

"It wasn't you," I intoned, sitting down on the small grassy strip in front of the church and hugging my knees to my chest. Hesitantly, Theo sad cross-legged beside me, absently plucking the sharp blades of grass.

"I know everyone hates me," I said, and before Theo could interrupt I held up a hand and continued, "It's true. You don't have to sugarcoat it for me. I've tried to be strong… I've tried not to care about what they said, the looks they gave me, the way they quieted when I walked by.

"But Theo, if they hear that I tried to steal the Tome and subvert their organization, they're just going to hate me more. Everything's going to the same as it is now, but worse. More hatred, more antipathy, more angry muttering about you and especially about me."

I rested my head on my knees, glancing away from Theo. Then, softly, "I've tried to deny it, but I can't: I do care a lot about what they think of me." I watched as tears darkened the gray brocade of the skirt of my dress.

I was willful and usually stubborn, but undeniably I was more conscious of what others thought about me than most people assumed. Over my life I had changed my clothing styles, dieted, lied to people, and taken measures I wasn't proud of for the sake of popularity. I tried to repress this behavior. I tried to remind myself that personal satisfaction was more important that satisfying others' expectations. But inherent, dark, and lurking always inside of me, was a hideous awareness of others' opinions. The Corvids didn't like me and I didn't much like them… but though I hadn't wanted to admit it, it was tearing me up.

The tears were flowing harder now, and I'm sure poor Theo was at a complete loss as to what to do. As sensitive as he was, he was still a 16-year-old guy, and his emotional sensitivity was limited at best. But that didn't stop him from awkwardly trying: he placed a comforting had on my back and patted me gently while saying, "Lisa, this isn't like you –"

"Yes it is!" I yelled, jerking my head around to glare at him with tear-stained eyes. "Maybe you haven't known me long enough to know, but this is the way I am! I know I'm awful and shallow and frivolous – "

"It's natural," he said, trying to be the voice of reason to my near-hysteria. "Humans are social creatures. The only way we survived long enough to evolve was by organizing into packs and living together. Social interaction has always been an important part of life: it's normal for you to be concerned about your relationships with others."

I lifted my head, a watery smile on my face. "You're right, I guess. You usually are. But that doesn't mean I like it." I brushed my hand across my eyes, frowning. "Sometimes I think it'd be better to just start all over, you know? Get away from Springfield and the Corvids and all these issues."

"Yeah, it would be nice," he replied, "but that'd be taking the easy way out. Are you going to let them beat you?"

"…No," I said, a little more resolutely.

"Good," he said, then leaned over and kissed me softly.

Our kiss ended, and then we sat in a comfortable silence for a few moments. Theo looked deep in thought, but I wasn't looking for such pensiveness. I didn't want to dwell further on the pressures I could not combat, things I could not repress. For the rest of the night I just wanted to drift numbly, to feel rather than to think.

I stared at Theo who stared back at me, and neither of us said anything for a minute. I glanced down at the ground and at the massive amounts of grass Theo had managed to shred all over his stockinged leg.

I smiled. "We must look pretty ridiculous," I said, clutching a handful of silver velour.

He tugged at his green velvet coat. "Well, maybe I find these clothes pretty snazzy." But he grimaced, and I just laughed.

"My house isn't too far away," I said. "You want to come over?" I paused and wondered if maybe that question was a little too mistakenly forward. Then I wondered if I really cared. "I could lend you some of Bart's clothes," I tacked on lamely.

"Sounds good to me," said Theo, a small smile on his lips.

The church was a few blocks from Evergreen Terrace, which gave me a good opportunity to clear my head. There was something wholesome about that night: warm but not stuffy, clear but not stark, helping me get my thoughts in order. Walking side by side with Theo, thinking a bit ahead to what might transpire once we got to my house, I had to admit to myself that I was, ultimately, somewhat satisfied. I could put the near-disaster of the night aside (at least for now) and just enjoy myself.

We got to my house, cutting across my backyard. I found, amidst the jumble of gear in my backpack, my house key and let us in through the back door. Before following Theo inside, I glanced over the fence at the Flanders' back yard. When both Bart and Tommy left the shelter at night, they would place the Flanders' wheelbarrow upside down over the trapdoor to let me know that they were out. They would hang out in the backyard, or take a walk around the block: they needed to get out of the stuffy shelter occasionally, to stave off cabin fever, but it was too dangerous for them to go too far. I would have called out to them just then, to see if either was around, but since Theo was nearby I thought that would just lead to awkward questions.

"Hey, Lis, is this bacon?" Theo asked, his head stuck in my refrigerator. "Can I have some?"

"Ugh. I'm not sure how old that bacon is… I haven't got any since Homer was around," I explained, stepping into the house. "You're willing to have it, if you dare; wouldn't you rather have Soy Crunchies instead?"

"You're fabulous, but you don't appreciate food. I'll just take these Chippos instead," he responded, grabbing the bag off my counter.

What a goof. I rolled my eyes, exiting the kitchen and heading upstairs. After changing out of my ridiculous costume (which, as hard as I tried, I could not squeeze into my tiny closet) I headed into Bart's room, grabbed some stuff from his dresser, and returned back downstairs.

Theo had made himself right at home, reclining on the sofa in front of the television and stuffing Chippos into his mouth. He protested as a bundle of clothes, thrown graciously by me, hit him square in the face. I smiled and, while he was still sputtering and untangling himself from sweatpants, swooped in and planted myself on the couch, grabbing the chips.

"Well, those things weren't that great anyway," he said ruefully, glancing at the clothes in his hand. "Now, a nice bag of Farmer Billy's – "

He cut off abruptly, staring down at the fabric in his hand. I looked away from the TV to see him snatch up something that he then tried to stuff under the sofa cushions. But I was too fast; I grabbed his hand and said, "Theo, what is it?"

"Nothing, Lisa, I think it's a bug I tried to squish it and – "

"Theo, what is it?" I asked him seriously.

"You're not going to be happy," he said, closing his eyes in resignation. Then he slowly opened his clenched fist, and I had to bite back a rather uncharacteristic swear. Tentatively, I reached down to grab the little plastic baggie.

I'm not an expert on drugs. I've had alcohol, and I've been to parties where we've all tried a variety of mild drugs. (Hey, even geniuses aren't impervious to social pressures!) But I've never really been witness to anything else. I didn't know what the small white granules in the bag were, I didn't know what they did, and it made me sick to wonder what they were doing in Bart's drawer.

Theo just stared worriedly at me. I said, shocked, "But I got these out of Bart's dresser. What was this doing in Bart's dresser?"

Theo bit his lip, but said nothing.

"No, Theo, I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong. Bart would never do drugs. I'm positive."

He nodded, but I could see the skepticism in his eyes.

"No," I repeated, "Yeah, I realize Bart did a ton of bad things. But those were just stupid things… I mean, yeah, Bart did a lot of stupid things, but he'd never do drugs. I just talked to him, and I could tell that he was clean. I mean, he wasn't acting out of it or anything, and sounded the same as he usually does and everything. He never sounds weird… how could he be doing drugs?" I was rambling quite severely. But I refused to believe that Bart would ever sink so low.

Theo remained silent, but there was an odd look in his eyes and I could not tell what he was thinking. He looked like he does when he knows the answer to some complex integral, but doesn't feel like drawing the negative attention from the rest of the class.

I stared broodingly at the television, sick of the flashing lights and noise of the show. "Want to go outside?" I asked halfheartedly.

"Sure," Theo said, and followed me out the door to the hammock. We both sat, swinging back and forth, listening to the creeks and squeaks of the netting and the trees.

"Sorry," I said quietly, resting my head against Theo's shoulder. Curiously, he didn't put his arm around me as he usually would, and it was my turn to bite my lip. Did he think the stuff was mine? Was he worried he was getting involved in a family of drug addicts?

"Sorry for what?" he asked levelly.

"Sorry you had to see that. Sorry that I might be wrong about my own brother." I lifted my head up, and couldn't help adding a little snidely, "Sorry that you refuse to believe me." I twisted my mouth, waiting to see what he would counter me with.

He stared into my eyes, his silver eyes almost glowing in the moonlight. "Tell me about your brother."

Well, that was unexpected. What more could I tell him that he didn't already know? "Um… his full name is Bartholomew, he's two years older than I am, and he has longish blond hair. And, uh… he's currently serving time in the state juvenile correction facility for stealing a car. Once he turns seventeen they're going to transfer him to the Springfield Penitentiary." I raised one eyebrow, wondering at the odd question.

Theo just shook his head, looking down. Then he glanced up at me coldly and pushed up off the hammock. He turned to face me, and I, while my world was swaying to equilibrium beneath me, stared back up at him.

"Lisa," he said, irritation plain in his tone, "I want to believe you. I want to trust you. But I want you to trust me too. I don't understand why you keep such big news from me. Do you think I'll tell on you?" He turned away. "You know where to find me when you feel like explaining everything to me." And then before I could register, he was gone from my yard, disappearing into the shadows from the streetlights.

I curled up in the hammock, confused and hurt. Theo was never this moody. And what did he mean by my not being honest? As far as I knew, I had never lied to him. I didn't tell him everything, of course, but I didn't think there was anything I had misled him over or kept secret from him…

And then it hit me. When I had been rambling about Bart earlier, I must have let something slip about his location! I couldn't remember what I had said, but I knew that if I had uttered any clues, Theo would have picked up on them. He must have figured out that Bart was close by – and gotten mad at me because I didn't trust him with the secret.

I groaned. Theo thought he knew about Bart, but I was sure he wasn't a hundred percent certain. Should I just lie, just give some sort of explanation that Bart wasn't here? After all, I had a responsibility to Bart (and to Tommy, who was staying with him) to keep his secret and keep him safe. But I didn't want to lie to Theo because I was terrified he would know, and he would hate me like almost everyone else seemed to. How fair was it of Bart to expect me to isolate myself for his benefit? After all, it was his fault he ended up in jail anyway. But how fair was it of me to put myself and my priorities above my brother and best friend?

I'll tell Theo, I finally decided, closing my eyes wearily. Theo's trustworthy… Theo won't let me down… and it would be nice for Bart and Tommy to have a little more company. My thoughts dissolved into incoherent fragments, and I started to drift off, listening to the sounds of the wind and my own heartbeat.

A minute later I realized that my heart wasn't beating in tandem with the dull booming I heard. I sat up, staring around for the source of the unusual noise. It sounded somewhat metallic, and it sounded as if it was coming from the Flanders' yard…

Throwing my sleepiness aside, I bolted from the hammock and climbed over the fence, dashing towards the overturned wheelbarrow on top of the trapdoor. Sure enough, the metallic booming was issuing from beneath that barrow. Wondering how the guys had managed to overturn the barrow from the inside of the shelter, I quickly shoved it off and pulled open the door.

Tommy stared up at me, a haggard expression on his face. "Lisa, thank Buddha! Haven't you heard me at all over the past hour?"

"Sorry Tommy," I said, slipping into the shelter and pulling the door partway closed. "I think I was asleep… I just woke up." I glanced around the small room, and asked, "Where's Bart?"

Tommy went pale for a moment, then sat heavily down on the couch. His body language told me that whatever he had to say wasn't going to be pleasant – for himself or for me.

"It happened while you were at school today, this morning. Maybe I should have told you sooner," he said nervously, glancing at me, "but a lot of times, Bart leaves and disappears for a few hours during the day."

"He WHAT?" I said angrily. Stupid! There I had been, worried about divulging his whereabouts to one trustworthy individual, while he was off skipping around in broad daylight! "Tommy, why DIDN'T you tell me?"

He looked sheepish. "Bart told me not to tell you… and he always came back with some sort of interesting takeout. If you had broccoli and Boca Burgers for every meal, you'd understand the value of a little variety."

I rolled my eyes. Hadn't I been warned again and again that the only way to a guy's heart was through his stomach?

"I eventually found out," he continued cautiously, "that Bart has been going out a lot to the bad part of town, so he—"

"Let me guess," I said monotone. "He's been selling drugs." I didn't need Tommy's confirmation – which was slow in coming – to know that I was right. Hadn't Theo tried unsuccessfully to hide the evidence? And all that money Bart seemed to carry around – he certainly hadn't made that in Juvie.

I finally had to face the truth: I didn't know my big brother anymore. All those years he had been locked away… he still seemed the same on the surface, but who knew now what he was capable of?

Tommy stared at me. "Why are you so angry? It's not like you're some big narc or anything. You were always cool with a joint or two."

I ignored Tommy's question. He'd get the message eventually: I wasn't the girl he'd left behind. Many months of a new environment and new experiences had changed my outlook on life. I wanted to believe that I was now more mature. I wanted to think that I was wiser than Tommy, who at this moment sounded intolerably foolish to me. Instead of responding, I just asked, "Did Bart get arrested today?"

Arrested was such an ugly word.

"I was stuck down here," Tommy said, staring up at the ceiling. "I did hear a lot of noise, though. Shouting, crashing… eventually it got kind of quiet, and I decided to see what all the action had been about. I didn't want to come out too quickly, in case they were still up there, of course. But I think someone accidentally knocked the wheelbarrow over onto the door, and since I'm at such a crappy angle I couldn't get enough leverage to push it off. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't heard me hitting the door."

I nodded, then said, "I have to go down to the station and find my brother. I have to figure out if I can get him out somehow."

Tommy nodded seriously, and I pushed open the door and climbed back out onto the yard. With a spring over the fence, I was in my yard again, unchaining my bike. It was late, I knew, but the police station would have to be open at that time and I needed to find out the situation with Bart before anything drastic happened.

In a few minutes I was standing at the front desk, asking to see Chief Wiggum. The aging police officer was as incompetent as he had ever been, but he would still know what was going on with Bart.

Officer Lou led me inside the main room, with cells on one side and the Chief's desk on the other. As the officers watched whatever sitcom was on the television, I glanced into the cells. The usual number of petty criminals was locked up, and in one cell I spied, sitting between a wrinkly mole-like man and a renowned boozer with a bone through his blue hair, my brother relaxing casually.

Chief Wiggum looked up from the show (no doubt during a boring commercial) and thundered, "Well well, if it isn't little Lisa Simpson, the girl who ruined my Ralphie's school competition!" Then, a moment later, he said, "So what can I do for you?" in a perfectly courteous tone.

I was caught off guard by his apparent ambivalence, but said sweetly, "Actually, Chief Wiggum, I heart that you had arrested my brother this morning…"

"Oh," he said, glancing cockeyed at me, "you heard. Are you sure you didn't know that he was hiding next door to you all this time?"

I looked over at Bart, who shook his head from side to side. "Oh, really?" I asked, feigning innocence. "Wow, I had no idea."

"Good!" he said, looking relieved. "I mean, heh, that would have been pretty bad if a 15-year-old knew before the police. We would have looked pret-ty stupid."

I smiled. "So Chief Wiggum, do you know what's going to happen to my brother? I'm sure it was just a dumb mistake on his part… I'll take him home and ground him and make sure he doesn't do that again – "

"No way, Simpson." The police chief shook his head, looking stern. "We've been searching for your brother for months now. He's got a record a mile long, and escaping from Juvie only makes things worse. Despicable."

"And the drugs?" I added hesitantly.

"Oh yeah," he grunted, "yeah, here in Springfield we take a hard line on drugs! Zero tolerance!"

Then why is your Ralphie one of the biggest potheads in our class? I thought, but outwardly just nodded.

"Anyway," he said, "your brother is scheduled to go before the judge tomorrow. Remind me again how old he is."

"He'll be seventeen in a few months."

"Ah, well in that case he'll have a closed hearing, and it'll probably just be the judge, us police, and him."

"And his lawyer?" I asked shrewdly.

Chief Wiggum blushed. "Oh yeah, that guy too. Hmm, I guess we better find someone."

So much for the fabled Springfield justice system. "May I attend?" I asked. "Usually a minor's parents are allowed to be present, but since Homer's away on work, can I go in his stead?" As angry as I was with Bart, I didn't want him to have to face this alone.

"Eh, why not?" decided Chief Wiggum. "Trial's at nine."

I thanked the Chief, who had returned his attention to the colorful sitcom while picking food out of his teeth with his police badge. I glanced over at Bart, and offered him a half-smile and a wave. He inclined his head towards me, and then I left the disquieting room.

I started pedaling home, glancing at my watch. If I didn't get back soon, I wouldn't be able to get my ten hours of sleep to stave off my migraines. Tomorrow would prove to be unpleasant anyway. I didn't need a splitting headache on top of it all.

- O -

The oaken door loomed up forebodingly in front of me, and I wondered how I would be able to open it – it looked quite heavy, and not likely to budge when force was applied. But the janitors had been doing their jobs, it would seem, because the door opened smoothly and silently. I almost would have preferred a creak or groan – the silence was surreal, and as I stepped into the sunny hall I felt like I was stepping into the Twilight Zone.

A prim woman sat behind a mahogany desk, shuffling through various forms and papers. "May I help you?" she asked, glancing at me critically over a pair of angular pince-nez.

"I'm here for the Bart Simpson hearing," I said softly.

"Only family are allowed in the hearings concerning minors," she informed me coldly.

"I'm the defendant's sister," I explained, "and I got permission from Chief Wiggum last night," I added hopefully.

She stared at me again, focusing on my blue hair. I looked respectable enough; I had dressed up for the trial, to give a judge a good opinion of our family. I had even donned my pearl necklace and my Corvid ring, the nicest pieces of jewelry I owned. I had tried to arrange my blue hair in an innocent-schoolgirl 'do, and I guess it passed her requirements because she said, "Very well. They're about to begin in Courtroom Four. Try not to make too much noise on your way in."

My footsteps echoed loudly on the marble floor as I traversed the grand hall. I had been in this courthouse too many times; I instinctively knew my way to good old Number Four.

These doors were less well oiled; they creaked loudly as I pushed them open, and I tried to slip in as hastily as I could. From across the room Chief Wiggum waved at me, and I waved feebly back as I took a seat on the defendant side.

Soon, the bailiff entered the room and announced, "All rise for the honorable Judge Constance Harm."

As I stood, I inwardly groaned. Judge Harm had no great love for the Simpson family, and I didn't expect Bart to fare too well under her tough gavel. She entered the courtroom with her usual arrogant stride, and ascended her throne to sit loftily above us all.

She directed her glare first at the police (Chief Wiggum waved cheerfully back), then at me. "Little girl, who are you?" she asked accusatorily.

"Please, your Honor, I'm the defendant's sister, Lisa Simpson."

"Oh, so you're Bartholomew's sister, are you? Yes, I remember you." She shook her head, intimating that she assumed I was every bit as bad as Bart. "In that case, I have a question for young lady: Where are you parents?"

I gulped. "Well my mother, Marge, left us a few years ago and moved to France with another man. And my father, Homer, is away in Canada, in conjunction with the nuclear power plant."

"I called the power plant," she said. "Homer Simpson has not been on their payroll for the last few months. They said he quit a while ago."

"…What?" I asked, stunned. I had counted the lack of phone calls and letters from Homer as his being too busy to keep in touch a lot. But if what Judge Harm had said was true, then I didn't know what to think. Homer had lied to me, and had shut me out of his life. It was just like Marge all over again.

"Your father left you alone and unsupervised for the last few months?" she asked, a vein bulging in her forehead. "And he didn't even tell you where he was!"

"Canada," I offered blandly. Except who knew if even that was true.

"Young lady, it's still a serious case of neglect to leave a fourteen-year-old girl by herself for such a prolonged period of time."

I didn't bother to inform her that I was fifteen. My cheerful birthday celebration with Theo two weeks ago seemed so weird now, removed from this dangerous sphere of reality I currently inhabited.

"As soon as we can, we'll get your father down here and punish him to the full extent of the law. Don't worry."

I felt tears well up in my eyes. First Bart, now Homer… all too quickly, I was losing the remaining family I had. Already torn apart by Marge's betrayal, I now faced the possibility of both a father and a brother in jail. My boyfriend refused to talk to me. Everyone at school refused to talk to me over that ugly Knowledge Bowl incident. Only Tommy was still there for me, but if we weren't careful he too would be pulled away.

I felt as though I was floating in space, unable to resist the pull of a massive, crushing black hole. Two more strands of my lifeline were about to be severed, leaving me one or maybe two thin fibers that anchored me to the earth. They could so easily break, and then I would be let loose, spinning towards the black hole and its heart, a place so dark that any and all light would be extinguished…

"I'm fine, Judge Harm, really," I pleaded. "Homer sends me money, and I have his phone number so I can call him whenever I want…"

"But what if there was an emergency, and we were unable to reach him? No, I refuse to argue with you any longer. Young people always want independence… they don't understand how important parental guidance is." She banged her gavel on its block, as if delivering a sentence. "Now bring in the boy."

The courtroom doors opened again and Bart walked in, escorted by a guard and accompanied by a lackluster court appointed lawyer. Bart looked stoically around the courtroom, his expression brightening slightly when he saw me. I smiled, as if to offer my support, and he smiled back a bit in return. I wasn't tricked, though; I could see that he was nervous.

He stood before the judge, head bowed slightly, while she eyed him predatorily. "Bartholomew Simpson, you are brought before the court today to answer to charges of running away from a juvenile detention center, destruction of government property in the course of aforementioned escape, and supplying illegal substances to the people of Springfield. How do you plead?"

Bart's lawyer merely stared into his coffee, barely cognizant of his surroundings. So Bart took it on himself to answer the judge, and of course, he said reflexively, "Not guilty, your Honor."

I wondered whom he was trying to fool. Everyone in the room knew he was guilty.

"Mr. Simpson, you understand that by admitting your guilt the court will be more inclined to be lenient towards you in your sentence. With that knowledge, do you wish to change your admission of guilt?"

Now I wondered whom she was trying to fool. Judge Harm was famous for her cruel, unsympathetic feelings and harsh punishments. Bart must have realized this too, because he said, "No, ma'am," stubbornly, staring up at her.

"Fine," she spat, looking satisfied at the chance to dig her talons into my brother. "In that case, I ask the police chief to deliver an account of the arrest he made yesterday morning."

Chief Wiggum stood and recounted a story similar to what Tommy had told me. (I noticed that he embellished his tale a bit: I didn't remember Tommy telling me about the large horde of Bart's addict clients whom Chief Wiggum beat into submission.) But Judge Harm paid little attention to him. For her, this was just a formality on the way to throwing the book at my brother. I could see it in her eyes: she was out for his blood. For whatever vindictive reason, she couldn't wait to tear my family apart further.

When Chief Wiggum finished his testimony and took his seat, Judge Harm barked, "Having heard the evidence against this young man, we will now give the defense a chance to speak. Mr. Hempstead, do you have any witnesses to call in the boy's defense?"

"No, your Honor," the lawyer said wearily, as if he would rather be in bed than in the courtroom at that time.

"Bartholomew, do you have anything to say in your defense?"

He glanced sidelong at me, before saying quietly, "Judge Harm, if you believe that I've done these bad things and find me guilty, please don't think worse of my sister. She was completely innocent of this. She's always completely innocent of everything: she's a good student, a good sister, and a great person. I'm sorry if I caused her any trouble in this whole mess."

Whatever ill feelings I had for Bart dissolved in an instant. Whatever bad things he had done, he was still my brother: he faced going to jail, a truly horrible experience, and yet he was still looking out for me and concerned for me. He didn't want to drag me down with him, and he wanted me to know that he regretted the stupid thing he had done.

I was moved, but Judge Harm merely sat there, emotional as a stone. "Very well," she said, glancing around. "We will have a ten-minute break, then reconvene for the final verdict." She banged her gavel, and immediately the police officers got up, while Bart's lawyer slumped forward on the desk and started mumbling incoherently.

"Lisa, may I see you in my office?" the judge asked, taking me completely by surprise. I assumed she wanted to chew me out a bit more about Homer. I had no desire to follow the woman, but since she was about to decree Bart's future (or lack thereof), the last thing I wanted to do was enrage her.

I followed her into the small room and sat in the stiff chair in front of her desk. She sat behind it and rested her elbows on the surface, tenting her fingers.

"Miss Simpson, by now I'm sure you know that Bartholomew's punishment is going to be harsh. At the very least, he'll be spending the next few years of his life behind bars, and the Springfield Penitentiary is no kind place to a seventeen-year-old boy."

I nodded. Bart had conveyed his fears about prison to me, and I knew that he dreaded the prospect of going. That was what had prompted him to run in the first place.

"And once your father returns to Springfield, he will be tried for gross negligence. If I was presiding over the case, and I well could be, I would push to have his custody of you and your brother revoked. The court would try to place you in a foster home."

I bit my lip. As dishonest as Homer had been with me, he still called and sent letters and presents on occasion, and never forgot to mention how much he loved me. I was angry with him, but I didn't want to be taken away and placed in a stranger's house. And I didn't want Homer to go to jail either. I didn't want to lose any more of my family.

"Miss Simpson, I can tell that you're very competent living on your own. You don't seem to be suffering from lack of food or new clothing. And I'm sure you're very smart… judging by the Corvid ring on your finger."

My hand flew to the gold ring, and my jaw dropped. "Judge Harm… you're saying… you?"

She pulled back the sleeve of her black robe to reveal an identical gold ring on her finger. "Lisa, the Corvid society looks out for its own. I want to help you out. I can pull strings to get your brother out of juvenile detention. And when your father returns, I will have a thorough conversation with him, but I will not punish him. Does that sound agreeable to you?"

"What do I need to do in return?" I asked, still in shock.

"Nothing now. Just make sure to help out your fellow Corvids when you can." The harsh frown lines in her brow relaxed. It was the closest to a smile that I'd ever seen from her.

I sat silently for a moment. This was a remarkable opportunity: I'd be helping both Bart and Homer. Our family could stay intact. I wouldn't be alone in the house anymore, and I'd have my brother and father back.

But a large part of me was screaming in protest. The judge was offering to override the law for me, just because I was a Corvid. She was making a mockery of the long-established justice system for no sound reason. I hated when Corvids took advantage of their connections to scorn what was supposed to apply to all people. I hated Corvid special privileges: how could I accept one now?

It had come down to a conflict between my family and my beliefs. I was such a hypocrite: I talked so much about my morals, but when the slightest opposition came up against them, I threw them out the window in a heartbeat.

I had to save my family. No matter what the personal cost to me.

"Thank you very much, Judge Harm. I appreciate your generous offer."