Title: More Than Human
Chapter 8: With the Girl at the Rock Show, or I Was A Heavy Heart to Carry
Pairing: RrB/PpG
Rating: R/M, because they're teenagers and a good handful of them use terrible, filthy language.
Disclaimer: Pay your respect to Craig, not me.
Summary: There is no way I can make this sound original, ever. My attempt to write a believable RrB/PpG in high school fic. Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal. – Camus
Notes: Thanks to mathkid and Juxtaposie for knowing when to leave me to my own devices and when to call me out on my bullshit.

More Than Human, Pt. 2 – Senior Fall Semester
August – With the Girl at the Rock Show,
or I Was A Heavy Heart to Carry

"Yes, we'd definitely be interested!" Blossom floated around the kitchen in an endless circle, the excitement on her face apparent. Buttercup, seated at the kitchen table, flicked her eyes to her sister, then back to her new cookbook.

"What date were you looking at again?" Blossom paused in front of the fridge and located a scrap of paper. "Hold on, I need to find a pen... okay, go ahead. The twentieth... Thursday?" She glanced at Buttercup. "We do have school... but it wouldn't be difficult to make up the day we'd miss. I mean, we have to do that anyway when the city is attacked. What publication did you say this was for? Okay. And your contact number?" She repeated the ten digits to herself as she jotted them down. "Got it. All right! Well, I'll check with my sisters and our father and give you a call back tomorrow. Mm-hmm. Yes. Sure. Thanks again!"

Blossom hung up the phone and turned to Buttercup, beaming. "Modern Girl wants to do a piece on us!"

"I gathered," Buttercup said disinterestedly. "What the hell is Modern Girl?"

"An adolescent women's magazine. Commonly known as MG, actually. They want to interview us for their November issue, complete with a photo spread and everything! The article will be about ordinary girls doing extraordinary things—I mean, obviously we have superpowers, but besides that part we can certainly serve as role models for girls without superpowers—"

"Bored now," Buttercup announced, and Blossom made a face. "I asked one question, not twenty."

"Well, I'm going to call the Professor to let him know what's going on and to make sure he's okay with it, then I've got to go get my youth team ready for their show. Why don't you call Bubbles and tell her the good news?"

"She's supposed to be back in, like, half an hour."

Blossom crossed her arms and said dryly, "She's on a date. You really expect her to be home in time for dinner?"

"When I tell her what I'm making, she will be," Buttercup said, already tugging out her phone. She glanced out at the sunny world beyond their kitchen window, simmering in the August heat. "It looks like it's a million degrees outside. I wonder what they're up to?"

Boomer's knees were bumping into Bubbles' as they sat on the tire swing, legs dangling through the hole in the middle. It made him nervous and excited and uncomfortable, so he tried to edge his knees away from hers as much as possible.

They'd taken refuge from the heat in the park playground and the tire swing was the only thing completely shaded by the surrounding trees. Shade could only do so much, though; they'd also snagged a couple of cones from the ice cream man that had driven by. Now Boomer's was rapidly melting as he watched Bubbles eat hers.

Boomer had always bitten ice cream, so he'd never understood where this whole licking ice cream thing came from. It just seemed a waste of time—your ice cream melted faster, and you couldn't really taste it because your tongue would get all numb from the cold.

It occurred to him now as he watched Bubbles lick hers that really, the whole licking ice cream thing was less for one's own benefit and more for the benefit of anybody watching.

He swallowed as Bubbles innocently consumed her chocolate ice cream in the most excruciating manner possible, until she noticed his own cone was dripping a vanilla storm.

"You're losing all your ice cream," she pointed out, and he glanced at it.

"Oh." He didn't care, not really, but bit into it anyway. He'd waited too long; now it had softened to the point where once the slightest pressure was applied, the whole scoop instantly threatened to slide off the cone entirely. He was already at the point where he was fine with losing it, so it came as a real shock when Bubbles saved it for him.

Oh my God.

Bubbles had saved it for him by leaning forward and, um, kind of stopping it with her mouth, so now they were leaning towards each other, both their mouths on Boomer's rapidly deteriorating ice cream, and Boomer's knees were bumping into hers and he felt nervous and excited and uncomfortable, and it was all a little too much, so he pulled away. Bubbles did, too, and cocked her head.

"Not hungry?"

"Different type of hungry," Boomer muttered.


"No, not very hungry." She was wearing shorts, and the vanilla of his cone didn't look nearly as inviting as that pale, soft skin. It was summer and she was still so pale; what was up with that?

He almost placed a hand on her bare thigh, caught himself, and wolfed down his cone as a sort of pseudo-punishment-slash-distraction. The act seemed to come out of nowhere, and Bubbles giggled.

Empty-handed now, he pouted at her. "What?"

She shook her head. "You're just..." She shook her head again, smiled. "Nothing. You're silly. Cute." She leaned a little closer, holding her ice cream out to the side, away from them. "You know, that sort of thing."

Boomer's hands, sticky from drippy vanilla, fumbled for the chains of the tire swing and closed around them. Bubbles' knees were most definitely touching his now, starting to move past them, even, and there was a sort of come-hither look she was giving him that he didn't think was legal, or at least shouldn't have been, because man, if girls went around making faces like that all the time the men of the world would pretty much just roll over and die on account of the exploding heart epidemic.

Boomer sensed a soft rumble, vibrating through her knee against his inner thigh, and he cleared his throat, said, "That's," paused, cleared his throat again, and said, a little louder, "That's your phone."

"That's okay," she whispered, face closing in on his. Boomer wondered if he had any ice cream residue left on his face.

"Um, i-it might—might be your sisters."

"I don't care."

"Or the distress signal?"

"No, it isn't."

"Your, uh, your..." He swallowed. "Your ice cream's melting."

Her head was already angled, her eyes already closed. When she whispered, the swell of her lips bumped against his.

"So. What."

It was safe to say Boomer never expected this, that when he first saw Bubbles he really only saw a target: a cute, deceptively vulnerable girl with a gorgeous voice, and wanted her for his own the way an eight-year-old might want a toy. And then the toy turned around and kissed him, and bumped her knees against his, and could make this face that had definitely not been advertised, and at first it had been a matter of just owning it, but if that was the case, then who owned who now, exactly?

Their legs were touching so he could still feel her phone, vibrating ceaselessly, could dimly register the rapid disintegration of her ice cream as it dripped on the ground, and when she kissed him his hands, still wrapped around the chains of the swing, clenched, and the metal made a nasty grinding sound as it yielded to the pressure.

Bubbles was cute and kissing him and was his (or he was hers, maybe), and on this excruciatingly hot August day she tasted like the best fucking chocolate ice cream he'd ever had.

"I see." Mrs. Morbucks paused to sip at her coffee. Brick sat across from her at the grand table where, almost six months ago, he'd been sitting in this very chair next to Blossom as Mrs. Morbucks introduced him to the love of his life. His hands were wrapped around his own coffee, otherwise untouched. She smiled at him.

"Just out of curiosity, Brick, how much pride did you have to swallow before coming to me?"

"I don't know that it was so much pride as it was another rent check," he said quietly. He'd just barely had enough to cover it this time.

"Mm. Obtaining money shouldn't be a problem for you and your brothers."

"We wouldn't have a problem securing funds, no," he said carefully, and thought of Blossom. "The problem would follow very shortly after securing them, though."

In three streaks of pink, blue, and green. Yes, that would pose a significant problem.

Mrs. Morbucks was looking at him expectantly, and he made sure to let no trace of the tension he felt seep into his expression. This wasn't a matter of pride. This was a matter of business.

"I believe—if you need further convincing, that is," he said, "that you could consider this a sort of long-term investment."

She lifted her eyebrows, curious. "Is that right?"

"You spoke to me about PRM partnering with JS. If you decide to take on my request, I could guarantee such a partnership would take place."

She studied him a long moment. "How long before that can happen?"

"The original plan was to act in roughly four years."

"And have the recent personnel changes at JS, Inc. affected this?"

"Some, um, restructuring of the plan will have to be done." Brick rubbed at the lip of his cup, glaring past it. "But I'm still aiming for four."

"Ambitious boy," Mrs. Morbucks said, and sipped her coffee. Brick stayed quiet.

"So four years," she sighed, tipping her head back against her chair to think. "To be honest, I wasn't expecting the wait to be so short. In which case." She lifted her head to look Brick in the eye. "As a sort of payment for services, I suppose I can provide you and your brothers with a monthly allowance so you can maintain your current standard of living. Within reason, of course."

Brick tried not to sigh his relief. "Of course."

"I'll just consider it the price I'll be paying for accelerated, high quality work," she said, and Brick sensed the underlying warning in her voice.

"You won't be disappointed," he said smoothly, and finally lifted his cold coffee cup to his lips.

"You know, Brick, I have a bit of a proposal for you as well," she continued, and he paused before sipping. "Since I'll be staying in Townsville for awhile yet, and since idle hands are the devil's tools," (Brick politely refrained from commenting) "I thought I might enlist your help again for another few events I'd like to put on here at the Manor."

He hesitated before saying, "With Blossom?"

Her smile said it all. He lowered his coffee cup back to the table and said, "Have you... spoken with her yet?"

"I thought I might ask if you were interested first."

Far from it, he thought vehemently to himself, the image of Blossom dancing in his shirt burning his mind's eye. "Beyond our monthly allowance, would there be any additional incentive for me to participate?"

"I know people, Brick," she said with a sly smile. "And you could know people, too."

He stared at her, contemplating. A woman like Mrs. Morbucks would know a lot of Reccardis.

He shrugged. "Consider me interested, then."

"Good to hear. I'll get in touch with your partner this week, before school starts. I imagine I'd like to do at least two more events while you two are Seniors. Is there any more business you have to discuss with me?"

Brick glanced to the side. There was a phone at the end of the table, silent, waiting.

"Actually, Mrs. Morbucks, I was wondering if I could use your phone."

"JS, Incorporated, how may I direct your call?" Penny's familiar voice sounded through the earpiece, and Brick's hand clenched around the phone.

"Hello, Penny," he said quietly, and he could almost sense the woman stiffening on the other end. Brick couldn't say it was him; he was sure they were monitoring calls. As expected, Mrs. Morbucks had set up her line so that any calls made out of her house were untraceable.

It was good to hear Penny's voice again. "I was wondering if you could tell me if the Rowdyruff Boys are available for a job."

"Regretfully, the Boys are currently on leave from the company," she said. Brick had expected that answer; he imagined Penny herself had added the "regretfully" and was almost touched. It was a setup question, though, for the really important one to follow.

"That's a shame. How long will the Boys be on leave?"

"Currently indefinitely," she replied, not skipping a beat, and Brick clenched his empty hand to keep from crushing the phone. Darius had been bullshitting him about only a year, the fucking bastard.

"I'm sorry to hear that," he managed through gritted teeth.

"You aren't the first, sir," she said flippantly, and Brick unclenched his fist, waiting. "The requests for the Boys have been piling up. We've had to put a significant amount of client requests on hold for the time being. Whenever the Boys get back, they're going to be very, very busy."

He wondered if they were losing clients to competitors. Then again, if they were, the requests wouldn't be piling up, would they? He almost asked, but he'd already kept Penny on the phone long enough for someone who was calling with a job, and besides, a potential client with business to do wouldn't ask about something like that.

"Do you need me to put your request on hold?" Penny asked.

"That isn't necessary," he said. "I was wondering, though, if Cole is still at JS, Inc." Depending on the way Penny worded her answer, he could tell whether Cole was—

"Cole is no longer with the company," she answered. Shit. Cole was dead. Had he just been relieved of his position she would've said he had moved on to "pursue other endeavors."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Thanks for your time, Penny," he said, and the phone clicked as he set it back in its cradle.

Mrs. Morbucks was politely waiting outside the room for him, and fell into step beside him as he exited.

"Informative phone call?" she asked. Penny's indefinitely rang in his head.


"So I've given some more thought to the events I'll be throwing," Mrs. Morbucks said, moving on. "I believe the first will be in November. I'd like to commission you and Blossom to be in charge of the choreography."

Brick blinked and looked at her. "I'm sorry?"

"Actually, we should discuss this with Blossom present. Do you want to come with me to her show?"

He furrowed his brow. "'Her show?' Is she dancing today?"

"At the community center, yes," Mrs. Morbucks answered. "All the dancers that use the space are putting on a little performance tonight. I believe she choreographed the five-year-old ballerinas and will be dancing with a crew and doing a solo as well. Come along, I'll give you a ride."

"I'll pass," he muttered, ignoring the part of him that regretted saying so. "Just fill me in later on whether she agrees or not."

"Oh, she'll agree, Brick," Mrs. Morbucks said, opening the front door for him.

"You sound pretty confident for not having even asked her yet." The sky was on the hinge of dusk, and the air was still heavy with heat.

Mrs. Morbucks smirked as he left. "Even seasoned women such as myself all started as young girls, once."

Brick wasn't sure what that had to do with it, but when he turned around to ask, Mrs. Morbucks had already closed the door.

"Buttercup," Blossom said sternly, hands on her hips and foot comically tapping the floor. "Get. Up."

Buttercup mumbled in her sleep and curled tighter into her blankets.

"It's the first day of school! Set a precedent for the rest of the year! Or this morning, at least!"

"I'm going to be up at five am every morning starting next week," Buttercup muttered, pulling her ratty old green throw over her head. "I'm enjoying this precious sleep time I have left while I still can."

"Get up! The Professor is almost done with breakfast!"

Buttercup responded by curling away from her sister, to the wall.


Blossom was interrupted by the sudden VRRRRING! of the vacuum cleaner, and she jumped. Bubbles steered the offensive noisemaker over to Buttercup's bed, where the green lump burrowed tighter into itself, obstinate in its refusal to awaken. Bubbles responded by lifting the vacuum onto her bed, where the corner of her precious green blankie was mercilessly sucked in.

Buttercup was instantly up and screaming, "HEY! Cut that out! You'll ruin it!" She snatched the mass of blanket that was threatening to be devoured and pulled. Bubbles only clicked up the intensity of the vacuum, and the volume of the whirring increased.

The bedroom erupted into a cacophony of discordant noise as Buttercup and the vacuum cleaner tried to out-volume each other. Blossom watched dumbly, feeling a headache coming on. She finally intervened by pulling the plug on the vacuum cleaner just as Bubbles aimed it at Buttercup's chest, and Buttercup was able to extricate her sleepwear from the offending appliance.

"You know what sucks?" Buttercup snarled, rolling her childhood safety blanket into a protective ball and tucking it behind her pillow.

"Vacuum cleaners?" Bubbles said, blinking wide, innocent eyes as she held up the item in question.

"You!" Buttercup snapped.

"Good morning to you too, Buttercup," Bubbles replied airily, and floated out to join the Professor at the breakfast table. Blossom sighed and followed suit.

After some heated grumbling to an empty room, Buttercup made her way downstairs in record time. The Professor greeted her but was mostly preoccupied with drilling Bubbles about her new beau.

"I want you to bring him by," he said, looking very intense for the morning.

"Oh, Professor, you've been so busy," she said, spooning out grapefruit.

"I need to meet him! If he's going to date one of my girls—"

"You'll meet him soon. I promise I'll bring him by."

"I mean, honey, I don't ask for much, I try not to put restrictions on who you date—I know you girls are perfectly capable of taking care of yourselves, to a point—but you know at the very least you need to introduce me to him, especially considering he's... you know..."

"A Rowdyruff Boy?" Buttercup and Blossom finished simultaneously.

"Yes! That is a pretty big deal, Bubbles! I mean, it sounds like he's... settled down..." And here the Professor clutched his spoon in his hands and bent it unwittingly as he spoke.

"He has," Bubbles assured him, gently tugging the spoon away from him and bending it back into form. She looked their father in the eye. "I promise, you'll get to meet him. Very soon. I'll even let you have as much time with him as you want."

This calmed the Professor down. Buttercup and Blossom exchanged a glance with each other, then looked at Bubbles, who hummed cheerily to herself as she finished her breakfast. The Professor began to wax on poetic about the pride he felt at his girls entering their final year of high school, which ended—rather predictably—on a tearful note as he lamented how big they'd gotten, how time had flown, and how it seemed like it was only yesterday that they were five and little, the most precious things ever, and that no matter how big they got they would always be his three precious little girls.

Bubbles patted him affectionately and then got up to get their massive first day lunch out of the fridge. Buttercup and Blossom, meanwhile, only wondered what the Professor had in store for Boomer.

Blossom was being civil to him, or at least, they weren't getting into screaming or death glare matches like they had at the beginning of last semester. She was very obviously resisting eye contact, though. Not that Brick cared or anything. It wasn't like he was looking. He just. Um. He could sense things. Yeah. That was it.

According to Mrs. Morbucks, she'd already spoken to Blossom about her plans for the two of them to dance together again, and Blossom had agreed. The news had simultaneously surprised Brick and... something else. He wasn't—well, he hadn't been disappointed. Just surprised and... something else.

However, he himself hadn't spoken to her, and Blossom hadn't given any indication that she'd spoken with Mrs. Morbucks at all. He suspected she was upset. She wasn't spitting at him, granted, but she was practically ignoring him. Which was, in some ways, even more irritating.

They hadn't interacted or seen each other since Boomer and Bubbles had gotten together on that ridiculous day, and Brick thought that Blossom had had more sense than to hold a grudge against someone who had, for all intents and purposes, saved the day. Even if it did involve nearly sacrificing her sister to do it, and had been a risk at that, but still! Brick had turned out to be right, hadn't he? After all, Bubbles herself didn't seem to be holding a grudge...

As evidenced by her gleeful salutation when Brick entered their Art class.

She beamed and tugged up a student Brick didn't recognize. "And this is Brick! Our resident tall, dark, and moody bad boy. He's a Rowdyruff Boy, you know."

The girl Bubbles was gripping by the hand blinked a little fearfully. Brick turned on Bubbles and snapped, "What the hell are you doing?"

"Class introductions," she said innocently. "This is Julie. We were in Kindergarten together, but then she transferred to Herriman's Private Academy, and now she's transferred back to Townsville High!" She nudged Julie. "Say, 'Hi.' He's not going to bite you."

"Don't make assumptions about what I will and will not do," he said darkly.

"He might allow some evil squirmy thing to possess your body, though, so just keep your distance when there's an attack," Bubbles continued.

"Um, hi," Julie said, less fearful and more confused now.

Brick ignored them and sat down.

Miss Maybury brought the class to attention and began her introductory lecture. They were going to start off the semester with sculpting, and she was passing out a list of materials they'd need, along with the paperwork permitting the students' pieces to be displayed in the gallery. Brick felt the teacher's eyes on him as she went over the handouts, and he pretended to busy himself with reading them.

"Oh, there is one thing to note!" Miss Maybury said. "Something very exciting! Next week—I know it's early, but the opportunity was too good to pass up—there's going to be a photo shoot here in Townsville, featuring—" And here she indicated Bubbles, who grinned sheepishly. "Bubbles and her sisters!"

The class offered various congratulatory remarks and questions about who the shoot was for.

"Modern Girl magazine," Brick heard Bubbles reply.

"So what we'll do—sorry, I lied about the sculpting—is open the semester with a few weeks dedicated to photography. Thanks to various people—including Mrs. Morbucks and Modern Girl—we'll be attending the session as a class, and will get the opportunity to shoot some photos of our own with the new camera equipment Mrs. Morbucks has donated to our department. A select few students' photos will be displayed in a special section of the magazine, alongside the interview." Miss Maybury clapped her hands. "Isn't that exciting? A professional photo shoot!"

Yay, Brick thought joylessly to himself. Great.

Miss Maybury gave them the rest of the class to tinker around with the camera equipment. Mrs. Morbucks had been generous; she'd paid for top-of-the-line digital SLR cameras, nearly enough for the entire class. They were going to split into groups for the shoot and trade off between the digital SLRs and the traditional film-based SLRs amongst themselves.

"You know what I used to call these when I was a kid?" Bubbles said as she pointed one of the older models at Brick. "Elephant noses!"

"Is there any film in that?" Brick asked in a bored tone as he navigated the menu of a digital model.

"No." Bubbles lowered the camera. "Why? Do you want me to take your picture?"

"Absolutely not," he said. "I was only curious."

"Miss Maybury says we'll get to use the darkroom in the journalism room!" Bubbles said, near-to-bursting with excitement. "Isn't that cool? I've never been in there before! I'm going to take, like, a bazillion pictures on film so I can watch them all develop!"

"Does that mean you'll only be taking, like, a bahundred pictures digitally?" Brick asked mockingly.

Bubbles snatched the camera he was looking at out of his hands and replaced it with hers. "Here. Switch with me."

He glared at her. "You know, generally? You ask permission before doing that."

"Generally you ask permission before letting a giant black spike of death stab a pretty girl in the heart, too," she responded.

Brick didn't have a retort for that.

The bell rang for the passing period, and on his way out the door Brick was accosted yet again by Bubbles, who also had Julie in tow.

"What now?" he demanded as she dragged them both along.

"It's lunch, duh!" she said, steering them through the crowd to the cafeteria.

"I do not eat lunch here!"

"No, you just glare at your food until it gets scared and eats itself," Bubbles said. "I know. I've seen you."

"No you haven't!"

"Well, I'm a good guesser."

Brick was about to ask why she was so hellbent on getting him to eat lunch with her when he spotted all their respective siblings clustered at one table. Boomer was handing a giant bag to Buttercup, who opened it and inspected it shrewdly.

"Hi everyone!" Bubbles greeted loudly, and pecked Boomer on the cheek. "Hi, Boomer."

Boomer only blushed.

"Thanks for letting us keep lunch in your locker," she said, beaming at him as they sat down. Brick rolled his eyes and turned to leave, but Bubbles snatched him by a belt loop and yanked him down into the seat next to her so hard the table's opposite end rose off the floor.

"Oh, no you don't," she warned.

"I am not even hungry," he lied.

"Good," Butch said, mouth watering as Buttercup started distributing tupperware. "More for me."

Brick's curiosity got the better of him. "What's all this for?"

"This is the first of the first school days where me and my sisters actually have lunch together," Bubbles said. "So I wanted to do something special! Then I found out from Boomer that you guys were in this lunch too, and I thought, well, the more the merrier—"

"Butch, you do not have this lunch," Brick said abruptly.

"Nope," his brother responded casually. "But I had a class that was just dying to be skipped."

Blossom, who, to her immense dissatisfaction, was seated next to him, said, "You are setting a terrible example as a Senior."

"I set a terrible example as a person," Butch corrected.

Brick glanced at Blossom, who had scoffed and was now re-focused on her AP Economics reading. Whether she felt the weight of his gaze on her or not, he wasn't sure, but he did see her glance at the empty seat next to her.

His own attention was drawn to it, and he glanced away, then back—

"Oh, Julie! I completely forgot to introduce you. Here, sit next to Blossom. Girls, it's Julie Bean! She's transferred back from Herriman's! Guys, this is Julie. She's new. To you, at least. Us girls were all in Kindergarten together."

"Julie?" Blossom looked up. "We haven't seen you in years!"

"I know, it's crazy," Julie laughed, a little nervous.

"I totally didn't recognize you," Buttercup said, then squinted. "Did you..." She trailed off, then indicated her own face. "Did you get something done?"

"Buttercup!" Blossom scolded.

"Um, yeah," Julie mumbled.

"You look good," Buttercup said, looking only slightly apologetic about the faux pas. Bubbles waved at Julie to get into her seat.

"Fresh meat, you said?" Butch asked, eyes glittering as Julie took her seat. He reached a hand around Blossom's shoulders for Julie's hair. "You've got something in your—"

Blossom immediately smacked him face first into the table. She turned to Julie. "Do not let him touch you."

Julie looked from a groaning Butch to Brick. "If you're the tall, dark, and moody bad boy, which one is he?"

"The one with a mental disability," Brick said bluntly.

"And the cute one is mine," Bubbles said, giggling as she leaned her head on Boomer's shoulder. Boomer, meanwhile, looked as if red was his new permanent color.

Buttercup gagged as she passed a container to Julie ("You can have mine, I'll share with Boomer," Bubbles urged). "You two are disgusting. You hear me? Disgusting. We shouldn't have bothered packing dessert, because in about five seconds you both are going to make me start barfing cupcakes."

Bubbles cocked her head. "If you could barf cupcakes, what flavor would they be?"

"Could we stop talking about barfing when we're about to eat?" Blossom said in a strained voice. "And when we have company?"

Buttercup nodded at Julie. "Sorry about earlier. But seriously, you look good."

"She thinks you're cute," Butch explained, and Buttercup whacked him in the head.

"Oh," Julie said, blushing. "I'm not—"

"Neither am I," Buttercup said, glaring at Butch.

"So what do you think of public school compared to Herriman's?" Bubbles asked, spooning a bite of food into Boomer's mouth ("I feel a vanilla with sprinkles coming on," Buttercup gagged).

Blossom perked up. "I've heard they have a great academic program there. And those girls really know how to move. We faced Herriman's in last year's state competition!"

"State competition for what—" Suddenly Julie's eyes lit up. "Oh my God, Dance! That's right! You were, like, unstoppable! I was on the team; we couldn't stop talking about you and how amazing you were—"

"Oh, geez, thank you," Blossom said modestly—

"Don't make her head any bigger than it already is," Brick commented, finally prying off the lid to his lunch, and Blossom glared at him.

"I don't believe anybody asked for your opinion."

"A mistake a lot of people make."

Blossom huffed, "I wouldn't solicit advice from someone who tried to sacrifice my sister in a dire situation."

"That was an act of heroism!" he snapped.

"Except it was going after you," Bubbles pointed out.

"So it was less heroic and more cowardly," Buttercup said.

"Say that a little louder, Buttercup," Brick seethed, his eyes glowing red. "I didn't quite catch that."

Unperturbed, Buttercup looked him right in the eye and enunciated, "You're. A. Pussy."

"Fuck you!"

"Language!" Blossom snapped.

"You are so cute!" Bubbles cooed at Boomer.

"Speaking of fucking," Butch moaned. "This food? Is like an orgasm in my mouth."

"Did everybody miss the part where I said let's stop the gross talk when we're eating?" Blossom cried.

"You only mentioned barfing," Boomer finally spoke up.

"I made that food," Buttercup pointed out.

"I made dessert!" Bubbles said, pressing herself to Boomer's side. "Peach tart!"

"I love peaches," Boomer mumbled, blushing again.

"I also love tart, juicy, supple peaches," Butch sneered. Blossom and Buttercup both whacked him in the face.

"Don't think I didn't get that," Blossom warned. "That was a sexual reference."

"Brick, you haven't touched your food," Bubbles said. "Here—"

Before Brick could respond Bubbles shoveled a spoonful into his mouth. He slapped her hand away and yanked the spoon out, ready to stab it into her eye, when he paused. Everybody stared at Brick as his eyes glazed over and he looked at his container of food.

After a swallow, he croaked, "What is this?"

"Tabouli Provençal," Buttercup responded smugly.

"Holy shit, that's incredible," Brick said, awed.

Julie was looking around at the group of them. "Okay, I haven't been around since I was five, so... are you guys... did you all grow up together or something?"

The entire table looked at her.

"It's just..." She shrugged and shook her head. "You know, never mind."

Brick had only one free block this school year, and he spent it cruising around town in his Coil. Since he was out, he went ahead and bought all the materials he'd need for sculpting, then dropped most of his stuff off at home before heading back to school to corner Blossom.

They needed to reach some fucking conclusion on this whole working together thing. He figured when Mrs. Morbucks said she wanted them to choreograph a show, she mostly meant Blossom. Who'd probably enjoy it. The girl clearly liked being in charge.

After parking his car and entering the building, Brick was surprised to find the studio empty. He then recalled from conversations with Butch that the school was having a pep rally on the first day, and the Dance Company was very likely performing and announcing their new officers...

Blossom, as the Dance Major, was obviously going to be dancing there. Brick ignored the dim pull he felt in the direction of the gym—yes, definitely a pep rally going on; he didn't even need superhearing to pick up on the cheers—and seated himself in a corner of the studio, flipping open his sketchbook to keep himself occupied while he waited.

After some time, a few girls began to filter in. They were clearly surprised to find Brick there, and a little uncomfortable, but he paid them no heed, and after awhile they went on socializing as they warmed up. More girls arrived; Brick glanced up occasionally, but Blossom wasn't among them.

"Brick? I didn't know you danced."

He looked up to find the new girl—Julie, or whatever—standing next to him, looking semi-relieved to see a face she recognized. Never mind that it was Brick's scary face, but then again, every face in a new high school seemed scary.

"Sorry to bug you, I just don't know any of these girls."

He grunted.

"Are you with the Company?" Julie asked, and Brick shook his head.

"No. I'm waiting for Blossom."

"Oh, of course."

Something about the way she said it unnerved Brick, and he shot her a long, cold stare. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Julie seemed so relieved to be holding a conversation with someone that she was absolutely oblivious to the dangerous look Brick was giving her.

"Well, you guys are together, aren't you?"

"Absolutely not," Brick growled. "What in the hell gave you that idea?"

To his irritation his reaction didn't seem to frighten her, but at least her eyes widened a bit and she said, "You aren't? I just thought that, because you kind of fight like you're an old couple and all—"

Brick was about to call it a God damn fucking day and just go home when Blossom and the rest of the officers waltzed in. A bunch of girls cheered; evidently their routine had been a hit. Blossom was smiling when she came in, but her expression soured when she caught sight of Brick. He suddenly wondered why the fuck he'd bothered coming.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

"You talk to Mrs. Morbucks yet?" he demanded.

She closed her eyes and sighed, then told her other officers to get started without her. She walked to a corner of the studio, out of the way, indicating for Brick to follow her.

"Yes," she said, leaning against the wall.

Brick gave it a few seconds before saying expectantly, "And?"

"I agreed," she muttered.

"You didn't fucking say anything."

"Language. And what, like you didn't know? I'm sure she told you."

"You've got such a big mouth I would've expected you to be going off about it all day."

"You know what, Brick, I'm really looking forward to partnering with you again," she said, glaring at him. "If it wasn't for the money she was offering me—"

"Selling out, are you?"

"Every cent of what she gives me is going straight to charity," she snapped. "What about you? Hustling another car out of her? Or just play money this time?"

"None of your business," he snarled.

"I don't even care," she spat. "You know, you've got some nerve, talking to me the way you do. After what you did to Bubbles—"

"I did nothing to your sister—"

"And after the whole shooting in the gym, I thought you were—" Blossom cut off, then scoffed and shook her head. "Never mind what I thought. I thought wrong."

"You think a lot of wrong things," Brick grumbled.

"I think a lot of right things, too," she responded in kind. "Especially when it comes to you."

"And what's that?" he said, eyes flashing red, daring her to elaborate. Blossom stood her ground, refusing to flinch or so much as blink. She summoned a sardonic grin onto her face.

"I think you're really something, Brick. Really. Something."

With that, she pushed past him, refusing to look at him or stand anywhere near his person a second longer, the same way she'd been doing all day. Brick glared at her over his shoulder as she continued to ignore him and joined the officers at the front to lead the Company into rehearsal.

Why had he even fucking bothered coming to see her?

He thought for a second about changing the fucking music on the stereo and interrupting her stupid practice, forcing her to start figuring out what the fuck they were going to do for this show, this dumb, stupid show that he shouldn't have agreed to in the first place, about leading her into a dance to show her, show everybody that he fucking belonged here, he fucking owned the place, what did they know, what did she know—

He thought of maybe blowing up the entire God damn studio, just to get her to stop this stupid fucking ignoring him shit.

Instead, he just left.

Friday afternoon arrived sooner than expected, and it had been, by Boomer's account, a pretty good first week. Butch seemed to think so, too. Brick was the only one who seemed to be struggling—and by struggling, that meant he was clearly making an effort not to explode and take the whole world with him when he did.

Boomer would have asked, but he was preoccupied these days, what with practicing with No Neck Joe and...

These days he couldn't even think her name without blushing to the dust, or, if he was walking, tripping over his own two feet.

He darted a glance at the clock for the fifteenth time in the past three minutes. Fed up and impatient, he bid goodbye to Mitch and the twins and gathered his things, swiveling out of the practice rooms and over to the Choir Hall.

The dim drone of the marching band seeped through the walls, and he adjusted his hearing, trying to pick out the more subdued hum of the choir. The horns and percussion faded as the vocalizations of a couple hundred students in harmony rose to take its place, and he resisted the urge to quicken his pace. It really wouldn't look very cool if he was spotted in the music hall at an all out run.

He made certain to slow his steps at the first glimpse of the choir, eyes immediately drawn to the corner of window where Bubbles would slide into his line of vision. He tried to pick her voice out of the crowd, but paused when he saw her and felt a little stupid, since she was sitting and studying her music with the rest of the Sopranos, mouth firmly closed and puckered in thought.

His heart knotted in his chest. It was always knotting these days, tying itself up over and over again when he saw her, or heard her, even when she crossed his mind. Every time it happened he thought of how clear her eyes had been amidst all that shadow, how she'd looked at him with a devotion he'd never been subjected to, how her fists had clenched in his shirt as she'd whispered three little words that he'd said once to her with no real weight behind them, words that had taken on new meaning and strength in that deceptively tiny voice of hers.

Choir practice wrapped up soon enough, and, as was customary now, he waited by the doors for her. A few students greeted him as they passed, and he nodded at them. Bubbles was one of the last students to leave, with Kim and Mary flanking either side of her.

She was already looking for him as she approached the door, and he swallowed his heart back into his chest as she caught sight of him and smiled.

"I'll catch up with you guys later," she said to her friends.

"You're coming to the Dance Company's thing tonight, right?" Kim asked.

"Of course, my sister's in it," Bubbles laughed, and waved at them as they left. She turned to Boomer now, grinning. "Hey there."

He tried not to blush and failed miserably. "Hi."

"You're coming with me tonight, yeah?" Her hand closed around his, and he clenched back to keep her from noticing he was shaking, very slightly.

"Of course."

She sighed, resting her head on his shoulder as they walked out into the afternoon sunshine.


To kill time until she had to go home and freshen up, at Bubbles' suggestion they went for a walk. They meandered lazily about the suburban streets surrounding the school, and eventually the houses grew sparser and they found themselves skirting the edge of a deserted elementary school.

Boomer glanced at the playground. "Did you go here?"

She looked up. "Yeah. I remember when that playground was wooden, though. They replaced it after me and my sisters left." She pouted. "I miss it. It was way more fun than that plastic one they have now."

Boomer stared and tried to picture a younger Bubbles laughing as she darted around the playground, hanging off of monkey bars and clambering up the slide the wrong way.

"I wish I'd been around to see that," he said, and meant it. He really did. He wished he hadn't been such a stupid little kid. He could've played with her, and they could've grown up friends instead of enemies, and he might've felt this sooner, this easing of an unbearable weight in his heart every time she looked at him, touched him, kissed him.

A drop of water suddenly spattered against his cheek, and they both glanced up.

"Oh my goodness," Bubbles said, lighting up. "It's a summer rain!"

They both stared up at the light, sun-speckled rain until Boomer remembered his guitar was slung on his back, and Bubbles tugged them under the shelter of an old tree. Its branches were so dense that no amount of rain could reach them, and she laughed as Boomer shook the water from his hair.

"Is your guitar okay?" she asked.

"It's fine," he said, after a quick inspection. Bubbles smiled and leaned against the trunk of the tree, inhaling deeply. After a moment she motioned at Boomer.

"Come here."

He obeyed; how could he not, when she looked so beautiful and happy and so fucking perfect? She reached for his hands as he faced her and brought one up against her cheek. She kissed it, and God, he could've died there, right then and there.

The perfect moment. She was looking up at him, almost expectantly.

It was hard. He'd never been good with words, no, but these weren't complicated, the ones he was thinking, the ones he couldn't stop thinking when she was near to him like this. He'd even said them before. So why were they so hard now?

He kissed her instead, a soft, shy kiss, and still it felt like the world was going down in a fiery blaze of glory only to be reborn in that very instant. He had never felt this way before, ever.

She smiled into the kiss, was still smiling when he pulled away, blushing, like he always did. And then she proved she was far braver than he could ever hope to be.

"I love you," she whispered against his lips, in a voice as small as the first time she'd said it, and she made it look so easy, sound so easy.

He immediately shrugged off his guitar, heard her yelp as it smacked against the ground, discordant notes protesting as they echoed in the well, and despite it being one of his most prized possessions Boomer couldn't give a fuck. He took her face in his hands and kissed her, really kissed her, pressed her against the tree and said it the only way he could. He felt her stifle a gasp, felt her shudder as his lips melted into hers.

It seemed like forever before he managed to pull himself away, their foreheads almost touching as they panted for breath. His eyes traced the swell of her lower lip, red and a little swollen.

"Wh-what was that for?" she whispered, cracking a dim, heavy-lidded smile.

He said nothing, only pressed his cheek into her hand when she touched it, wondering if she could feel how warm his skin grew against hers.

Against his better judgment, Brick went to the performance.

He found Buttercup and Butch soon enough—it wasn't hard; once he entered the Fine Arts Center's auditorium all he had to do was wait until he heard someone get smacked—and sat next to his brother in silence while they dicked around with their friends, seated on Buttercup's opposite side.

"Say," he said to Butch, after a thought occurred to him. "Where's Boomer?"

"With Bubbles, hiding from her dad," Butch said.

"The Professor's back there with some other parents," Buttercup interjected, leaning over. "What are you doing here, Brick?"

He shrugged and grunted. "Nothin' better to do," he muttered. Which was a lie. He always had something better to do. But the thought of showing Blossom just how damn mature he was gave him the tiniest modicum of self-satisfaction. She could ignore him all she wanted. He at least was going to be an adult about it.

"I am ready for the sexy-times to start!" Butch said as the lights dimmed, and Buttercup smacked him.

"My dad is up there and I am pretty sure he can hear you, fucker!" she hissed at him.

"Hey, Brick, did you bring any tissues?"

"No," Brick said flatly. "Why? What for?"

"So I've got something to jerk off into when BlosOMPH—"

"Shut the fuck up!" Brick snarled, his fist in Butch's face.

"Are you even listening to me?" Buttercup snapped, her fist in Butch's gut.

As Butch leaned over and rearranged his face, Brick settled back in his seat with a thump. He then straightened and lifted his chin as the curtain rose so Blossom could see him being a better person than her when they hit the lights. He wouldn't even laugh at her when she fell off from the shock, that was how mature he was.

She was already there along with the rest of the Company, covering every inch of that stage. He saw Buttercup perusing a program out of the corner of his eye and reached for it; she automatically held it out over Butch so they could both see.

"She choreographed this one?" he whispered.

"Opening number, yeah," she replied.

The music started, commanding their attention, and Blossom was already moving, slinking her way amidst all the still dancers on the stage.

She was amazing. Of course she was. Brick knew that. So he focused on sitting straight up in his seat, radiating waves of superiority at her. But halfway through it stopped mattering. Somewhere in the middle of the opening number, maybe when the hip hop team (led by Blossom, of course) gave way to the contemporary dancers (with Blossom there, on the right edge), Brick forgot about being superior and merely watched. It wasn't until the end of that number that he even realized she had not once looked at him.

The room exploded into applause around him. Buttercup was threatening Butch with her fists if he so much as uttered a word. Brick stared at the lights on the stage. That was probably what kept her from seeing him. The lights were too damn bright.

What followed were a few more numbers from the individual teams—Blossom was in a few of them—but what kept most of the guys in the auditorium planted in their seats was the promise of the Induction Dance, choreographed by last year's major, Alicia, and featuring the heavenly image of a tight-clad, corset-wearing Blossom. Nobody talked much about it, though, since her father was in the back, promising scientific warfare at every male student head he glared at.

Butch slept until the appointed time, while Brick took out his sketchbook and doodled. Eventually Buttercup nudged Butch awake, and they all sat up as the spotlights flooded the closed curtains.

"Whoo! Go Blossom!" some random guy shouted, and then something heavy connected with a body.

"I'm watching you, you little punk!"

"Oh my God, my dad is crazy," Buttercup groaned, hunkering down in her seat in shame.

Brick pocketed his sketchbook as the music came on and the curtain rose, and then the oxygen intake for the entirety of the teenage male population in the auditorium plummeted.

Butch actually crushed the arms of his chair, splintering the wood. "Oh. My. God."

Brick just stared, clenching his jaw again and again. It wasn't even like her costume was that revealing—save for her shoulders, she was almost completely covered. It wasn't even like the dancing was that suggestive; it was more fun, playful, like a Broadway routine. There wasn't any winking, any lip-puckering, any come-hither looks she was shooting the audience. There wasn't any of that. Blossom didn't do that. Blossom didn't need to.

She moved so fluidly, so effortlessly, even in heels, even in a getup that she would obviously be uncomfortable in despite its relative tameness. She had donned an oversized top hat—obviously a suggestion from one of the girls, maybe Bubbles, even—and God damn, did she wear it well. She wore everything well. She was just... well.

Never mind there were other girls on the stage. She could have easily been standing up there all by herself. Brick watched her, following her across the stage with his eyes almost obsessively, forgetting that they were mad at each other, that they were supposed to be mad at each other, all the time, because they were enemies and that was just how enemies worked.

The closing to the piece came all too soon. The music was building up to a crescendo for the finale, and Butch was leaning so far forward in his seat he was practically three rows ahead of them now, and then Blossom sauntered up the center of the stage, yanked off that magnificent accessory of a hat (man, Brick had a thing for hats), and her upheld hair suddenly came undone, cascading down along her shoulders and framing her face just perfectly, and then Brick heard it.

The sound of the crowd's applause slammed into him like a tidal wave, and he blinked, suddenly keenly aware of every boy in the room clapping for her, cheering for her, wanting her. The number wasn't even over yet, and they were all cheering, every last one of them.

He stared at those hips, those legs, that gorgeous body and that gorgeous face, and he couldn't fucking take this—

He leaped out of his seat, stalked to the aisle, and jetted for the door. He couldn't even remember why he'd come, and now the only reason he was staying was for her, and that was wrong. She wasn't a good enough reason to stay, she wasn't a good enough anything, she wouldn't even look at him, she didn't even fucking know he was here.

By the time the dance ended he was already in the parking lot. He hadn't noticed, on his way out, how Blossom's eyes had flickered to him as he'd left, the only movement in the audience attracting her attention, how she'd watched as he clambered to the door, her eyes widening in surprised recognition, and how disappointed she'd suddenly felt that he wasn't sticking around to say, "Hello."

Boomer and Bubbles stared at Butch, prostrate on the ground. "He okay?"

"He saw Blossom's number—you know, the Induction Dance—"

There was a faint moaning sound from the direction of the floor. Buttercup rolled her eyes and dragged him up.

"Come on, loser. We gotta meet up with the guys."

"Oh, at the diner?" Bubbles tugged Boomer. "We're going, too!" Suddenly her eyes picked up on something just over Buttercup's shoulder, and she immediately grabbed Buttercup, who grabbed Butch, and the four of them stole outside of the crowded lobby of the Fine Arts Center.

"Sorry," she said as they stopped in a shadowy area by the entrance. "Saw the Professor."

Boomer looked back. "I don't mind meeting your dad—"

"You'll mind," the girls said in unison, flatly.

"But you'll get your chance soon enough," Bubbles assured him.

"Come on, motherfucker," Buttercup grumbled as she shook Butch. "Wake up!"

"Butch, boobies," Bubbles said simply, and Butch suddenly shot to.

"Where?" he said, eyes frantically darting around.

"Okay, you'd think that would've been the obvious solution to me," Buttercup said.

"Oh!" Boomer lit up, realizing something, and looked at Bubbles. "I gotta grab stuff for Floyd. I'm lending him some CDs."

Bubbles wound her arm in his. "I'll go with you."

"T-to our apartment?" Boomer stammered, red flooding his face. She only beamed at him.

"I better go, too," Buttercup sighed. "To make sure no 'sexy-times' happen."

"Aw, Buttercup," Butch leered. "Don't you trust us?"

"I'm talking about her, jackass. Plus, I'm curious to see your place."

Bubbles texted the Professor—he hated that, but it was better than nothing—to let them know they were going out with their friends to a restaurant, and then the four of them took off, the boys leading the way.

"Holy shit, this place is huge," Buttercup said, awed as the girls stepped over the threshold. Her eyes caught on the television and she stifled a gasp. "Butch! Why are we not having Bad Movie Night at your place every freaking weekend?"

"Bitch, make it happen," he laughed, enjoying her reaction. As Buttercup flew over to inspect every facet of the home theater system they had set up, Bubbles turned to Boomer.

"It's nice."

"Yeah?" His eyes flicked nervously to his room, a motion Bubbles caught. She looked, then floated over.

"Is this your room?" she asked, placing her hand against the door.

"Wait, hold up," he said, zipping over and getting between her and the door. "Let me make sure it's, um, you know, presentable first."

He went in ahead of her while she politely waited, the door ajar. Boomer rustled around inside, then pulled the door wide open and backed up.

"Sorry about the mess."

She smirked. "You are a boy, after all."

He smiled nervously at her until she reminded him about the CDs, and he scrambled over to his shelves to rummage for them. He had a pretty impressive collection; albums on the shelves, scattered on the floor—she saw both his electric and acoustic sitting in a corner of the room. There was a dusty desk to one side—seriously, it looked like it had never been touched—and a more recently used laptop sitting on the edge of it.

"Butch, what kind of movies you got?" Bubbles heard Buttercup ask, back in the living room.

"N to Z," Butch replied. "Ninja to Zombie."

The two of them conversed all the way into what Bubbles assumed was Butch's room, and after a second she floated over and very quietly shut the door.

"Okay, got—" Boomer stood, then halted upon seeing Bubbles. His eyes darted to the closed door, and he suddenly had the look of a trapped animal on his face.

She smiled and flew up to him, gently lifting the stack of CDs he'd accumulated out of his hands and setting them on the bed. The bed which, Boomer abruptly realized, they were both standing very close to.

"Um, we sh-should p-probably go," he sputtered.

"We can fly," she said quietly, smiling as she placed her hands on his shoulders. "No rush."

"I just—well, there are people waiting and—"

"No rush, Boomer," she said firmly.

"Okay," he agreed.

She sighed and wove her arms around his shoulders, gently lifting her feet off the ground as she did so. After a moment, Boomer hugged her back.

"That was some kiss earlier, you know." she murmured.

Boomer lowered his face into her shoulder. "Sorry," he mumbled.

"Don't even," she laughed. She ran a hand through his hair, and he squeezed her a little tighter.

They stood there in silence for a while, just holding each other.

"It's nice here," Bubbles finally said, happily.

Boomer let his hand drift down the curve of her back. "Yeah."

Brick killed his engine and leaned his head on the wheel, exhaling heavily. He felt such a total lack of control these days. There was the whole thing with JS, losing the fighter and having to pay the rent, and then even when he was cutting deals with Mrs. Morbucks he still had the vague feeling that he was only playing into her hand. Then that whole stupid thing with Him and that stupid black mass with its stupid targeting reasons. And then Boomer had gotten together with Bubbles, and seriously, he was acting so fucking weird and quiet these days...

And then Blossom.

Brick rested his hands in the bottom curve of his steering wheel. He needed to stop going to these things, or at least figure out a way to keep his head together when he did. He didn't understand why he couldn't fucking focus, why he forgot his reasons for being anywhere she was. Hell, even when he remembered his reasons, they always seemed half-formed and more of an excuse than anything. And an excuse to what? To see her? Or to make sure she saw him?

He didn't like it, either way.

I want to go home, he thought to himself, and it sounded so pathetic, so fucking childish that he hated himself for it. But his misery outweighed his pride, and he thought it again, anyway.

I want to go home.

It was easy at home. He had a purpose there, a goal. He knew what he was doing. High school was another story. Townsville was another story. So was she.

He flew into their building and up the stairs to the door of his fake home, his temporary home, eager to just get inside and relax.

"I'll bet you fuckers stole that system," he suddenly heard as he approached their door, and he halted.

"For your information, that thing was paid for."

Butch? And...

Brick's eyes widened as Buttercup's voice said dryly, "Oh, right. By your—"

Brick threw open the door to their apartment, his furious gaze falling on Butch's open door, where his brother and Buttercup were plainly visible.

"What the fuck, Butch? What the fuck is she doing here?"

"Oh. Hey, Brick," Buttercup said, then went back to examining Butch's DVDs.

"What, I can't have a fucking guest over?" Butch asked. Suddenly his eyes widened with a revelation. "Fucking Christ. This is the first time I've had a girl in my room ever since we got the place!" Anguish flooded his face. "I haven't fooled around with a girl here once!"

"Okay, so I'm going to go stand in the living room," Buttercup announced, dropping the DVD in her hands as she floated to the door. "Bubbles! You guys ready to go?"

Brick stared at her, processing her words. Then his head snapped to Boomer's closed door and he dashed to it, crushing the doorknob as he threw the door open.

Boomer and Bubbles were just standing there, holding or hugging or whatever stupid mushy things couples did when they stood together.

"Hi, Brick," Bubbles said with a smile.

"Oh my fucking Go—Boomer! Butch! What the fuck is the matter with you?"

"Hey, yeah," Buttercup added. "You didn't offer us drinks or anything."

"Get them the hell out of here!" Brick ordered. What if they figured out where the Boys worked? What if they'd gone into Brick's room (I would've fucking flayed them alive, that's what, he thought) and discovered his desk? He had important shit in his room, what if they'd fucking discovered it? What the fuck, what the fucking fuck?

Bubbles gave a low whistle. "Someone's grumpy."

"Brick, chill. We're on our way out anyway," Buttercup sighed, waving a dismissive hand as she walked to the door.

"Yeah, do you wanna come with?" Bubbles asked, still standing in his brother's room, holding his brother's hand. "We're going to—"

"Fuck no, I don't want to 'come with!' I want you to get the hell out!"

"No, Brick, it'll be fun! It'll cheer you right up, seeing other people. Here, I'll even call Blossom and—"

Brick tore into the room, stopping once his face was in Boomer's.

"Get your girlfriend the fuck out of here," he snarled, his eyes flashing red.

Boomer stared at his leader, his face blank, then he looked away and tugged at Bubbles, who lowered her phone.

"Come on. Let's go."

Brick's glare followed them all the way out into the living room, where Butch and Buttercup were waiting. Butch was staring off into space, while Buttercup was giving Brick a weird look. He ignored it.

"Oh, Boomer," Bubbles suddenly said. "Your CDs for—"

"I'll give them to Floyd at school or something," Boomer said.

She stared at him, then turned her eye on Brick, her expression darkening.

It was Buttercup who said, "Alright, let's go," and opened the door. She glanced at Brick and rolled her eyes, and he distinctly heard her mutter, "Fucking drama queen," under her breath as she left.

Bubbles wrapped her arm around Boomer's and beamed at him. "Come on," she said sweetly, encouragingly. Then she looked at Brick.

A sudden chill shuddered through him at the sight of her expression, and before he could process it they were already gone. He couldn't even recall exactly what she had looked like as the door shut; it had happened so quickly and caught him so off guard.

He sank to the floor with a heavy sigh and fell back on the carpet, staring up at the ceiling. He wasn't in control of anything anymore.

It didn't take Blossom long to gather up her things, but as Major she had other responsibilities. Never mind that these responsibilities hadn't actually been discussed; really, they were more self-imposed. But Blossom felt better when she went through every inch of the dressing room, making sure all the girls' belongings had been squared away, that no one had left anything behind. She checked the backstage and the stage itself, too, for any litter. As always, she was the last girl to emerge into the lobby.

Some people were still standing around, chatting. A few congratulated her. Even more gushed at her over her dancing. A few boys had been brave enough to stay behind to do so, though they had smartly selected a corner that the Professor couldn't see from where he was standing.

As Blossom thanked them and they blushed, she glanced around, scanning the area and wondering.

No. He probably left.

She said her goodbyes to the boys and walked for the doors, her bag bouncing along her hip. She waved at the Professor, standing by with his keys, and surreptitiously swept her gaze along the rest of the lobby.

Not here. Of course not.

She exhaled a quiet sigh as she resisted the urge to turn around and give the lobby another once over, and smiled at the Professor.

He had a strained look on his face. "You looked lovely up there. Almost too lovely."

"Thank you, Professor." She looked past him, out at the front. "Where's, um... where's Buttercup and Bubbles?"

"They went out," he said through slightly gritted teeth.


"Did you want to go anywhere?"

Blossom thought for a second, considering. They'd probably gone somewhere with the Boys, maybe Kim and Robin too. Maybe he'd even tagged along.

She shook her head and looked back up at the Professor.

"No," she said, feeling a little empty. "Just... home. I just want to go home."

Boomer didn't want her to, but Bubbles followed him home the following week anyway. She could be a very persuasive person when she put her mind to it.

"You don't have to, you know," Boomer said as they flew to his place. "I mean, if you're scared of him—"

"He doesn't scare me," she interrupted, pulling him along. "Bugs? Bugs scare me. Ghost stories? Those scare me." She looked back at him, an encouraging smile on her face. "Brick doesn't scare me."

Boomer looked mildly impressed but still reluctant, up till the moment they were in front of the door. He looked at her, his keys dangling from his hand.

"You're really something, you know that?" he said, his eyes soft. She only smiled and nudged him with her shoulder.

Brick was there, seated at the kitchen table. He was fiddling with his own SLR, and paused when the door opened. After a moment he resumed playing with the camera.

"Be right back," Boomer assured her.

"'Kay," Bubbles chirped, and watched as he darted to his room, not glancing at Brick as he flew by. Brick glanced in his direction, then at Bubbles, still turning the camera over in his hands. He hadn't been very social in Art lately. Then again, Bubbles hadn't really tried talking to him.

"Shut the door," Brick suddenly said, and Bubbles blinked, then shut the front door.

"We won't be here long. The lit mag's got an open mike thing at the school tonight." She swung her bag back and forth in her hands. "Boomer's playing, obviously. You coming?"

Brick scoffed, and she took that as a No. She looked around the apartment, bouncing on her heels a bit.

"I heard about the dance thing with Mrs. Morbucks."

He grunted.

"You and Blossom haven't started meeting or practicing yet, have you?"

Now he was silent, the only sound being the clicks of the camera as he continued to play with it.

"That doesn't seem like you two, to... not be on the ball about that."

"If your sister would talk to me, maybe we could get something done," he muttered.

She crooked her arms on her hips. "I haven't exactly heard much about you going out of your way to talk to her."

"I tried."

"Like a week ago."

He stilled the camera and looked at her. "She told you?"

"It was a guess. It's only the second week of school, after all." Bubbles came up and leaned against one of the dining chairs. "She's probably mad at you."

"She's always mad at me." Then, almost as an afterthought, "We're always mad at each other. It's good that way."

"I meant specifically mad, not generally mad."

"About what?"

She shrugged. "Probably about me."

He made a noncommittal noise and looked at his camera.

After a moment she continued, "You should apologize. To her, I mean."

Brick gave her a look. "'Apologize?' I practically fucking saved the day, and her ass, too. You expect me to apologize?"

Bubbles looked him in the eye, her expression serious. "No, Brick. Of course I don't. I don't expect you to do much of anything, really, and neither does she. So why don't you surprise both of us for a change?"

Brick stared at her as Boomer re-emerged from his room.

"Sorry! Sorry, one of the strings on my acoustic snapped. I had to re-string it."

"That's okay," Bubbles said, all smiles now. She took the CDs for Floyd out of his hand and added them to her bag.

"See you, Brick," Boomer said hastily as he pulled her towards the door, still not looking at his brother.

Bubbles held back. "I'll drag her out tonight. You can do it then."

She shut the door behind them, its slam echoing in the hall like a little punctuation mark at the end of a command.

"Hey," Boomer said, once they were up in the air. "I have a favor to ask of you."

"What's that?"

He dropped his voice to an undertone, signifying just how secretive and special this request was.

"It's about Buttercup."

"There you are!" Butch threw his arms up in the air as Buttercup landed in front of the school. "What the fucking fuck took you so long?"

Buttercup had a bitter look on her face. "Bubbles, my stupid sister, came home and tried to dress me."

Butch considered. "Was the ripping-off-of-clothes involved?"

She smacked him. He had to admit, though, that she did look a little flashier than usual. There were the customary jeans and t-shirt—well, tank top tonight—but there were the less customary bangles collecting at her wrists and a studded belt around her waist. And—

He squinted. "Did the bitch put glitter in your hair?"

"The bitch put glitter in my hair," Buttercup confirmed. "I got most of it out—yeah, there was more before—but, you know, it's fucking glitter."

Butch laughed as he thumped his hand on her head and shook, sending faint sparkly specks shimmering down. Buttercup snarled and swiped at him as they moved into the building. The stage in the school atrium was taken over for the evening by Townsville High's would-be slam poets, indie musicians, and future penniless philosophers. Some of the performances were good, most of them were the exact opposite, and a couple—one being Robin, reciting the entirety of Fox in Socks from memory at breakneck speed—went off the top end of the awesome scale.

Butch and Buttercup were discouraged from heckling by Bubbles, who had inexplicably decided to plaster herself to her sister's side this night.

"Why are you being so clingy?" Buttercup complained as she tried to pull out of Bubbles' death grip.

Bubbles tightened her arms around her sister's shoulders and mewled.

"That's fucking weird," Butch said, lip curled in confused disgust.

"Blossom didn't come tonight," Bubbles whined. "Boomer's prepping to go on. You're all I've gooooot."

"Go talk to Robin!" Robin was at the back, manning the concession stand when she wasn't being awesome on stage. A few of her fellow concession standers were trying to get her to go on and play Bohemian Rhapsody on her trumpet.

"Robin is busyyy..."

"Go talk to Mike!"

"Mike is busyyy..." Mike was talking to Robin.

"Where's Kim and Mary?"

"I don't knooowww..."

"Then go find them!"

"Hey, Boomer's on," Butch said, pointing, and Bubbles gasped and twisted around to face the stage, practically dragging Buttercup around with her.

Boomer wasn't up with No Neck Joe, but by himself. As he walked on, he set his guitar case at the end of the stage and walked to the center, where the mike was set up. There were a couple of stools up there, but he opted to stand, and gave a little wave at the crowd. A couple of people whooped for him and clapped. He laughed into the mike, his eyes settling on Bubbles. Under the lights, it was easy to tell when he was blushing.

"Um," he started uneasily, then laughed again. "I don't know, I'm up here now and I don't really know what to say, for once. Uh, No Neck Joe will be up here soon, right now it's just me, and, um..." He ran a hand through his hair, down to his neck. "I guess I just wanted to do something kinda special. Hey, Bubbles, could you come up here?"

Everybody turned to stare at their table, and a ton of people Oohed.

"Oh my God!" Bubbles exclaimed, hiding her face and giggling hysterically.

"Don't be shy!" Robin cried in the back.

A stunned Bubbles stood, grinning all the while as she made her way to the stage. Buttercup sat back with a relieved sigh, grateful to be rid of her for now.

"I've got the feeling something really fucking disgusting is about to happen up there," Butch muttered.

"Probably," Buttercup agreed.

Boomer was setting the two stools closer to the microphone as Bubbles approached him, and then he looked up.

"Oh, hold on, can you go back and get my guitar?" He pointed at the case at the edge of the stage that she had just walked past, and a few people laughed. She rolled her eyes theatrically and went back to grab it while Boomer went to the other end of the stage for something.

"Got it," she said when she'd made it back to the mike.

He was still at the other end. "Oh, uh, open that up for me?"

More laughter. Bubbles shot the audience a look of annoyed disbelief—Buttercup could tell she was only half-playing. Boomer could've remembered to say please, but then again, he was a boy.

Bubbles set the case flat on one of the stools and smirked as she opened it up. The second she did the smirk dropped right off her face, and she clapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes widening in shock. She reached in and lifted out a single red rose.

The crowd gasped, then Awwwed.

"Oh my God," Buttercup groaned.

"What did I tell you?" Butch said. "Super fucking disgusting."

The crowd had their own varying opinions.

"That is so sweet!"

"Are you kidding?"

"I wish my boyfriend would do that for me."

"Get a room!"

Boomer, who had emerged from the other end of the stage with his acoustic slung over his shoulders, set the case down on the floor and beckoned Bubbles to sit. She did, her eyes dewy as she gazed at him. He started to say something, then paused, glancing at the audience. He then placed a hand over the mike and leaned over to whisper to her, inspiring a round of scattered catcalls and more mushy cooing.

Bubbles' eyes softened as he whispered to her, and she looked at him as he pulled back, turning the rose over and over in her hands. Boomer began to pluck out a melody on his guitar, then looked up and sang into the mike.

"Oh, are you kidding me?" Buttercup moaned, grimacing as she turned to Butch. "'Such Great Heights?' Seriously?"

"I am overwhelmed by my brother's epic pussiness right now," Butch said flatly.

They lasted until Bubbles decided to join him in singing, and the sheer force of corniness projected them both outside.

"Those two, I swear to God," Buttercup scoffed, shaking her head. Butch extracted a little pipe from his pocket, along with a lighter.

Buttercup stared as he lit up and said, "Where do you even get this shit?"

"Around," he said cryptically, and exhaled slowly into the air.

"Why do you do it?"

He shrugged. "Bored."

"You do it back at... you know, work?"

"Sometimes. When we don't have a case." He paused to think. "And sometimes when we do have a case, actually." He eyed her. "You don't get bored?"

"Yeah, but... well, maybe not as often as you. As you did, I mean. I always had the boys to hang out with when I got sick of being at home."

"The boys smoke too, fool!"

"I know," Buttercup said, and shrugged. "I don't know, I just never liked the smell. Mitch stopped, for a while."

"So you could enjoy kissing him?"

Buttercup shot Butch a death glare. "Watch it."

He gave her a dry look. "Buttercup. Couples fucking kiss. I'm not a retard."

"You're just all sorts of PC tonight, aren't you?"

"So is that why he stopped?"

Buttercup looked off into the distance and was silent.

"He started up again, then. At least for as long as I've known him. Does that bug you?"

"It doesn't bug me if anyone fucking smokes out, no."

They stood out there in silence, then. Butch pocketed his pipe.

"You miss it?" he asked, and she looked at him. He flicked his lighter, again and again. "Bein' with someone, I mean."

She looked away and stuffed her hands in her pockets, the bangles tinkling against each other.


The two of them turned to find Bubbles—still glowing from Boomer's serenade—streaking outside.

"There you are! Come on, we're looking for you!"

"'We?' Who's, 'we?'" Buttercup asked, struggling as her sister dragged her back in.

"Everybody," Bubbles responded, and as they came upon the atrium, Butch lagging behind, several people in the audience caught sight of them and cheered.

No Neck Joe was on stage, and Boomer crowed into the microphone, "There we go! Let's get her up here!"

"What?" Buttercup cried.

"Give it up for the original lead singer of No Neck Joe—she needs a little encouragement, looks like—"

An indignant Butch sputtered, "Wait, you were in the band? How did I not know this?"

"I'm not singing!" Buttercup hissed at Bubbles, who was making a valiant effort to drag her sister on stage.

"Oh, you have a great voice, Buttercup—"

"I don't care! I'm not—"

Butch's hand suddenly clamped over her mouth and he and Bubbles carried her on, dumping her in the spotlight in front of the microphone.

She glared up at them. "You guys are dead—"

In a streak of blue and green they were suddenly seated back at their table, grinning.

"Break a leg, Buttercup!"

"Alright!" Boomer said. "Let's do this!"

"No!" Buttercup shouted. "I'm not—"

Butch's chair clattered as he rose up and screamed, "Shut up and sing, unless you're some kind of pussy!"

Buttercup fumed as the encouraging crowd went silent, unsure of whether to laugh or applaud or maybe just duck and cover.

"You heard him, Buttercup," Boomer said to her side. "If you don't sing, I guess that makes you a pussy."

She glared at him, then glanced around at the twins—Floyd on guitar, Lloyd on the drums—and Mitch, bass at the ready. The twins twitched their lips nervously at her. Mitch just jerked his head in the direction of the microphone.

Uncertainty flickered across her face. Her eyes drifted back to the audience, where her gaze immediately locked on a sneering Butch. His expression soured hers, and she jerked the microphone off the stand. The audience exhaled and cheered.

"What am I singing?" she muttered to Boomer.

"You'll recognize it," he said. "They tell me you've got a hell of a set of pipes."

She grunted. It felt weird and almost nostalgic being back up here. The twins behind her, Mitch to her left. Boomer instead of Cameron to her right; that was the only change. That and the fact that she and Mitch weren't a couple anymore.

Lloyd set the tempo, and the boys launched into playing. Buttercup recognized it instantly; Cameron had written it. They'd practiced it over and over and had only gotten to perform it once...

There was a long intro meant to show off the lead guitarist, but there was something different about the way Boomer was playing it. After a couple of measures Buttercup's eyes widened in awed shock. He was actually adding notes on top of the solo! Christ, what kind of speed was this guy on? She was so floored that she nearly missed her intro.

Fuck, it's been ages since I've been up here, she thought to herself as she sang. She was surprised at how easily the lyrics came to her, and yet the exhilaration of performance was nowhere to be found. She felt uncomfortable, out of her element, like she didn't belong here.

I don't, she thought to herself as she sang her way through the first verse. She didn't stumble over the words or the notes, she even tapped out the beat with her hand against her hip, but she felt nothing as she sang it. There was nothing. The revelation filled her with a strange sense of melancholy. She used to be so good. She used to love it up here, singing, performing with the guys—

Just get this fucking over with already, she thought as she finished the chorus. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Boomer shooting a concerned look over the crowd; he could tell their enthusiasm had faded at Buttercup's lack of it. Whatever. This was his God damn fault, anyway, she was betting.

He stepped up and played his guitar like a motherfucker, doing that thing again where he was adding notes into Cameron's original solo, and the crowd perked up a bit. Some even cheered and whistled. Buttercup refrained from rolling her eyes.

Fucking showoff. He was trying to make up for her lack of energy. It wouldn't have bugged her that much, except, judging from the crowd's reaction, it was working.

Her cue was coming up. She took an inhale to prep, but at the last second she saw him signal to the guys and instead of going into the next verse they re-started the fucking instrumental part, and Boomer began to ad-lib a variation on the part he'd just played.

Buttercup would've been impressed if she hadn't suddenly felt so very, very pissed off.

She glared at him from behind her curtain of hair (shit, she was letting it get long), wanting to rub that smug fucking grin off of his smug fucking face. The crowd was eating it up. And then the jackass had the nerve to wink at her as they finally went into the second verse—

She practically fired the words out of her mouth like a cannon, biting around every syllable, feeling every consonant. Boomer responded by improvising over the vocal melody.

The fucker's trying to drown me out! she realized, anger flaring up in her and leaking into her singing. She picked it up, let her tongue curl around the words, while Boomer played under the melody, over it, all around it...

When the refrain came she attacked it, and Boomer backed off, very slightly, into the background.

That's right, she thought to herself with a smirk, and sang her fucking heart out.

"I'd forgotten how good she sounded!" Bubbles said, clapping her hands excitedly. "Don't you think, Butch?" When he didn't respond she turned to look at him. "Butch?"

He stared at the girl on stage as the band went into the bridge, and Boomer stepped up again, echoing each line Buttercup sang. Where only a minute ago his reluctant, sullen friend had stood up there, now there was no trace of her. She had settled back into the band, into the music, reveling in the delighted reaction of the crowd. He hadn't known her when she was in the band, and seeing her now...

The more comfortable she grew on stage, the more uncomfortable Butch grew watching her.

Bubbles asked, "Butch? What's wrong?"

"Great," he said, his voice flat. "She sounds great."

Buttercup wound up singing another two songs. She was a good performer and clearly loved being the center of attention. No Neck Joe closed the night, and the students finally dispersed.

"Holy shit, Buttercup," Boomer laughed, shoving at her shoulder. "Color me impressed. The guys told me you were good. I had my doubts at the beginning, but—"

"Fuck off," she said good-naturedly. "You went nuts on those solos, Jesus."

"Yeee!" Bubbles was clambering onto the stage, and she ran up and threw her arms around the both of them. "You both were awesome! I love you! Both of you!"

"Now I know why you poured like a gallon of glitter in my hair," Buttercup said.

"Hey, Buttercup."

As Bubbles released her to fully glomp her boyfriend, Buttercup turned to Mitch. He gave her a small smile.

"It felt good, having you back up here."

She wet her lips, bit them, then finally cracked a small smile of her own.


"Dude, yeah!" The twins jumped up to her side, Lloyd ribbing her with his sticks. "You killed it!"

They laughed and joked around some more, and then Buttercup helped them clear their stuff off the stage.

Like old times, she thought as she helped Lloyd carry his drums out. She halted upon seeing the giant, beat-to-shit clunker they were piling their stuff into.

"When'd you guys get a van?"

"Just over the summer," Floyd said as he passed by her. She blinked, then flew over to help pack.

"Is this your guys' van?" she asked the twins.

"It's Mitch's," Lloyd said, and she stopped asking questions.

"Post-performance celebrating is in order," Boomer announced as he came up, Bubbles on his arm. "Slurpee run?"

Buttercup declined, even after the twins protested vehemently. They finally relented and left in their car; Mitch's van was crowded and besides, one of the passenger doors didn't open. Boomer and Bubbles left not long after. Buttercup wondered where Butch had gone.

"Admiring the Death Trap?" Mitch asked as he emerged from the school, and Buttercup looked at him, then pointed to the van.

"That's what you call this Motherfucker?" It was pretty beat up. Faded paint, dented doors, an ancient looking license plate on there that was from...

Buttercup blinked. "Montana?"

"Yeah. It's—or, well, it was my dad's."

"You got it this summer?"


"How'd you get it back?"

Mitch scratched his head. "I flew out, and then we both drove back in it at the end of my visit."

Buttercup looked at it again, a little incredulous. "It made that trip?"

"Pft. Barely." He scoffed when he said it, but Buttercup could tell from the possessive look in his eye that he loved it.

"And your dad flew back?"


She felt inexplicably, oddly hurt. "How long was he in town for?"

"Like three days."

"You didn't introduce me," she said, before she could stop herself. But they had always talked about her meeting his dad, even before they were together.

He stared at her. "I thought we were still... you know, not very cool with each other."

She looked at the ground, unsure of who was in the right here.

"Buttercup, I thought about it. Actually, a lot. But I thought in the end that it'd just be weird and awkward."

She scuffed at the cement with her shoe, those ridiculous bangles clattering on her arm. He was right. Of course it would've been weird and awkward. She wouldn't have known what to do, what to say. She didn't know what was going on in Mitch's life anymore, these days. But even so.

"I still would've liked to have met him." She thumped back against the side of the van, leaning back and sighing. After a moment Mitch joined her. The metal popped, slightly, as he leaned against it.

"Sorry," he muttered. They stood next to each other, not touching, not speaking.

"I called you like twenty times that night, you know," he said quietly.

"Yeah?" she asked.

"You never picked up."

"I broke my phone."

He laughed, a little bitterly. "Lame excuse."

"No, I mean I snapped it in half," she said, and mimed the motion with her hands. "I broke it. Me. On purpose."

He thought about that. "Oh."

"I'm sorry." It had never been easy for Buttercup to apologize. It still wasn't.

He sighed. "Me, too."

"Not just about the phone," she continued, feeling numb all over. "About... everything."

Mitch dug the toe of his shoe into the asphalt. "Me, too," he finally said.

She thumped her head against the van and looked up at the stars. "I don't know."

"Don't know what?"

Buttercup shook her head, closing her eyes as she hunched up her shoulders. "I just don't know. I don't fucking know anything."

Mitch looked up too. "It sucks that it didn't... we didn't..." He trailed off, and Buttercup nodded.

"Yeah." He was close enough to touch, close enough for her to lean her head on his shoulder if she wanted to. She wanted to, not as a girlfriend, just as a friend. But she didn't.

"Maybe we were just friends for too long, you know?" He was muttering now, his words a rambling mess as he tried to make sense of it. "Maybe that was why. Maybe I talked to the guys too much. Maybe I was too sensitive."

"Maybe I needed to get over it," Buttercup said.

"Maybe I needed to get over it," Mitch said.

It felt good to get this out. It felt good to talk to him, actually. But it also felt incredibly sad.

"It would've been nice," he said. "It would've been nice if it had worked out."

That was the worst part. Buttercup lowered her head, heavy under the weight of his statement. Her voice croaked when she spoke. She couldn't help it.


Butch had stayed behind, inside the school. None of the scant few chaperones had seen him; he'd been in the bathroom, staring past his reflection and counting tiles. After a while he went back to the atrium and sat on the stage. It was a pathetic excuse for a stage, really. Though it was high school, so it couldn't be faulted for trying. Butch turned his pipe over and over in his hands and wondered what it felt like to be up there with lights on and people watching. He supposed he could go find Buttercup and ask, but he didn't feel like talking to her. She'd looked strange and unfamiliar after the performance. Something about the way she'd been acting around their friends—laughing, happy, comfortable—bugged him. He'd just felt very... far away.

Thinking about shit like this only frustrated Butch. He never knew what to do with thoughts like these. Except maybe punch something. But what the fuck was there to punch? Besides, the desire to do so wasn't there, for once. Even though he felt angry. Sort of.

Butch didn't know how to handle an anger that didn't want to explode into violence, and he didn't know how to talk to a Buttercup that sang in a band that she'd never even told him she'd been a part of. He also didn't know what that had to do with anything, but the thought was there, nonetheless.

He finally exhaled a long, slow breath, then stood up to leave. Boomer had said they were going out to get some slurpees or whatever, but Butch didn't feel like socializing, especially when he thought about sitting with "the band," reminiscing about memories Butch had never been a part of. He leaned against the main doors and walked out into the warm night air, pausing when he saw Buttercup. She was standing alone at the curb, staring at either the buildings across the street or the asphalt; he couldn't tell which from this angle. The door caught her attention, and she turned.

They stared at each other for a second, then Butch said, "Hey."

Her face was cloaked in shadow, so he couldn't read her expression. "Hey. I didn't know you were still here."

"I didn't know you were still here. Didn't you want to, you know... go out with the guys?"

She shook her head.

"Why?" he asked.

It was a long while before she answered. "I don't know."

He couldn't see her face, but something about her seemed incredibly, achingly sad.

"Hey," she said, her voice cutting through his concentration. "Do you... could I talk to you?"

When they got up to the roof of the school Buttercup asked him if he wanted to smoke a little pot—not because she wanted to, but just 'cause. Something about the way she asked made it sound like she wanted him to smoke, so he lit up and took a hit. She watched as he exhaled smoke into the air and sat on the roof, staring up at her. Buttercup didn't sit, nor did she look at him.

"I was talking with Mitch earlier," she said quietly, and Butch abruptly decided he'd never really liked Mitch anyway. "Just... I dunno. His dad got him a van, and he didn't even tell me he was in town... I always wanted to meet his dad. Like... something about the way Mitch talked about him."

"His parents split?" Butch asked.

"When he was real little, yeah. Before I knew him. Which I guess is before I was technically born, but... yeah." She rubbed her arm, kicked at something invisible. "Anyway." She played with the bangles on her arms and started pacing. "Like... I wish he'd told me. I mean, he gave me his dad's fucking jacket and everything."


She looked up. "I didn't tell you?"

"Dude, you never told me anything about you and Mitch."

"Oh." His statement seemed to throw her off a bit. "Yeah. I guess not. But yeah, Mitch had this jacket that his dad gave him—this old leather thing, a bomber jacket—I think his dad was in a war somewhere, I don't know. But his dad gave it to Mitch, and then Mitch... gave it to me. On my birthday, after we got together."

"When's your birthday?" Butch interjected.

"November. I didn't tell you that either?"

He shook his head as he took another hit.


Buttercup went silent again. It seemed to take that pattern—she'd talk about memories in spurts, like someone holding their thumb over a hose as the water ran. Butch listened as she talked about the guys, about Mitch, about her and Mitch. She'd had a crush on him since they were ten. That made Butch think back, because he'd been here when he was ten, and he racked his memory for a clue that the girl he'd fought back then had shown the slightest hint that she was gradually falling in love. He couldn't think of anything.

She talked about nights out, about parties, about trying not to look at him too much at school or call him too much, because she hadn't known how to handle it. Hearing it all filled Butch with a strange emptiness, a regret that he hadn't been around and could only form vague pictures in his mind based on what she was telling him. The stories started to bleed into one another, although it might have been the drugs talking. But Butch was starting to grow tired of listening to her talk about a time he hadn't been around her, about all the fun shit she'd done with the guys that he hadn't experienced. He felt left out. Just like when she'd sung earlier that night.

Finally, after another spurt of dialogue had ended and silence had settled back in, Butch spoke up again.

"How did you two break up?"

He thought for a moment she wouldn't tell him; she blinked and looked at him for the first time since they'd gotten up here.

"You said it was something stupid," he added.

She sighed and slumped as she started to pace again. "It was."

"What kind of stupid something?"

"We just... we had a fight." Buttercup ran a hand through her hair, and Butch saw specks of glitter catch the light as they fluttered to the ground. "We had this stupid fight—Mitch was leaving the next day for break, so we were supposed to be hanging out together, but the boys showed up, and I was... I was just always weird about, you know, people knowing we were a couple, us acting like one in public... Anyway, it really bugged Mitch that I was all... like, I didn't want to kiss him or hold hands and stuff in public. You know, I'm like the complete opposite of Bubbles when it comes to that. And... so, I guess I wanted to hang out with the guys and just not... I dunno, call attention to our coupleness. And Mitch didn't go for that, and he left early, and then we had this big fight. And that was it."

She laughed a little, then looked up at him, her eyes filled with a false brightness, her smile strained.

"Stupid, right?"

Butch stared at her face, trying to smile, trying to make light of it.


His agreement seemed to relieve her; she turned then and continued pacing. "Tonight was the first night we really talked since, you know?" She paused. "He told me he called me, like, twenty times or something. I kinda... kinda wish he hadn't."

"Do you wish you'd gotten back together?"

Butch didn't know why he said it. Obviously neither did Buttercup, judging from the way she looked up at him in surprise. Maybe it was the way she was talking about it, with this voice full to bursting with regret. Maybe it was how small her voice sounded, how uneasy and soft it was compared to her usual rough-edged way of speaking. Maybe it was her expression, her posture, soft instead of hard, slouched and defeated instead of thrown back and defiant.

Maybe it was just because when she mentioned Mitch's name there was something underneath it all, something that Butch and his limited empathic ability could just barely detect. She spoke of Mitch with such an unbearable aching, an endless litany of "shoulda, woulda, coulda's" that even Butch could sense it.


The answer surprised him. "No?"

"I don't... I don't think we could've."

Her clarification kinda bummed him out. "That's not what I asked."

"It's still no." She puffed out her cheeks as she exhaled, swinging her arms around so the bangles clanged up and down again. "I just... no. I really didn't like how weird it got to be around the rest of the guys. And..." She trailed off, and then didn't continue.

"What I do wish, though," she said, after a pause, "is that I'd been more... comfortable about being with him. Because in the end, I really, really..."

Her eyes did this thing, then, this thing where they went so soft and became so distant that Butch thought for a second she might disappear somewhere else entirely. But maybe that was the drugs talking, too.

"I really liked him," she finished, her voice quiet.

Butch thought for a vaguely panicked second that she might cry. But then she looked at him, and her eyes were dry as a fucking bone.

"And he said something tonight, something that just made it all seem so... I dunno. He said, 'It would've been nice if it'd worked out.' And even though I don't think we could've gotten back together, just..." She huffed, frustrated, trying to get the words out. "It just... it was like it totally closed off any chance we could've gotten back together, you know? 'It would've been nice.' Not 'It'd be nice if we could work out,' you know, something kinda open-ended to the possibility. So Mitch and I... Mitch knew it too. He didn't think we would've made it either."

Butch had the faint sense that there was something flawed in her logic, that she was missing something crucial. But it felt true. Maybe it was due to the conviction in her voice as she said it.

"And for both of us to realize that... it just felt really sad. Even if it puts some kind of closure on it, you know? It just... doesn't make it any less sad. If anything, that almost makes it worse." She threw up her hands then, randomly, almost angrily. "I don't know what the fuck I'm saying."

"Me neither."

She gave him a look. "Thanks, Butch."

"You're welcome."

After a long pause, she said it again. "Thanks, Butch."

He didn't respond to this one. She jammed her hands into her pockets and paced in circles. Butch checked his cell for the time; it was nearly midnight.

"Why are you so... you know, affected by this?"

Her pacing slowed as she digested his words.

He went on. "I mean, you're fucking Buttercup. You're a fucking beast. Something like a breakup is like a drop in the bucket for someone like you."

"You've never really wanted to be with someone, have you, Butch?" she said, a small, bitter laugh curling around her words.

"Your sister doesn't count?"

"No, I mean... damn it." Buttercup ran a hand over her face, thinking furiously. "I mean... you know. You just know. You know, think of... think of fucking people. They're flimsy. Skin breaks, bones snap like toothpicks, you know, everybody out there besides us is like a fucking sitting duck, totally exposed and vulnerable. And we're better than that. We're more. At least... at least we're supposed to be. We're like walking with fucking armor on, you and me. We've got more than that, way more. I mean, this..."

And here she ran a hand uneasily over her chest, unable to say it.

"This... on us it's like it's wrapped in a titanium shell. It's practically untouchable. He never laid a hand on me, never broke skin or ever touched the muscle. You know... physically. He never fucking laid a hand on me. And it... just like that. Bang. That shell's there for nothing. I'm just as... I'm just like everyone else out there. A sitting duck. I don't feel superhuman. I just feel..." She wet her lips again, blinking several times as her eyes bore holes into the concrete.

"That was it," she sighed, and Butch watched as she tipped her head back to look at the stars, her eyes still as dry as ever. "He just made none of that matter. I felt like nothing more than a regular fucking human being. Even before we got together. Even now."

Nothing more than human. It reminded Butch of something else she'd said, way before. It didn't seem quite right, but he couldn't remember exactly what the words had been. He watched as she rolled her head back, sighing out the last traces of whatever remained to be said.

"Did you cry?"

It was too late; what had driven her to spill out her guts this evening was gone. Her face was already hardening into features more recognizable to him, her stance straightening, her voice rough and challenging, even as she said the one word.


"I cannot believe how irresponsible you two are," Blossom sighed as they packed up for the shoot. "I mean, just because we're taking time off of school—which, I will remind you, we are still required to make up—does not give you both the license to run around hanging out with friends until the wee hours of the morning—"

"Oh, Blossom, calm down," Bubbles soothed, looking bright and perky despite having rolled in at eleven the night before. Behind her, Buttercup yawned. "If you were lonely, you should've come out with us. I invited you and everything—"

"I was not 'lonely!'" Blossom cried. "I am concerned about how this will reflect on us! Professionally!"

"I don't get why we have to bring our own clothes," Buttercup grumbled, grabbing some shirts and jeans at random and stuffing them into her bag. "Don't they have a wardrobe or something they want us to wear?"

"I did some reading online and when going to a photo shoot—"

"I thought this was an interview," Buttercup interjected, her bleary eyes narrowed.

"Photo shoot-slash-interview," Blossom amended with a huff, "it is recommended to bring along a variety of outfits in order to respond well to the whims of the photographer. Also, that's what Brian told me over the phone."

"Who the hell is Brian?"

"You better wash your mouth before we leave," Blossom said darkly. "He's the MG staffer coordinating the shoot. Now are you done asking questions yet? We have to go!"

"I hope they have a wardrobe," Bubbles said wistfully. "I'd love to model something totally new and different!"

"Girls!" The Professor beeped at them from the driveway. "Hurry up! We're going to be late!"

After some more frantic, heated rushing around, Blossom finally herded her sisters into the car and they were off to the rented studio space. Bubbles took out her camera and began fiddling with it.

Blossom glanced at her sister in the rearview and cleared her throat. "So when's the Art class coming by?"

"After lunch," Bubbles muttered, loading a roll of film into her camera.

Blossom patted her knees and looked out the window. "Okay."

As they drew closer to the location Blossom grew more and more nervous. They'd never done something like this before. What if she said something stupid? What if she did something stupid? She prided herself on her maturity and professionalism, but this was their first time doing something like an interview for a nationally read teen magazine; it was different from a recap of yesterday's monster fight in the local Townsville paper...

"We're here," the Professor suddenly announced, and Blossom swallowed as she stepped out of the car. Their father's face was serious as he helped them unload their stuff. "These photos they're taking... they'd better not be—"

"I don't think you have anything to worry about, Professor," Blossom assured him. "It's a nationally distributed teen magazine, and they're all professionals. They wouldn't put us in anything... unsavory."

"They better not," both the Professor and Buttercup muttered.

Professional. Blossom kept saying that word, kept thinking it. This was a professional shoot, so there wouldn't be anything... weird going on. But what if she was wrong? What if they wanted to do something really... sexy? Or in swimsuits? Maybe swimsuits wouldn't be bad, but that was a lot of skin, and this was a widely circulated magazine, so if they put her in a swimsuit there'd be God knows how many people flipping it open to find Blossom in a—

She shook her head vigorously, trying to calm her nerves. Stop it! she thought to herself. Stop being so nervous!

"Girls! You're here early!"

The girls and their father looked up to find a chipper, casually dressed young man approaching them. Blossom recognized his voice from the phone.

"Are you Brian?"

"That's me. You want to follow me inside? Great to see you, by the way. We can't wait to get started." As he led the way into the studio he mumbled something into a walkie talkie, then began conversing with a tense-looking Professor. "You've got nothing to worry about, sir. I know it can be a little nerve-wracking, it being the first time your girls have done this sort of thing, but we'll take care of..."

Blossom tuned them out as she and her sisters looked around, a little awed. There was a white backdrop set up in the center of the room, with lights flooding it and other white screen-like things surrounding them. A few people were back next to a camera hooked up to a laptop. They muttered amongst themselves while they tested the equipment.

"Oh my God this is so amazingly cool!" Bubbles squeaked in a rush, unable to contain her excitement.

"By the way, Blossom, thanks to you and your sisters for bringing your stuff, but it turns out we might not need it," Brian said. "Our photographer has a very... specific vision. Here, let me show you where you can set it..." He led them past the group of people at the camera, who paused as the girls walked by. Blossom tried not to look anxious or make eye contact; she kept her face as neutral as possible and focused her gaze on the back of Brian's t-shirt as they strode past.

"The redhead's prettier in person—"

"Go tell wardrobe. We were going to make the blonde Queen Bee but let's switch to that one—"

All the anxiety that had collected in the pit of Blossom's stomach swelled into her chest, morphing into pride. She was nervous about absolutely nothing. They were going to have a great time.

Behind her, Buttercup scoffed.

There was a bus leaving the school for the shoot, but hell if Brick was getting on it. He'd told Miss Maybury he had an errand to run and would meet them at the studio. Now, as he approached his car, he saw something that definitely didn't belong there.

"Butch," he said, staring his brother down in the passenger seat. "Get out."

Butch hunkered down.

"You're not coming."

"Brick." Butch looked up at him, his expression solemn. "They are taking photos of Blossom. Blossom."

"There are going to be a lot of people taking photos of her."

"I swear to God I'll be good. I won't make any lusty moaning sounds, at least not any you can hear, and I will also refrain from touching her as much as I can—"

Brick kicked Butch out of his car. However, it didn't discourage Butch from accosting Brick at every stoplight on the way there—Brick put the top up on his convertible after the second light—and Butch only stopped after Brick punched him in the face and unintentionally (maybe) ran over him with his car.

The school bus had just arrived and was unloading when he got there. Julie saw him as he pulled up and waved.

"Hey! What took you so long? I thought for sure you'd get here before us."

"Ran into some asshole on the road," he said, collecting his digital SLR and some extra memory.

Julie and the other two kids in their group—Brick didn't care enough to know their names—waited for him, and they all filed in together.

I wonder, Brick thought, and then stopped.

Everybody paused as they entered the space, dumbfounded as they stared at what appeared to be a Baroque period piece dress rehearsal.

"What the fucking fuck?" Brick whispered in disbelief.

"Oh, good," Buttercup said, the giant white wig on her head bobbing. "An audience to share in my humiliation."

"Hi, guys!" Bubbles beamed, the curls of her own white wig bouncing around her shoulders. She flapped her arms on the huge skirts of her dress and, unlike Buttercup, looked like she was actually enjoying herself.

Blossom remained silent in her ridiculous getup, but as her eyes caught on Brick's, she cringed. Evidently she was more in Buttercup's camp on this one.

A man who introduced himself as Brian in overly cheerful tones came up to Miss Maybury, and within a matter of minutes the groups of students were scattered around, as out of the way as possible. Brick passed by a dozing Professor in a chair off to the side. Blissfully, there were only thirteen students in the class, and with Bubbles up there that left only twelve to split into an even three groups of four.

"Prop fans! Where are the prop fans?"

"Oh, God," Buttercup groaned. Brick's group was seated closest to her, and she made eye contact with him. "Brick. Shoot me. Put me out of my misery."

"I kind of want to," he said, eyeing their costumes with distaste. "Whose fucking idea was this?"

"Language," Duchess Blossom reprimanded quietly.

"Sorry, Your Highness," Brick said, and she colored.

"This photographer is such a douche," Buttercup muttered under her breath. "His stupid vision is trying to show how extraordinary we are by putting us in these stupid-ass costumes from all these stupid-ass time periods—"

"Brick," Blossom interrupted. "The article is about ordinary girls doing extraordinary things, and Dmitry—"

"Are you kidding me?" Brick said incredulously. "His name's Dmitry?"

"You have to admit, it sounds like a fashion photographer's name," Julie said to their group mates.

"He's focusing on the extraordinary part," Blossom finished.

"Yeah?" Brick said. "Well, this is extraordinarily stupid."

"Are you a professional photographer, Brick?" she said loftily.

"No, but I know stupid when I see it." He held up his camera and clicked. "And now I have a picture of it."

Blossom fumed in silence. Dmitry, the photographer, appeared with an assistant brandishing prop fans, and handed one each to the girls.

"Oh my God, this is stupid," Brick moaned, covering his face. He couldn't watch. He looked up again as Buttercup was handed hers, and she glared at the fan, apparently willing herself not to snap it in half and set it on fire. She looked up at Brick, then pointed surreptitiously at Dmitry with her fan.

Douche, she mouthed. Douuuuuuuchebaaaaaaag.

Brick glanced at the guy, running around barking orders in a Gatsby, wool scarf, and peacoat, even though it was eighty God damn degrees outside and everyone else was in t-shirts and jeans.

"No kidding," he muttered back at Buttercup. "He's got it written all over him."

She leaned over conspiratorially. "You know this is the only costume we've been in? It took us nearly two fucking hours to get all this stupid shit on, plus makeup, and the guy hasn't taken a single fucking picture yet! We haven't even fucking eaten, and it's like two o'clock!"

"Two-thirty," Bubbles sang over Blossom's head, flapping herself theatrically with her fan.

"What do you think about all this, Bubbles?" Brick called to her.

"I think playing dress-up is fun!" Bubbles said.

"Of course," Brick and Buttercup said in unison, rolling their eyes. In the background, they could hear Brian beseeching the photographer.

"Look, Dmitry, we've really got to get some shots now or we're going to lose the deposit on these rental costumes. I mean, that's why we started with the Baroque shots in the first place, and these things aren't cheap—"

"You can't rush art!" Dmitry bellowed, and Brick wondered what European accent he was trying to fake, or if he just couldn't decide and was attempting to fake all of them at once.

He turned to his group. "This is stupid."

They all looked uneasy, but Julie was the one brave enough to speak. "I mean... it is a photo shoot. But... yeah, it's kinda stupid."

"Well, we just gotta take some really nice pictures and do a layout mock-up," one of the other guys said.

"Or maybe we just skip this stupid costume altogether," Brick muttered. "What other costumes are on the agenda? Do we know?"

"Yeah, they handed me a list," Julie said, unfolding it. "Uh... Eighties Flash Gordon, Aliens, Cavewoman—"

Brick held up a hand. "Stop. I need a moment to erase what you just said from my brain. Forever."

He sat back as his group mates shrugged and snapped a couple of photos, their faces souring when they viewed them. What a waste of a field trip. Dmitry, meanwhile, after spending over an hour not taking any pictures, took one, and then called for costume change. Brian looked a little put out.

"One? You're just taking one?"

"One take! Like Hitchcock! Hitchcock was an artist! So is Dmitry!"

"Holy crap, he refers to himself in the third person," Brick groaned.

"You know, that's going to make it really difficult for our layout guys... they need at least a few shots, just in case one turns out—"

"One shot!"



"Christ on a—fine, okay, let's go to costume."

"You mean let's go to lunch, right?" Buttercup said as someone came up to help her out of her wig. "Because I'm starving."

"Yes, lunch, but let's get you out of those costumes first—"

The girls flounced their way awkwardly back to wardrobe, and Brick would've outright laughed at the sight of Blossom waddling out with all the dignity she could muster if he hadn't felt such immense pity. He tipped his head back and thought of the other items on the list.

"We can't do our project like this."

"We kinda have to, Brick."

He looked at Julie. "Then I'll take a failing grade on this thing. I'm not fucking putting my name on it, Christ."

"Dmitry is one of the premiere up-and-coming fashion photographers," a strange voice suddenly said over them, and the kids looked up to find a severe, gray-haired man scrutinizing them. Brick in particular.

His tone felt a tad challenging. Brick stared levelly back. "I never would've guessed."

Something about him seemed familiar. The man straightened and said, "Well, we are featuring the best student photos in the publication. See if you can do any better."

"Can't give us shit and expect us to sculpt the freaking David," Brick muttered under his breath, after the guy was out of earshot. He sighed and grabbed his camera.

"Where are you going?" Julie asked as he stood.

"I dragged this dumb thing along. Might as well use it."

He wandered around, snapping the occasional furtive photo. Bubbles re-emerged, in more regular clothes and with a sandwich in her hand from craft services, to shake her father awake. Her sisters followed soon after. Buttercup made an immediate run for her MP3 player and jammed her headphones squarely on. Blossom pulled a book out and took a seat, nibbling daintily on her own sandwich.

"This is totally unusable," one of the folks at the laptop groaned, and Brick paused, catching sight of the screen.

"He only wanted to take one," Brian argued.

"This is ridiculous, we can't—"

Brick moved on, snapping a photo of the empty backdrop with all the lights on it, of Bubbles dragging the Professor to the craft services table, of the book Blossom was reading—

"What are you doing?" Blossom asked disdainfully, and he lowered his camera.

"What's it look like?" he retorted. "I'm taking pictures."

"Excuse me, I'm eating," she sniffed.

He responded by setting the flash off in her face.

"Very mature, Brick!"

He waved her off as he passed, scanning back through his photos. He paused, then scanned back to the ones he'd just clicked of Blossom. She had been seated near the backdrop, so the lights were around, but instead of keying on her face, here they ghosted just behind her hair, creating a light, halo-ish effect. She dangled her sandwich in one hand, the other clasping her book open. Her eyes were far away, focused on the words she was reading...

Ordinary girls.

Brick turned around and crept up behind her, ignoring the urge to brush her hair away from her face.

"Blossom," he whispered, and she jumped, turned—

He snapped another photo.

"What the—Brick! I told you to get that out of my face!"

He snapped another photo of her livid expression before hightailing it back to his group.

"You sure like to bug her," Julie observed, and Brick ignored her.

"I have an idea," he said, and scrolled back through the few photos he'd snapped of Blossom. "This stupid article is all about girls—ordinary girls—doing extraordinary shit, right?"


"Well, this pretentious moron is putting them in stupid, 'extraordinary' costumes. Why don't we go the total opposite and do a mock-up around ordinary shots?"

His group members blinked at him.

He passed over his camera. "Here, you idiots."

They held the camera between them and clicked through Blossom's photos. Julie's eyes clouded over, and she turned to pick hers up, then, after positioning herself, snapped a photo of Buttercup, eyes closed and head tipped back as she sang along with her music, one hand resting against a headphone.

"I like it," Julie said after examining her shot.

"Dude, I dig it too." Guy One and Guy Two agreed. "Let's do it."

The four of them split up to snap photos of the girls as they took their break. Blossom got so irritated with Brick hanging around her that he reluctantly asked Julie to take over for awhile.

"She doesn't make it easy," he muttered to Julie.

"Consider the source of her frustration," Julie said, and Brick just huffed and went to go snap pictures of Bubbles. She herself was snapping shots with the traditional SLR she'd borrowed from class. Brick wasn't sure exactly what she was up to, since she seemed to be zooming in for extreme close-ups of whatever she was shooting.

"You guys are really going nuts with the photos," she remarked as she looked at Brick and he snapped another.

"That right?" he asked.

"Yeah. You're kinda freaking out the other two groups," she said. "I mean, since you're not waiting for the costume change."

"Well, we're doing something different," he muttered. The Professor was still nearby, and he got a hunted look in his eyes as Brick clicked the shutter over and over.

"You better not be taking pictures of her to put on pictures of naked ladies later," he growled, and Brick looked up and blinked.

"Oh, Professor," Bubbles said, giggling. "Brick's not interested in me or in naked ladies."

Professor Utonium seemed to quiet down a bit. Nevertheless, Brick took that as a cue to leave her be for awhile. He wandered back over to their area, and soon after the girls were called into costume again. Buttercup mimed slitting her wrists at Brick as they disappeared.

They sat through another excruciating session, one where Brick considered snapping a photo of their ridiculous eighties-styled hair for blackmailing purposes later. Unlike the other two groups, Brick's didn't take a single picture the entire time the girls were in costume. Well, that was a lie. Brick took one. After a protracted buildup to what everyone assumed was going to be Dmitry's one shot for this costume, he suddenly changed his mind and had a fit. As he flailed about the studio screaming with Brian tearing out his hair after him, Brick saw Blossom slump over and sink to her knees with a groan.

The act was so un-poised, so un-Blossom, so undeniably human that he snapped a photo without thinking about it. Blossom saw the flash of his camera go off and glared at him.

"I hope you're enjoying this."

He said nothing. Actually, of the girls, Bubbles seemed to be the only one having a blast. While they were waiting for Dmitry to calm down, she grabbed her own camera and went right on snapping photos. Brick suddenly noticed that near her stuff she had a shitload of little film canisters...

An eternity later Dmitry snapped his shot, everybody sighed in relief, and then the girls were herded back for another costume change.

Julie leaned over. "Brick, can I see the photo you snapped earlier? Of Blossom in costume?"

He scrolled back and held his camera out to her.

"I think this will work, too," she said after studying it for awhile. "I mean, I don't know how many more non-costumed shots we're going to get. Maybe showing them as ordinary girls uncomfortable with false, um, extraordinariness has some promise. If... that makes sense."

Brick guessed the look on his face wasn't a very good indicator of his actual mood; Julie clamped her mouth shut and passed his camera back to him. In reality, he thought it was a pretty good idea. Plus, if it turned out to not work, they could always delete the pictures anyway. Julie and another of the guys went off to see if they could snap some test photos of the girls in makeup—Brick was sure Buttercup would have some fantastic expressions for them. He grunted at the other guy, then turned to find the gray-haired man from earlier scanning through the pictures on Brick's camera.

He started to ask what the hell the guy was doing when that tiny jolt of recognition shot through him and held him back. He should know this guy. Who was he?

Evidently the type of guy you don't get after for going through your shit, he thought to himself. Was the guy looking at every single photo Brick had taken? He was spending an awful lot of time on some...

The man suddenly looked up at Brick. "These are yours?"

"Yes, sir." Brick wasn't sure where the formality came from. Instinct had pushed the words out of his mouth.

"Brian," the guy said, snapping and waving Brian over. "Get that asshat Dmitry out of here." He thrust his thumb in Brick's direction as he turned and walked away. "I want this kid behind the camera."

Blossom heard the slight commotion outside; apparently something was going on. After Brian came into makeup and told them to wash off the cavewoman makeup from the girls ("Thank God," Buttercup praised), she figured something was definitely up.

"Girls, put on something normal. Solid colors. Jeans are fine," Brian told them, before disappearing.

"Aww," Bubbles pouted. "No loincloth bikinis?"

"Words I should never hear put together again," Buttercup announced as she propelled herself out of her seat and back to change.

After changing into regular t-shirts and jeans, followed by another quick stint in makeup, the girls made their way out. Blossom wondered what on Earth was going on...

She halted when she saw Brick pacing uneasily behind the people at the laptop, and then Brian came up and asked him how he wanted to set up the lights.

"Let's get the girls under them first and then we'll see," Brick said.

"What's going on?" Blossom blurted, and the entire room glanced up at her, Brick included. She thought she heard some dim screaming outside of the building that sounded like Dmitry. Brick looked away as the realization hit Bubbles, who squealed.

"Omigosh! Brick! Are they letting you take pictures? I wanna see, I wanna see!" She dashed over there to the laptop, where the staffers were scrolling through Brick's photos. Her eyes softened as she tabbed through them. "Oh, Brick," she sighed. "These are gorgeous. I love this one you took of Blossom, here—"

Blossom tensed as Brick shot Bubbles a sharp look. She stalked over, Buttercup lazily following behind.

"What are you talking about?" she muttered as she crossed her arms and glared at the screen. As Bubbles scrolled through them for her, the harshness in her expression faded.

They're pretty good, she thought to herself. Even the ones where she was clearly angry and screaming at the camera were good. It didn't occur to Blossom to ask why he'd taken so many of her.

The girls were ushered under the lights, and after some thought Brick took down a couple and set some screens up over the others to diffuse their light.

"Is this it?" Bubbles asked as the girls stood in front of the backdrop, unadorned.

"Yeah," Brick said quietly. Behind him, Miss Maybury was beside herself with pride and yammering on incessantly to the Professor, who looked as if his ears had tired of the chatter about two years back. Brick stared at the girls for a bit, causing Blossom to shift uncomfortably. Finally he asked them what kind of pose they struck for the papers, then snapped a few of those. He seemed a little bit at a loss after that, even though the crew liked them.

Julie came up to him, and Blossom watched as she stood on her tiptoes and whispered quietly to Brick, "Try doing Bubbles by herself first." Blossom's gaze was riveted to the way Julie's hand touched Brick's arm, how her fingers curved around the muscle. He let her touch him. Blossom hadn't realized how close they'd gotten.

He took her suggestion. After Julie asked a perplexed Bubbles about puppies, the girl lit up and launched into a rambling dissertation about how much she loved them, resplendent with wide, expressive gestures.

"That was a great idea," Brick permitted as he snapped some photos. He then asked Bubbles to pick up her camera, and she willingly complied, snapping her own photos as Brick's camera went off. Her playfulness with the "prop" inspired a round of impressed murmurs from the crowd. The rest of the Art class took pictures, too, encouraged by Bubbles' brightness.

Buttercup was up next. Julie had clearly been hoping putting Bubbles up there first would loosen up the other girls, but with Buttercup it backfired.

"I don't like having my picture taken," she explained gruffly.

"Buttercup, Mitch took, like, a zillion of you when you were together," Bubbles reminded. In the back, a strangled cry escaped the Professor's throat.

"I didn't like it then, either," Buttercup snarled. Brick managed to snap a photo of her irritated expression at her sister, then had a moment of inspiration.

"Don't be scared, Buttercup," he said simply, and the girl whirled on him.

"Excuse me?" she snapped, and Brick went crazy with the photos. Another moment of genius hit.

"Care to tell me an embarrassing story about Blossom?"

Buttercup's eyes widened with glee at the opportunity while a panicked Blossom squeaked, "What?"

"Tell him the hair one!" Bubbles exclaimed.


"Dude, okay, okay," Buttercup started. "So we're, like, five years old—"

Blossom protested so vehemently it was hard to hear Buttercup, but she was telling the story with such exaggerated motions, often causing herself to burst into laughter, that it didn't matter so long as they got the pictures. Buttercup's came out even better than Bubbles'. They finally stopped when Buttercup, fueled by the twisted pleasure she got out of sharing her sister's shame, launched into another story, one when they were older, and Blossom dashed over into frame, struggling to shut her sister up.

"That's enough!" she shouted hysterically, face flushed.

They figured that was as good a chance as any to get Blossom up there. Again, she wasn't nearly as comfortable as Bubbles, and the story of how her sisters had chopped off all her pretty long hair probably hadn't helped.

"I'm having trouble picturing you half-bald, Blossom," Brick said.

"Don't worry," Buttercup cut in before Blossom could respond. "We have pictures."

"Don't you dare," Blossom warned frantically.

Unlike with Bubbles and Buttercup, the moment of inspiration did not come readily to Brick, and Blossom, too, looked out of her element. She had no idea what to do, neither did he, and it obviously irritated the both of them to no end.

What can I say to get her going? He wasn't used to talking with her, unless it was arguing about something. But—and he was being objective about this—while she looked just as pretty when she was angry, it would be doing the loveliness of her face a huge disservice to put it in a magazine locked in an expression of anger.

"Brick?" Brian asked, after he'd stood there for some time.

"Thinking," he responded automatically, staring at the miniature image of Blossom in the viewfinder so he wouldn't make eye contact with her directly. She fidgeted under those lights. She was so naturally pretty. What to do? If she looked more comfortable these pictures would be fantastic. She wouldn't even have to do anything, or say anything, she just had to stop looking so tense...

Suddenly it hit him. Duh. The answer was so obvious.

"Blossom," Brick said, his voice oddly charged, determined. "You should dance."

Silence settled over the room.

"E-excuse me?" she said uneasily.

"Buttercup, let her borrow your MP3 player," Brick said, still staring at the viewfinder. "Blossom, just pretend it's dance class. Or you're practicing on your own."

She looked around at the room, all eyes darting between her and Brick. She looked even more nervous, which Brick thought was ridiculous. She danced in front of people all the time.

"It's a small space, Brick," she said, making excuses as she indicated the photo area.

"Oh, if you're going to let that stop you, feel free," he challenged, and five minutes and a hundred glares later, Blossom had settled her sister's headphones on and had her eyes closed as she listened. Even just the act of closing her eyes helped; within minutes the tension in her face and posture waned. Brick started snapping photos then. Then she started to dance, and as soon as Brick realized he couldn't seem to stop, he turned to Julie.

"Why don't, uh, why don't you have a turn?"

Julie's shock didn't temper her excitement, and as she bounded up Brick looked around and said, "Actually, why don't the rest of you guys have a turn at the camera?"

The Art class all exchanged looks, then leaped at the opportunity. As Brick walked back to his stuff, he passed a delighted Miss Maybury, who thanked him profusely. He sat next to Buttercup. Bubbles was off taking pictures of the room with her camera.

"She looks like she's zooming in crazy close on everything," Brick observed.

"Yeah? I dunno." Buttercup shifted, and nodded at the laptop. "I saw your pictures."


"They look good. I mean, I don't know anything about art, or photography. But I think you take really good pictures."

He nodded, and picked up his own SLR. "Thanks." After a moment, he turned and snapped a photo of Buttercup. She smirked at him as he took another.

"What are these for?"

He shrugged. "Dunno." Maybe for posterity's sake. He took more of the room, more of the crowd. The Professor made it into a few, as did Julie and his fellow classmates and Bubbles. Blossom made it into all the rest. Eventually he went back to the area where the pro camera was set up, his own still in hand. Blossom was slowing down, and she unclipped the player and removed the headphones, setting them aside.

"Sorry, her metal playlist started up," Blossom explained, with the little glow lighting her face that she got after every dance, every performance. Brick made sure to take a picture. "Kinda hard to dance to." The crew looked like they had way more than they needed of Blossom; they sounded very pleased. Brick spoke before they could move on.

"So why did you start dancing?" he asked, his voice ringing loud and clear above the chatter. She looked up in mild surprise, and Brick snapped photos of her expression.

"I just... I guess the Professor took us to see a ballet, when we were little, and the dancers looked so pretty and graceful that I wanted to be like them."

"And what about the hip hop?" he asked, still staring at her through his camera. She laughed, a little embarrassed.

"That was a few years ago. I got into it because I was trying to get more inner-city kids off the streets. Also, it was just so different from ballet and tap and all that other stuff that it was kinda like a new challenge, you know? Felt like personal growth to take that on, and make a difference, too."

"Did you make a difference?"

When she looked at him, she looked right at the camera, her expression soft and lovely and so mindnumbingly gorgeous the sigh Brick expelled internally manifested in the room as a collective sigh from the whole group.

"I hope so," she said quietly.

They wrapped up the shoot with a few group shots of the girls, Bubbles constantly clambering over her sisters and squeezing them close, despite Buttercup's protests. They actually made for better shots. The class began to pack their stuff as the girls were hauled off to clean up. Brick lingered, scanning the room as he slyly pocketed the memory card from his camera.


He turned to find the gray-haired man standing off in a dark corner with Brian, beckoning him over. Brick set down his camera and walked over.

The gray-haired man was speaking before Brick had even reached them. "I want those photos you took of Blossom."

"You have those photos I took of her," Brick said instantly. "Let's discuss my compensation."

"I don't mean those dancing photos, I mean those regular ones, when she and you were just talking," the man went on.

"I think I'll hang onto those. Let's discuss my compensation."

"Those are the photos I want to put in the magazine. Give them to me."

"What are you paying me?" Brick said, his voice a near-growl.

"How old are you?" the man said, his lip curling. "Sixteen? Seventeen? You're not even a professional photographer."

"And yet you threw out your so-called 'professional photographer' to have me do the shoot instead. Seventeen, by the way. How much did you pay him to prance around and come up with an idiotic vision and take only one picture?"

Brian finally interjected, a little nervously. "That's, um, confidential."

"He's an artist with a vision, right?" Brick said. "I imagine his fee is pretty steep to match that enormous ego. I want ninety percent of that."

"'Ninety percent?'" Brian cried.

"I gave you five times the photos in half the time it would've taken to do a whole session with that tool," Brick explained. "And on short notice. And by special request. Ninety percent's actually undercharging you, if you ask me."

The gray-haired man was still hard, scrutinizing him. "I want those pictures."

"Then it's definitely ninety percent," Brick said, his hand going to the pocket that held his precious memory card, loaded with pictures of the most beautiful girl on the planet.

"Fifty percent," the gray-haired man said.

Brick scoffed. "You're kidding, right?"

The man suddenly switched gears. "What credit do you want on the photos in the magazine? Should we just call you Brick?" The question caught Brick off guard, and he stared at the man, contemplating. Not his real name; he didn't want to attract attention. He needed something generic, something anonymous, something...

"John Smith," he said quietly, and there was a shift in the man's eyes.

"Is that so."

He still couldn't recall the exact time or exact circumstances, or even whether he'd actually been a client or just a potential one. But Brick thought he'd recognized him from somewhere.

"Sixty percent," the man said. "I can't go any higher than that."

"Try seventy," Brick suggested, his hand already pulling out the memory card.

"Beautiful." The man shook Brick's hand. "Brian, write him a check."

Brick smirked as he loaded the photos up onto their laptop ("I'm keeping the originals," he told them, holding up the memory card). When no one was around the gray-haired man found him again and slipped him his payment, plus a simple card with only his first name and phone number on it.

"You guys and your single title names," Brick murmured as he read Joseph off the crisp white card.

"One name is often all you need," Joseph said. Then, pointedly, "Brick."

Brick smiled as he pocketed the card, then tugged out his phone. Joseph was already off, wandering amidst the crew as they were striking the set. Brick thought for a moment of the person who had arranged the cameras for the Art class, arranged the whole field trip in the first place. He flipped open his phone and dialed. The line picked up after the first ring.


"Mrs. Morbucks," Brick said, his eyes tracing the silver imprint of Joseph's name and phone number on the card. "Thank you."

He could practically hear her smirking into the phone. "You're welcome, Brick."

Blossom was grinning as she buttoned up her top, enjoying the reflection of her smile, her hair, her whole body, actually. She'd seen the photos, and then had felt ridiculously pretty.

"He's really talented, isn't he?" Bubbles said conversationally.

"Looks, brains, talent," Buttercup said, nodding. Her eyes glazed over. "Plus a chest that you want to... throw rocks at just so you can watch them bounce off."

Bubbles shot her sister a look. "Buttercup, you... you're kinda weird."

"Too bad he's such a prick, right Blossom?" Buttercup went on.

"Huh? Oh, yes. He's... insufferable."

"Guess that's just how it works with the pretty ones," Buttercup sighed, shouldering her bag. "Hey, come on. You guys ready or not?" Her sisters followed her out the door and back into the main studio, where their father was waiting.

"Your friends said they were going out to grab some dinner," he said, yawning. "Did you want to join them? We've just got leftovers at home."

"That sounds awesome!" Bubbles exclaimed. "I mean, if it's okay with you, Professor."

"It's fine with me," he said, yawning again. His girls stared at him.

"You should get to sleep, Professor," Buttercup said. "You've been tired all day."

"Yeah, I'm probably not conscious enough to drive," he agreed, then surprised them all by handing Buttercup the keys. "You wanna drive home, sweetie?"

Buttercup gaped. "You—are you serious?"

"I'm not conscious enough to believe this is a bad idea," he said with a laugh. "Drop me off at home and then you girls can go have dinner with your friends."

Buttercup threw her arms around their father, then dashed outside, shouting, "Thank you, Professor!" over her shoulder.

Bubbles followed in a more subdued manner, taking her father by the hand. Blossom was reaching for his other when Brian's voice suddenly interrupted.


She turned. "Yes?"

"Could we have a word?"

Blossom looked after the Professor and Bubbles, who had turned and were waiting for her. She took in the circles under his eyes and the tired lines of his face.

"You guys go ahead, I'll meet you at the restaurant."

"I'll text you the place when I find out," Bubbles called back. Blossom floated over to Brian and a gray-haired man that she didn't remember seeing earlier in the day. Brian suddenly looked a little uncomfortable.

"Oh... is your father coming?"

"He's really tired," she said. "What did you want to discuss?"

Now Brian definitely looked uncomfortable. "Oh, I think we should—"

"Just tell the girl," the older man interrupted. "She seems responsible, and adult enough to make her own decisions." Blossom swelled with pride at the compliment.

"Not to sound cocky or anything, but I do get that a lot," she said.

Brian cleared his throat and said, "Well, Blossom, the thing is... you're a very, very pretty girl."

"Thank you," she said sheepishly, coloring.

"I mean, all of us thought so today," he went on, indicating the empty area where the crew had once been. "You really caught us off guard."

"Very striking," the other man cut in. Blossom practically glowed; just a minute ago she had been staring at her reflection feeling beautiful, and now here she was hearing it from other people!

"So we'd like to ask... have you ever, you know... thought of doing this professionally?"

She stared at them, her jaw dropping. "Are—are you serious? You mean modeling?" She shook her head in disbelief. "No, I've never given any thought to it at all!"

"Well, you should," the man said. "You need to get a little more comfortable in front of the camera, but once you do you'll be quite popular. Now, we wanted to talk to you about photographing you for another publication of ours—"

"But since you are still underage, we need your legal guardian present," Brian interjected, his voice a little frantic. His boss—Blossom assumed he was Brian's boss, the way Brian kept deferring to him—waved him off.

"You heard her yourself. She's a responsible young lady who can make her own decisions."

"Um, sir, I know, but there's the whole potential for legal ramifications if we don't—"

Blossom interrupted, a little confused, but still aglow from the proposition. "Um, if you don't mind, what magazine is this for?"

Brian looked exceptionally nervous then, but the man, obstinate in his stoicism, said to him, "Show her. We have a copy."

He might as well have asked a child to club a kitten, the way Brian so reluctantly turned to rummage in their things for it. When he found it he handed it to Blossom upside down. There was a bottle of vodka being advertised on the back; this definitely wasn't Modern Girl. Blossom gave him a warm smile to try and dispel his nervousness, then turned it over. Her smile faltered.

After a pause, Brian explained, "See, we do these annual specials, you know..."

His voice became dim background noise in Blossom's head as she took in the cover. There was a celebrity on it, a very pretty woman she didn't recognize, but pretty or no, her face was barely present. She was sitting on a stool in what appeared to be a shirt made of tissue paper; it was so transparent. Her arms were crossing over her chest as her hands hugged her shoulders, simultaneously covering and accentuating her breasts. The shirt was long enough to drape along her thighs, on either side of her crossed legs, and still she was exposing a lot of skin. Blossom assumed she was wearing underwear, but maybe that was too much to hope for. And then there was the copy. Most of it was harmless: about sports articles, political articles, the like. Emblazoned in the lower right corner in bright red text, however, were the words Bedroom Tips: She'll Make Noises You've Never Even Heard Before.

FHN. Blossom had seen this magazine before, had huffed at it on display in convenience stores and newspaper stands. It always featured some scantily clad woman with an unrealistic body and sometimes inhuman breasts. Magazines like this insulted her as a girl, she always thought. Those women on the cover, if they had any brains about them, shouldn't offer themselves up like this. Women with brains knew better. Blossom had always prided herself on being the smart one. And here she was, being asked to pose in FHN.

She realized she'd never flipped through the magazine. That was just the cover. She began to riffle through it—her hands shook a little as she did so, and she felt oddly numb. Brian was continuing to speak, and she took in a little of what he was saying now.

"So, you know, when you're of age, we'd like you to consider being a part of our annual 'Newly Legal,' section," (she could hear him cringing as he said it) "and doing a very small interview with us and a couple of photos..."

Blossom closed the magazine, disappointed. There seemed to be some decent articles in there, but every woman that had been photographed looked like some vapid, thoughtless drone. The photos didn't draw attention to the face, unless there was a closeup on her blindingly red and glossy lips, with a hint of tongue and teeth nudging suggestively at the corner. There was skin and breasts and thighs and arching backs and searching hands, but she couldn't remember what any of the women looked like, really looked like. She felt numb. Sad. Disappointed. Worse yet, she felt violated and exposed. She was now acutely aware of the little patch of skin she was revealing, just above her chest (she should've buttoned it all the way up), and to know that these two—these two men, older men—had looked at her and thought, Yes, she should pose for us in FHN, made her wonder what was the use of being pretty, of feeling pretty, if all anybody ever wanted was to get you as close to naked as possible?

She remembered how pretty she had felt in the dressing room, how proud she'd been, and now she just felt stupid. Blossom swallowed and handed the magazine back to Brian, not looking at him or his boss.

"I'm sorry," she croaked, and she wished she wouldn't croak. She wished her voice was more steady and commanding and not at all meek and so obviously feminine. The corners of her lips were shaking as she tried to crack a smile.

"I'm sorry," she repeated, still croaking. "I don't really think this is for me."

I should've hit them.

Blossom inwardly cursed herself for reacting in such a... such a victimized, little girly way. She should've hit them. She was a crimefighter, and a superhero to boot! She was supposed to react to things like this with violence!

I should've hit them, she thought again, but that only made the regret stronger. She tried it out loud.

"I should've hit them," she muttered, then, a hiss, "I should've hit them."

It didn't help much.

She was flying to the restaurant Bubbles had texted her, her arms crossed tightly over her chest and her blouse buttoned all the way up. It wasn't a cold night, but it made her feel better.

I should've asked Bubbles and Buttercup to stay. If they'd been around Blossom might have reacted more, or reacted, period. Her sisters being around made the need to act a leader, to be a leader, more present. Without anyone on her side there...

I should've asked the Professor to stay, she thought miserably, then immediately felt guilty as she recalled how tired he'd looked. No. She shouldn't have done that. She was only making excuses for her own ineptitude to handle the situation. It didn't matter that her sisters or her father hadn't been there. They couldn't have known, and besides, as much of a family and a team they were, Blossom couldn't expect them to be around forever. She was supposed to be mature. She was supposed to be confident, so confident that when asked to pose for FHN she should've reacted with indignant anger, not submissive embarrassment.

She arrived at the restaurant, finally, then spent a moment of confusion by the hostess' podium seeking out her sisters. Bubbles spotted her and waved her over; she and Buttercup were in a booth with the Rowdyruff Boys and Julie. There were more of Bubbles' classmates seated at tables nearby.

Blossom quickly maneuvered her way over, trying not to attract any attention. It felt like everyone's eyes were on her, like every table was looking at her as she passed. Usually it made her feel important. Usually she liked it when she entered a room and the room parted for her. But tonight she just felt like a naked girl sitting in the spotlight with everyone's eyes on her, without the luxury of a tissue paper blouse to cover herself up.

When Blossom arrived Brick had just discreetly offered to buy Julie a dessert. She had come up with the idea to put Bubbles up there alone, after all, and if that hadn't happened Brick would've stood up there looking like an idiot for ages. He didn't say this to her, of course. He only offered, and kept his reasoning secret.

Blossom's appearance made him glad for his timing; he would've felt weird if she'd seen him buying Julie a dessert. He realized a little late that he had no reason to feel weird, and he became so upset with himself that he almost made a point of saying out loud that he was going to buy Julie a slice of cheesecake, and who the hell cared who heard or knew?

The announcement was already building in his throat, and then he saw Blossom and he stopped. She looked... different. Upset? She smiled as she arrived, spent a fraction of a moment studying the open ends of the booth—Brick was on one side, and Boomer on the other—and opted to sit next to Boomer.

Brick felt inexplicably angry at her choice until Bubbles leaned over his brother to greet her, and he realized Blossom was just trying to be near her sister. Julie was on Brick's other side, followed by Butch, Buttercup, and then Bubbles.

"What kept you?" the blonde asked. "What did they want?"

"Oh, just... they were just thanking me for our time," Blossom said, that smile—that strange, trying-too-hard smile—on her face. Brick tried not to stare. He made small talk with Julie and listened to Buttercup and Bubbles tell the Boys about adventures from their younger years, which often turned out to be less adventurous and more of an effort to embarrass each other than anything else.

"This girl has such an evil streak," Bubbles said, leaning on Buttercup's shoulder. "When she was a kid, she accidentally knocked out one of my teeth," (and here Bubbles tongued her front tooth to further illustrate her point) "and then, after our dad told us about the Tooth Fairy giving money for teeth, she tried to knock out another one!"

"I was a very enterprising young lady," Buttercup explained smoothly.

"Not only that, but after the Professor said she couldn't do that, she went around knocking out villains' teeth and made, like, thousands of dollars!"

Butch was staring at his friend in awe. "Dude. You are so on the wrong team."

"Hey, I was going after bad guys," she said defensively.

"Not at first," Brick interjected. "You went after your sisters, and all in the interest of personal gain. Butch has a point, for once: you've got the makings of an evil mastermind in you."

Buttercup eyed him over her drink. "You're weirding me out with this 'evil mastermind' talk."

"Go check and see if Mojo runs an internship program. You could really hone your skills there."

"Now I don't know if you're joking or actually being serious," she said dubiously.

Boomer leaned against Bubbles. "Say, 'tooth,' again, except like you're actually missing your front tooth."

She thrust her chin in his direction and stuck her tongue between her teeth. "Toof."

"Holy crap, you're adorable," Boomer sighed.

"Holy crap, you're disgusting," Butch and Buttercup said in unison, making gagging faces as their siblings touched foreheads, lost in their own little world. Brick's gaze drifted to Blossom, who had both hands wrapped around her water glass as she waited for her food. She was staring at the table as she sipped, apart from the conversation.

"She brought a whale into our house once," Buttercup said, indicating Bubbles with her soda.

"How on Earth did you fit a whale in there?" Julie asked.

"Creatively," Buttercup answered.

"I was trying to save him! Also, I was five. Besides, Blossom's the one who tried to hide him in the living room."

"Oh yeah, a great idea from the resident supergenius," Buttercup cackled.

When their leader didn't respond, Bubbles leaned over and nudged her. Blossom looked up.


"The whale that you tried to hide in the living room," Bubbles explained. "Remember? One of your better ideas?"

"Oh, yeah," Blossom said, managing a laugh. "Yeah, that was a winner."

Brick and Bubbles furrowed their brows.

"Oh, and then there was the time the city faked us out and pretended to kill our dad to teach us a lesson about stealing toys—"

Butch sputtered, "Wait, you guys stole? And then they pretended to kill your dad?" His eyes lit up. "Man, we missed out on some good shit! Townsville's pretty fucked up!"

After a pause, Butch frowned and said, "There was something missing from that."

"Yeah," Buttercup agreed. "Something feels... incomplete."

Language, Brick thought to himself, still staring at a mute Blossom, focused on sucking down her drink and not making eye contact. Bubbles glanced back over at her.

"Hey, Blossom? Are you okay?"

Brick watched as she looked up and said, "Oh, yeah! Yeah. I'm just—"

The food arrived then, and Brick couldn't help but notice that Blossom actually looked relieved at the distraction. Her eyes caught Brick's as she took her plate, and he hastily turned to Julie and started talking to her.

More stories were shared over dinner—Brick couldn't keep track of them all. Bubbles went off about a green "blankie" of Buttercup's, which prompted screaming from Buttercup and a story about Bubbles trying to go all hardcore when she was little ("I succeeded!" Bubbles cried), and continuing on in this endless cycle of one story after another. Occasionally Blossom was dragged into the mix, but she wasn't a very able participant. She kept her responses limited to single words and small phrases, and tended to make a show of being preoccupied with eating. When the attention was off of her, though, she only pushed her food around her plate.

"Hey, there's something I wanna know," Buttercup said suddenly, and looked at the Boys. "How come you guys... you know, aren't with Him anymore?"

Brick tensed, very slightly, and sensed a curious Blossom finally looking up at him.

"That would be thanks to the Idea Man," Butch said, pointing at Brick with a forkful of steak. "He worked his magic and got us free."

"'Free?'" Bubbles leaned over the table, looking at Brick. "Were you guys slaves or something?"

"Not really," Brick said gruffly before his brothers could interrupt. "Just consider it like we were under contract or something. You wouldn't think it, but there's a lot of legal red tape winding around things when you get involved with the Devil."

"So you signed your souls over or something?" Buttercup scoffed. Boomer laughed.

Brick shrugged. "No. We just... you know, worked for Him. And then we didn't want to work for Him anymore."

Blossom finally spoke. "Wouldn't a contract with Him be life-binding?" she asked. Brick delayed answering by taking a gulp of his soda.

"That's where Brick stepped in," Boomer explained. "He made some sort of challenge, or something, and then wound up winning."

"What was the challenge?" Julie said, very openly interested. Most of the table was, in fact.

"It was a riddle," Brick said, and Bubbles and Buttercup groaned.

"Oh, man, that Guy and His stupid riddles," Buttercup griped, shaking her head.

Bubbles was also shaking her head. "He made us go through that, too, all to save the Professor, and then it turned out—"

The rest of the table lapsed into conversation about the Girls' whole ordeal with Him, save for Brick and Blossom.

She looked at him and said quietly, "You challenged Him? Who posed the riddle?"

"He did."

"And you figured it out?"

He nodded at the table. "We're here, aren't we?"

"Why'd you want to leave?"

"Wouldn't you?"

"Yeah, but I'm..." She trailed off, realizing that what she had been about to say was less than politic.

It really didn't bother Brick either way. He finished for her. "But you're good."

She looked ashamed that she'd even brought it up. He didn't understand why; she was right. He and his brothers were not good people.

At least, we're not supposed to be, he thought, glancing at his siblings as they engaged in theatrical conversation with hers.

"Was that it? Just solving the riddle?"

"Yeah." He didn't say that the one riddle was so complex, so involved, that it had actually taken him weeks to get through it. Calling it a riddle was deceptive, too. Riddle implied it was strictly verbal. This one had been anything but.

Their conversing ended there. Brick finished his dinner in silence while Blossom further acquainted her food with her plate. Eventually Julie had to leave, and once Brick was standing to let her pass everybody else wanted to pile out, too.

"There's an old pinball machine I want to check out," Butch said.

"'Pinball?' Pft, that is so lame," Buttercup said, but she followed him anyway. Boomer was studying a jukebox in the corner of the restaurant, then nudged Bubbles.

"Wanna go check that out?"

"You go ahead, I'll be right there."

Blossom stood to let Boomer out, then was abruptly motioned back into her seat by Bubbles, who darted a furtive glance at Brick.

He automatically said, "Excuse me, got a voicemail," and wandered a bit away, making a show of pressing his phone to the side of his head.

"Is everything okay?" he heard Bubbles ask in a low voice. "You seem really distracted."

"Yeah, I'm fine," Blossom said dismissively. "Just... tired, I guess."

"Why don't you go home?"

"Oh, I'm not that... well, when are you leaving? I'll just wait for you or Buttercup first."

"Are you sure?"


Brick pretended to delete his message and made his way back to the table as Bubbles was getting out. Blossom was seated again, back to sipping at her water glass. As Brick sat, he saw her hand straighten the collar of her shirt, then drift across the top button, making sure it was fastened.

"What—" he started, but was interrupted by the server coming to take their plates away. Blossom gave no indication that she'd heard him, so he just sat back and waited for the guy to clear the table. He played with his coaster after the guy was gone and tried to think of something to say, anything to say. He couldn't think of anything.

"So is it true," Butch asked as he scored a multiball and pinballs poured into the play area, "that your special power is in your tongue?"

Buttercup shoved him. "Who the fuck told you that?"

"Just heard."

She humphed and crossed her arms, leaning against the pinball cabinet.

After a pause, Butch spoke again. "So is it?" His eyes were riveted to his game.

Buttercup sighed. "Yeah."

He instantly straightened, and all his pinballs went gliding into the dead zone. "Show me."

She made a face. "Why?"

"I wanna see."

"It's not that exciting."

"I wanna see, seriously. Show me."

She rolled her eyes and groaned. "Fine." After a second, she stuck her tongue out at him.

He stared. "... Is something supposed to happen?"

"Cahn yoo do fis?" she asked, her tongue still sticking out. He stuck his tongue out, and she settled back, satisfied. "You can't," she said smugly.

"Fhat? Do fhat?"

"Curl your tongue." She did it again. "Thee?"

"I didn't do it, just now?"

She tapped the glass of the pinball game. "See for yourself."

He leaned over to view his reflection and tried it again a couple of times. "Fuck. You're right." He looked at her. "Buttercup, you've got a mutant tongue."

"Right, thanks."

"Though it's kinda useless as a special power, isn't it?"

She shrugged. "Yeah, well."

"Can't you do anything else with it?"

"What do you expect me to do with it?"

He considered a moment. "Well, you'd probably be really good at giving blow—"

She punched him in the face. "Fuck you, asshole!"

"Ow! I'm not trying to be a dick! I'm being serious!"

"So am I! Go fuck yourself!"

Butch rubbed at his jaw as Buttercup glared at him. "Okay. Sorry."

"Damn right you're sorry," she huffed.

"How am I supposed to fuck myself, anyway?"

Buttercup chose not to deign that with a response.

He fidgeted and said, "Seriously, is that it?"

"Yeah," she snapped. "Sorry to disappoint you."

After a while he dug around for more change, and shoved his quarters into the pinball machine. A little silver ball rolled in front of the plunger, and he pulled it back.

As he let it go and settled his hands over the buttons for the flippers, Buttercup said abruptly, "I tied a bag of cherry stems with it, once," and his ball went sailing straight down the middle as he blinked. He looked back at her.


She was staring at the ground, scuffing the floor with her shoe. "One summer. We were... going to Robin's house for a party one weekend, and they said there was going to be Truth or Dare, and I thought I might get dared to kiss Mitch, or vice versa, you know?" She swallowed, still scuffing the floor. "So... that morning, I went out and got a full bag of cherries, then locked myself in the closet so I could practice tying knots in the stems."

She went silent again, lost in memory. Butch grew impatient. "And?"

"I went through the bag in, like, five minutes," she said in a small voice, blushing a little. "I didn't even need to figure out how to do it. I tied a knot in every stem, on the first try. Even the tiny, short ones."

Butch stared at her as she marked up the floor with her shoe, thinking of that little sliver of pink curling between her lips.

"So that's my special power," she shrugged, forcing a laugh. "You heard right."

Butch looked back at his game, where his next ball sat, waiting to be propelled out. He finally reached for the plunger and drew it back.

"Wow," he said quietly, just before he let it go. "That's really something."

"So what, did they ask you to pose naked or something?"

Brick regretted it the instant he said it. The way she looked up at him in horror, her face stricken instead of furious, her hands tightening around her glass so hard that a little crack actually appeared in it. He hadn't been serious. It had just been a joke. But her reaction...

A fierce anger suddenly welled up in him, and his glare drilled into her, past her, trying to picture who had asked so he could rip them to shreds later.

"Did they?" he bit out, trying to keep his voice even.

Blossom had recovered and shook her head, flustered. "No! No, that's..."

"Illegal," he finished. "You're seventeen, aren't you?"

"They didn't ask me to do anything... without clothes," she said firmly, but she was still hesitant, still uncomfortable. "They... it was FHN. They asked if I wanted to do FHN."

Brick knew that name; Butch bought it on occasion. It was a good thing he wasn't around to hear this, or he'd probably explode with joy at the mere thought of Blossom in his favorite magazine. This all suddenly struck Brick as a ridiculous thing to get worked up over.

"Was that it?" Brick said coldly, and Blossom shot him a surprised glance.

"What do you mean, 'was that it?'" she asked.

"I've seen FHN. It's just a bunch of pictures of girls in sexy poses, usually covered up."

"That magazine is an insult to women!" Blossom cried.

"They're not naked."

"That's not the point!"

"So what are you saying? That we're not allowed to enjoy pictures of sexy girls?"

"That is not—" Blossom made a strangled noise of frustration, then demanded, "Can you even tell me the names of the girls you've looked at in that magazine?"

"I don't actually read that magazine—"

"That I understand," Blossom said viciously. "There isn't a lot to actually read in it."

Angry silence.

"You can't think of a name, can you?" Blossom finally said, and Brick huffed out a breath.

"I don't read it."

"But you've seen it. You've flipped through it."

"Because I'm a guy."

"Because you're a pig."

"Are you going to fucking lecture me for enjoying the way the female body looks?"

"Language," she snapped, and there was something comforting about the familiar reprimand.

"News flash, Blossom," Brick said sarcastically. "Guys like pretty girls. Pretty girls get put in magazines for guys to look at. Just because you aren't comfortable with being pretty—"

He cut off, then wished he could knife himself in the gut. He'd just inadvertently admitted he thought she was pretty. To his relief—and mild chagrin—she hadn't picked up on it. She was back to staring at her glass, her hand tracing the crack she'd put in it.

"I don't have a problem with people thinking I'm pretty," she said softly. "But... I do all this other stuff. You know. I dance. I... I read. I make good grades. I try to help people. I try to be a good person. And we talked about that, a little, in the interview. I just... want that stuff to be important too."

Brick had his own opinions on helping people and being a good person, but he held his tongue. For whatever reason.

"But they didn't care about that," she said, shifting in her seat.

"Just because they didn't doesn't mean nobody else does," he said. Then he was unsure where the words had come from and why he'd said them.

"I mean, by asking me to pose in FHN... I don't know. I guess most models aren't known for their brains, anyway. But maybe it's just that nobody ever asks them because they're too busy staring at their bodies."

Brick thought back, trying to remember if he'd even thought about how she'd looked when they met again back in January. He hadn't thought of her as pretty then, not even objectively. He hadn't wanted to think about her, period. So why did he keep thinking it now?

"I don't even know what I'm saying," she muttered, covering her face. "I got so... shaken up when they asked. I just... freaked out..."

For all that he was very often a smooth talker when the need arose, Brick had absolutely no idea how to genuinely comfort her. The fact that he wanted to at all should've disturbed him; it was so out of character for him. But she just looked so wretched, so miserable, that all he wanted to do was make her stop looking that way. He watched as her eyes drifted to the jukebox, her gaze softening as she took in Bubbles and Boomer, dancing and laughing.

"I'm sorry," he suddenly blurted, and she looked back at him in shock.


He darted a look at Bubbles and said, "About Bubbles. When I... risked her life. I'm sorry about that." Now it was his turn to stare at the table, his turn to trace pictures in his glass. The plastic of the booth seat squeaked as Blossom fidgeted.

"Thank you," she finally whispered, and Brick thought it was a weird way to respond to an apology, but again, he held his tongue.

"Hey, Brick?"

He shifted his gaze to her.

"Could I... could I see those pictures you took of me? On your own camera, I mean."

He had to go out to his car to get them; his camera was in there. As he was rummaging, he thought he should've asked her to come out so he wouldn't have to hold onto it in the restaurant for the rest of the night. But then that probably meant they'd be sitting together in his car, and he was pretty sure that wasn't a good idea, either.

"Here," he said, handing her the camera, and she automatically moved so he could sit down next to her. He did so without thinking twice about it. He watched as she scanned through the photos, her brow knit in concentration. At first they were looking at them together, but, having reviewed them himself already, he eventually pulled back to watch her expression soften as she clicked through the pics, one after the other.

"You did so many of my face," she said, a little incredulously, and Brick grunted. She almost sounded elated about it. She edged closer, holding the camera out to him. Her thigh actually pressed up against his, and if Brick had been paying attention to anything besides the sudden heat of her leg next to his he would've noticed she was actually blushing.

"When was this from?" she asked softly, indicating a shot where she had just pushed her hair back away from her face and was now letting it fall across her arms and shoulders, a wispy red halo about her.

"I... think it was when I had just asked you about dancing," he said. He really wasn't sure. He was too focused on their slight body contact, on not moving so he wouldn't discourage her from coming closer. She smiled and pulled the camera over to her again.

"You made me look so pretty."

I didn't have to make you look anything, he thought as he took in the giant empty booth with all that room and furtively shifted closer, so the pressure of her thigh against his grew. You always look like that.

She handed the camera back and thanked him as he turned it off. He thought about buying her a dessert or something—she hadn't eaten much—and was wondering whether it would be better to order one for himself, then casually offer her some, when Butch and Buttercup showed up again.

"Outta quarters! Brick, do you have any—wait, you got your camera? Do you have any pictures of Blossom on there? Can I see?"

They wound up having to drag Butch's unconscious body out of the restaurant.

"You sure gave it to him this time," Boomer observed. "What'd he do?"

"Nothing," Brick muttered, avoiding Blossom on the way back to his car and trying not to miss the warmth of her body pressed to his.

The following Monday morning Bubbles was dropping off a giant bag of 35mm film canisters to be developed when she got a text from Boomer.

out sick X(

"Aww," she said on her way out of the store, and texted him back.

what's wrong?

After about a minute he responded:

fever sniffling coffing hurt all ovr falling apart wout u

She texted back, feel better.

Boomer responded come c me?

L8r, she tapped out, smiling, then flew to school. After dropping her stuff off in the music hall she bumped into Buttercup, fresh out of the showers.

"Hey. How was volleyball practice?"

"Fine." Buttercup tossed her head at her sister. "Where's your pet?"


"You know, that blue-eyed puppy that's always following you around."

"Oh, stop. Boomer's out sick."

Buttercup glanced at her as they moved down the hall. "Really? So's Butch."

"Hey, girls," Blossom greeted, clad in her dance leotard and tights.

"Blossom, is Brick out sick today?" Bubbles asked, and their leader blinked.

"H-how I would know?" she stammered.

"I thought you guys might be practicing or something."

"No, actually, we hadn't even talked about—"

"There he is," Buttercup interrupted, pointing down the hall. She gradually lowered her arm, then frowned and said, "Holy crap, he looks like shit."

Blossom smacked her on the arm. "Language." Then she too looked over, concerned.

"He's really pale," Bubbles said. "And he's moving kinda slow." The first bell rang, jolting them out of their senses, and Buttercup hissed under her breath and made a beeline for her locker.

"You should take him to the Nurse's Office," Bubbles told Blossom, and then took off for the music hall.

"Wait!" Blossom cried. "Why me?"

Bubbles was already gone. Blossom sighed and looked back at Brick, his back to her as he plodded away down the hall. He really didn't look well at all...

She dodged several students on her way to him. She caught up quickly; he wasn't moving fast.

"Hey," she said, gently touching him on the shoulder and guiding him around so she could see his face. "Are you okay?"

He looked like he hadn't slept in days. "Yeah," he said, and his voice sounded off, a little strained. "I'm fine."

"You know, you don't... you don't look fine. Do you need to go to the Nurse's Office?" She didn't want to take him there without his permission.

"Seriously, I'm okay. Just..." He yawned. "Just tired."

"You're really pale."

"Alright, thanks, I know I look like shit," he said abruptly, obviously irritated, and she drew her hand back. "I told you, I'm fine."

Blossom huffed at his rudeness, but for once her sense of charity won out over her sense of pride. "Can I walk you to class, at least?"

"No," he said resolutely, and that was that. She rolled her eyes and headed back to the studio for Dance. Whatever. Brick was a grown boy, and clearly wanted to take care of himself. Fine. It wasn't like he was her responsibility anyway.

She changed her mind when he walked into their AP Physics class. Well, "walked" was really pushing it. As soon as he fumbled his way into his seat she switched tables so she could sit next to him.

"Brick! You look terrible!"

He didn't just look terrible, he looked worse. Where his skin had been pale before, now it had taken on a faint, sickly yellowish-green hue. Blossom touched a hand to his forehead—he made a face and tried to pull away, unsuccessfully—and she gasped.

"You've got a fever," she said, gripping his arm with her other hand.

He started to say something and then went into a coughing fit instead.

Blossom steeled her resolve and said, in her most authoritative voice, "Brick, you need to go to the Nurse."

"I do not," he wheezed, and Blossom could've hit him. Boys were so stubborn and stupid about these things!

"You're coughing, you have a fever, you look green—literally—not to mention you practically had to drag yourself into the room when you came in. You are sick, and you need to go see—"

"I don't get sick," he said defiantly. "I told you, I'm tired."

"Of course you're tired!" she cried. "You're sick!"

"Are you done mothering me?" he snapped, and threw her hand off his arm. "Leave me alone."

Blossom stared at him, fuming, then Hmph!ed and gathered up her things to go back to her original table.

"Boys are idiots," she muttered as she left, making sure he heard her. All throughout the class, though, she kept looking over at him. He seemed to be getting worse by the minute.

Let him get worse, she thought furiously to herself. Let him play the stupid macho man he so clearly wants to be. "I don't get sick," tuh. Please.

The tables went into group practice problems about halfway through class, and Blossom soon lost herself in working with her tablemates to solve the questions. On question two her attention was arrested by the door slamming shut, and she automatically looked up to Brick's seat.


She blinked and glanced around the room. No sign of him. One of the bathroom passes was missing, though, and, after a fretful moment, she excused herself and took the other bathroom pass, edging out into the hall. He hadn't gotten far. He was leaning his side against the wall, hunched over and covering his face with one hand. Blossom flew over to him just as he sank to his knees.

She stifled a gasp; faint spots were rising on his skin. She recognized these symptoms now; of course, why hadn't she thought of this earlier?

"Oh my God, I should've dragged you to the Nurse's Office when I first saw you," she said, kneeling.

"What, did you follow me?" he said blearily, slurring his words. "Leave me alone."

"I shouldn't have listened to you," she went on, helping him stand. "Are your brothers sick, too?"

"They're at home," he said, and started coughing again.

"Did you guys ever get sick when you were here? I mean, as kids? Like when you were five or anything?"

"We never got sick, no." Blossom had to practically drag him along, but at least he was letting her.

"I can't believe you avoided this for as long as you did. Then again, I guess you never really hung around any other kids..."

Brick pushed her away, trying to walk on his own. "'This?' What do you mean, 'this?'"

"I mean," she started, and then he fainted.

She caught him on his way to the ground and hoisted him up. "Brick!"

He was out. After weighing her options, she looked up and down the hall to make sure it was empty, then gathered him up in her arms, hooking one under his knees and the other under his shoulders. His head flopped heavily against her chest as she flew to the Nurse's Office.

"You're right, Blossom," the nurse said. "Definitely the AB Virus. I can't believe he avoided it until high school."

"He and his brothers left for awhile," Blossom explained. "And they never hung around people much when they were little, either."

"I don't think it's hit anyone over the age of twelve since the city first contracted it," the nurse went on. "You'll probably have to talk to your dad about the adult vaccine."

Blossom nodded. "I thought so." She should do so immediately. AB could get worse in a day...

"Can you take him home?"

She looked up in surprise. "Me? I... sure, I guess, I just don't know where..." No, Bubbles would know where the Boys lived. Maybe?

"Okay, that's fine," Blossom said, nodding. "I can take him home." She left Brick resting on the cot in the office while she went to find Bubbles, who had—was it Government she had now? Yeah, that sounded right. After locating the classroom and knocking lightly on the door, she poked her head in.

"Hi. Could I speak to my sister for a second?"

Bubbles squeezed through the door. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah. Well, kind of." She explained the situation, and a very worried Bubbles hastily gave her the address.

"Oh, I hope Boomer's okay," she whimpered, digging her phone out of her pocket, ostensibly to text him.

"Probably in better shape than Brick is," Blossom muttered. "At least he's been home, hopefully sleeping. Brick's been walking around all morning. He actually fainted."

Bubbles was engrossed in her texting. Blossom thought about scolding her for it—they weren't allowed to use their cell phones during school hours—but realized how worried she must be, and simply thanked her for the Boys' address.

She walked briskly back to the Nurse's Office, then decided to stop back by their Physics class to return the bathroom passes and explain what was going on. She then gathered up their things and dashed back to the office just as the bell rang. Brick was awake, but still lying down with his eyes closed.

"I think you were right, as much as it pains me to admit it," he said, after cracking an eye to find Blossom there. "I'm sick."

"I'm often right," Blossom said distractedly. "We should wait to leave. It'll be easier to move around after everyone's out of the hall."

"What about Enviro Science?" Brick asked. They shared that one, and it was their next class. Blossom left to go talk to their teacher, and also to get the evening's assignment. She soon reappeared with a small stack of handouts.

"Tonight's reading," she explained to Brick, packing it up in her bag first and then sticking Brick's in between his books. She called the Professor to ask if he could get three adult vaccines for AB ready ASAP.

"What's AB?" Brick asked as she hung up and the bell rang again.

"AB stands for Amoeba Boy," she said, pocketing her phone. "It first started when we were five. The Amoeba Boys got everyone deathly sick with it, me and my sisters included. Obviously having a stronger immune system doesn't deter it. Think of it like the flu, except... kinda like chickenpox, without the sores."

"Why like chickenpox?"

"Because it's highly contagious, and the older you get, the worse it is to contract it," she said. "You guys never really hung around other kids when you were younger, so you probably didn't get significant exposure to it. Now you're in public high school... I'm surprised you only just got it now. Can you sit up?"

Brick struggled, but managed to do so. "I don't much like the idea of the Amoeba Boys starting a virus and then putting it in me. Even indirectly."

"Yeah, well," Blossom said, then trailed off, because she didn't know what should come next. "Ready to go?"

Brick let her help him up, too sick to register her hand gripping his and one arm of hers locked around his waist.


Bubbles tapped her foot nervously in the checkout lane as Buttercup paid for their groceries. After Blossom had told her, she'd texted Buttercup, and somehow, now, here they were.

"I hope there's not a pop quiz in English," she fretted.

"Oh, come on," Buttercup said, shrugging it off. "You're worried about him, aren't you? Besides, the Boys gotta eat something. If they've got AB, I doubt they're well enough to cook on their own." She paused. "I doubt they even cook, period."

"I think Brick knows a thing or two," Bubbles said as she took a few bags from her sister and they both took off.

Buttercup scoffed, "Yeah, well. If he's anything like he was this morning, then that guy is in great shape to be cooking."

Brick lived too far away for them to actually walk, and Blossom didn't know how to drive a stick shift—not that Brick would've let her in his car anyway—so that left flying, which meant carrying. Brick was not fond of this idea, but, barely being able to stand, he really didn't have a choice. Which was all for the better, since he was still continuously drifting in and out of consciousness.

He was draped along Blossom's back, piggyback style, and Blossom realized as they hit his street that she didn't remember the number, and the address was somewhere in the depths of her jeans pocket, which she really couldn't get to without dropping him. He was already threatening to fall off as it was.

"Come on, Brick," Blossom groaned, hoisting him up so he could sit better on her back. "Where do you live?"

Brick made a noncommittal noise and gestured vaguely at the street. Blossom sighed and blew her bangs out of her face.

"Focus, alright? Just… okay, just open your eyes and point at the building, or tell me the number, or something."

"It's the big one," he mumbled into her shoulder, breath hot and sick against her neck. Ugh. She wrinkled her face and looked around.

"Big what? Big building?"

He nodded slightly and added, "The tallest one. The top floor."

"The tallest…" Blossom looked around and stopped as her eyes settled. "There? You live there?"

"Pretty sweet, huh," Brick murmured.

"Kind of," she admitted, wondering who they'd stolen the rent money from. "Can we go in through the window?"

"No," he said immediately. "Door. I've got the keys."

She sighed again. "Front door it is," she conceded, and walked into the building.

"How are you feeling?" Bubbles asked as she poured a fresh glass of water for Boomer and carried it over to the couch. "Any better?"

"I guess. At least until you leave." He grinned weakly at her, and she smiled.

"Ugh, now you're making me sick," Buttercup gagged from the kitchen, and Bubbles shot a disapproving look over her shoulder.

"Nobody asked you to stay," Bubbles retorted, and Butch raised his hand from where he laid on the living room floor.

"I asked," he pointed out. "Because Boomer didn't feel like playing with me. 'Go play with yourself,' he said."

"Hey," Boomer warned, eyes narrowed. "We got ladies in the house."

"Ladies cooking for you, no less," Buttercup muttered under her breath as she set a pot of water to boil. "A little help, Bubbles?"

Bubbles looked down at Boomer and smiled again. "Drink your water."

The look on his face was apprehensive. "Don't leave me. What if I drown?"

Bubbles stifled a giggle and tried to look serious. "You're going to drown in that cup of water?"

"I'm very sick, you know. It could happen."

"You're just… you're so silly!" Bubbles laughed, and leaned down to kiss him on the forehead.

"Hey, how come I don't get any kisses?" Butch sounded upset.

"Bubbles! Help much?" Buttercup snapped. "Seriously, for Christ's sake!"

"Alright! Keep your shirt on," Bubbles grumbled, squeezing Boomer's hand before heading for the kitchen.

"Please don't," Butch said hopefully. "Please don't keep your shirt on."

Buttercup pitched a dish towel at him.

"Okay," Blossom huffed, staring at Brick's front door. "We're here. Got your keys?"

"Mmph. Let me down, they're in my jeans."

Blossom shifted and eased him down to the ground. "You got it?"

"I got it," he mumbled as his feet met the floor. Only obviously not, because the minute she stepped away he stumbled back against the opposite wall, knees crumpling.

"Aw, for fuck's sake," he moaned, trying to push himself up. Blossom bit back her instinctive reprimand for naughty language and instead reached to help him.

"You alright?"

"Everything except my dignity, which is clinging on by mere threads," he groused, allowing Blossom to wrap her arms around his back and raise him to his feet. Her cheek was pressed to his chest and she paused, his heartbeat weak and irregular against her skin. His body was radiating unnatural heat in tidal waves. That wasn't good.

"Oh my God, you're hot," she said incredulously, drawing back and pressing the back of her hand to his cheek.

He blinked and said, "Oh. For a second there, I thought you were jumping on the bandwagon."

She curled her lip, disgusted, and pulled her hands back, leaving him to wobble against the wall himself.

"Yeah, because blindly trailing about in your wake like a swooning idiot is exactly how I'd like to spend my free time."

"A good amount of girls do. I hear they've a website and everything."

"Just give me your keys."

As he tugged them out and passed them to her, he said, "For someone who hasn't had a history of being particularly nice to me—"

"Oh, like you're one to talk," Blossom snapped, jamming his key into the lock.

"You're being unnaturally nice to me right now," he finished, giving up on standing and sinking to the floor. "What's up with that?"

"I help people," she said abruptly, and pushed open the door. "It's what I do. I'm a good guy."

"A good guy," he breathed as she slipped one of his arms over her shoulders and began walking him to the door. "One who helps out her mortal enemies?"

"If you still consider yourself one of my mortal enemies, then apparently yes," she muttered under her breath as she kicked the door shut behind them. There was a brief lull in the room's conversation as four heads swiveled round to find Blossom under Brick's arm.

"Okay, me telling you the boys had AB was not an invitation to skip school to come visit them," Blossom said sternly, narrowing her eyes at Buttercup and Bubbles.

"Oh, Blossom, Boomer's sick—"

"Class attendance is overrated—"

"I think I need to lie down," Brick said, voice suddenly strained and urgent as his knees gave way and he fell to the floor, dragging Blossom down with him.

"Oh, for—" Blossom bit her lip and, ignoring the rest of the room's eyes on them, curved an arm each under Brick's shoulders and knees, respectively, and stood, Brick's limp body folding up and curling against her chest. The room was already quiet, but as she straightened it suddenly seemed to get a hundred times quieter.

She rolled her eyes and sighed. "Where's his room?" she asked, eyes settling on Butch and Boomer, who both wordlessly pointed at a door thataway.

"Thanks," she muttered, and started floating to his room.

"I think I just fainted," Brick said feebly, eyes shut and breath once again warm and sick against her neck. "In front of everybody."

"You crumpled to the floor in a very dignified manner," Blossom assured him. He pressed his head a little closer into her, almost a nuzzle.

"So long as it was a manly faint."

"Oh, I don't think it could've gotten more manly than that," she said, and turned to the silent room again once she reached his door. Everyone's eyes were still on the two of them.

"At ease, men," she said dryly, and pushed into his room.

As the door shut behind them Butch's face fell and he muttered, "That lucky bastard."

Afternoon sunlight seeped in through the blinds, slats of light cutting across his bed. Blossom eased him down onto it and watched as he shifted on the covers, his cap rolling off his head onto the pillow.

After a moment of awkward silence she asked, "Are you… how are you feeling?"

"That's a stupid question," he mumbled. "I feel awesome and totally not sick. Happy?"

"Not really," she muttered, noticing an empty glass on his nightstand and picking it up. She considered for a moment, then walked over to the connecting bathroom and rinsed it out, filling it with fresh water. When she returned he had curled into himself, his breathing heavy with sleep, and she took a deep breath as she set his glass down on the nightstand again. Another moment passed before she curled an arm under him again and tugged the covers out, smoothing them over him. He made an unintelligible sound and pressed his cheek to her hand just as she was lifting it away, and she stopped.

His room was very quiet, save for his breathing and the thudding of her heart in her throat. She felt herself blushing for no good reason and pulled her hand away, letting his head flop against the pillow.

That's it, she thought. Go home. You don't have to do anymore, just go home.

She took a hesitant step back, ran a hand through her hair. Bent and readjusted the sheets, letting a hand drift across his chest as she stood again.

This was stupid. Needless doting and touching, like he couldn't take care of himself. She shook her head and turned away, squeezing out the door back into the living room. Boomer looked like he was feigning sleep on the couch and Butch was vaguely jabbing at the buttons on the remote. The girls were in the kitchen, bustling about. Blossom sucked her lips in between her teeth and strode over to her sisters, watching as they prepped and cut veggies. Bubbles met her eyes briefly and smiled. Buttercup was engrossed in her carrot washing. Blossom looked back at the boys, exhausted and pale with sick.

"What are you two doing?" she demanded as she looked back at the girls.

"Making soup," Buttercup said shortly, and began chopping up her carrots. She still wouldn't look up. Blossom stood there a moment, eyes flicking between her sisters and the door, thinking of Brick mumbling and breathing and fainting. She closed her eyes and sighed.

"Is there," she started uneasily, then sighed again. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"What a sight," Butch sighed in happiness as he leaned against the breakfast bar, watching the girls in the kitchen. "Isn't it, Boomer?"

Boomer groaned and complained, "I thought I told you to shut up and let me sleep!"

"Three girls! In our kitchen! Being domestic!" Butch sighed again. "There's only one way this could get any better—"

"I have a knife in my hands, and I will cut your mouth off with it if you don't shut up," Buttercup warned, voice irritable as she glared daggers at Butch.

"Shut up, you two," Bubbles said crossly. "Let Boomer sleep."

"Thank you, love of my life," Boomer called from the couch, and Bubbles blushed. Butch and Buttercup made faces of disgust at each other.

Blossom rummaged in the cabinets for bowls. "You guys never cook, huh? It doesn't look like you've touched any of this stuff."

"They don't cook," Buttercup immediately answered. "Nothing in those cabinets had been touched before we got here."

"Why cook when you got ladies to come over and do it for you?" Butch automatically responded, and all three of the girls gave pause to consider the multitude of knives at their disposal.

"Okay, Buttercup? Explain why you are friends with him again?" Blossom said icily, ladling out soup. Bubbles grabbed a bowl and immediately took it over to Boomer.

"I am not friends with him," Buttercup confirmed, shooting him a dirty look. "There are just extended shared moments of not wanting to kill each other that somehow worked their way into our existence."

Butch was watching Bubbles spoon soup into Boomer's mouth. He then turned to Buttercup and pointed at his own open mouth.

"Ah. Ah ah."

"Like hell!" Buttercup bit, shoving a bowl at him. "Feed your damn self!"

"But I'm siiiiiiick!" Butch whined.

"You'll be sicker if you don't shut up," Buttercup snapped, throwing a spoon into the bowl and sending soup sloshing over the sides.

He made a face at her and looked at his soup. "Fine. I'll ask Blossom. Blossom?"

It occurred to the four of them that Blossom was nowhere to be seen.

Buttercup wrinkled her brow and said, "Blossom?"

Suddenly the sound of a slamming door echoed in the room, and all of them simultaneously looked in the direction of Brick's room. Butch was agape with shock.

"That lucky bastard!"

"If you go out there again," Brick mumbled bitterly into his pillow as Blossom shut the door behind her. "Tell them to please do me a favor and shut the fuck up."

"Language," Blossom reprimanded quietly, and shuffled things around so she could set the soup down on the nightstand. She noted the empty glass and without a moment's hesitation took it to the bathroom to refill it. Brick was in the process of sitting up when she returned. She couldn't believe he'd put his cap back on.

"I'm not really hungry, you know," he breathed.

"Eat it anyway," she ordered, setting the glass down. As she watched him steady himself on shaky limbs, a thought suddenly occurred to her. "Can you feed yourself?"

"Yes," he said automatically and harshly, but he didn't move to grab the spoon. His arms were still shaking. Blossom took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, considering.

"C'mon," she finally surrendered, waving at him. "Scoot over."

"No, I—"

"Scoot over," she insisted, and instead of waiting for a response simply shoved him over so she could sit down. He sighed as she took the bowl in her hands and roughly stirred at the soup.

"I told you I wasn't—"

"Shut up." She blew on it very slightly with her ice breath, cooling it enough to drink.

"That's a neat trick. Where'd you learn that?"

"I never really learned it," Blossom said quietly as he let her slip the spoon into his mouth. "Just sorta… happened one day, I guess." She wrinkled her face at him as she stirred the soup a bit again. "You oughtta recognize it. I probably used it on you when we were kids."

"I don't remember," he sighed, and swallowed another spoonful. "Where'd this come from? It's good."

"My sisters went out and bought groceries or something—cut school to do it, I might add—and were making it when we got here. C'mon," she urged, and he hesitated before sipping.

"When's, um... when's your dad going to have the vaccine ready?"

"He said he can bring it by later tonight. He's working on it right now. The Professor's one of only a few who can make the adult vaccine."

"The hospital doesn't keep it in stock?"

"They keep the youth vaccine in stock, yes, but adults coming down with AB is so rare—seriously, it hasn't happened since the first outbreak—that they only have a few specialists who can whip it up when the need arises."

"How's he going to administer it when needles can't break our skin?"

"He'll put just a little Antidote X on the area," she said.

"Of co—" Brick suddenly went into another coughing fit, and Blossom pulled the bowl away so it wouldn't spill.

He gasped for breath after it was done and hissed, "Fuck."

"Hey," Blossom said, frowning.

"I hate this," he went on. "I've never been sick before. We're not supposed to get sick."

"Every immune system has its weakness," Blossom said. "Even superhero ones."

"Yeah, well, it sucks and it's stupid," he whined, sounding remarkably like a kid for once. "I don't like it. I feel like a fucking weakling. I feel like I'm going to die."

"Brick, you're not going to—"

"I'm shaking. I'm fucking shaking. And I fainted like five fucking times—"

"Actually, just two," Blossom corrected. "And could you please stop cursing?"

He coughed again, and gasped, "I'm sore all over, and I can't even breathe right—"

He pushed his cap off his head long enough to swipe at his brow, thick with sweat. Blossom instantly set down the bowl and rushed to the bathroom, snatching a washcloth off the rack and wringing it under cold water. She sped back to the bed and grabbed Brick's cap before he could put it back on, pressing the towel to his forehead instead. He took a deep breath and sighed.

"Oh my God, that feels good," he breathed, eyes closing.

Blossom smoothed his hair away and ran the towel along his brow to his cheek, his neck. Her other hand lingered in his hair, orange that wasn't hers weaving along her skin. It was probably because he was delirious, feverish, that he lifted a hand and rested it on her leg, the weight of it heavy against the layer of denim. She froze, suddenly realizing she'd been inching closer to his face the entire time.

When his eyes opened she was perched a healthy distance away again, patting the towel against his neck. The sunlight fell in diagonal lines across her face, so he couldn't quite see that she was blushing.

"Feel better?" she asked, eyes elsewhere, and he grunted assent. "Good," she whispered, and stood, his wayward hand falling back to the bed. She hung the towel over his headboard and nudged the soup. "Do you want any more of this?"

"You can leave it," he said quietly, watching as she fiddled nervously with his nightstand things.

"You should drink this water," she mothered, holding out the glass. He took it and sipped. "I'll be going now," she announced, and backed to the door.

"Do I owe you for this?"

"Beg pardon?"

"This," he clarified, giving a noncommittal wave around the room. "This 'taking care of me' business."

Her eyes hardened. "If you have to bother asking, then yeah. I'd say you owe me." She turned away again. "But don't bother."

"Why not?"

She paused at the door, then turned and met his eyes one last time. "I'm a good guy. Remember?"

He rolled his eyes. "I'll think of something."

"I already told you. Don't bother." She slipped out the door, their siblings' conversation and laughter filtering in for a brief moment before she closed it, and then he was alone again.

"Come on, girls," Blossom announced as she strode to the front door. "Let's go home."

"Already?" Butch whined. "But you guys haven't even tried out the hot tub yet!"

"We don't have a hot tub," Boomer said.

Butch took a deep breath before snarling, "Boomer. Shut up."

"We're not dressed for a hot tub anyway," Bubbles said innocently, and Buttercup smacked Butch before he could reply.

"Thank you," Boomer said, flashing Bubbles a brilliant smile, and she bent to kiss him.

"You're welcome," she whispered.

"I don't deserve you," he murmured against her lips.

"I don't deserve this," Buttercup said loudly, arms crossed. "Move it, Blondie."

After another few protracted farewells Blossom and Buttercup managed to bodily drag Bubbles out and into the air.

"You are way too into that guy," Buttercup griped as they flew home.

"At least I have a guy," Bubbles shot back.

"Hey!" Buttercup's voice carried threat of bodily harm in it. "I'll date again when I'm good and ready!" They continued bickering all the way home and then some, until Buttercup said a nasty word and the Professor stuck her with kitchen detail after dinner.

"I've spent half my day in the friggin' kitchen," Buttercup grumbled as she started on the dishes. Bubbles went back with the Professor to the Boys' apartment to administer the vaccine—and also to make sure he didn't "accidentally" throttle Boomer. Blossom stayed behind.

"He was very well behaved tonight," Bubbles announced as she wandered into their room. "I mean the Professor. Boomer slept through the whole thing."

"Mmm." Blossom was settled on the floor with her homework.

"What are you working on?" Bubbles asked, and was surprised when Blossom jumped.

"Just my Calculus homework," she responded automatically, and Bubbles eyed the book in her lap that clearly read English. "I mean, History. I mean, English." After a pause, Blossom gave Bubbles a furtive look and ventured, "Actually, in England they learn a different type of Calculus. That's what I'm working on."

"That's actually kind of insulting, that you just tried that. And you aren't even in Calculus this year."

The look on Blossom's face was repentant. "I'm sorry."

"So what happened with you and Brick today?" Bubbles said, her hands on her hips and head cocked. Blossom glared at her.


"Oh." After a moment, Bubbles sat by her sister. "That's a shame."

"No, it isn't," Blossom said, her teeth gritted.

"It kinda is. I mean, you have to admit."

"I don't—" Blossom shut her eyes, face pained for a moment. Then her expression hardened. "I'm not—I don't like him."

Bubbles studied her sister, watched as her eyes opened and her gaze drifted, focused somewhere that clearly wasn't their room. The thin line that was her mouth softened, and she gave a little sigh.

"Seriously," Blossom added, and Bubbles laid a comforting arm around her shoulders.

"That's okay," she assured. "I don't actually like Boomer either."

Blossom sighed. "Bubbles, you're such a terrible liar."

"Takes one to know one," Bubbles smiled back, and her sister went quiet.

The next day Boomer and Butch were already back at school. Brick, on the other hand, had let his condition worsen significantly by spending the first morning out at school. The Professor said that he was going to be fine, but would need a few days of bedrest before he'd be back up and moving around. All the Boys were going to be on antibiotics for a few days.

Blossom had been slightly distracted all day. Brick was in mostly the same classes as her, even if they didn't have them at the same times. The only thing they didn't share was Art. She picked up an extra handout of everything, then packed it up with her books and shot over to the Boys' apartment as soon as the bell rang. The Dance Company could do without her for one day.

Blossom hesitated before knocking lightly on the door. She stepped back in line of the peephole, shifting back and forth on her feet and trying to look nonchalant.

Nothing happened. She frowned and reached to knock again.

"Need these?"

She yelped in surprise and dropped the armload of books she was carrying as Butch appeared at her side, dangling a set of keys from his hand. He had an interesting look on his face and laughed as she stooped to gather up her things.

"You could've given me some warning," she grumbled.

"You could've given me his books at school," Butch pointed out, unlocking the door. She rolled her eyes as he swung it open and allowed her through.

"Like you would've passed it on."

"Hey, for you, I'd kill the guy."

"Just because I'm sick doesn't mean my superhearing doesn't work, jackass." Brick's voice was faint behind his door. "Blossom, what are you doing here?"

Butch interrupted her by imitating a porn riff. "Bow chicka bow—"

Suddenly the door to Brick's room swung open and a desk lamp was fired out of it at breakneck speed. Blossom ducked as Butch got a faceful of lamp.

"Augh! What the hell, dude?"

Brick appeared in the doorway, clinging to the frame and looking pale. "Clean that up," he ordered, gesturing at the shattered lamp bits on the floor. Blossom immediately set her books down on the coffee table and began to make her way to Brick.

"How are you feeling?"

"I've been better," he groused. "What are you doing—think twice before you 'Bow chicka bow wow' me, shithead," he snapped at Butch before he could start.

"Language," Blossom frowned. "Anyway, I… I thought you might… um… I brought your homework." She indicated the books she'd set down behind her. He blinked torpidly in surprise.


She waved her hands about, not sure where else to carry the conversation. "And, I dunno, I could go over it with you if you like—I mean, if you don't feel—if you feel up to it, that is. Not saying that you'd have a problem playing catchup," she hastily added. "But… um, if you felt up to it. And how are you feeling, I'm sorry, I forgot to ask?"

Brick blinked at her again. She wanted to cringe.

His gaze flicked to his brother, dumping the remnants of the lamp in the trash.

Sensing Brick's eyes on him, Butch waved a dismissive hand and said, "Don't worry, I'm not gonna stick around to piss you off. I've got plans."

Say no, Brick thought. You should say no.

He pressed his mitt to his eyes and rubbed at them. "Um, I'm okay. Better than yesterday. Slept a lot."

Blossom nodded. "Good. That's good. You're not green like you were yesterday."

"And, um… sure, yeah." His eyes drifted to Butch, who was being a little too quiet for his liking as he made his way to the front door. "Just because catchup wouldn't be a problem doesn't mean I wanna do it, so—"

"See you," Butch called out as he left.

"Bye," Blossom and Brick responded simultaneously. The door echoed when it slammed.

"You ever get jealous of your sisters?"

Buttercup looked at Butch in the next batting cage. "Huh? Like of what?"

His bat made a sharp cracking sound as it connected with the ball. "Like of anything. You know, like... Blossom's all smart, and Bubbles sings and is so popular..."

"Well, we're all pretty popular."

"Those are shitty examples. Just... you ever get jealous of them?"

Buttercup thought for a moment, swinging as another baseball came flying at her. "Yeah. Sure. Like... I know Blossom's the smart one, and Bubbles is the cute one, and I'm the tough one... but, it's like, people are scared of me. Because I'm supposed to be the tough, scary one. Like, Blossom and Bubbles are more girly, and more... I dunno, approachable, I guess. So people like talking to them."

"You mean at school?"

"Or even just around the city, you know?" Buttercup said. "People say 'Hi' to them more often, they smile more, they strike up random conversations. People say 'Hi' to me, but that's usually it. They don't really... you know, talk to me."

"Don't you prefer it that way?"

"I'm not saying I want to talk to them," Buttercup said, rolling her shoulders back and readying herself for another swing. "But... the option would be nice."

They swung a few more balls in silence.

"What about," Butch finally said, then cleared his throat. "What about when they get things you want?"

After a second spent contemplating, she said, "Our dad's always been really good about not playing favorites, so I don't really feel—"

"What about trophies? Awards?"

"Well, we all do different things—"

"You don't feel like they get more recognition than you?"

"Dude, what bug crawled up your ass today?" she asked, stepping back and leaning on her bat. "Is everything okay with you and your brothers?"

"Just thinkin'," he said. "Brick... you know, back at... back at work. He's like their fucking Golden Child, you know."

"He strikes me as the type."

"He's got all the brains, all the ideas. I mean, I guess that makes sense. He's the leader."

"His ideas don't always work though, do they?"

"No." Butch swung, struck another ball. "But he has 'em."

"You got ideas of your own?"

"I don't really think like that. I—fuck, you know. I don't do plans."

"Yeah, well," Buttercup scoffed.

"But he's always getting praised, you know? People are always throwing themselves all over the place for him."

"I can see how he'd kinda... inspire that in a person."

"Girls, too," Butch said. "When we first got here. All the girls were looking at him."

"I think they were afraid he was going to kill them."

Butch thought back, remembering. "Maybe."

Buttercup studied him as she lifted her bat off the ground and swung it experimentally.

"They looked at you too, Butch."

"For like, five seconds," he said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"You don't seem to have a problem with them," Buttercup said. "With getting girls, at least. Keeping them's different."

"I'm usually not interested in that."

"Maybe that's your problem."

"Brick's not interested either. But all he has to do is stand there and things fucking drop in his lap. He says he works for shit, and I guess he does work pretty hard, but then there's other shit that just... comes to him. I dunno. He works hard but he bleeds less for it."

"Butch, you seem to like bleeding for things."

He spat at the ground, tapped the dirt with his bat. "Most things."

Buttercup took one last swing, then stepped up to the metal links separating them and leaned.

"You're really jealous of Brick, huh?" she said, in a voice that was almost comforting.

"No," he said instantly, swinging hard and thinking of how Blossom had dashed up to his brother without so much as a look in Butch's direction. He let his bat drop to the ground, his arms hanging heavy at his sides. "I'm just sick of Brick getting everything I want."

The rest of the week Blossom became almost as permanent a fixture as Bubbles was in the Boys' apartment. She passed her Dance Company duties for the week on to her fellow officers and was out through the doors before the final bell even stopped ringing, arms laden with books. Bubbles and Buttercup came over again to make another giant pot of soup. That was really the only time Blossom ran into Buttercup there again. She was hanging out with Butch a lot, who didn't seem to want to stick around. Bubbles often showed up, though, and had the very bad habit of retreating into Boomer's room. It made both Blossom and Brick very uncomfortable the first afternoon it happened, as they were studying at the coffee table.

After Brick glanced at his brother's door for the nth time, Blossom stood up.

"I'm going to check on them."

"Thank you," he said.

She didn't bother knocking; the door wasn't locked anyway. Bubbles and Boomer looked up from a card game they were playing on the floor.

"What?" they both asked, innocently.

After the fifth time it happened, Blossom asked if they wouldn't mind leaving his door open. That didn't help. They cooed at each other so often Blossom felt it was almost worse than the idea of them making out, and Brick thought he might be having a relapse.

"Seriously, I feel like I'm going to vomit," he said, after Bubbles squealed at Boomer for winning the last round of Go Fish.

"Will you two take that somewhere else?" Blossom shouted, a little angrier than she intended. A very perplexed blond couple left after that.

It was still the beginning of the semester, so there wasn't a lot to discuss, academically. Once they got through their homework—which seemed to go remarkably fast, even considering that Brick wasn't at top performance—they moved on to discussing what they should do for Mrs. Morbucks' event in November.

"Oh, I forgot, she bumped that back," Brick said. "She called me earlier today. Said something else is going on then. We'll be doing the dance show in December."

"That gives us more time, at least," Blossom said. "You know, I don't think we can choreograph an entire show on our own. I mean, we'll be busy enough. Think she'd be okay if we brought in Jim? And Faust? Maybe I could ask Mel and the other officers to come up with something, too."

They went back and forth about ideas over the next couple of days, generally stopping before it grew dark, when Brick got tired. He was definitely improving with each passing day, though, so it surprised Blossom on Thursday when she arrived—he now left the door unlocked for her—and Brick wasn't already in the living room. She set up at the coffee table and gave it a few minutes. When he didn't show up, she headed for his door and knocked.


He didn't respond, so she gently opened it. He was asleep on his bed, the little bottle of antibiotics the Professor had left for him open on his nightstand. Blossom closed it and peered through it; only a couple of days' worth left. It did have a tendency to make one drowsy. He was sleeping with the blinds open, so the afternoon light was illuminating his room. She looked out across the landscape of Townsville through the window for a second, marveling at the view. Then she turned her attention to the shelves—sparse, but laden with books. She spotted Machiavelli and was reminded of their loud, very public spat in the middle of the hall just earlier this year.

Never would've guessed I'd be here now, she thought, a little cynically. He had another shelf of art books—various collections of photographs, of paintings, and an art history book on the Hellenistic period in the mix. When did you get so into art? she wondered. Had it happened when they were kids? She never would've thought it possible. Then again, it wasn't like they'd ever really talked.

There was an entire shelf dedicated to Camus. Again, the shelves were small, but the fact that he had set aside an entire shelf for the philosopher simultaneously surprised and thrilled her. Up until the Boys had arrived in high school, she'd never have considered Brick the intellectual type. One of the books was especially worn, so worn she couldn't make out the title on the binding, and she tugged it out, curious. It was a collection of essays in the original French (He should talk to Bubbles more often, she thought), and as she flipped through it the book automatically fell open to what was clearly the most read page in the book. Her eyes immediately shot to the sole line of text that had been underlined several times in faded pencil. She recognized his handwriting; he had translated it in the margin of the book.

I think my life is of great importance, but I also think it is meaningless. She mouthed the line to herself, trying to feel the same meaning Brick obviously derived from it. There was a sudden shifting on the bed, and she turned, closing the book and returning it to the shelf as she did so. Brick was sitting up, and as soon as he caught sight of her he seemed taken aback.

"Is it... is it four already?" he asked.

"Yeah." Blossom moved to the foot of his bed, then, after a moment, sat delicately on the edge. "Are you feeling okay?"

"I'm okay. Just the meds. Made me sleepy." He yawned. "Didn't expect to nap so long." Something suddenly seemed to occur to him, and he glanced around the room.

"I didn't find anything incriminating," she assured him, cracking a smile.

"Oh, good." After a pause, he said, "Didn't run into my FHN collection, huh?"

"Not funny," she scolded, but her expression wasn't exactly angry. He kicked off the covers.

"I'll be right out," he said as he floated to his bathroom. "Just need to splash some water on my face."

"Okay," Blossom said, then, without thinking, "I'll be waiting." She could hear the water running, filling the sink.

Brick was silent for a moment, then finally said, "Okay."

Boomer and Bubbles were up in the sky relaxing amidst the clouds when he got a sudden phone call.

"Dude, I didn't think you could get reception up here," he said in disbelief, then flipped it open. "Yo."

"Boomer! What the fuck? You haven't shown up to practice all week!"

"Hey, Mitch," he said, smiling at Bubbles. "You know I was sick."

"For one day, jackass!"

"Hey, I'm out with Bubbles right now," he said, and Bubbles perked up.

"Of course you're out with Bubbles," Mitch grumbled. "How about coming out to see your band? And maybe practicing once in awhile?"

"Naw, man, I'm good—"

Bubbles snatched the phone out of his hands and said, "We'll be right there, Mitch," before hanging up. Boomer pouted at her.

"But I want to hang out with you!"

"I can go with you," she said. "Besides, he's right. You've been hanging out with me an awful lot. The guys probably miss you."

They stopped by the apartment to pick up his guitar—Bubbles waved at Brick and Blossom in the living room—then booked for the Floydjoydsen's house.

"'Bout time," Mitch muttered. The twins didn't look very happy, either. "Have you been practicing?"

Boomer shrugged. "Here and there."

Bubbles darted a glance at Mitch and shook her head, mouthing, Haven't seen it.

"Great," Mitch muttered.

"Tuning," Boomer announced, then, after that was done, they started up their first song, stopping only once they hit the bridge and Mitch fucked up the bass part. Boomer had played perfectly up to that point.

"Geez, Mitch, I thought you'd been practicing," Boomer quipped, and Mitch glared at him.

"Boomer, be nice," Bubbles said from her corner of the garage. After getting through that one with minimal flubs, Mitch suggested one with a harder guitar part. Boomer snickered. As with the first, he played this one perfectly, too. In fact, he played them all perfectly.

"I thought you said this guy hadn't practiced," Mitch said in disbelief to Bubbles.

"I said I hadn't seen it," she said, clapping proudly. "Boomer, when do you do it? When your brothers are asleep?"

"No, Brick would kill me," he said. "Are we good for the day? Can I get back to hanging out with my awesome girlfriend now?"

The guys grumbled their assent, and Boomer and Bubbles left, her clinging to his arm.

"You're so good," she said happily, pressing against his arm.

"I know," he said, smirking.

"Seriously, when'd you discover you had this special power? Was it when we were five?"

"No, I was... older than that," he said, still smirking. "'S not really a special power. Or, well, I guess it kinda—"

"But you never have to practice! That's pretty much a special power, isn't it? If you can just, you know, do it?"

"You know, tell you what. Let's go. I'll show you."

The rest of Brick's and Blossom's afternoon went as per usual. They got through their homework, then lapsed into discussion of the big charity event. They decided that next week, once Brick was back a hundred percent, they'd start rehearsing. Once settling that, Brick looked out the window and realized it was already dark.

"Oh my gosh, it's almost dinner time," Blossom said, incredulous. She started to pack her things.

"Did you guys have plans tonight?" Brick asked.

"No, the Professor's working late again. It's just leftovers."

Brick glanced at the clock, fidgeting. He was feeling better. A lot better, in fact. Well enough to go out...

He tried to think of someplace to take her. What kind of food did she like? Someplace nice; he thought she might like that. He bit his lip and rubbed his hands along his jeans, his brain working furiously to come up with a suggestion.

"I'll see you tomorrow," she said, already at the door.

"Yeah, bye," he said hoarsely, and the slamming of the door echoed in the now eerily quiet room. He sighed and went into the kitchen, heating up the last of the soup for dinner. He finished it at the dinner table in silence, occasionally glancing at the coffee table in the living room, decorated with his open textbooks. It bugged him that he'd thought of asking her. It bugged him even more that he hadn't.

After some pacing, he stacked up his books and decided to just get ready for bed. He thought he might actually go in to school tomorrow, even if the meds made him sleepy. He started to shed his clothes to dump them in the hamper, then went around the room collecting any other discarded clothing. He cringed as he did so; shit, if he'd known she'd come into his room he'd have cleaned up the place a bit, and maybe double-checked to make sure she wouldn't find anything incriminating. He fished through the pockets of a pair of jeans, just to make sure he didn't lose any bills in the wash, and discovered Joseph's business card. Brick paused, his eyes tracing the phone number as he thought about Blossom, upset and ashamed in the booth last week. Joseph had asked her, he was sure of it. Brick felt a dim fury well up in him at the idea; even though Blossom had no reason to be ashamed of her beauty it made him inexplicably angry that Joseph had asked such a thing of her.

He thought about tearing up the card, about setting it aflame and watching those ten digits, those six letters, curl into black ash. Then he opened the drawer of his desk and grudgingly set it down, next to Reccardi's, and continued to get ready for bed.

Boomer took her to the music store they'd visited over the summer. It was already dark and closed, and Bubbles hesitated as Boomer knelt and examined the lock on the gate.

"Boomer, what are we doing here?"

"I just need some instruments," he said, producing a little blue spark of a key and using it to jimmy the lock.

"You're stealing?" she gasped.

"No, no," he assured her as the gate gave and he set about working on the door. "I just need a place with some instruments. I'm just trying to show you."

Bubbles still held back, even after the door was open and he beckoned her inside.

"Boomer, no. I don't like this."

He came up to her and gave her a quick kiss. "We're not taking anything, I promise. I just want to play some instruments for you."

She reluctantly let him lead her into the dark store—that was another thing creeping her out, and Boomer found the lights and hit them. Then she just felt like they were on the spot, begging for the cops to come.

"We won't be here long," he promised, then stepped back. "Okay. Pick an instrument. Um, maybe not something that requires me putting my mouth on it. Not that I mind, but whoever buys the instrument might."

Momentarily distracted, Bubbles thought. She knew he played guitar and piano.

"Can... can you play the drums?"

They found a kit in the back of the store and she discovered, yes, Boomer could play the drums.

"Pick another one," he urged her, grinning.

"Um... how about the xylophone?" Another percussive instrument, but definitely different from the drums. They located the xylophones, and Boomer played those, too. She was smiling when he finished.

"What else?" he asked.

"I don't know," she said, looking around. "What about... oh my gosh, do you think they have a harp here?"

There was one harp in the store, a very expensive one behind a red velvet rope on a platform, and Boomer clambered under the rope and then played While My Guitar Gently Weeps so sweetly that it almost brought Bubbles to tears.

"That was beautiful," she said as he finished, her eyes moist.

"Pick another," he said simply.

"I don't even... um, banjo."

He played the banjo.


He played the violin.


He looked at her. "You're kidding, right?"

"I can't think of anything else," she said, sinking onto a stool. "I can't believe it. Where—you said this isn't a special power?"

"Well, it only... kinda is," he said, scratching his neck. She shook her head.

"I don't get it. What do you mean?"

He knelt next to her, a secretive look on his face. "Promise you won't tell?"

"Tell what?"

"Not even my brothers know about it."

The exclusivity of his request thrilled her so much that she started to whisper. "What is it?"

"I didn't discover I had this special power," he said quietly, his eyes glittering. "I asked for it."

She stared at him a second, trying to process the information. "I don't—what?"

"I didn't, you know, figure out I had any musical ability or anything like that," he explained. "I... asked for it. And I got it."

"No, I mean... how do you ask for something like that? Who do you ask?"

"I asked Him," Boomer said, and Bubbles gasped and shot out of her seat, sending the chair clattering to the ground.

"What?" she said, her voice tiny and her expression horrified. Boomer looked up at her, confused by her reaction.

"What's wrong?"

"You asked Him for your ability?" she asked, panic rising in her.


"How... when? When did you ask?"

"I guess... when I was eleven or so. Before we left Townsville."

"He took something in return, didn't he? Did he take something of yours?"

Boomer shook his head. "He said he'd just ask a favor of me later—"

"Oh my God," Bubbles gasped, covering her mouth and feeling tears welling in her eyes. "Boomer, how could you do that?"

"I thought... I thought you thought it was cool, just a second ago," he said, uncomprehending.

"Before I knew that you made a deal with Him for it!" she cried, unable to look around them, at all the instruments Boomer had played with borrowed ability, borrowed talent from the Devil. "How could you do that? Don't you—don't you know what He could do to you?"

"You don't think I can take care of myself?" he said, a little offended.

"It's not a matter of whether you can take care of yourself or not!" she shrieked. "That's not going to matter when He—"

The distant sound of sirens cut her off, and after a frantic few moments the both of them stole out of the store, flying well away into the sky and taking cover behind a cloud. Boomer looked sullen and hurt. Bubbles almost felt sorry for him, but she was too upset with worry.

"Why did you make a deal like that?" she asked.

"Because I wanted to be good at something," he bit out, a little emotional. "I... you know, Brick was the guy with the plan, and Butch was the guy with the violent streak, and I..." He was staring down at the city below them, biting his lip and shaking his head. "I had nothing. Nobody had anything special to say about me. Except that I was stupid."

Bubbles' gaze softened as she took his words in. "Oh, Boomer."

"So I wanted... so I thought about it, and thought it'd be really cool if I could play an instrument and sing. I didn't really care about being smart, or tough, you know. I didn't... think I could compete with my brothers when it came to those things, anyway. And I thought with Him being, you know, all-powerful and all..." He trailed off, then, a little bitterly, "I thought you liked it."

She came close, touched his face. "I like you."

"You got angry about it," he mumbled, still staring at their feet.

"Because I'm worried about you," she said, touching her forehead to his. "You know? I just don't want anything to happen to you."

Boomer glanced at her, then sighed. She almost didn't want to ask it of him. But she had no other bright ideas. It probably wouldn't matter, but it would at least make her feel better. A little. She gave him a soft little kiss on the lips.

"Boomer," she whispered. "You should stop playing and singing."

He jerked away from her. "What?"

"You... you should stop," she repeated, sadness in her eyes as she tried to make him see. "It's like... the more you do it, the more you're going to owe Him when He finally comes to collect."

He looked around helplessly. "How do you know?"

"I don't."

"I don't want to!"

"I know," she said quietly, tears welling up. She didn't know how else to make this better. He'd already gotten his ability from Him. He'd already been using it, all these years. And Him still hadn't come for Boomer, which only made her wonder how horrible it was going to be when He did..

"Boomer, please," she said, grasping at him and forcing him to look her in the eye. "For me. Please?"

He stared at her as she clenched at his hair, her tears cutting tracks down her cheeks.

"He quit the band?" Buttercup gasped, incredulous.

"Fucker doesn't show up for an entire week to practice, comes in and plays everything perfectly, and then ruins my God damn Monday by waking me up at like one in the morning to tell me he's quitting!" Mitch exclaimed.

"Dude," Butch said. "Them's tough breaks."

"Did he give you a reason?" Buttercup asked.

"No. He was bitching about needing to spend time with Bubbles before, though." Mitch groaned and thumped his head against the lunch table. "Fucking great. I don't know, I think Floyd and Lloyd and I are just going to give it a rest. You know? Fuck it. It's our senior year, anyway. It's as good a time to go out as any."

Butch glanced at Buttercup, who looked a little melancholy. She hadn't been with them for almost a year, but obviously she still felt some ties to No Neck Joe.

"That sucks, man," she said as the bell rang and they started to gather up their stuff. All three of them had a free block now, but Buttercup couldn't hang out—she was heading to Volleyball practice early. They said their goodbyes and split.

Butch withheld a sigh when he walked into their apartment, glad that Brick was better and back at school. Coming home to his brother and Blossom in the living room for nearly a week had been kind of a mood killer, and he was glad for the lack of it now. He rummaged through his drawers for his stash of weed, then discovered a most troubling thing: he was out.

"Shit, are you kidding me?" he muttered. He hadn't been smoking that much, had he? He checked his pockets, then the pockets of his other jeans. Damn. He was definitely out. He groaned and flopped back on his bed. After a second, he flipped onto his stomach and searched for his phone, scrolling to Mitch's number.

"Hey, man," he said once Mitch had picked up. "Help a guy out, would you?"

Mitch was busy running errands or something for his mom, so Butch couldn't head over until it was almost dark. He played games until then, and once Mitch called and told him where he lived Butch dashed over.

"Dude, I really appreciate this," Butch said as he landed in Mitch's trailer park.

"Don't mention it," Mitch said, leading him inside. He waved at an old thing planted in front of the TV—Butch assumed it was a person, but it didn't move, so he wasn't sure—and then opened the door to his room. After closing them both inside, Mitch dug for a tin under his bed.

"You are a lifesaver," Butch said, slapping some bills into Mitch's hand as he handed over almost half of his stash.

"I try," he said as he pocketed the money and returned his tin to the cavern under the bed. Butch looked around.

"Mitch, I'm not saying so to offend, but you kinda live in a shithole," he laughed, nudging a water-damaged stack of magazines over with his foot.

"Fuck you too, man," Mitch said, opening up a mini-fridge and popping the top off a soda. "You want one?" Butch held up his hand and Mitch tossed him a can. "You fucking spill that on my floor and I'll kick your ass."

"You and what army?" Butch snorted. He pressed the cold can to his forehead and sighed. "You at least have an A/C in here or something?"

"You cry like a bitch, you know that? In all the times she's been over, Buttercup never complained as much as you have, and this is barely your first visit."

Butch had started to sit on the bed, then suddenly shot up. "Speaking of, when was the last time you washed your sheets?"

Mitch flipped him off. "Less than a year ago, jackass. Go to hell. For what it's worth, we never did anything like that."

"You do anything worth talking about?"

Mitch scoffed. "Nah. It wouldn't have done us any good. Whatever that means." He shrugged, fixated on a dusty shelf. "We weren't that into each other." A weird moment passed, during which Butch broke the silence by finally popping open his can of soda.

"So," he started—

"Mitch!" a woman's voice suddenly shrieked.

"What?" screamed Mitch, making Butch wince.

"Come give me a hand!"

"With what?"

"Just come give me a hand!"

"God damn—" Mitch groaned and thunked his soda down on the desk. "I'll be right back, man. Don't fuck anything up while I'm gone."

"Whatever." Butch watched him go, then turned back to study the room. Metal and punk rock posters littered the walls. From the look of them, they might have been put up just to hold the walls together in the first place. CDs, DVDs, and magazines covered every other available surface in the room—shelves, the desk, the floor, the bed. Butch's eyes trailed across the chaos of wrinkled paper and cracked plastic sinking into the rug. Dust and old water spots—Butch imagined the place leaked, which might explain the smell—had accumulated everywhere. The only pristine thing in the room was Mitch's bass guitar, perched carefully in a corner and nestled between a tiny amp and a bookcase, of which only half a shelf was dedicated to books at all.

Butch wandered over to Mitch's desk, where his PC sat. Mitch had an old CRT monitor—seriously, that thing was ancient—hooked up to a struggling unit under the desk. It was on the screensaver, and Butch nudged the mouse. The screen flickered to Mitch's desktop, and Butch sipped at his soda while scanning the names of the files and folders. He paused and squinted, his naturally sharp eyes picking up on something amiss. It took him a moment to place. Where everything was labeled mostly intelligibly—band, school, pics—there was one folder titled absolute gibberish, a random selection of letters and numbers. Butch pursed his lips and looked back at the door, then double-clicked on the folder. A little window popped up prompting him to enter a password. Ha. He'd just discovered Mitch's porn collection. Butch wondered if he had anything good in there.

He heard a thump and snapped his head up, eyes on the door. He could still hear Mitch on the other side of the trailer, grumbling about something or another while Ms. Mitchelson griped at him to stop complaining. Apparently he was still occupied. Butch looked around and discovered a stack of blank CD-Rs under the desk.

It was only one folder, so it took no time at all to burn. After extracting his fresh CD from the drive and taking the desktop back to its screensaver, Butch located an album to borrow and hid the burned CD in it under the actual disc just before Mitch returned.

"Hey. Sorry, man, gotta kick you out."

Butch downed the rest of his soda and crushed his can. "'S cool," he said, tossing it into the overflowing wastebasket, then held up the case in his hands. "Hey. Mind if I borrow this?"

Butch arrived at home to find Brick in the living room. Alone. He could hear Boomer rustling in his own room, behind the closed door.

They grunted at each other, and Butch retreated to his room to partake of his drugs. He tossed the album on his bed, figuring he'd get to it later, maybe after a hit or two.

There was a dim booming sound from outside, and Butch looked out of his window as he opened it, peering through the darkness. Huge clouds of smoke billowed out from what looked like downtown Townsville, near City Hall.

"Huh," he said, lighting up.

Brick, meanwhile, wandered back into his own room and sat on the edge of his bed. It had been a weird day. They'd actually kinda talked to each other, which was weird—they'd gotten used to talking to each other here, at his place, but at school... Well, since they'd gotten so into the habit of yelling at each other at school, it was just weird to have a civil conversation there. He nudged the carpet with his foot absentmindedly, trying not to think about it too much.

A distant boom in the city drew his attention. He looked up, frowning, then opened the blinds to see a large plume of smoke rising from the center of downtown.


His superhearing picked up on Mojo's familiar laugh, and he watched as three streaks of pink, blue, and green shot out of the suburbs and towards the very heart of Townsville.

"We were wondering when you'd show up again, Mojo," Blossom said, staring up at him in a newer, more updated version of the last Giant Robo Jojo they'd destroyed.

"Aw," he cooed. "Are you actually saying that you missed me?"

Buttercup yawned, and Bubbles chirped, "A little."

"I'm sure! Because an evil mastermind such as myself would indeed provide you with some much needed excitement in this stuuuuupid city, with its stuuuuupid people, not to mention the regular promise of a challenging fight, much in the way that dogs need to be exercised—"

"Did you just call us 'dogs?'" Blossom exclaimed, offended.

"Whatever," Buttercup announced, throwing her arms up. "Can we get this over with? I had a long day of practice and I've got more tomorrow morning, so let's cut your Mojo-logue down tonight and just get to the part where we kick your ass!"

"Language!" Blossom and Mojo screeched at her.

"Buttercup, I know this is a fight, but that's no excuse!" Blossom scolded.

Mojo shook his fist at her. "While I may be a villain, I do expect a certain amount of respect, courtesy, politeness, even from you, my most haaaated enemies, so zip up that insolent little foul mouth of yours and learn some respectful English!" He paused to consider. "You do have a point, however."

And with this he punched a giant button, and a deep rumbling occurred. Suddenly, out of the darkness emerged countless more Giant Robo Jojos, flocking to their master and surrounding the girls.

"Wow," Bubbles said, looking around. "Someone's been a busy little monkey lately." Buttercup made a face.

"Excuse me, but where the fuck were you hiding these things?"

"Buttercup!" Blossom shot her a warning glance.

"Wash your mouth!" Mojo said, and shot her in the face. Before Blossom and Bubbles could retaliate in their sister's defense, he fired at them, too, knocking them both to the ground.

"Oh, Mojo, you are in for it," Buttercup seethed, wiping the remnants of the black liquid away and pulling herself to her feet. Blossom stared at the dark fluid sinking into the asphalt and a dim horror welled up in her. She recognized it. She recognized the smell. She heard a sudden whirring sound as Mojo powered up his laser, and she scrambled to her feet, tackling Buttercup out of the way as he fired right where she'd been standing. They hit the asphalt, and it actually hurt a lot.

"What are you doing?" Buttercup cried, trying to push her sister off, then pausing as she caught sight of her scraped hand, gravel dug in amongst the red.


"Mojo, you cheater!" Buttercup snarled.

Where did he get more Antidote X? Blossom thought frantically to herself. The Professor kept it under guarded lock and key in the lab, heavily protected, and he was supposed to be the only one who could even create it. Mojo hadn't successfully stolen any for the past few years, and if anything, that stealth fighter they'd faced at the beach would've sapped any reserves he'd had of it dry.

"Whoo! Excellent aim, was it not, Powerpuff Girls? And good, that it was excellent, as that was the final drops, the absolute end, the very last of my Antidote X stores." He sneered and maneuvered the robot into a crouch, so his perch in the head of his Robo Jojo—a robot fashioned after his likeness, naturally—came level with them. "Got you out of the way as quickly as possible! Incidentally, you now also have the perfect front row seat to witness my complete, finite, ultimate takeover of Townsville, and then, of the woooorld!"

Buttercup glared at him, cackling behind his glass. Then she drew her fist back and punched it, hard. The clear surface cracked, just slightly. Mojo ceased his laughter.


"Didn't improve your glass much, I see," she grumbled, and brought her fist back again. The Robo Jojo stood and swiped her away, knocking her against the leg of another.

"Buttercup!" Blossom and Bubbles dashed over to help her up.

"Well, girls, it has—as you young people say—been real. But I have more important, grown-up duties to attend to. Like taking over Townsville! Mwahahahahahaha!" He began to pilot his Robo Jojo away, and the rest of his robots began to disperse as well. Most of them. The girls stared up at the few that didn't move, the few that stayed right where they were, bearing down on them. Bubbles swallowed.

"Um, five. We can take five, right?"

"We can take five hundred," Buttercup snarled.

"No," Blossom said matter-of-factly, fearlessly, despite her panicked, racing heartbeat. "Not like this. We can't take any."

"That's—" Buttercup started, but then one of the robots raised its foot, and the girls had to scatter as it smashed down, crushing the asphalt where they'd stood.

"Not cool not cool not cool!" Bubbles cried as the rest of the Robo Jojos followed suit, doing an odd, robotic dance of sorts as they all tried to squash them. Blossom dodged one foot after the other, then looked off into the distance at the sound of a crash, gasping.

"They're destroying the city!" she cried.

"No duh!" Buttercup snapped. "What the fuck do you think he made them for?"

"We have to get back to the lab!" Blossom shouted.

"We're all the way on the other side of town!" Buttercup shrieked.

"Well, do you have any bright ideas, Buttercup?" Blossom yelled back. "I don't see you suggesting anything!"

Buttercup drew up to her as she fled another robot, glaring. "I suggest we fucking fight back!"

"Watch your language when you talk to me!"

"Both of you cut it out!" Bubbles snapped, snatching them both by the arm and dashing them out of the way of another foot. She tripped on the upturned asphalt and they all took a spill, hitting the ground once again. Buttercup hissed as her injured hand ate more gravel.

Bubbles moaned, "Having no powers sucks. And it hurts, too."

Blossom pulled herself up to her feet, looking up in dismay as they were surrounded by the five Robo Jojos. The clicking and powering up of five lasers all at once was almost deafening. Bubbles stood up beside her, gripping her hand.

"Blossom," she whispered, her fear and uncertainty evident. "What do we do?"

We might be able to dodge them, Blossom thought. If they ran, right as the robots fired, they could steal between the legs...

A bright glow built up in the well of the laser, and Buttercup instinctively moved to the front, her shoulders tensing.

"As soon as they fire, girls," Blossom whispered. "Run for it." She started counting down in her head, trying to be calm, to think straight, to not panic. One... two...

"Run!" she screamed, the very instant the lasers sounded, and the girls broke.

She saw Bubbles trip and scream, but before she could turn to help she hit something hard, face first, and stumbled backwards to the ground.

We're done for, she thought helplessly, but when death proved to be nowhere near as painful as she expected, she blinked and slowly looked up, and discovered what she'd run into.

A green, flickering dome surrounded them. To the side, Boomer was gripping Bubbles' hand—she hadn't tripped, she had been snatched out of the way. He was glaring at the remains of one of the robots outside the dome, cut to pieces. In his other hand flickered an immense, crackling blue sword. Outside the dome the last vestiges of a bright red flash were already fading, the other four robots lying still and dismembered on the ground. Butch lowered his arms, smirking at the girls, and the shield flickered off.

"Aw, girls," Butch said, his voice dripping with false sweetness. "Look at the mess you got yourselves into."

"Shut up, Butch," Buttercup snarled.

He was undeterred; almost giddy. "Looks like you'll have to let the boys handle this one!"

Blossom stared at Brick as he hovered, looking down at the robots he'd just destroyed before turning and meeting her eyes. Beyond him, Mojo's cackle echoed in the distance.

-end Ch. 8-