IMPORTANT NOTE FOR ALL READERS: Please read my ff profile and the Sticky!post on my LJ before contacting me/begging for updates. I state pretty plainly in my ffnet profile that my fic is always posted on my LJ account before it gets posted at ffnet. Posting my fic tends to be pretty time-consuming for me, especially since I have to go through and manually format it for both sites. Since my LJ is my primary way of interacting with fandom, it gets priority when I post fic. Each chapter gets posted at ffnet when I have the time to run through and re-format it—which, in this particular case, took over a month. Thanks for understanding.

Title: More Than Human
Chapter 9: Monday Broke My Heart, or Everybody Knows You Cried Last Night
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 who are the best. Around. Nothing's ever gonna keep 'em down.

More Than Human, Pt. 2 – Senior Fall Semester
September – Monday Broke My Heart,
or Everybody Knows You Cried Last Night

"If one of you flies us back, we can get our powers back and come help you—"

"Waste of time." Brick dismissed Blossom's idea as a boom resounded in the distance. "It'll be quicker for the three of us to wipe them out ourselves."

"How many of them are there?" Bubbles asked.

"I'd estimate just over a hundred," Brick replied.

"Okay, I repeat: where the hell was Mojo hiding those things?" Buttercup said in disbelief.

Brick looked at Blossom and said, "You three need to get somewhere safe in the meantime."

"I'll take them," Boomer said, his hand gripping Bubbles'.

"Butch has the shield," Brick pointed out.

"Wasn't by choice," Butch muttered.

Another crash echoed, followed by Mojo's laughter, and Blossom winced and said, "We'll be fine. Just, all three of you, hurry and go!"

Brick hesitated. Then he turned to his brothers.

"Butch, I'm giving you this section here. Boomer, take this end. I'll take the middle." He glanced back at Blossom. "Whoever wipes out their guys first will come back for the girls and carry them home."

"We'll be moving," Blossom said.

"We'll find you," Brick responded, and she went warm.

"Now be good little damsels-in-distress and don't get your pretty little selves hurt," Butch cooed, and Buttercup and Blossom bristled at him.

"What?!" they both snapped, murder in their eyes. In the background, Bubbles gave Boomer a kiss for luck.

"Butch, quit dicking around." Brick's eyes skipped over Blossom one last time before turning to the city.

Something occurred to her, and she said, "Brick!"

He looked back, his expression bewildered but oddly expectant. "Yes?"

"Try to minimize the damage to the city," she said. "As best you can."

He stared at her a moment before turning away again. "We'll try. Alright, boys. Let's roll."

The girls watched the boys take off in a burst of colored light. Finally, Blossom started running in the direction of home.

"Hurry, girls. We need to get somewhere safe."

"What's the use?" Buttercup grumbled, but she fell into a run beside Blossom anyway. "All the danger's moving that way."

"Danger moves in more than one direction, Buttercup," Blossom sighed.

Bubbles glanced back over her shoulder as she ran. "Do you think they'll be okay?"

"I hope Butch won't," Buttercup snarled. "I hope he gets punched in the sack."

"Buttercup!" Blossom snapped.

"I do," Buttercup said, unapologetic. "That testosterone-stuffed idiot." Her eyes darkened. "I'm nobody's fucking damsel-in-distress."

"The streets are so empty," Blossom said. "We need to call the Mayor and tell him people need to be evacuated!"

As Bubbles tugged out her phone and dialed, a sudden crash distracted them, and they rounded a corner to see a guy leaping out the window of an electronics store with a TV in hand.

"For real?!" Buttercup cried, indignant. Often during monster attacks, some idiots would attempt to loot the city in the ensuing mayhem.

Her exclamation caught the guy's attention, and he froze upon spotting the Girls.

"Put it down, jackass!" Buttercup bellowed, and naturally the guy went running off in the other direction. She swore and bolted after him.

"Buttercup! We have to—oh, geez." Blossom groaned and pulled at Bubbles, who had just finished her phone call. "Come on!"

Brick took his time destroying the robots. It wasn't that he was reluctant to, or that he felt some warped alliance to the side of villainy. He'd purposely chosen this section because he'd heard Mojo's cackle echo in this direction. Brick wanted to talk to him. He figured it wasn't much of a shot, but he had nothing to lose just by asking...

He wouldn't be going after the girls. He'd known that even when he'd said one of the boys would go back for them. It was the perfect opportunity for him to go out and seek Mojo. Butch was out; he'd be having too much fun destroying things. That left Boomer, who—with the way he'd volunteered almost instantly to take the girls home, along with the wounded puppy expression he kept fixating on Bubbles—would wipe out the robots in his area as fast as possible so he could get back and haul them off to safety. His brothers were so obvious about these things.

Brick blasted through another three, hearing Mojo's familiar laughter echoing back, closer now. He wondered if the chimp even knew he was here.

Buttercup took off after the burglar so quickly that within the matter of a few blocks her sisters lost her. She didn't turn to see how well they were keeping up; she had an idea how well since she could hear their footsteps falling further and further behind. Buttercup was so athletic that even without powers, breaking into a full run and keeping that energy up wasn't an issue for her. She almost liked it. The way the cement rose up to catch her feet as they pounded against it, drove her closer and closer to her target... The sound of her breath, just hers, panting, flooding her senses so that it was the only noise she registered...

He was a damn good runner, but she was closing in and had one good sprint left in her. She snatched up the lid to a trash can as her feet hammered the pavement, took aim, and flung it like a Frisbee. It didn't have far to go; it knocked into the back of the guy's head and he stumbled, fell. The TV screen shattered as it hit the ground, and Buttercup grabbed the lid again, whacking the guy in the jaw with it as he tried to stand. He fell back, groaning, and then lay still.

There was a stitch beginning to twist in her side as she panted for breath, and after a moment's consideration she dragged him against the wall of the building and called the police to tell them where to collect him. She glanced back down the street as she closed her phone. She must've run her ass off. Her sisters were nowhere to be seen.

She was rubbing at her side and starting back in the direction she'd come from when a giant robot crashed into the street, sending up chunks of flying asphalt. Buttercup backed against the wall and shielded herself. Thankfully, nothing hit her. She realized, though, that that was the least of her problems, as the Robo Jojo stood and caught sight of her, then started lumbering toward her.

Shit. Shit shit shit.

She was just about to turn and start into another run for it when a bright sheet of green sparks shot down vertically, slicing the robot's outstretched arms off. Buttercup watched as they crashed to the ground, and another sheet came down and sliced the robot right down the middle, neatly in half, and that too collapsed in a shower of gnarled metal and flying sparks.

"I thought you were supposed to run away home, princess."

Buttercup glared at Butch. "I'm going to rip you a new one."

His eyes glittered at the threat. "Kinky! Sounds like fun."

A few robots had pursued him and were now catching up; Buttercup caught sight of them over his shoulder. "Look—"

Before they fired Butch was in the air, blasting his eyebeams. A couple went down, but a couple more stayed up, and one of them began to power up its laser.

Butch jetted off over the roof of the building Buttercup was standing by, and the laser fired a deafening ray at him, skimming the top of the structure. Bricks smashed on the sidewalk at Buttercup's feet, and she glanced up to see an impending rain of heavy things—heavy things she didn't want falling towards her—falling towards her.

"God damn it, God damn it, God damn it," she said between gritted teeth as she ran off—fuck, she couldn't go in front, the robots were already in the street, advancing. She turned into the debris, glancing up to dodge it as best she could. Concrete ricocheted off the streets as she ran, and something rammed into her shoulder blade, but she ignored the pain and kept running for safety—

A huge piece of debris shot into the ground in front of her, cutting off her path. She was running too fast; she stuck her arms out to lessen the impact but it still hurt when she ran into it, and she fell back against the sidewalk. Buttercup could hear more concrete coming down, and she hunched into a ball, covering her head with her arms and praying this wasn't her moment to go.

Something scooped her up, and she had the faint sensation that she was moving, but as if she were in a car, shut off from the outside. The sound seemed off, too—dimmer, further away. She uncurled to find herself riding in a green sphere, being commanded by Butch.

His voice was muffled but still discernible. "I gotta tell you, Buttercup, you're playing right into this whole 'Rescue the Princess' mission we've got going on tonight."

"Fuck you, asshole!"

Butch was flying back towards the two remaining robots that had attacked, and he sneered as he spun in the air, bringing the sphere holding Buttercup around and crashing into the head of one of them. Buttercup banged around on the inside, her head ringing. It almost felt like being in a car accident, except without a seatbelt, much less a seat, to cushion the blow. She could already feel bruises forming as she stared down at the decapitated Robo Jojo lying prone in the street. Butch took care of the second with his eyebeams, then grinned at Buttercup.

She glared at him through the green. "I'm gonna kill you, Butch."

"Looking forward to it," he said, and headed back for his section of still-rampaging robots with a shielded Buttercup in tow.

"Where did she go?!" Blossom cried, exasperated and heaving for breath. She stopped, her hands braced against her knees. How far had they run? Were they even heading towards Buttercup anymore?

"Think she caught him?" Bubbles asked, leaning on her sister as she too gulped at the air.

A commotion boomed a few blocks away, and the girls looked up to see Butch dodge a laser cresting the roof of a building.

"Bubbles!" Boomer landed, his relief evident as Bubbles came up and threw her arms around him.

"That was quick," she said, impressed.

"I had the right motivation," he replied, his gaze catching on Blossom. "Where's Buttercup?"

Blossom was interrupted by Butch as he flew up to them. "Hey! Fancy seeing you guys here!"

Blossom ignored him and said to Boomer, "She ran off. I don't know where she is."

"Who, Buttercup?" Butch pointed back where he'd come from, where two Robo Jojos were lumbering around. "I just saw her over there.

The girls stared at him, then Blossom shrieked, "You left her there?!"

Butch blinked. "Oh. Yeah, guess that was a bad idea. I'll go get her."

"You'd better!" Blossom snarled as he took off.

"Okay, how are we going to do this?" Boomer held his arms out to either side and looked at the two girls he was going to have to carry.

In the end he wound up with one girl on each side, his arms wrapped around their waists to hold them in place—Blossom blushed, embarrassed by the close contact—and after they worked out the mechanics of how to create a sort of human safety belt—Bubbles and Blossom gripped each other's arms, woven around Boomer's shoulders, and also wound their legs around Boomer's to keep from dangling—he took off.

"I feel like I'm wearing some sort of girl armor," he remarked once they were in the air. "It's weird."

He was flying pretty fast; Blossom asked him to slow down a little lest the girls lose their grip and fall.

"I'd catch you," he assured them.

"You're missing the point," she said. "I don't want to fall in the first place."

"They've got a perimeter set up already," Bubbles said. Sure enough, flashing blue and red police car lights created a barrier sectioning off the un-safe zone. A number of citizens looked up and waved.

There were a couple of news helicopters in the distance approaching the girls and Boomer. Soon enough the helicopters passed over them. The girls tightened their hold and hunched their shoulders up. The whirring of the blades was so loud it almost hurt.

Blossom glanced over Boomer's shoulder and gasped. "What are they doing?!"

"What they always do," Bubbles said, but she too looked worried. The two helicopters were flying right for the carnage, headed towards the remaining Robo Jojos.

"Stop," Blossom said as she watched them approach the battle, a glowing red streak weaving amongst the giant robots.

Boomer paused, confused. "'Stop?'"

"I mean them—" Blossom started, then cut off with a gasp as sure enough, a wayward Robo Jojo's arm collided with the blades of one helicopter, sending it crashing on the top of a building.

"Oh my gosh," Bubbles whispered.

"Boomer, head back!" Blossom cried.


"We have to help them!"

Boomer seemed a little thrown by what amounted to an order that didn't come from his leader, but he obeyed. It was clear he regretted it, as the helicopter had landed dangerously close to the action, and his grip tightened around Bubbles as they drew near.

He set them down on the roof where the one helicopter had landed. The second was exercising a little more caution now and hovering a decent distance away.

The cacophony of power blasts and whirring metal was threatening in its near proximity. Blossom ignored it as Boomer set her down. He still clung to Bubbles even as she tried to pull away.

Blossom scurried to the helicopter—overturned, its sides damaged from the impact—and counted two, no, three people inside. She tried to pry the door open, but it was severely dented and wouldn't budge. She looked back at Boomer.

"I could use someone with powers," she said, kind of irritated that he hadn't come up on his own, and after a moment's contemplation he let go of Bubbles and dashed up. Blossom had him cut through the metal, and then the three of them tugged the trapped passengers out. One of them was conscious but had suffered a concussion.

"We should take these guys to safety," Blossom said as Bubbles piled them onto Boomer.

"I guess you guys can grab onto my legs or something," he said. "I'm not used to carrying around piles of people like you two."

"Yeah," Blossom said, glancing up at the few Robo Jojos left, only blocks away.

As if on cue, Brick was suddenly whacked by one of them, and he came hurtling towards Boomer and the girls. He struck the helicopter, sending it screaming across the rooftop to the other end, and Boomer grabbed Bubbles and had to take off to get out of the way.

Blossom wasn't so lucky. She got hit by the helicopter's tail fin in her midsection and found herself being shoved off the edge of the roof; Brick had hit it at such a speed. She grabbed the fin just as her feet scrabbled off of the concrete and then she was overcome with a sudden fear of her own mortality as she dangled some ten stories off the ground. The helicopter caught on an air conditioning unit, jerking to an abrupt stop that nearly made her lose her grip.

She almost missed Brick falling to the ground. She gasped, looked down, then instantly looked back up, wishing she hadn't. The sound of him hitting the asphalt put a sick feeling in her gut—she knew he had superpowers, but still...

The helicopter groaned and began to overbalance, and a jolt of panic surged through her.

"No no no no no," she whispered, pleaded, and still she felt the world moving too fast around her as the tail fin swung down, arcing her towards the outside wall of the building...

Right through an open window. She couldn't believe her luck.

As soon as she was inside she released her death grip on the helicopter and threw herself to the floor, reveling in its stability. She heard the helicopter whiz down and crash against the street. She wondered for a frantic second if Brick had gotten out of the way in time.


She looked up to find a teenage boy—he looked familiar, he must have been a student at Townsville High—kneeling at her side. It looked as if she'd landed in his living room. His parents were looking over the back of their couch at her. A small girl's head peeked up from between them.

"Are you alright?" he asked, then, after a moment's hesitation, touched her arm.

She brought her hand up to sweep her hair out of her face, a gesture with the slight purpose of shying away from his touch.

"I'm... fine," she said, then a thought occurred to her. "Why haven't they evacuated you guys?"

He shrugged. "We've seen a lot of these. Monster fights, I mean. The building's pretty sturdy. It's never come down once, despite all the attacks."

He almost sounded arrogant about it, which annoyed Blossom. They were putting their lives in danger! And they had a little one!

As if sensing her anger, the boy said, "Don't worry, we'll be fine. Nobody in this building ever evacuates anymore—"

"What?!" Blossom cried, incensed.

A crash resounded from outside, almost deafening and so near that it shook the building. Blossom glared at the boy as he dashed to the mantel to rescue some falling picture frames.

"Old hat," he shrugged, holding up his armful of pictures to punctuate his statement.

She started, "You guys should—"

Metal against metal screamed from outside the window, interrupting her, and Blossom looked up to find Brick smashing into the heart of the Robo Jojo that had emerged. He soared out the other end, leaving a sparking hole in the robot's center, and as it fell another dashed up to take its place. Without skipping a beat, Brick zigzagged around its limbs, slicing them off with his eyebeams. Within moments only the torso remained, and before it could fall he roundhouse kicked it into the sky, sending it flying off into the distance.

Brick then hovered, staring off into the night sky where the Robo Jojo had disappeared, a mere glint in the deep, endless darkness. He was framed perfectly in the window's center, and then the wind picked up, and Blossom's heart skipped a beat.

Blossom had never had to deal much with other people being heroic and actually living up to the hero part of it. Watching Brick now—Brick, who had just bested two giant robots, and more before that, and probably more still to come, and it wasn't like she couldn't have done that with superpowers, but that was neither here nor there—put a strange sort of pull in her chest, a want to see him fight more, do more, to continue to look heroic and be heroic, because... it suited him.

She watched the wind tug at his shirt, his hair—long even for him, but attractive, still—and thought he should stop hovering in the wind like that. Better to be inside, here, with her.

He took off, and Blossom stood as he disappeared from her sight. Smoke from the first robot Brick had felled billowed up and began drifting into the window. She backed away, covering her mouth and fanning the air.

"Um, can we get you anything?"

She looked over at the guy setting the family picture frames down on the coffee table. "Oh! No, no, I'll be going—and so should you all, actually—"

A faint, low cackle started up from outside the window, and Blossom looked back at the smoke. There wasn't a lot, but it was thick. It cleared for the briefest moment to reveal Mojo Jojo in his own Giant Robo Jojo, looming. She stiffened, afraid he'd spotted her, but no, his attention was elsewhere...

She saw the reflection of Brick's back in the glass of the giant robot, fighting off the few Robo Jojos that remained, and watched as Mojo readied an arsenal of weaponry that popped out from behind his robot's shoulders. Then the smoke pushed up again, blocking him from her vision.

"Bri—" she tried to cry out, but she had drifted closer to the smoke without realizing it, and the lungful she inhaled sent her into a violent coughing fit. She couldn't warn him, and Mojo was about to fire—

Firm hands clasped her arms and started guiding her away from the smoke. "Blossom, come on, let me get you some water..."

As the guy pulled her along, she saw his mother fanning it back with a magazine and his father moving to close the window.

"No," she croaked, still struggling for breath. "Not yet!" Then she spotted a throw on the couch.

She threw him off her and bolted for the window, snatching the throw on the way. The father instinctively backed off when he saw her coming, and she wound the blanket over her shoulders, wrapping up her arms, and entertained only the briefest flutter of fear before her foot hit the sill and she catapulted herself into the open air.

In the instant the smoke cleared away from her vision she spotted Mojo, still there, who turned to gape at the girl he'd previously rendered helpless on the ground as she shielded her face with her arms and came crashing through the glass.

Blossom hit the floor and rolled, tossed the throw off of her, and dashed toward Mojo. Recognizing her intention, he turned back to his control panel and grabbed one switch to maneuver the robot and another to fire his weapons. She fumbled for his cape and yanked, causing him to not only overbalance the robot, which went stumbling back and nearly crashed into another building, but also to inadvertently pull the switch for his arsenal, which blasted high, aimlessly, into the sky.

"Rrrrgh!" he seethed, right before Blossom punched him.

"Ow ow ow," she whined as she pulled back, flapping her hand. "I didn't realize how much that's supposed to hurt!"

"Are you actually fighting me without the use of your superpowers?" he said, making a face.

She tensed. "What's with that tone? I could take you, superpowers or no."

"Oh, in that case," he said, then produced a really big gun from behind his back.

"Buttercup has a point," Blossom said. "Where do you hide these things?"

"You'll never know, because it is a secret, and I, for one, will never tell you, it being a secret, as you know, and also due to the fact that even if it were not a secret I would still not choose to tell you anyway, and also because I am about to destrooooy you!" Mojo cackled, and pulled the trigger. Blossom dove out of the way.

Nothing happened.

Mojo looked at his gun, then shook it, and tried firing again. The trigger clicked, clicked, clicked. Nothing.

"Are you—oh, are you kidding me?!" he wailed. "I can't believe I forgot to charge this stupid thing!"

Blossom shot towards him, but he swung his arm back and smacked her in the side of the head with his gun. There was a blinding, ringing pain at her temple when she hit the ground, and something wet trailed down her cheek. As she groaned and tried to blink the whiteness in her vision away, she felt Mojo pick her up and carry her over to the jagged hole in the glass that had been her entry point.

She gasped and twisted back so he lost his balance, and she swung him by his cape—it was handy, him having that thing on—into the wall of his machine. As he wobbled, dazed, Blossom made for the control panel.

She paused when she reached it—there were so many buttons, and levers, and some of these dumb things weren't buttons at all but just lights, and not even necessary lights, most of them were just there for decoration...

"Mojo, you have no gift for simplicity," she muttered, then spotted a giant button to the side with the words POWER DOWN adorning it. "Or subtlety."

She struck the button, and the lights flickered off, followed by the telltale sound of a machine whirring down.

"I do not know why I continue to include those things in my inventions," Mojo grumbled, then faltered as the Robo Jojo began to tilt.

The glass that decorated the floor made a shimmering sound as it began to slide, all to one side. Blossom gasped and grabbed onto a switch on the panel as Mojo scrambled for something to grab along the wall. Unfortunately for him, the walls provided no such salvation, and he frantically ran uphill until the angle became too steep and he fell back.

Blossom grabbed him—again, by the cape—as he fell, cutting off his scream. The arm of hers that was holding onto the switch protested the extra weight, and she suddenly felt tired, and weak...

The switch in her hand began to move, and she looked up in horror. She was hanging perpendicular to the way it moved, but with the extra weight Mojo had created...

She looked down, desperately seeking out somewhere to land, but the Robo Jojo was still a good eight stories off the ground—its fall having been stopped by another building that miraculously hadn't crumbled under the impact—and the path down was through sharp, jagged glass besides.

The switch groaned against her weight, shifting fully, and, lacking in other options, she screamed as she began to move.

Her scream stopped when she stopped. Lights began flickering back on, machinery began to whir once more, and she looked up. She'd pulled the ON switch.

"Mojo, why do you have a switch to turn the robot on and a button to turn it off?"

"Do not question the complexity of my grand designs!" he shouted. "My designs are too complicated and too intricately designed for puny brains such as yours to comprehend, so if I were to explain it to you, I would become veeeeery frustrated at your inability to process the information I was giving you—"

"Will you shut up and just grab the switch that gets this thing moving?!" she snapped. "We're both trying to survive right now; I'd say we have a mutual interest in getting this thing righted so we can actually get down!"

"Very well," he muttered, and reached over to the panel.

Blossom furrowed her brow. "That's not the stick you were using to control it before—"

"Self-destruct activated," a robotic voice announced.

"Oh. Right," Blossom said colorlessly.

"Mwahahahahahaha!" Mojo cackled as the robot's voice began to count down from twenty. "Seeing as you, Blossom, Powerpuff Girl, are without your powers, and I, Mooooojo Jojo, have not been tainted by Antidote X, and seeing also as how I have an uncanny penchant for survival when faced with danger, including falling from extreme heights, getting blasted with lasers, and other such sundries that I won't get into, activating the self-destruct, while indeed promising a good degree of pain on my part, promises nothing but the sweet release of death for yourself!"

Blossom dropped him, relishing the way his maniacal cackling gave way to frantic screaming. Then she tried to think of a way to save herself.

"Seven... six..."

And I was doing so well, too, she thought glumly. At least, as well as a superhero without superpowers could do...

A beam of red light slashed into what little remained of the glass, and Blossom gasped as Brick exploded through it, snatched her, and then shielded her as he dashed her away. She heard the dim explosion of the Robo Jojo behind them as she clenched her arms around Brick's neck, feeling, despite all her heroics, very much a damsel-in-distress.

Typically this feeling wouldn't have sat well with Blossom. But the wind was blowing his hair back, riffling the collar of his shirt, and his arms were firm and steady as they cradled her, and she felt that—just this once—being a damsel-in-distress wasn't necessarily a bad thing, considering the perks.

Brick had just taken down the last non-Mojo containing Robo Jojo when he'd heard the scream. It was short, abrupt, and he'd been hearing lots of screams tonight, but this one stood out in that it had sounded unmistakably like...

"Blossom," he whispered, horror flooding his senses, and he tore off through the streets, searching for her and ready to shower death upon whoever had inspired her short-lived scream. The possibility that it might have been short-lived because someone else had viciously or, worse yet, murderously cut her off entered his brain, and no, he had to stop thinking of scenarios or else he'd go ballistic when he did find her...

As he rounded the corner he saw Mojo falling out of his robot—which looked like it'd taken a hell of a spill—and caught him as he shot past.

Mojo stopped screaming and stared at Brick for a second before snarling and pointing. "You!"

"Where is she?!" Brick snapped, and then he heard it—the countdown to self-destruction. He halted and looked back at the Robo Jojo.

"If you are talking about who I think you are talking about, which would make you a traitor, then I am happy to inform you that you are too laaaaaaaaaaate..."

Brick had dropped Mojo and was now hurtling back towards the robot, the wind screaming past. He built up a beam in his hand and sliced into the glass, his eyes already locked on her, his arms already outstretched. He wrapped his arms around her, a favor she gratefully returned, and shot away, his immense relief giving way to anger.

He could see his brothers' streaks in the distance and decided to find an empty space to land. Butch was circling a deserted street corner, the smoldering remains of several Robo Jojos beneath him, and there Brick touched down, not letting himself notice how Blossom didn't immediately jump off. She remained curled against his chest, her grip almost tightening around his shoulders.

There was a gash on the side of her head, it was bleeding, and Brick was enraged.

"I thought I told you to get to safety!" he shouted, still holding her.

Her grip loosened and she blinked at him in utter confusion. "What?"

"What the hell, what the fucking hell were you doing in Mojo Jojo's God damn robot?!"

"Stop cursing at me!" she snapped, and her hands, formerly clasped around his shoulders, shoved at his chest. She stumbled back on the ground, her eyes glazing over, and he grabbed her arm to keep her from falling.

"And you're dizzy from losing blood, besides! Why didn't you listen to me?!"

She blinked her eyes into focus and glared at him, trying to jerk her arm away. They sensed their siblings landing nearby and ignored them.

"There were people I needed to help!"

"There are always people you need to help! What about you?! It's one thing when you're putting yourself in danger and all a twenty-story fall is going to do is stun you for a second, but when you're vulnerable? When you're helpless?"

"I am not helpless!"

"You could've fucking died!"

"What do you care?!"

"I told you to get to somewhere safe!"

"You know, that's the last time I try to save your stupid life! If all you're going to do is curse and shout at me—"

"What could you possibly have done to save my life?! I'm the one with the superpowers!"

"Um," Boomer interrupted, raising his hand—

"Shut up!" Brick and Blossom screamed at him in unison.

Bubbles comforted her boyfriend as he pouted. Brick cut Blossom off before she could start again.

"You lost your powers, you nearly got crushed—no, you shut up and listen to me—you've got a fucking hole in your head, and I found you dangling from a God damn robot about to self-destruct! What were you going to do? Huh? How could you have saved yourself? What do you think, what do you fucking think would have happened if I hadn't been there?!"

She clamped her mouth shut, her eyes flashing. Now when she yanked her arm away he let go, and they resumed their habit of glaring at each other.

Some rustling attracted their attention, and they all turned to find Butch digging through some building debris on the street.

"What are you doing?" Boomer asked.

Butch mumbled something unintelligible.

"Wait a second," Bubbles said, frowning as she looked around. "Where's Buttercup?"

Butch mumbled again.

"What?" Blossom demanded.

An unhappy Butch spoke louder. "She was with me."

"Well, where is she now?" Blossom said, and then the answer hit her. "Oh, no."

Brick stared at his brother, dumbfounded. "You didn't."

"Yeah, um." Butch looked up, his expression almost guilty. "I kinda dropped her."

"What?!" Blossom and Bubbles cried, horrified. They all dashed over to the rocks.

"Where did you drop her?" Brick asked.

"I can't believe you dropped her!" Blossom cried, frantic.

"Oh, God, I hope she's okay," Bubbles whimpered.

"Gold stars, Butch," Boomer grumbled.

"It was around here," Butch said. "She might—might be over by the robots, too..."

"I can't believe this, I can't, oh my God, this is the worst night ever," Blossom said to herself, trying to overturn a giant rock.

Brick pushed her back, his expression grim. "You stand over there. I've rescued you enough God damn times tonight."

Blossom was about to launch into another tirade when they all heard a sudden shifting. They looked around and saw Buttercup emerging from the wreckage underneath a Robo Jojo, kicking away sheets of metal and broken wood.

She seemed dazed, and there was something off about her arm...

Then she grabbed it and, with a pained grimace, popped it back into place.

Bubbles covered her face and dropped to the ground. "Oh my God! Oh my God, that was so gross!"

"Dude," Boomer said, a little awed as he rubbed his own arm and winced.

Blossom dashed up to her. "Buttercup! Are you okay?"

Buttercup was bleary, and her blinking was slow, heavy-lidded. Then she caught sight of Butch over her sister's shoulder, and her vision focused. She pushed Blossom out of the way as she broke into a staggered half-run towards him.

Butch actually looked and sounded relieved. "Dude, thank God you're—"

Buttercup cut him off by kneeing him between the legs so hard she nearly toppled over. Unfortunately, without her superpowers, this had little effect, as did the multiple kicks and punches (with her good arm) that followed. Butch just stood there, thoroughly amused as she landed several painless blows.

"This is kind of awesome," he said, cocking his arms on his hips while his would-be attacker let loose with a string of obscenities.

"You're fucking dead, Butch!" she shouted. "Fucking dead! You hear me?! You hear me, you little fucking fuck?! When I get my powers back I'm going to fucking kill you!"

Butch responded by laughing in her face. She stopped, then looked at Boomer.

"I'll give you ten bucks," she said.

Boomer immediately slugged his brother in the face. Buttercup later gave him an extra ten for the sound Butch made as he ate the asphalt.

"Hey, Brick, come to the darkroom with me." Bubbles snatched Brick by the arm and, true to form, dragged him out with her before he could protest. "Have you guys started practicing yet?"

He groaned. It had been a week since the whole incident with Mojo Jojo, and what had developed between Brick and Blossom out of studying and chatting together at the boys' apartment had been undone by their fight. Now they were back to avoiding each other and not talking.

"You haven't, have you." She chirped a, "Hello!" to the various Journalism students hanging out in the classroom, then muscled Brick into the darkroom, where she shut them in. While Brick's eyes adjusted to the dim red light, Bubbles hummed to herself as she unclipped several photos hanging from clothespins.

He made a face. "It smells like vinegar in here."

"That's the stop-bath," she explained, packing her photos into a box. She handed it to Brick. "Here."

He peered inside at the photo resting on top. It was a blurry close-up of... hell, he had no idea. Somebody's arm? A chair?

"This one didn't really come out..." he said dubiously.

"No, it did," she assured him. "They all did."

Without asking, Brick shuffled through some of the photos. They all were unreadable, blurred images. She must be making a collage. But how was she going to do anything with them, they were barely—

"Here." She piled another box on top of the first.

"What the—"

"More photos."


"Come on, my dad's waiting outside with the car." She guided him out of the darkroom, out of the Journalism room, and back into the hall.

"Why didn't you get Boomer to do this?"

"To save him and the Professor a little grief," she explained, and tugged Brick out of the main doors. "Hi, Professor!"

"Hello, sweetheart!" he said, then sobered as he saw Brick.

"And of course you know Brick." Bubbles took the keys from her father and skipped to the trunk.

Brick nodded around the boxes, ignoring the Professor's penetrating glare. "Sir."

The Professor remained silent.

"Thanks for last month. That whole... thing with the AB Virus. My brothers and I really appreciated it."

"It was a pleasure," the Professor said, in a voice that sounded like the experience had been the exact opposite of pleasurable for him.

Brick wasn't intimidated, but he was starting to feel a little uncomfortable. Without looking at the glaring, grim-faced man, Brick floated over to the back of the car, where Bubbles was shifting stuff around the trunk to make space.

"Alright, set them down. Thanks, Brick."

He grunted. Bubbles tossed her father the keys. "Okay, Professor, let's go!"

The Professor, still eyeing Brick with all the distaste he could muster, settled into the driver's seat.

"Brick, I'll see you later."

"Are you skipping class?"

"No, just leaving to work on my independent study project at home. I cleared it with Miss Maybury. Hey, go talk to her."

"What could I possibly have to talk about with Miss Maybury?"

"I didn't mean her," Bubbles sighed, as if it were obvious, then shut herself into the car and waved at him as her father drove away.

English was his next class, and he shared it with her.

He ate his lunch in the Art room and then left early to go to Mrs. Yang's. She had her AP English III class going, but she was a laid back teacher and allowed him to sit on the couch in the corner while she wrapped up with the Juniors.

Talk to her. Hmph. What was there to talk about? She'd acted an idiot. He'd heard from Boomer that they'd turned around to go help those stupid people out of their downed helicopter. Granted, they'd probably have died if she hadn't told Boomer to turn around—Brick had crashed into it, after all—but then that put her life in danger. Her life, which was so much more valuable than—

He caught himself, then rationalized, No. From an objective standpoint, her life is more valuable. Blossom was a hero. She saved people. Three less people who could do virtually nothing to help their fellow man was not a loss compared to losing Blossom. If she was gone, how many more people would be doomed without her around to save them?

The bell rang, jarring him out of his thoughts, and he watched as the class rose and made the usual frenetic bid for the doorway. A few students lingered behind to talk to Mrs. Yang, with a couple of Seniors already filtering in.

Brick was just shifting to get off the couch and head for his seat when Blossom walked in. Their eyes caught, then hers skipped on over to her table.

Talk to her? Brick rolled his eyes. She didn't even want to make eye contact.

As she passed by Mrs. Yang's desk, one of the students turned and said, "Hey!"

Blossom, her attention caught, turned, then lit up in recognition. "Oh! Hey, um—"

"Robbie," the boy supplied. "Sorry, we never got properly introduced. I mean, well, obviously I know who you are."

Brick frowned.

Caught off guard, Blossom sputtered, "Yeah, I'm—sorry about the blanket, I just—"

"No, no, don't worry about it. You really freaked us out, you know, when you jumped out of the window and did that whole crashing into Mojo's robot! You know? It was like something out of an action movie or something!"

Is this guy seriously in AP English? Brick thought to himself, hating the way the guy spoke.

To his displeasure Blossom blushed and said shyly, "No, that's just... you know, what I do..."

"Why did you? I mean, there was all that smoke, and you totally could've eaten it—"

"I..." Blossom's eyes flicked in Brick's direction. "I... Mojo was about to fire at somebody and I just, um... wanted to stop him."

The guy—Robbie, that was his stupid name—grinned. "Well, that was cool of you. Props. You falling into my living room was one of the coolest things that's ever happened. My little sister can't stop talking about you!" He ran a hand through his hair, a nervous tic before he resumed that dopey grin. "You know, she'd love it if you dropped by... signed her arm or something, I don't know..."

Blossom laughed. "Maybe I will!"

"She'd love it, seriously. That'd be cool. Well, you know where I live, so... see you around."

"Bye, Robbie," she said, grinning. "Nice meeting you."

Brick stared at the guy, who was beaming as he walked out the door. Then his eyes settled on Blossom, taking her seat.

After a tense second he stood, weaving around the other chattering students, and took a seat at her table, right next to her. She cast the briefest of glances at him, then pretended to busy herself with flipping through her papers.

Brick did the same, then cleared his throat and said, "Did you really leap out of that guy's window that night?"

She gave it a few seconds before responding. "Yes, I did."

"Through glass."

"... Yes."

"So not only could you have fallen, but you could've gotten cut to pieces."

"Actually, just the former," she said stonily. "I wrapped myself up in a throw prior to going through the glass, to minimize the possibility of getting fatally injured."

"I'd count the possibility of falling from twenty stories high a good potential fatal injury."

"It wasn't twenty stories," she sighed, exasperated. "More like... seven."

Brick recalled how she had glanced at him when she'd told Robbie...

"Who were you..." He cleared his throat and started again. "Who were you trying to save?"

She didn't respond.

"Was it me?"

She shifted in her seat.

"You could've said something."

"There was a lot of smoke," she muttered. "I tried, but I went into a coughing fit."

"I probably would've been able to dodge it in time. And even if I'd gotten hit, I don't think it would've killed me."

"Yes, sorry," she snapped. "I was completely useless and my intervention was totally unnecessary. I was only putting myself in danger for absolutely no good reason at all."

Brick thought of her surrounded by smoke, unable to fly or engage in the fight, the threat of death looming over her as she sailed through that window, through that glass, all because...

He picked at a corner of his textbook cover, trying to straighten it and thinking of how easily she had smiled at Robbie. "I can't believe you did that. Without powers or anything. Jumped through glass, I mean. Up from seven stories. And then beat Mojo Jojo, on top of it." He could almost sense her relaxing beside him, her anger giving way to a slight confusion. "You're kind of a beast," he said, and she fidgeted.

"Um... thank you," she said.

The bell rang, but just before Mrs. Yang could get class started Blossom seemed to reach some inner conclusion and whispered, "Um... should we... did you want to start practicing today?"

Brick thought about what they'd talked about two weeks ago, about the promise of his arms around her waist and her cheek against his. They were silly thoughts. They wouldn't be dancing anything that involved her face so close to his.

He set his jaw and thought of Mojo.

"Sorry," he heard himself say. "Let's start tomorrow. Tomorrow morning. I'm busy this afternoon."

Townsville Prison was more heavily protected than Brick would've expected. Never mind the guards; of course they were idiots. But there were surveillance cameras all over the place, and Brick had struggled to come up with a way to get past them without damaging the building. And, of course, without being seen.

That had been last week. Then, over the weekend, he'd realized he had an empty volcanic observatory full of stuff he could use.

That had done the trick. They'd thought that Mojo had cameras stationed all around the world, but the truth was more reasonable: his system could access any surveillance camera he wanted, worldwide. (Brick had decided not to question how he'd gone about setting this up. The chimp with the oversized brain had an uncanny knack for grandiose feats that defied reason and logic.)

Within a day Brick was viewing the surveillance feed from the prison. He then—with some difficulty—hacked into the surveillance system itself, and set it up to loop recorded footage for the duration of thirty minutes one afternoon.

That afternoon was today. Brick—who had been thwarted inadvertently during last week's attack—was going to see Mojo Jojo.

The cameras were fine; now Brick just had to get past the guards. He'd double-checked with his siblings about the girls' whereabouts. Butch had not been able to speak to her for a week without getting punched in the nuts, but he'd known that Buttercup would be at volleyball practice. Brick had told Boomer to take Bubbles out this afternoon. Besides that, the blonde was working on her Independent Study Project for Art at home. Blossom, of course, was at Dance practice.

Brick managed to steal into the building without being seen, then approached the guard behind the glass in the waiting room.

"Excuse me, hi," he said, and the guard looked at him. "It's still visiting hours, right? I'd like to talk to Mojo Jojo."

The guard squinted at him. "Aren't you one of the Rowdyruff Boys?"

Brick knew it wouldn't do to lie. "Yes."

"You helped bring him down the other day, didn't you?"

"I did."

For whatever reason, the guard relaxed. "What do you want to see him for?"

"I suspect he's up to something and want to see if I can get any info out of him."

Within five seconds the guy had scanned him and was walking him down to the visiting area, coffee cup in hand. Brick eyed it and scoffed. Easy. Ridiculously easy.

"Now, because it's, you know, Mojo Jojo and all, I'll have to sit with you just to make sure everything goes hunky-dory," the guard explained.

"Just doing your job, officer," Brick said, uncapping Butch's bottle of sleeping meds in his pocket.

"Let me just get this door here," he said, fumbling for his keys and holding his drink to the side as he did. Brick dropped half a pill into the mug and waited while he opened the door. "Larry, I'm gonna need you to send Mojo Jojo out," the guard said into a walkie talkie. He led Brick inside, then took a slurp of his coffee. "Now, you sit right there, and I'll just be over here..."

"Thanks, officer," Brick said, and settled back, only to fly up a second later to catch the guard's mug before it shattered on the floor. He smirked as he set it down, glancing at the snoring guard.


Brick turned to find Mojo on the other side of the glass, eyes tapered to slits as he glared at him.

"Hey, old man," he said, kicking back. "What's up?"

Boomer tried to examine his reflection in the window of a parked car. Did he look okay? He hoped he looked okay.

He took a deep breath and stared at the bright red door of Bubbles' house. He'd been here only a few times as a kid. He didn't remember it looking this imposing.

Shake it out, he told himself, and did so. That settled his nerves a bit, and he cracked one of his winning smiles before floating to the door. After a second's contemplation, he wrestled his phone out of his pocket.

Her sweet voice soon rang on the other end. "Boomer? Hey! What's up?"

"There's a surprise for you on your front doorstep," he said, grinning.

She paused before venturing, "Really?"

"A surprise that wants to know if you're busy..." he said, his hand circling over the doorbell.

"Oh, Boomer. Hold on. I'll be right down."


The door flew open, and Boomer blinked as he locked eyes with Professor Utonium.

Boomer swallowed. "Wait."

He'd seen the guy before—yes, when he was a kid, but also in photos, old newspapers, the like. He seemed like a harmless, amiable enough person.

Or had.

Professor Utonium smiled—a disarming tweak of the lips, which showed just enough strain to indicate that he wasn't smiling because he was genuinely happy to see Boomer.

Boomer closed his phone and pocketed it, never once removing his eyes from the Professor's. It occurred to him that he had faced way scarier things than this—Professor Utonium was a sane person who lived in a quiet suburb in a happy city, and Boomer was a Rowdyruff Boy. A fucking Rowdyruff Boy, and charming to boot.

He turned on his most beatific smile and saluted. "Hi there, Professor Utonium. Nice to meet you. I'm, you know, Boomer. I'm here to see Bubbles."

"Of course," the Professor said, and something curled in Boomer's stomach, something dark that screamed Danger and Doom and Death Will Soon Be Upon You.

"Come in, Boomer." He backed away, revealing the bright, well-lit living room, and Boomer inwardly sighed, relieved at the pleasant setting.

"Can I see you in my lab for a second?"

Boomer's relief plummeted into the depths of some dark, icy ocean. A dark, icy ocean full of dead ex-boyfriends.

He shook the image away and said, "Um... why's that, Professor?"

"Nothing to worry about," Professor Utonium said, waving him on to a door that said Lab that may just as well have read Here Lies Boomer. "I just want to talk to you for a second about Bubbles."

He's just a regular guy, Boomer reassured himself. A regular guy who'd created three little girls in a laboratory, sure, and was a pretty well-known scientist, but by all other accounts, pretty much a regular guy.

Boomer was a Rowdyruff Boy. Please. What could the Professor possibly do to him?

"I'll be honest with you, Mojo, I don't have a lot of time. So before you launch into your long-winded bloviating about this, that, and whatever, I want to put this on the table—JS, Inc."

Mojo's arms were crossed and he continued to glare at Brick.

"You know who they are. They've approached you in the past. Several times, in fact. And you've always turned them down."

"My talents lie elsewhere."

"Your talents are being wasted."

"I don't believe my abilities nor my choices are the ones that should be coming into question here, seeing as how current parties with certain superhuman abilities have made choices that are of more questionable concern than my abilities. And my choices. Currently."

Brick sighed and leaned back, looking up at the dingy ceiling. "You speaking for Him, now?"

"I speak for myself, and it is only myself for whom I speak."

"Look. I work for a company that is the leading distributor of Evil in this country. We kill people, we spread diseases, we start wars, we manufacture and distribute black market weaponry, we call when you've just sat down to dinner, we cause traffic jams, and in the summer we get together to club baby seals—that's the name of it, Club Baby Seal, get it?"

"You do not directly allow yourselves to be tied to all those items you have described, which would—"

"Being the most evil one in the room does not necessitate having the loudest voice," Brick interjected, his lip curling. "A lesson you would do well to live by once in awhile."

"You insolent little whelp!" Mojo snarled. "You are giving me life lessons here? A teenager? A boy who shunned his duty, his destiny, the very reason for which he was created—"

"Excuse me," Brick seethed, "for deciding that chasing after little girls who protect one stupid city in an entire world was an utter waste of my time."

"You cannot even begin to understand—"

"Mojo, what can you say you've done? Successfully? I can tell you, because quite frankly, you're the loudest idiot in the room. You, with your superhuman intellect. You've attempted to take over the world how many times? Did it occur to you to leave Townsville? Did it occur to you to not broadcast your efforts when you did? Or is there a certain artistry to turning everybody in the world into dogs, or making a bunch of other monkeys with gigantic brains, or inventing one thing after another that ultimately fails because you never think of taking these giant machines that you can magically hide anywhere in Townsville out of Townsville? Where there's no trio of superheroes to come and stop you? Am I missing something there?" Brick leaned close, narrowing his eyes at this idiot, this waste of breath. "You had the world in your hands. You had that key, that stupid key that deemed you Ruler of the World, and what did you do?"

The mere thought infuriated Brick. He'd had it. Mojo had had it, in his hands.

"You know how many of us would kill for that opportunity? That authority? You had it, and you threw it away. And here you are, over a decade later, still chasing after three stupid little girls, building up a string of failures, one after the other. And you tell me that I'm the one whose choices should be coming into question, simply because I rejected a destiny that I can tell, just by observing my 'mentor figures' around me, will yield no outcome other than total failure?"

The amount of loathing being issued in his direction was only matched by the absolute disgust Brick felt as they stared each other down.

"You," Mojo Jojo said quietly, "have been such a disappointment."

Brick's eyes flashed.

"You say you rejected a destiny that holds no option for you other than failure, but did you ever make the effort? You accuse me, and those with similar inclinations like me in this city, of wasting our efforts, of essentially not being 'evil enough,' the Devil Himself included, the absolute paragon of Evil, the very Being who recreated you! You have no grasp of how significant your origins are! You are a part of something you cannot even begin to comprehend, and instead of taking that opportunity and living up to the responsibilities you shouldered—"

"I shouldered nothing. I was a kid, a stupid kid who didn't know any better—"

"And remarkably enough, nothing has changed. Listen closely so that you may remember this later and I will not have to repeat myself since you have already listened to it and taken this into consideration. You may submit to the idea that being evil means manipulating the world from behind a dark, secret curtain of secrecy, but in the end, how much more devastation will be brought about by you killing whatever rich person it is that you kill who has a lot of money because they are rich, than by destroying those that signify eternal hope and salvation? Those that have become symbols of love and beauty—"

"A symbol is only a symbol. Humanity is fickle. Symbols come and go."

"Your youth does not excuse your stupidity," Mojo admonished. "The devotion of the pitiful human heart is not to be underestimated, Brick."

A silence passed between them, marred by the deep snoring of the sleeping guard.

"You and your brothers were created to destroy the Powerpuff Girls. Both times. Him even placed you with that duty, which is yours no matter what you believe. A task from the Most Evil One is not to be taken lightly, at least, not in my recommendation; I would advise against dismissing that which you are obligated to do."

Brick stared at him, letting his hatred simmer. He wanted to remember this. This was why he had left. This was why it was so important that he get out of here as soon as possible. He would drown in inadequacy here, in this city, listening to drivel like this. He didn't owe anyone a fucking thing. No matter if Him had created them, and Mojo before. They belonged to nobody. Brick belonged to nobody.

"I am not obligated to do anything," he said. Mojo, this idiot, couldn't see, would never see. None of them ever would.

"Of course you aren't. Nobody expects anything of an utter disappointment."

Brick flew to his feet, his chair clattering to the floor as his eyes burned a steady, glowing red. Mojo continued to glare at him, his grim expression unwavering.

No. He couldn't do anything. He'd attract attention. The girls would find out, and then they might start digging, and Brick didn't need that. Slowly, steadily, the glow in his eyes subsided.

"Takes one to know one," he muttered, before gathering up the guard and slamming the door behind him.

The guard was out, completely. Not even the noise of Brick's chair falling to the floor nor the loud echo of the door slam had stirred him from his slumber.

Suddenly the guard's watch beeped the hour, and he came to with a snort. Of course. "Huh? Whazzat?"

Brick stood him on his feet in the hall. "Hey. You passed out back there."

"Did... did I?" The guard rubbed a hand over his eyes. "I don't remember..."

"Yeah. Here's your mug." Brick had grabbed it on the way out the door, and he passed it back.

"Thanks, kid. Did you get what you were looking for?"

Brick's hands drifted into his pockets. "I... suppose I got about what I expected."

"Mm. Well, let's get you back to the desk so you can sign out—actually, I'm sorry, I don't think I had you sign in—"

"That won't be necessary." Brick whipped out a little device that went off like a flashbulb in the guard's eyes. The man blinked and his eyes went glassy. "I was never even here."

Bubbles paced around the living room. Boomer wasn't at the door, and wouldn't pick up his phone. She huffed and crossed her arms. So she had taken a little time to get ready! It had only been, what, half an hour? He was going to need a stern talking to—

The door to the Professor's lab swung open, and she whirled to find her father and her boyfriend exiting.

Oh. Well, that explains it.

"Hi there, sweetheart!" the Professor said, and kissed her on the cheek. Behind him, Boomer looked a little gaunt.

"Hey, Professor," she said, giving him a quick hug.

"You two go have fun now." Her father ushered her towards the door. Boomer sidled to the door as well. He moved a little awkwardly—he appeared not to want to turn his back to the Professor.

"Love you, Professor!"

He waved. "Love you too, sweetheart."

"Bye," Boomer said, with some degree of difficulty. He exhaled once they were through the door.

Bubbles wrapped her arm around his and dashed him down the street. "Oh, you should've called me before you came over."

"No, it... it was fine," he said, gulping.

"What did he say to you?"

"Nothing!" Boomer squeaked, then cleared his throat. "Nothing. He said nothing. Why would you think he said anything? He just showed me his lab. He does some neat stuff there. In his lab. With stuff. Hey, wow, I sure am hungry! Are you hungry? I hope you're hungry, because I'm starving. Seriously, I could eat a bear. Maybe two. Think they serve bear somewhere?"

As he pulled her along, Bubbles sighed. Well, at least they'd gotten that out of the way.

Boomer acted funny for about a week after that, though he wouldn't tell his brothers what was up. Brick didn't seem too concerned; he was preoccupied with practicing with Blossom, which consumed his early mornings and afternoons, sometimes well into the evening. It bothered Butch, even though he tried not to let it.

Buttercup, having had two weeks now to get over her initial anger at him, was finally starting to calm down. She still made threatening gestures towards his lower half if he got too close or talked too much, but at least he could enter her line of eyesight now and actually talk to her without encouraging her to smash his potential future children in.

Even Butch could admit to himself that he deserved it. If anything, he liked getting what he deserved. Except, of course, when it came to brothers stealing girlfriends—never mind that Blossom hadn't been nor was ever going to be his girlfriend, and Brick still claimed he hated her guts—but honestly, despite what he thought? Butch would have deserved this kind of treatment anyway.

After an easygoing lacrosse practice he went home to shower. Buttercup wasn't out of practice just yet, but she might be free afterwards if she wasn't cooking, and Butch had been encouraged by the fact that he'd been able to make a rude joke around her today—not about her, of course; he had to work back up to that—and avoid another kick to the nads. As he got out of the shower he wondered how much Chemical X helped with nad regeneration. Maybe Brick would know. Butch snickered to himself at the phrase he'd unwittingly created in his head.

"Nad regeneration," he muttered to himself, amused. He wandered around his room, looking for a fresh set of clothes. Shit. Was he out of jeans? He was out of jeans. Grumbling, he located a pair of boxers and rummaged around his mess of a bed for a clean shirt. Something rolled out, bouncing onto the carpet, and as Butch tugged his shirt on he peered at it, frowning.

The memory came to him; it was the album he'd borrowed from Mitch, with a very special bonus disc inside.

He picked it up, a few drops of water dripping onto the case from his wet hair, and he shook his head vigorously, pushing his hair back away from his face. Fuck, it was getting long. He didn't mind long hair, but Brick tended to grow his hair out. That made Butch dislike it on principle.

He wiped the water off the beat up plastic with his shirt, then opened it and extracted his disc from behind the real CD. He examined the track listing of the album while waiting for his computer to power up, then tossed it back on the bed, deciding he really couldn't give a fuck.

Penny, bless that woman's heart, had given all three of the Boys a password hack program, and Butch copied the disc's contents to his desktop before running the program on the folder which contained what Butch could only assume was Mitch's Happy Time collection. The program started scanning for the password, and Butch watched for about a minute as it did its thing. Then, bored—it'd probably be going for awhile—he got up, located his phone, and dialed Buttercup's number.

It rang until her voicemail picked up. "Hey, it's Buttercup. Um, I'm busy, I guess, so leave me a message and if you don't suck I'll call you back."

After it beeped Butch said, "Hey, motherfucker, what's up? Yours truly. Give me a call, I'm bored out of my—"

His computer chirped, indicating the program was done, and he turned, shocked. That fast? Huh.

"Out of my skull," he continued into his phone as he approached his computer. "So give me a..."

He trailed off, catching sight of the password the program had discovered.


He furrowed his brow and fumbled for his chair, then remembered he was on the phone. "Um, call me," he said, then ended the call. He pulled his chair up and hovered his mouse over the Continue button. After a second's contemplation, he clicked.

The folder flooded with thumbnails, and Butch watched the number climb in the corner of the window until it stopped at five hundred and twenty-seven files. His eyes widened. Had Mitch taken pictures of Buttercup when they were...?

He scanned through them. No. Nothing indecent. They were just regular photos. Bummer. It would've been great to find something to blackmail her with.

He drew his feet up on his chair, studying his desktop. Then he clicked on the first photo.

Scrolling through the first half, Butch gathered that part of it covered roughly ten years—it contained younger stuff, like a scanned photo of their Kindergarten class, with Buttercup and Mitch making faces at the camera, the only blemishes in a class full of smiling students. He'd forgotten what Buttercup had looked like as a kid—not that she looked that much different now, but the sight of her five-year-old self brought on a dim collection of memories. He remembered punching that face when it was snarling at his, the way it had spat insults at him, snapped angrily, even sneered when she'd landed a good blow. The ones that followed were from various stages of adolescent life. Soccer games, parties, general dicking around. Butch could see a clear progression of time throughout them. He shifted uncomfortably; the feeling he'd gotten when he'd watched her sing on stage last month welled up again now. But he didn't stop.

One of these wasn't a photo, but a video file. Butch clicked it open and played it.

Grainy laughter spilled out of his speakers; it was a group vid of Buttercup and the guys, sitting and laughing in the parking lot of a Malph's at night. Buttercup was standing in the well of a shopping cart, weaving as she tried to keep it in place. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she looked about fifteen, maybe sixteen tops.

"Dude, you're so gonna fall," Harry's voice crackled.

"Wanna bet?" Buttercup laughed.

"Harry, if I could do it, what makes you think Buttercup couldn't?" This was Mitch's voice; he was manning the camera.

"Hey, hey, hey, look guys. Look." Buttercup was waving them around, waving at Mitch to bring his camera closer. "Okay. This is my impression of Harry." She looked right into the camera, snorting with laughter. She took a second to compose herself, then inhaled and said in a deep, mocking voice, with her hands waving on either side of her head, "I AM A VAGINA."

The group exploded into raucous guffaws, Buttercup included. Butch even gave a perfunctory snort himself. Only Harry's voice was humorless as he snarked against the joke.

"Real funny, guys! Really fucking hilarious! I'm laughing my ass off! Ha!"

Buttercup cackled as she sat on the edge of the cart, but too hard; it overbalanced and the end toppled over, taking Buttercup with it down to the asphalt.

Harry's voice sounded again, "Dude! What the hell did I tell you? I so called it!"

This only inspired another furious round of laughter, and soon enough Harry had joined in.

"Oh my God, I'm crying," Floyd—or was it Lloyd?—said, punctuating his announcement with a sniffle and a theatrical wiping of tears. "I'm crying, guys, holy shit."

The camera turned to Buttercup, crawling out from under the cart, still giggling.

"I so told you you were going to fall—"

"Shut up, queef," Buttercup said, and Mitch laughed, catching her attention. She turned her face to the camera and grinned, her eyes darting back and forth from the ground to the camera as she sat up. Her ponytail had fallen out after her spill; a light breeze pushed her now loose hair into her face, and she brushed it back, still smiling to cam.

The laughter cut off as the vid stopped there, on Buttercup's beaming expression, with a hand in her hair to hold it back. Butch's gaze lingered on the image for awhile before continuing on.

That was the last of the first half. The entire second half of the folder, he realized, was from the short three months Buttercup and Mitch had spent together as a couple.

He was a little surprised at how different Buttercup looked with long hair. It seemed so impractical for a girl like her. Butch took his time, studying these semi-recent photos more closely. There were a few group shots of Buttercup and the boys, some of Buttercup and Mitch here and there, but for the most part, they were all her. The photos covered a wide array of her expressions. Butch spent less time on the ones he was familiar with—where she looked sullen and irritated. They were of less interest to him.

There was one of her holding the very bass guitar that he'd seen in Mitch's room, her eyes intent and focused on whatever she was playing. There was another of her leaning back, legs askew on the trailer's steps—a downshot, taken from the front door behind her, with her head tilting up and back and a wild grin on her face. Butch paused for a long time on a closeup shot of Buttercup asleep on Mitch's bed (fully clothed), her long hair smooth and dripping black off the pillow, looking way too peaceful for Buttercup. There was another video, but Butch skipped over it.

It just felt really sad.

Buttercup. Buttercup. Buttercup. One after another after another.

In the skate park. At the convenience store late at night. In Mitch's room again, shy and hiding the smile on her face with one hand as she indicated the "MITCH ROCKS" shirt she was wearing with the other.

We never did anything like that. Mitch was a fucking liar.

Butch stopped on the last one, face stony as he contemplated it. She was in Mitch's room. He recognized the posters in the background, the stacks of CDs and magazines on the floor, the rumpled bed. All that was blurry. It called even more attention to her, her top half framed dead center. Her long hair was a little messy, a few strands of it drifting across her face—Butch imagined she probably hated having it so long, but what did he know? She certainly didn't look unhappy. The small smile on her face said so. And that face…

Butch didn't know how to place it. She looked happy and sad all at once. She looked like something warm from her chest was spilling out into her expression, softening her eyes, her smile. She looked so at peace, so content, so deliriously and unabashedly in love that it scared her and all she could manage was that tiny, tiny smile.

She was looking right at the camera like that. Just like that.

In the end, I really, really…

It wasn't just the impractical long hair that made her look different. This Buttercup… all these Buttercups… didn't exist anymore. For Butch, they'd never existed at all. It was like that night he had watched her sing, growing more uncomfortable and distanced the more she loosened up, the more she faded back into the person she'd been before her haircut, her breakup. Before him.

He remembered the video he'd skipped over, and scrolled back to it. This looked like it was only of her, and he clicked it open just as his phone rang. It startled him, and in his haste to answer it he unintentionally clicked the mouse button, causing the vid to play just as he answered his phone.

"Hello?" he said, as Buttercup's voice started echoing out of his speakers. He turned back to his desktop and hissed, "Shit!"

"Butch, it's me," Buttercup said, then paused. Butch tapped the spacebar frantically, but he had inadvertently clicked off the window, so the video didn't pause. "What's that?"

"What's what?" he said as he grabbed his mouse and stopped the video.

"Are you watching a movie or something?"

"Just channel surfing. So what's up?"

"Got your call. Hey, I can't hang out or anything tonight."

"Oh..." He stared at the long-haired Buttercup smiling at him from his computer screen. "Well, that's alright."

"Yeah, maybe tomorrow or something." He tried to reconcile that careless voice with the happy girl onscreen, a Slurpee in her hand. "Hey, is everything okay?"

He jerked to a little. "Huh? Yeah, what? What makes you ask?"

"Naw, man, your message was a little weird. That's all. Like you forgot you were on the phone towards the end of it." A pause, then, "Everything okay?"

He looked away from the screen to his bare knee. "Yeah. Yeah, it's okay."

"Were you stoned or something?"

"No, just..." He glanced up again at his screen, looking at her. "I just got distracted."

"Yeah? Well, alright. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Yeah, sounds good," he said, and hit the button to end the call. He settled back in his seat, staring at her name on the tiny screen. Finally he set it back down on his desk, his gaze drifting back to his computer monitor and the frozen image of Buttercup. He pulled the little playbar back to the beginning and started it over.

"—Just not my thing, that's all," Buttercup was saying as she lifted the straw to her lips and sipped. She looked at the camera—at Mitch. "You carry that thing around a lot these days, you know?"

The camera wobbled a bit; Mitch had shrugged. "What about it?"

"I just wanna make sure my head's not gonna wind up on some naked lady pictures or something," she joked. "Lots of creepy fucks on the internet, you know."

"Come on, not my style. You know me."

"Ha." Buttercup sipped at her drink again.

"Your tongue's turned blue."

"Is that right?" Buttercup stuck her tongue out to the camera, curling it.


"Shit, I've only taken, like, five sips." She brought the plastic cup up to eye level, as if she could decipher its mysteries by staring at it.

"Buttercup, you'd look good in a dress."

She rolled her eyes as she sipped again. "I told you, it just isn't my thing."

"You wore a dress when we were kids."

"Yeah, we all start out young and stupid, don't we?"

"I think you'd look nice."

She glanced at the camera askance, sipping a long time before pulling her lips away from the straw and saying quietly, "Yeah, well, you? You're biased."

"I guess."

They were approaching a bus stop; Buttercup hopped up on the bench and pretended to walk along it like a balance beam before hopping off the other end.

Mitch spoke up again. "Hey, so Prom."

She threw the camera a funny look, clearly amused. "Right after we skipped Homecoming? You're already thinking about Prom?"

"Yeah, well, it got me thinking."

"About dresses," she snorted, sobering. After a while she said, "So you're saying I don't look good otherwise, huh?"

"That is not what I'm saying."

"You're trying to get me to wear a dress because you don't want to go to Prom with an ugly dyke like me."

"Bullshit. Cut that out."

She flipped her hair back. "I'm just telling it like it is."

"I think you're gorgeous. You're gorgeous now. You're gorgeous all the time. You'd look gorgeous in a trash bag. Hell, you'd even look gorgeous in a dress."

Buttercup stared at the ground. It was hard to tell, with her face tilted down and her hair masking it, but anyone with an eye could tell she was blushing.

"Sure you're not mixing me up with Blossom there, are you?" she murmured, then sipped at her Slurpee again.

"Shut up. You're the most beautiful girl I've ever seen." The urgency in his voice made it obvious. Mitch meant it.

Buttercup looked at the camera, her eyes soft, almost sad, but that smile was on her face, that tiny, scared, and yet deliriously happy smile that lit up her expression, made it almost shine in the dark. Mitch was right. She was...

She looked away, then looked back again, smiling a little more fully at camera now. She was also blushing something fierce.

"Hey. Put that thing down for a second."


"Put it down." She stooped to set her Slurpee down on the sidewalk.

"Why?" Mitch asked as she reached for the camera. The angle tilted, and her face slid out of sight. The camera was facing down now, trying to focus on their shoes.

The blurry image wobbled as their hands fumbled on the camera. "So I can kiss you, stupid," Buttercup's voice whispered, and then the video stopped.

Butch stared at the screen, his jaw sore. He'd been clenching it; he hadn't even realized. He looked back at the album he'd thrown on his bed, the one he'd hidden the disc in. He'd thought it'd have porn on it. He felt cheated, angry. It'd have been better if there'd been porn on it.

Fucking Mitch.

Lacking something better to do, he tabbed through a few of the photos again. Yeah. Porn would've been better. It would've been a lot better.

He'd never seen her smile the way she was smiling in some of these photos, particularly the ones from when she and Mitch were together. He'd never have expected she could look like that. Like someone happy instead of someone mean, or condescending, or so over everything, seriously.

He hesitated on a photo of her, leaning over so her hair fell along either side of her face, framing it. Suddenly Butch hated her with long hair. Really hated it. He'd only mildly disliked it before, but no, it looked awful. Short hair was way better on her.

He came again to the video, the one of her by herself, clutching her Slurpee and smiling at the camera. Smiling at Mitch.

Butch stared at her, letting the image soak into his brain, into his memory. It would be a false one. It wasn't his; he hadn't been there. He hadn't been there for any of these. He stared and stared, drilling that expression, that smile into his brain until it burned, and then he clicked his mouse button.

"—Just not my thing, that's all," Buttercup said, and she raised her Slurpee to her lips and sipped, her tongue curled and stained blue.

"So Faust thinks this one should be just us." Blossom pointed at a track on the back of the CD case.

"Really?" Brick peered at it. "It's got a lot of energy; it'd be good for a group—"

"She was talking to Jim and they both reached some sort of conclusion about turning it into a ballroom dance."

"So she's turning that one over to Jim now?"

"I guess." Blossom set it down, shrugging. "Anyway."

"I mean, if they want to, okay. Doesn't affect the stuff we have to do."

Someone knocked on the doorframe of the otherwise empty studio, and they both looked up to find Robin standing there.

"Hey, losers."

"Robin!" Blossom stood up and hugged her. "I'm sorry I haven't seen you—"

"I've been busy, too," Robin said, smiling. "Lots of StuCo stuff going on. Hey, I just wanted to tell you guys—Bubbles said I'd find you here—I'm throwing a party at the end of the month. And you." She pointed at Blossom here. "You have no excuse to not come, since we live right next door to each other." Robin turned to Brick. "You and your brothers can come, too. As long as you can keep Butch from breaking something."

The invitation took Brick by surprise. He blinked and said, "Uh, sure."

"Very cool." Robin clapped her hands. "Alright, I'll leave you guys to it."

Blossom waved at her friend as she left, then stayed standing, glancing down at Brick. She began to play with her hands.

"So... do you want to get started?"

He reached for the CD and grunted as he stood. "Yeah. Sure."

"Which one should we work on?"

Brick scanned the track listing on the back. It was too bad Jim hadn't started choreographing the ballroom piece yet. It'd be nice to work on that one with her.

He shook his head and cleared his throat, then picked a safer one, one that didn't involve them being too close or touching too much.

"Here. This one. Let's do this one."

"Robin is throwing a party!" Bubbles called out to Buttercup long before she bounded up to her. Buttercup looked up from where she was conversing with the guys—sans Butch—in the atrium.


"In two weeks," Bubbles said as Boomer came up beside her. "Or, end of the month. End of the month is in two weeks, right?"

"Give or take," Buttercup said.

"Oh, Boomer." Floyd reached into his bag. "I gotta give these back to you."

He pulled out the albums he'd borrowed from Boomer and held them out to him. Boomer stared at them for a second before taking them and flipping through them.

"Thanks, Floyd," he said, his voice quiet.

An awkward silence settled over the group.

"You guys, um," Boomer tried, then started again. "You guys found anyone else for the band?"

"Naw, I think we're quittin'."Mitch shrugged.

Boomer looked up, stunned. "You're kidding."

"Well, Senior year and all, I mean, we're all kinda busy..."

Boomer still looked as if he'd been sucker punched in the gut. Bubbles noticed his expression and began to pull him away.

"Hey, we'll see you guys later."

"Wait," Harry called as Bubbles and Boomer started down the hall. "Does that invite to Robin's party stand for us guys, too?"

"Yep," Robin said, striding past them. "Hey, Buttercup."

"Yo." Buttercup waved at her friend's back, spotting Butch at the doors. "Hey, there's that fucker."

Butch saw them and floated up, yawning. "Hey."

Buttercup took in his sleepy eyes. "You look tired."

"Hm. Makes sense. Feel pretty tired."

"What's up with that?"

"Was on my computer too long last night," he muttered, glancing at Mitch. The twins were standing between him and Buttercup. "Um... what's up?"

"You barely made the bell, I think," Buttercup said, and right on cue the bell rang.

"Well, see you guys at lunch," Harry said. "Except for you, Buttercup."

"Fuck you early lunch guys," she said. "Late lunch is where the cool kids hang out."

The guys rolled their eyes. Before Mitch could leave, Butch dug out his album and handed it over.

"Oh, yeah, man," Mitch said, eyeing it. "Did you like it? I've got more of their stuff, if you're interested."

"It was alright," Butch muttered. "Not really my thing."

"Okay. See you." Mitch turned to Buttercup. "Later, Buttercup."

"Bye," she said, and Butch watched them both as Mitch turned away and started down the hall.

Stupid. Their voices still went soft when they talked to each other, their gazes held just a little longer than necessary. They were still in love with each other and didn't even fucking know it.

Idiots, Butch thought viciously to himself as Buttercup shouldered her bag and glanced at him. Fucking stupid idiots.

"Hey," she said, jarring him from his thoughts. "You're really out of it this morning."

He stared at her a second before saying gruffly, "Yeah?"

"Yeah." She started walking, then paused when Butch didn't follow. "You coming or what?"


"Gym, you dumbass," she sighed, giving him a look. "Obviously we're not in the same class, but fuck, we're headed in the same direction." She jerked her head. "Come on. Let's go."

She started off again, her head still turned and watching him. Butch felt his feet move on their own, jogging to catch up.

"Lay off the weed, man," she said under her breath as they walked. "I think you're killing brain cells."

Butch thought of telling her he hadn't smoked a damn thing. "Yeah."

Brick was kind of relieved when Friday arrived. Not that his week was going terribly at all—last week was another story; he'd brooded about the confrontation with Mojo for days—but it was still a relief to know the weekend would soon be upon them.

He stared off into space as he sketched out ideas for his sculpture, glancing at Bubbles' empty seat. She was at home again, doing her Independent Study work from there. There was something odd about the room when she was gone; it was less interesting, less friendly. He actually felt a little bored when she wasn't around.

Julie, who was seated next to Bubbles' empty seat, caught him staring and said, "She says it's too big to work on at the school."

"Is her place really any bigger?"

"She cleared out a room, I think. At least, that's what she told me."

"Mm," Brick intoned, and went back to sketching. He was grateful for when the bell finally rang, but there was still lunch, and then English. He could skip, probably, but Blossom was in English and... yeah.

He went out cruising around in his car during lunch and came back in time for his last class. The passing period was already underway, and he slipped through the crowds of students to his English class. Blossom was already there, and she glanced up from her book as he came in. He tried to take his time getting over there.

"Hey," he said as he sank into his seat.

"Hi," she said, and went back to her book.

The bell rang, and Mrs. Yang said, "Okay, guys, everyone brought their books, right? We're just free reading today because I've still got papers to grade."

"If it's free reading could we just leave?" one of the students asked.

"Who was that? John? Stacy, hit John for me."

There was a whack, followed by a subdued, "Ow."

"Thank you. No, you cannot, because as far as I'm concerned I'm just giving you class time to continue prepping for your essay. You're comparing a theme in a book of your choice to two other books on this semester's class reading list. Since I know most of you will be scrambling to finish this thing at five AM the day it's due, I'm offering you the opportunity to have at least a little more read before the eleventh hour is here. Don't try my patience."

Dim, murmuring chatter swelled as they pulled out their reading material. Brick glanced at Blossom, who looked away from him and back to her book.

"By the way, I almost forgot. The Museum of Contemporary Art has an E. E. Cummings exhibit in town featuring art inspired by the poet. If you drop by and can do a quick one page comparative essay on the art piece to the poem that inspired it, I'll bump your lowest grade up by one to ten points, based on how well it's written. Due Tuesday." She pulled out her gradebook and papers. "Now get to work."

Brick should've expected to see her there.

He hadn't been sure he'd go. But his Saturday was crawling, he was bored, and because he had nothing better to do he kept thinking back to the conversation he'd had with Mojo.

Even before he and his brothers had left Him, they'd never heard anything about their "destiny" or the like. Sure, they'd been created to destroy the Girls, so in a way that had been their destiny. But it'd always been treated as just a goal, a mission. If there was a greater plan in place and it was "meant to be," why hadn't that been mentioned until now? And for Mojo Jojo to bring it up... that implied some sort of great spiritual thing going on there that even a man—well, monkey—of science wouldn't dismiss with logic and reasoning.

Mojo Jojo had always wanted to destroy the Powerpuff Girls and rule the world. Why would he now—suddenly, upon being confronted with the Boys' return—tell Brick that it was actually their duty in life—their destiny—to destroy the Girls?

Brick mulled over it until his head was sick with brooding. That was when he decided to head to the MoCA Townsville and check out the Cummings exhibit.

He wasn't big on poetry, but the exhibit was interesting. A lot of it felt pretentious in the way that most modern art did. He stared at a couch with a lamppost through it for about five minutes, trying to figure out what the hell it was saying, and finally realized it was about fucking. Well, that was stupid. He didn't even bother reading the poem for that one.

There were others, though—paintings, sculptures, even interactive pieces that were really well done. After he was about two thirds through the exhibit he thought he had a good idea of what he might do his extra credit on—it was between two paintings, both pretty abstract—and turned down the last darkened hall.

It was spotlit, so his eye was drawn to it fairly quickly, despite it being smaller than many pieces it shared the space with. It was a gnarled little metal sculpture; he couldn't figure out what it was. He read the first few lines of the poem to try and put it in context.

since feeling is first

who pays any attention

to the syntax of things

will never wholly kiss you;

Brick stopped after that, because he noticed a switch on a panel next to the poem, level with that line. After a moment, he flicked it.

The spotlight flicked off, and a smaller spotlight he hadn't noticed on the podium where the sculpture rested illuminated it, projecting its shadow against the wall. He blinked, his eyes darting from the twisted mass of metal and the shadow of two people it created when it was lit in just the right way.

His eyes traced the silhouette of a man and woman, lying together, the man's fingers brushing her lips open. It looked nothing like the scraps thrown together on the podium. How had they done that? It was fucking ingenious.


In the stillness of the gallery her voice rang like a bell. Brick turned to see Blossom floating at the end of the hall, where he'd originally come in. It might have been because he'd lost himself a little in the genius of well-executed art, or maybe the first four lines of the poem had stuck with him. Or maybe he just hadn't expected to see her, when really, he should have; after all, it was extra credit. It may have also been the sunlight streaming in the one lone skylight in this section of the gallery, putting this ethereal glow about her that only heightened the effect.

In any case, something clenched in his chest when his eyes fell upon her, something welled up in his throat that he couldn't swallow down. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end, and when he said her name it came out in a voice he didn't mean to let out, a voice that was practically a whisper and yet, somehow, still heavy with emotion.

"Blossom?" he said, his voice sounding soft, deep, yet still ringing in that quiet gallery, and she blushed furiously. She couldn't help it.

"Holy shit, Butch," the twins said in one awed voice as they stepped into his apartment. "Who do you have to kill to live in a place like this?"

"Eh, a bunch of rich old fucks," he said, his tone bored. Buttercup shot him a sharp look before dragging her haul of movie-watching munchies over to the kitchen.

"How did you guys get tangled up with the rich old fuck who hooked you up in this place?" Harry said.

Butch went with the answer he was supposed to go with. "Anyone with money gets interested in the Red-Eyed Golden Child, since he's some sort of prodigy, apparently. He's out, by the way."

"Good," Buttercup said. "He's always in a fucking mood when someone's over."

Butch was studying Mitch's guarded reaction, wondering if he was jealous. The living room was like three of Mitch's trailers combined.

"So what's the lineup tonight?"

"Pick your poison, brothers." Butch laughed, indicating the rack of movies he'd dragged out of his room.

"I'm voting Anaconda," Buttercup called from behind the breakfast bar. Harry went over to help her start some popcorn.

"Lady's choice, then," Butch announced, flicking the case out of the rack and extracting the DVD. "Coke's in the fridge, by the way."

"The kind you drink, right?"

"Fuck you, Floyd," Butch sniped.

"Fair question, for you," Buttercup laughed, and undid the Saran wrap over a cake tin. "Brownies, anyone?"

"Pot brownies?" Butch, Mitch, and the twins asked simultaneously.

"Hell no, druggies!" she snapped, but with a smile. "You know, when your parents told you to eat your greens, that wasn't what they meant."

"Can't blame me," Butch said as he flipped the TV on. "I weren't brung up right."

A door swung open, and a drowsy Boomer wandered into the living room, stretching. "Hey, guys," he said through his yawn.

"Look at you, gorgeous." Butch sneered at his mussed up hair and wrinkled clothes.

"Go fuck yourself." Boomer hoisted himself onto a stool at the breakfast bar. He peered blearily over, brightening up a bit as he saw Buttercup cutting brownies.

"Are those pot brownies?" he asked, and Buttercup rolled her eyes and looked skyward.

"Seriously, guys, what the fucking fuck?" she said in disbelief as the rest of the room broke into laughter. The microwave beeped, and Harry stuck a second bag of popcorn in it, then tore open the first and carried it over to the group.

"Here." Buttercup handed Boomer a piece. "And there's no pot in it."

"Mmphmrmph." Boomer's response was muffled by brownie.

"Hey, shouldn't you and Bubbles be hanging out?" Mitch asked.

"They spent enough time together this morning," Buttercup interrupted before Boomer could respond. "Freaking Siamese twins, those two."

"What kind of stuff do you guys do?" Lloyd asked, then shut his mouth at the warning glare Buttercup threw his way. She waved a large knife in her hand for emphasis, her glare shifting to Boomer.

Unperturbed by her threat, Boomer swallowed the last of his brownie down and said, "Just hang out and stuff. You know."

"What kind of stuff?" Floyd pressed.

"I got a shitload of knives over here, and I know how to aim," Buttercup snarled. "Quit asking personal questions." She looked at Boomer and added, "Don't you dare tell us anything that I don't wanna hear."

"We don't—we just hang out, seriously. Like, we go shopping, and—"

"'Shopping?'" Butch's brow wrinkled. "What the fuck for?"

Boomer shrugged. "I dunno... she wanted some new shoes the other day—"

"Wait, what?" Mitch cried. "You went shoe shopping with her? Voluntarily?"

"Brave man." Buttercup's expression was now one of reverence.

"You shop for panties together, too?" Butch asked. "Since, you know, you wear them now and all?"

A knife went flying at Butch's face, and he caught it by the blade one-handed.

"I'm going to stab you in your sleep, Butch," Boomer snarled, on his feet and brandishing a second knife in his hand.

Butch was inspecting the knife he'd caught, the blade bloodless and now bent, ruined. "Brick's going to be pissed. Now we need a new one."

"Who bent it, fucker?" Boomer shot.

"Who threw it, pussy?" Butch shot back.

"Quit your crying and start the movie!" Buttercup snatched up the last four knives out of the knife block and aimed two each in each brother's direction. The non-superbeings ducked for cover. "I didn't come here to listen to you two whine like the bitches you are!"

"He started it!" Butch cried, pointing his knife at Boomer.

"He made fun of Bubbles!" Boomer cried, pointing his knife at Butch.

"You started it," Buttercup growled, pointing at Butch. "And you were the one being made fun of, not Bubbles," she grumbled, pointing at Boomer. "Now sit down, shut up, and watch the God damn movie. And eat some brownies and popcorn while you're at it. Anything to keep your mouths busy, because if you start pissing and moaning during the movie, I'm going to make you eat these fucking knives. Literally!"

Brick stood back as she examined the piece he'd been looking at. He didn't like how his eyes drifted continuously from the silhouette on the wall to her, so he stepped to the side and just watched as she read the poem to herself.

Her lips—looking exceptionally full and soft in that light—formed the syllables in slow motion, and he thought of the silhouette on the wall (didn't look, no, he wasn't looking at it) and how the man was parting the woman's willing lips for a kiss. He liked the f's and the v's the best, when her teeth appeared, brushing along the swell of her lower lip to form the sound. The o's were good too; her lips came forward, puckered around the vowel like an invitation...

She looked up and he stepped back involuntarily, feeling caught. But she wasn't looking at him.

"Pretty poem," she said. "A little overly sentimental. This is really something, though." She indicated the sculpture and the shadow. "Is this what you're going to do your extra credit on?"

He trained his eyes on the light switch on the podium. "Maybe."

"Did you... did you just get here?"

He glanced at the clock on his cell. He'd been here about an hour. "Um... not quite. Have you been around to see the whole exhibit yet?"

"No, I actually detoured and looked at some of their other exhibits first. I only got here about five minutes ago, so I haven't really looked around yet."

She was wearing a skirt today—knee length, but it showed enough of those legs of hers to make the length irrelevant. Her top was a plain button-down blouse, nothing to write home about. But she even wore that well. Her ever-present bow adorned her head, canted today at a particularly flattering angle. Brick thought about the paintings he was going to choose from (maybe this sculpture, though) and what his Saturday held for him if he simply called it a day and went back home.

He tried to sound nonchalant. "Well... why don't we, um, go check out the rest of the gallery, then?"

Bubbles giggled as she toweled her hair dry. The days where she found herself alone in the house were few and far between. She generally didn't like the emptiness and was prone to feeling lonely, but the day was beautiful and after a pleasant morning of shopping with Boomer (he was so patient!) she had luxuriated in the warmth and comfort of a frothy bubble bath, with no sisters pounding on the door to disturb the peace.

With the tub now drained and her hair damp and smelling of strawberries, she picked out a bright sundress to feel pretty in, then threw the windows wide open. She did likewise downstairs, then, after a thought, cranked up the stereo and popped in a dance-y pop CD. She never got to listen to this stuff at this volume when her family was in the house—the volume gave the Professor and Blossom headaches, and Buttercup would spend so much time criticizing her taste in music that Bubbles, who could be quite sensitive about these things, resigned herself to headphones at home.

She loved hearing her music fill the house, though. It flooded the empty spaces and bounced off the high ceilings with a faint echo, a musical manifestation of her happy mood.

So Bubbles pushed past the faint loneliness at being the sole occupant of the house this afternoon, twirled in her dress as the speakers thrummed, and picked out a cookbook to peruse for dinner options, looking forward to taking full advantage of a house left entirely to herself for the evening.

Brick spent another hour at the museum going through an exhibit he'd already been through. He didn't much mind. He'd expected they might run into someone from class, but he didn't see anybody once in the entire two hours he was there.

"Well, the MoCA's pretty far from the school district," Blossom said. "It's kind of a trek. I heard some folks in class talking about coming earlier today, after breakfast. There's probably going to be a few tomorrow, too."

"Mm," Brick said, walking with her. They came to one of his possible paintings. "I like this one."

"Do you?"

"I don't like that one over there, though." He pointed at the couch with a lamp post through it. He watched as Blossom, her curiosity piqued, floated over and read the poem.

"May I, said he," she read. She frowned and looked again at the piece.

Brick came up beside her. "I don't like a lot of modern art like this; it's so pretentious."

"And degrading," she muttered, looking at the piece with disgust and approaching it from a completely different angle than Brick. "They turned a mildly humorous poem into sexist garbage."

A few more pieces and they had gone through the whole gallery. It didn't feel like an hour, Brick thought.

"What piece do you think you'll do yours on?" he asked her as they made their way back into the lobby.

"Oh... I don't know. Maybe that sculpture. The one with the shadow. Or maybe that terrible couch piece, just so I can criticize it."

Brick glanced at the gift shop—no, that was stupid. He wondered if they should go through the other exhibits... but no, she'd glanced at those already.

What can we do? he thought, his eyes fixed on the floor so he could watch her walk in his peripheral vision. They were already approaching the exit. What should I ask her? What can we go do for the rest of the afternoon?

He didn't once think of not asking her or avoiding her. In the back of his mind he could remember that kid, that Junior, talking to her so easily in English, and then he was thinking of Kris and how boring he'd been, and how she'd been his girlfriend anyway. And now she was here, and they were walking together, and it wasn't like Brick had anything better to do, and she just looked so pretty today...

He heard an intake of breath; she was about to speak and bring this afternoon to a close. But there was still daylight left! They had time! Hours, even.

Brick spoke before she could get a word out. Or, he tried to.

"Hey—" he started, with no idea what he was going to say, but he had inhaled too sharply and the rush of air down his throat sent him into an involuntary coughing fit.

Blossom thumped his back. "Are you okay?"

That was so not cool, he thought miserably to himself as his coughs subsided. Still hoarse, he croaked, "Yeah, just... just thirsty."

She blinked at him. "Well... there's a really nice coffee shop down the street... I mean, you can probably get water here at the gift shop or something, but..."

She trailed off, pulling away from him a bit and fidgeting with her skirt. Brick rubbed his throat, staring at her and stunned at the sudden opportunity.

"No, I..." He cleared his throat, swallowed. "That sounds fine. The coffee shop, I mean. Where is it?"

"Oh, just down..." Blossom pointed out the doors. "Just... um, I'll show you."

Boomer excused himself two-thirds of the way through the movie and left their complex, wandering outside into the late afternoon sunlight. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy the movie, or the company. But it was weird, sitting there with the rest of No Neck Joe and not... well, it just felt weird, and Boomer got uncomfortable and thought maybe he should leave.

He didn't really have anywhere to go, though. He would've defaulted to a music store or something, but that wasn't really keeping in line with his promise to Bubbles. A promise he felt compelled to keep. He realized she couldn't actually force him to, but it was Bubbles, and he just thought...

He shook his head. Obviously the music store was out. And for all that he was well-liked by a lot of people at school, he didn't have a fallback group to hang out with or call up. Even the group that would invite him and Bubbles out to karaoke didn't really feel like his group.

Lacking other options and partially out of a deep-rooted desire to see her, he called Bubbles.

"Well, hi there, boyfriend." Even when warped and tinny through a cell phone, she still sounded sweet.

He cleared his throat. "Hi. Um... what are you up to?"

"Just getting ready to make dinner. What about you?"

"Nothing. I was wondering if, um, you were busy or something?"

"Well, Buttercup's out, and so's the Professor. Blossom's been out all day and I haven't heard from her, but I'm assuming she's coming back for dinner." A pause, then: "Have you eaten yet?"

Boomer thought of the brownies and popcorn he'd had back at his place. "Yeah, but just junk. Not, like, dinner or anything."

"How about you come over, then?"

His heart swelled at the suggestion, but he gulped at the thought of her dad coming home to find him there...

"Just give it a few; I'll have to power down the Boyfriend Killing Machine—"

"Wh-what?" he squeaked.

"That's not its real name, me and my sisters just call it that." He could hear her steps echoing in the house, evidently moving towards the control panel, wherever it was. "We didn't realize he had one set up until one of the guys I was dating tried to surprise me by sneaking in and scattering rose petals in my room." She paused, then, "Poor Sanjay."

An uncomfortable silence passed. Boomer was about to suggest maybe taking her out instead when she continued, "Anyway, me and Buttercup figured out how to turn it off by spying on him. It's in the garage and he sets it up whenever he leaves the house." Boomer heard beeping on the other end, then, "Done. It'll need five minutes to power down, but then you can come in, no problem. See you, love you!"

Her sign-off caught him by surprise, and his nervousness was displaced by a surge of feeling for her. "Yeah! Um, yeah." He swallowed, then mumbled, blushing, "You too."

Is this a date? Blossom thought to herself as she played with her empty teacup and watched Brick ponder over the meager food offerings by the register. They'd been here for over an hour, not including the time at the museum.

This kinda feels like a date.

She would have been lying if she'd denied any interest in having a drink with Brick. Walking through the museum had felt a lot like that week of doing homework at his place—a little awkward, yes, but full of... promise.

They had school, so they talked about that until the subject had exhausted itself (though she didn't ask, what had he learned growing up, how had he gotten an education?). That was followed by a long stretch of awkward silence, during which Blossom tried to figure out the most casual way to bring up that guy... Smith, that was who Brick had mentioned before. She could've plunged headfirst into it and just asked, but she knew Brick would close up immediately, and possibly leave. She wasn't ready for that just yet.

No, she'd thought as her eyes had traced the outline of his jaw, his neck, his broad shoulder as the fabric of his shirt shifted against it when he moved. Not just yet.

Now he was standing at the counter, his gaze passing over muffins and cookies and other pastries. When he'd gotten up he'd asked if she'd wanted anything.

"Another tea would be nice," she'd said, and it wasn't until he'd already risen out of his chair and moved to the counter that she'd realized she hadn't given him any money for it.

She reached for her purse and paused. It would look so weird if she went up there to give him money for it now! Besides, he hadn't asked. Was he covering her? Wouldn't that really make it a date? Then again, it was just a cup of tea, barely three dollars. She wasn't sure how this worked; she'd only dated Kris, and not for that long. Maybe she'd just try to pay him back when he sat back down. At least make the offer, or something.

He reappeared at the side of their table, placing her tea in front of her. She already had her wallet out of her purse and in her hand, and snapped it open.


Brick's hand closed the flap of her wallet down, where the snap button's click seemed to echo in Blossom's head. His hand had alighted on top of hers; her skin tingled where he touched her, and she felt a sudden heat rise to her face.

"Don't worry about it." His voice sent a shiver through her body, amplified by their slight contact, and she hastily pulled her wallet away and busied herself with stuffing it back into her purse.

"Thank you," she said, suppressing a wince at the meekness of her voice.

"It's nothing." He settled back into his chair. "So... Agnes Grey? You're a Brontë fan?"


"Isn't that what you're doing your essay on?"

"Oh! Oh, yeah. I mean, I haven't actually decided yet. I was just reading it for fun." She sugared her tea and stirred. "I like Anne. I don't care much for her sisters' work."

"I'll be honest." He laughed, almost apologetic. "I don't read chick lit books."

A tiny surge of irritation shot through her. "I wouldn't call classics of English literature 'chick lit.'"

"Oh, come on," he said, brushing it off. "It's totally proto-chick lit. Romance, dashing suitors—"

"I might grant you Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre could certainly be viewed as such, but Anne's works are a different story. Hers were much more like Jane Austen's than either of her sisters'."

"Austen's like the queen of proto-chick lit—"

"What about you?" she interrupted. "Are you picking something by Camus?"

"What makes you say that?"

She shrugged. "You seem to like his stuff."

He chewed on this for a minute, during which the girl behind the counter brought him a slice of cheesecake, warmed on a plate with two forks. Blossom took one automatically.

"I do," he said. "Don't know if I'll do the essay on something of his, though. What made you think I'm a fan?"

"That was how you got into AP English, wasn't it? I was there when Mr. Bean came gushing to Mrs. Yang. Also, I saw him on the shelves in your room. You know, when you were sick."

"Perceptive of you."

"What do you like about him? Are you an absurdist?" Not that she was trying to ascribe a deeper meaning to Brick's affinity for Camus, but in a weird way she thought it might fit.

"I wouldn't say I'm as much of an absurdist as I am a fan of absurdist literature."

"Do you..." Blossom thought back to the words he'd scribbled in that collection of essays. I think my life is of great importance, but I also think it is meaningless.

His eyes were lifted, waiting for her to go on. She wanted to ask: Did he really think his life was meaningless? But it seemed such an odd question to just come up, and heavy besides.

Unable to continue, she took a forkful of cheesecake, then realized she'd just dug into Brick's food without even asking.

"Oh my God," she said, muffled, dropping her fork onto a napkin and flushing scarlet. "I... oh, God, I'm sorry! It was just there, I wasn't even thinking! I won't take another bite, I swear—"

He was laughing, amused at her flustered reaction. "Chill! It's fine. I don't... I don't mind sharing. If you're that hungry, I mean."

She swallowed her bite, her guilt dissipating as she watched him take a bite for himself, from the other end of the slice. He nudged the plate towards her.

"I don't mind," he said around the fork in his mouth, staring at the plate. His voice sounded odd, a little strained, even. "It's not a big deal. I don't mind sharing it with you."

"Okay, I'm turning around," Buttercup said, her face bright red and her expression pained as she acted on her promise. "This is, like, the most awkward sex scene ever. Somebody mute it."

"Have you seen Oldboy before, Buttercup?" Harry asked.


"Fuck, if you think it's awkward now..." Butch muttered, muting it for her benefit.

"Hey!" the twins protested. "Don't kill the sound!"

"They're fucking subtitles, dumbasses," Butch said. "Like you understand Korean!"

"Is it over yet?" Buttercup asked.

"Yeah, it's over," Butch said, and she turned around. It was not over.

"Butch, you prick, you suck," she snapped, whipping back around and flinging a pillow blindly over her shoulder. It whacked Mitch in the head.


"Sorry, Mitch." She raised her voice over Butch's laughter. "Butch, you fucking prick. You fucking God damn prick."

"It's over now, for real," he choked out through his laughter.

"Is that fucker telling the truth?" she asked the rest of the room.

"Yes," the rest of the room said.

She turned around, then yelped and twisted back towards the wall as the guys exploded into laughter.

"I hate you all!" she screeched, flinging pillows off the couch and every which way behind her. The guys scrambled to save their food and drinks, still chortling. "You all suck! I know where you fuckers live, seriously! I'll burn in hell before I ever watch another movie with you guys!"

Boomer sipped at the lemonade Bubbles had poured for him when he'd arrived. He was leaning on the counter, transfixed by his girlfriend as she bounced around the kitchen, singing and dancing along to the music spilling out of the stereo in the living room. She had a really nice dress on—seriously, it was adorable—and every time she twirled the skirt of it flew up, exposing a great deal of thigh. She'd tied an apron over the dress, and Boomer found himself sighing over the littlest details, like how she wiped her hands on the apron, or how she kept adjusting the strap around her neck, or how she played with the tiny ribbons on the pockets as she mouthed the recipe to herself, brow furrowed in concentration while she read.

She turned to him. "I hope you don't mind being vegan for one night."

The ice in his glass clattered as he set it down on the counter. "Um, no. It's okay."

She beamed at him. "Good." Turning back to the cookbook, she started to twirl a strand of her hair—freshly washed and slightly wavy as it dried. "Just so you know, I'm doing a pasta salad—really simple, and the colors are so pretty..."

"Uh huh," he said, sliding his glass back and forth on the counter.

"You know, I don't think I've ever had a boyfriend over here for dinner." She giggled. "It's neat!"

The smile she was throwing his way was the sort that men killed other men over. Boomer twitched a glazed and distracted smile back at her, feeling nothing but a soul-deep affection as he did so.

The music in the living room moved into the next track, and her eyes lit up. "Omigosh! I love this song!" She started grooving a little, da da da'ing the musical accompaniment before the lyrics started up, and her lighthearted cheerfulness was so inspiring, so infectious, that Boomer laughed and moved into the kitchen with her, snatching up a couple of utensils and tapping a beat out on the counter as he joined in the singing. She didn't notice—neither of them did, at first—until he moved up a fifth and started harmonizing. It was then she stopped and stared at him, the glow in her expression subsiding.

Boomer's voice faltered, and he stilled the impromptu drumsticks in his hands, remembering his promise to her. The music trilled on, its bright, predictable melody now obnoxious and overbearing.

Boomer lowered the ladle and spatula he'd grabbed, and stammered, "S-sorry. Sorry. I wasn't... I wasn't thinking—"

"No, I wasn't either." She lifted her feet and started floating towards the living room. "You know, I'll just go turn it off—"

"No, wait, you don't have to—I won't start that up again, I'll just keep my mouth shut—"

"It's okay, it's the last track anyway," she called back.

"Really, Bubbles, let it—"

The stereo died, and he trailed off. He sighed, tossed the utensils on the table, and trudged back to his original spot, where his glass—now filled with half-melted, lemonade-flavored ice—dripped a pool of condensation onto the counter.

"I still can't believe you don't dream," Blossom said, shaking her head.

"No, I do dream. The difference is I'm aware of when I am."

"How did that whole thing start? How old did you say you were?"

His lips puckered a bit in thought; Blossom's eye was drawn to the movement of his mouth. "I think eleven or twelve."

She recalled a fragment of a previous conversation. "Around the time you left Him?"

A part of her almost regretted asking. He paused, the openness of his expression closing off very slightly. "Yes."

He's going to leave, she realized, almost floored by the disappointment. I've done it now.

"I guess I just felt... better, when we did," he went on, surprising her. "As if everything... as if my life was finally my own. And I guess it was such a huge life adjustment for me that it leaked into my dreams."

"You still lucid dream? Even now?"

"Haven't stopped."

"Mmm." She stared at the lip of her teacup. How many cups had she drunk? How many cups of coffee had he had? That was a lot of caffeine; they'd had to temper the effects with food and water, so the table was littered with empty plates and two half-finished bottles of water. He'd paid for almost everything; she'd bought the waters.

Guess I'm not eating dinner tonight. After the cheesecake, they'd shared five more snack-y things from behind the counter.

A light snicker drew her attention, and she looked at him. "What?"

"You just," he started, then he laughed a little more fully and tried again. "You just got this look on your face that said something like, 'Oh my God, it's getting late,' or, 'I've ruined my dinner,' or something else equally goody-goody."

She felt her face flush at the comment, a reflexive reaction thanks to Buttercup's barbed admonitions of Blossom's Goody-Two-Shoes inclinations growing up.

Brick read her expression like a book. "Obviously you get that a lot," he jibed, and she actually blushed more. The blushing was mostly brought on by her embarrassment, but a part of her reaction was also thanks to that teasing smile on Brick's face, a smile that she wasn't used to receiving without malice behind it. It struck her that yes, it was late (she'd left the house at two, and here it was just past seven), she had ruined her dinner, she hadn't started her extra credit like she'd originally planned, she hadn't even called home to tell them where she was... all because of her reluctance to leave the boy sitting across from her now.

"Actually, Blossom," he said, and the sound of her name on his lips sent a strange, invigorating shudder down her spine. "What is the most rebellious thing you've done? Ever?"

It took her a moment to process the question, though once she had it wasn't any easier to answer. In a panic she racked her brain for something... she knew there were things she'd done, bad things, things that went against that Goody-Two-Shoes image, but the question had caught her off guard and she couldn't call any of it to mind.

Brick was smirking at her. "Can't think of anything, can you?"

"There're things," she said, a little defensively. "I just... I just can't think of it, but I know—"

"I guess you kissing Kris at Prom counts," he said, and hot shame flooded through Blossom at the mere mention of it. "No one expected you to do that."

She looked down and clenched a napkin in her lap, wanting to shred it. Suddenly memories spilled over in her mind, and she looked up at Brick, almost triumphant.

"I beat Mojo Jojo up for candy," she said, a little breathlessly. "I let our dad steal toys for us when he was sleepwalking. I stole an expensive set of golf clubs for him." She blinked; there was more—

"A regular Bonnie Parker, aren't you?" he said, and she wished she would stop getting that shiver every time he spoke, every time he looked at her. And—she realized this with a twisted thrill—Brick would not stop looking at her. His last comment... kinda indicated this was flirting. This was flirting, wasn't it? He was flirting with her! Was he doing it intentionally? Was he trying to freak her out? Or—and the thought surged through her, a current of hope that she couldn't shoot down—was he just doing so, unawares, unplanned, simply because he wanted to flirt with her?

They'd been here for hours, after all. Again the question Is this a date? crossed her mind, again that raw hope flared in her chest, beating its insufferable little wings against her ribcage.

"So, Miss Parker," he went on (A nickname, she thought despairingly, He just gave me a nickname), "you're a fine dancer. Ever been clubbing?"

She blinked in surprise. "What? No, of course not. I'm underage."

"Ah. Right." He settled back, a knowing smile on his face, as if he'd expected the answer.

She sputtered a bit, then added loftily, "And that aside, no one's ever asked me—"

"Want to?" he asked, and her heart rocketed into her throat. The smile had disappeared from his face. He looked almost forcedly neutral. There had been no teasing element to his voice when he'd said it—and he'd said it so casually!—and even his eyes weren't glittering with telltale mischief. No, he'd just asked her. Simply, casually. And now he was watching her, his eyes lifted in question, waiting for her answer.

She swallowed, trying to think, trying to weigh her options (What answer is there but NO?! screamed her head, and yet another voice cried, But, but, and keened at the hours they had shared together today, the conversation, the lack of fighting and insults).

And all the while, Brick waited for her to make her decision, trying to—through sheer mindpower—will his heart to stop railing inside the cavity of his chest, fearful that the deafening jackhammer beat of it would reach her and give every last bit of him away.

"You know, Buttercup," Butch announced as she passed the tupperware of snickerdoodles his way, "whoever happens to nail you down and marry you is going to be a lucky fucking guy. Or girl."

"Shut up," she groaned, smacking him with the lid as he bit into his cookie.

"They'd eat well, that's for sure," Harry added, as an old Dario Argento movie played in the background.

"Your kids would be lucky, too," Floyd jumped in, and Buttercup picked up a nearby pillow and threw it into his face.

"The hell I'm having kids!"

"He didn't mean now," Butch teased. "I can see you popping out, like, seven of the fuckers, though."

"You're going to miss having teeth, bastard," she snarled, pulling back her fist.

"But you'd need people to cook for!" Butch cried.

"What about cooking for myself?"

"What a sad life that would be." Lloyd tsked, shaking his head.

"You guys are stupid." She stuffed a snickerdoodle into her mouth and recapped the tupperware.

"These are awesome, Buttercup," Mitch said,

"Thank you, Mitch." After a pause, she added, "See? No wonder Mitch was the only guy I dated."

A sudden, awkward silence fell over the room. Buttercup, seeming to have regretted her attempt at comedy, started to devour her snickerdoodle. Butch stared at her from the corner of his eye. Her customary smirk and hard expression had given way to uncertainty and she was clearly upset with herself.

The laugh he forced sounded natural enough, and everyone turned to look at him.

"Don't lie, you dyke," he said, still forcing a snicker. "Sorry to break it to you, Mitch, but you were just a beard."

The room was still silent for a moment, then the rest of the guys broke into laughter, too, and Buttercup snapped to and punched him in the face.

"Fuck you, Butch!" she cried, but she was smiling, relieved.

Butch maneuvered her fist away from him and announced to the rest of the room, "She just couldn't fake it any longer! She had to be true to herself and accept her love of chicks!"

"You guys are going to find it real fucking funny when my girlfriend's hotter than all of yours put together," she said, waving a hand around the room.

"Wait, you wanna put them together? Like, as in an orgy?" Butch asked, and got a faceful of pillow.

Ignoring him, Buttercup went on, "Seriously, if all of us had girlfriends, I'd bet you a million fucking dollars that mine would be the hottest."

"You're probably right," Harry admitted.

"I think it'd mostly be due to us seeing you date a lady," Mitch said. "Try and picture Buttercup with a hot chick, guys. Really."

The room paused, and several pupils dilated.

"Wow," the twins said, a little breathlessly.

Blushing, Buttercup flew to her feet and made for the kitchen. "Ha ha, fuckers. Who wants a soda?"

"Shh shh shh," Butch hissed, staring vacantly into the distance. "I'm picturing you with Blossom right now—"

"Cut it out, perv!" Buttercup shouted, and shot a soda can at him that exploded in his face.

Blossom's hands were numb as she fumbled through her contacts list, then hit Bubbles' entry.

Her sister picked up on the second ring. "Blossom! Hey! I was getting worried about you—"

"Hi, Bubbles, yes, sorry," Blossom said, spending her entire arsenal of one-word responses in one fell swoop. "I... I meant to call earlier."

"What happened?"

"Just... lost track of the time." She resisted the urge to look over her shoulder, where Brick was inspecting the side mirrors of his car.

"Oh, okay." Bubbles sounded chipper, unconcerned. "Well, we just—I mean, I just sat down to dinner. The Professor's putting in some overtime so he can have tomorrow free for us,"

Tomorrow, Blossom thought. They were making a family day of it tomorrow, so she shouldn't stay out late...

She pulled her phone away to glance at the time in the corner of the little screen. It wasn't even eight yet. As long as she left for home at a reasonable hour...

"So did you want me to set something aside for you?" Bubbles was asking, and Blossom brought the phone back to the side of her head. "Buttercup's out watching movies with the guys. It's just me tonight. Totally just me. By myself. All by my lonesome."

Something about her tone was off, and Blossom furrowed her brow. "What about Boomer?"

"We saw each other earlier today," Bubbles said, a little too quickly and casually, but before Blossom could press the issue she heard Brick cough and scuff his shoe along the gravel, and all thoughts of further inquiry dissolved out of her mind.

"Oh." What were they talking about? What had Blossom called about? "I... just wanted to say, Bubbles, you shouldn't wait up for me."

"How's that?"

"Well, I... I already ate, kind of, and now I'm thinking of going to..." Blossom's gaze darted to and fro. "I'm thinking, since I'm out, I'm going to do some shopping—"

Almost instantly she realized it was the wrong thing to say. Bubbles was practically bouncing on the other end. "Ooh! Shopping! Shopping where? Oh, maybe I'll come out and join you; I have this top I forgot to exchange—"

"Shopping for books!" Blossom blurted in a panic. "The bookstore! I'm going to the bookstore to shop for books!"

Bubbles stopped bouncing. "Oh." The exuberance had disappeared from her voice.

Blossom could feel Brick's eyes on her, and she could not stop herself from blushing. "So... don't wait up for me."

"Okay," Bubbles mumbled, petulant. "Well, I'll see you later, Blossom."

"Yeah, sure." Now her heartbeat was quickening, the numbing tingle on her skin growing. I'm really doing this, she thought, and felt almost separate from her body. I can't believe I'm really doing this.

She and Bubbles exchanged their goodbyes and hung up. This was it.

She tried to keep the fear out of her face as she turned to Brick, who was grinning. "The bookstore, huh?"

"I... it was the only way to discourage her from coming," Blossom said. Her eyes were drawn to his hand—he was leaning against the passenger side door of his car, and his mitt was already on the handle.


What am I doing?

She nodded.

Brick tugged at the handle of the door and opened it wide, then waited as she—clutching her purse for support—drew close on shaky legs. When she was settled in the seat he closed it on her, gently ("Watch your skirt," he warned), and then floated around the front to the driver's seat.

Blossom stared at the dash in a daze, remembering how excited Cindy had been when Brick had offered her a ride. Now here was Blossom, in the very seat Cindy had gaped at her from. In Brick's car. With Brick.

She swallowed as he turned the key in the ignition and the car roared to life, its vibrating thrum shivering through her seat. He glanced at her and held his gaze, and she stared dutifully straight ahead until his silent watching became too much to bear.

"What is it?"

His eyes flicked to the side panel. "Your seat belt. I mean, not that I would crash, and not that a measly car crash would seriously injure you or me, but all the same."

She colored and snatched at the seat belt, bringing it around, over, and then fumbled with the act of clicking it into place. She was nervous; the thing wouldn't connect, and she laughed apologetically, almost humiliated by her ineptitude, her complete and total lack of poise—

Brick's hand alighted on the plastic handle of the belt and guided it, locking it in place. She went still at their brief skin contact.

"Don't be so nervous," he said.

Easy for you to say, she thought. "I just... I've never done anything like this before." Nor did she know anybody who had ever done this before. She and her sisters were too young to go out dancing in nightclubs or anything like that; if she'd had to put her money on someone she'd have put it on Buttercup, but clubbing wasn't really Buttercup's scene. Buttercup had gone to nightclubs, yes, but only to see bands she liked with the guys, and never out dancing...

Brick put the car into reverse and twisted to see out the back, setting his hand on the headrest of Blossom's seat. The nearness of his hand to her cheek sent another thrill surging through her, and she eyed the line of his torso as it twisted, almost gracefully, a slight curve against the cushion.

"Don't worry about it." He laughed as he settled back, and that wondrous line disappeared. "You've got me with you."

"What was your sister calling about?" Boomer asked as Bubbles served him a bowl of pasta salad.

"Blossom's going to the bookstore."

"Oh. Thanks," he said, accepting the bowl she handed him. He waited for her to serve herself, then took a bite as soon as she was settled.

The room was silent for awhile, save for the clinks of their forks against the bowls and the crunching of food. Boomer's eyes were on her all the while, reflecting with a dazed sort of disbelief on the image of her moving through the kitchen, apron tied around her waist. She had looked so... so wifely, almost, or motherly, and when the thought had first entered his brain he'd blushed, because the only way for that thought to go was to put him in place as her husband.

He cleared his throat and shook his head, diving into his salad with renewed vigor. Bubbles looked at him.

"Everything okay?" she asked.

"Yeah," he said, and added, Honey, in his mind.

"What do you think of the food?"

He swallowed. "Delicious."

"I can tell," she said, suppressing a little laugh. "You're really digging into it."

"Mmph," he mumbled around a mouthful of penne and fantasizing about the two of them at a dinner table in their own house, Boomer with his workday suit still on and Bubbles with that adorable little apron and that adorable little dress sitting down to dinner as cookies baked and they called their kids to—

He dropped his fork with a clatter and covered his face with one hand, and Bubbles' hand flew to his arm.

"What's wrong?!"

"Nothing," he said hastily. Nothing, honey, sweetie, baby, angel, darlinOKAY BOOMER STOP. "Just... need a moment to clear my head."

"Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine. Fine. Just... my brain's being stupid." He smirked at her from behind his hand. "You know... just being myself."

She settled back, a frown on her face. "I don't think you're stupid."

He moved his hand away from his eyes and rested his chin on it. "Thank you for thinking that."

She stared at him a moment longer, pouting, then went back to her food. Boomer did likewise.

"You know," she said, after awhile, then shook her head, laughing a little. "This is going to sound so weird."

Boomer looked at her as he chewed, intrigued by her shy blush. "Hmm?"

She pushed her food around her bowl. "Just... sitting down, eating dinner together all by ourselves in the house..." She laughed again, and glanced up at him. "It feels like we're married or something, you know?"

His throat constricted as he looked at Bubbles. Honey. Sweetie. Darling.

"Oh my God, I'm so weird!" She laughed and covered her face with her hands. "Don't listen to me. Forget I said it."

Boomer reached to pull one of her hands away from her face, and she blinked as he brought it to his lips for a light kiss. Then he just held it, right there on the table, and smiled at her as he resumed eating. After a second she did the same.

It carried on for about a minute. And then:

"Okay, Boomer, I'm sorry to break this sweet and wonderful mood, but I'm not a lefty and I can't even hold my fork right. Can I have my hand back?"

They drove to Citysville to avoid the high probability of anybody in Townsville recognizing their resident Superhero Team Leader attempting to go clubbing. After asking, Blossom told Brick yes, he could drive with the top down, and no, she wasn't worried about her hair because she went flying around all day at much higher speeds than this and she managed, all the same.

The wind whipping her hair back in a red-orange blur behind her was a sight, and Brick found himself stealing glances at her almost every moment he got. The collar of her shirt flapped against her neck, smooth and almost glowing in the dim dusk light. Her modest skirt fell in waves, curving up just along her knees, and her legs seemed to disappear into the shadowed well of the bucket seat. Her legs were the worst, actually. Brick had to struggle to keep his eyes above the dash and was always overcome with the involuntary urge to wet his lips when his gaze slid over her lower half.

He'd looked up a place on his phone while Blossom had been on with Bubbles. Someplace busy, but not so popular that they might risk being recognized...

He pulled over about a block away and took a deep breath. Blossom was looking around the dark street they were on as he punched the button to raise the top.

"This isn't it, is it?" she asked, dubious. There were nothing but closed shops on this street.

"No, it's around the block. Just parking. And I wanted to... I dunno, prep you."

Her eyes widened, the faintest glimmer of fear flickering up before she said coolly, "What kind of prepping, exactly?"

He looked at her, backlit by the yellow glow of a street lamp, and indicated her purse. "You won't wanna take that in."

"What? Why?"

"Too awkward to hold onto while you're dancing, and with so many people around you wouldn't want to leave it just lying somewhere. Pull out what you need and stuff it all in your pockets."

"I'm afraid I don't have any."

"You can use mine, then."

She opened her purse and looked inside blankly. "What could I possibly need in there?"

"Probably nothing," he admitted. Too young to drink, and whatever ID she had would indicate she was underage...

She handed him her cell phone; he pocketed it. "Won't they check ID?"

He smirked. "That's the trick." He glanced at her bow. "They'll let anyone in if they look old enough." Or hot enough.

She stuffed her purse into the glove box and paused after shutting it. "What am I doing?" she whispered.

Brick considered answering for her, but he wasn't sure what would sound right. In all honesty, he wasn't sure what she was doing either; he hadn't even really considered much of where tonight was going, and how they'd wound up here was as much a surprise to him as it was to her. He hadn't planned any of this. It was just... happening.

Blossom squared her jaw and threw open the passenger door, a little aggressively. Brick watched her as he rose out of his own seat—she stamped her feet, patted her skirt, adjusted her top. Despite the wind in her hair for most of the ride over, it still looked only slightly messy, and was really kind of incredibly sexy.

Again he stared at her bow. She caught his gaze and reached a hand up to touch it.

"What? What's wrong?"

Brick floated over to her side—the sidewalk side of the street—and reached a hand for her hair. She pulled back, instantly suspicious.

"What?" she said, a little less friendly this time.

"The bow... kinda ages you down."

She grasped it, petulant. "What are you—so what do you suggest?"

He stepped closer, trying not to think, because if he thought at all, if he had been thinking at any point this entire evening, then they wouldn't have wound up here, together, about to walk around the corner and into a nightclub.

"May I?" he said, not realizing how gravelly his voice had gotten, and she stilled, lowering her hand. He took that as as good an affirmation as any.

With almost painstaking care, he undid the bow on her head, studied the feather-light fabric in his hands for a second, then, after considering her for a moment, reached to wrap it around her neck.

She inhaled sharply when he passed one end of it over her shoulder, and he bumped her with his other hand as he reached to pull that end back around to the front.

"Sorry," he said, his voice sounding very far away.

"That's okay," she said, and his hand twitched as that breathless voice echoed in his brain. He hastily wound the rest of the ribbon gently around to form a loose choker and tied it.

"Okay, that's better," he said, without looking at her, and turned, face on fire as he began walking. "Let's go." He heard her scurry to catch up to him.

Around the corner was a different world, buzzing with people and lights. He met the collective gaze of a group of laughing guys as he rounded the corner, and realized with horror as their eyes shifted behind him that in an unfamiliar city like this it would be stupid to stand separate from one another...

He whipped around and crooked an arm around a stunned Blossom, resting his hand on her waist, and shot a warning glare at the group as he walked them both past.

Blossom had made a tiny Eep noise as soon as he'd touched her, or something that had sounded like Eep, but at least she hadn't batted him away or wrenched out of his grasp.

"Brick," she gasped, recovering her voice. "Wh-what—"

"Sorry." The heat of her body against his side was almost unbearable. "It's just... there's a lot of weird people around."

She turned her eyes on him, disbelieving as she matched her steps to his. "That's very chivalrous of you."

Brick didn't say anything, only took his cap off to swipe at his hair before readjusting it, bypassed the very short line of people waiting to get into the club, and walked straight up to the bouncer, their cover fees already in hand.

Brick was a little taller than average, but height was of little consequence, really; it was the way a person walked, how they carried themselves, that made a real impression. His very presence could be commanding by nature—at least when he allowed it to be—and he drew himself up, darkened his gaze as he measured the bouncer's stoic expression.

Eyes met, money exchanged hands, and at the sight of Blossom the bouncer broke into an approving grin and waved them inside.

Blossom twisted to look back. "He didn't ask for our IDs or anything."

"Beautiful people don't get asked," Brick replied, feeling cocky.

She had to raise her voice; the music was growing louder as they approached the floor. "But all those people were waiting—"

"Beautiful people don't get in line, either."

"Well." She huffed. "That's not very fair."

Brick laughed; it was a dark, open room, thrumming from the music, and still early. They had tons of space, or at least enough to get started, and he suddenly felt so in the mood for this. The atmosphere was great, perfect, just what he needed after what had been an emotionally draining past few weeks, and pressed to his side was the fucking icing on the cake.

"Not that this should come as any news to you," he said with a smirk, "but life isn't very fair."

The icing vaguely acknowledged his arrogance with a mild glare, but she was distracted by the gyrating people surrounding them on the dance floor.

"That's dancing?" she said, in a voice that indicated she didn't think much of it.

Brick cast the room a perfunctory glance as they came to a stop. "Marginally." His hand was still on her waist, his smirk still lighting his expression, and he was feeling fucking fantastic.

He spun Blossom around into his arms and she withheld a yelp. Those bewildered doe eyes of hers gazed up at him.

Proper closed position. "Why don't we show them what real dancing looks like?"

"I can't believe this fucker fell asleep." Buttercup laughed from where she was lying on the living room floor, indicating Harry with her foot. The twins and Mitch were sitting in Butch's room by the open window, sharing a joint and chatting.

Butch had one of his own in hand, and he made a show of sucking in a deep breath and exhaling. Army of Darkness played on the TV with the volume turned down.

She propped herself up on her elbows and looked at him. "You sure smoke a lot of that shit."

He shrugged. "Gotta smoke five times as much as a normal person to get high."

"How'd you get into it, anyway?"

"Stole it from a guy at work."



"You bored now?"

He glanced at her. In truth, he was trying to make it look like he was getting high in an effort to... maybe get her to open up a bit. He didn't know how long the guys were going to be in his room, and he couldn't think of another opportunity to get Buttercup alone.

Or partially alone, he thought, eyes flicking to the dozing form of Harry not ten feet away.

"Not really," he said.

She settled back down on the floor, curling her arm and resting her cheek on it as she looked at Butch. Something about it made her look very feminine, and Butch held his breath a little longer before exhaling. He stared at her awhile, then realized she had just asked him something.

"What? Sorry, I missed that."

She smirked. "I thought you said you had to smoke five times as much to get high."

"Yeah... guess this is pretty strong stuff."

"Anyway, I asked how old you were when you started smoking."

He thought for a second. "Fifteen, I think. That sounds about right. It was like two years ago."

"They let you do that? At work?"

"Not on the job."

"But where you guys live?"

"They don't care as long as we do our job."

She picked at a loose thread in the carpet. "You good at what you do?"

"I guess."

"Hey, thanks for earlier."


She was still picking at that thread. "I was trying to be funny. I was trying... you know, to show I was over the whole breakup thing. Like, hey, I'm over it, I can joke about it." A sardonic smile twisted onto her face. "I don't know. It was stupid."

"It was a pretty dumb joke, I'll give you that."

"Fuck you." She laughed, crawling over to shove at him. He let her.

She sat back on her heels then, watching Butch as he took another drag. He let his eyes get heavy, dim, but watched her in his peripheral vision all the while.

She shifted and laid down next to him, her head near his, near enough to kiss. He only had to turn his head and close those short two inches that separated them.

"Seriously." Her face filled his vision as Harry snored in the background and the movie played on. "Thanks."

He allowed himself a slow blink and took care to exhale away from her before turning his head to hers.

"You're welcome."

Bubbles checked the contents of the oven one last time. "Looking good."

"I've never helped make a pie before," Boomer said, drying his hands on a dish towel.

"You kinda still haven't," Bubbles said with a laugh. Boomer was sort of useless in the kitchen, though she figured it was more out of inexperience than something resembling Blossom's genuine lack of talent for cooking.

"Hey! I, you know—rolled stuff. With the rolly thing. And I helped with dishes!"

"Yes, packing them into the dishwasher was a big ordeal." She rolled her eyes theatrically and took the dish towel back from him to hang on the rack. "But seriously, thank you, Boomer." She floated up to give him a kiss on the forehead. "You were a wonderful kitchen assistant."

"Should I take that as a compliment?"

She giggled and tugged him out of the kitchen. "So... what do you wanna do now?" With a vague gesture at the living room, she suggested, "Um, maybe a movie? Or we could go for an evening walk..."

Boomer's eyes had trailed upward, and she followed his gaze to the open door of the bedroom she shared with her sisters. She looked back to see him now determinedly focused on the television, a guilty look on his face.

"You wanna see it?"

He looked at her in surprise.

"Only looking, obviously." She feigned exasperation. "Silly boy."

"Um... okay."

At the top of the stairs she made him wait while she ducked in to make sure there wasn't anything crazy like bras or underwear strewn across the room—not that there usually was, but it didn't hurt to check. After ensuring the place was safe, she beckoned him in.

"Don't tell my sisters you've been up here, though. I don't think they'd take that very well."

"Yeah, well..." He trailed off as he looked around, taking in the beds set up against three walls of the room. "You guys share a bedroom? Still?"

She shrugged. "Never stopped. I dunno. I mean, we used to gripe and moan about it, but... well, we tried sleeping in separate rooms once and that didn't work out. I guess we just like each other's company."

Boomer nodded, still looking around. He grinned and then pointed. "I can guess which bed is yours."

She looked at the tower of stuffed animals he was indicating next to her bed and laughed. "How ever did you guess?"

"I'm psychic." He drifted over, his eyes glancing out the windows, studying an empty easel by her bed, passing over the vanity she and Blossom shared. He stopped upon reaching her djembe, standing in the corner, and beamed.

"This is the drum you told me about?" he asked.

She hesitated before answering, "Yeah."

He pulled over the stool at the vanity and dragged the drum out, setting it between his knees. She tensed a little.

He passed his hands over the skin of it, a sad sort of smile on his face. Then, before she had a chance to feel sorry about asking him to give up something he had loved so much, he looked up at her and asked, "Play me something?"

Her eyes widened. "Huh?"

He stood up and waved for her to sit at the stool. "Here. I wanna hear you play."

"Are you sure?" she asked, recalling how disappointed he'd looked not five seconds ago.

"Really." He nodded as he reached a hand for her and pulled her close. "Play something for me."

She sat down, a little hesitant, and angled the drum between her legs, adjusting her skirt as she did so. Boomer settled down on the floor, his back against her bed.

"Can you sing while you play, too?"

"Getting demanding, aren't you?"

"Well, I can't make any music for myself," he said, and she clamped her mouth shut, her cheeks going slightly pink with shame. "No, stop, don't look like that. I'm not angry. I just... want to hear you play." He laughed a little. "You know... since I can't make music for myself, you'll have to cover for the both of us."

She gazed at him a long moment, then readjusted the djembe, tapped experimentally on it, and then, without taking her eyes off of his, began to sing.

There wasn't a clock visible from the dance floor of the club Blossom and Brick had gone to. In all honesty, though, the time was the furthest thing from Blossom's mind.

She and Brick had never danced together like this before, meaning out of their own volition and without the deadline of a performance. The only time she'd felt anything remotely similar was when she had subbed for Cindy. That seemed ages ago. That had been such an enlightening, enjoyable experience. Why had it taken so long to come to this, then?

Her heart skipped when he spun her, twirled her, guided her around him in a smooth, effortless arc. It felt so nice to have a partner who just knew how to do it right, perfectly... And they were both right, both perfectly in step and in sync and in tune and so connected; it was unreal that they could just sense where the other's feet were and what they were about to do...

A couple of hours passed without either of them realizing it, until the people closed in on them as the night crowds came surging in. They were forced to draw closer to each other, though neither seemed to mind much.

Brick was a steady presence, his arms always around her—or, failing that, very close by—and several times when some strange guy would try to muscle between them, leering at Blossom, Brick would round her away and draw her even closer, glaring death threats at the offender. It would send a delighted little shiver down Blossom's spine. Not that Blossom couldn't defend herself, but it felt wonderful to know that Brick, of all people, was looking out for her.

The night went on and she lost herself in his arms, dancing with him, and at one point she realized how very close they actually were, how there was no room to really dance or move their feet. They were just pressed to each other, her face nestled in the hollow of his neck and her hands skittering along the thin fabric of his undershirt. Both of them were sweating like mad; it was unbearably warm in here but she felt no desire to pull away.

There was something almost intoxicating about the lights, the music, the whole room, and certainly Brick. She could count the little speckles of sweat on his neck, all the way down to a beautiful little spot on his chest, skin stretched taut over the sternum. Blossom thought hazily back to when she was a kid, how sweat had tasted a little sour and sweet, and wondered—


She looked up, feeling Brick's hand pushing her hair back from her face and tilting her head up to look him in the eye. "Yes?" she said, her voice sounding unnaturally husky and raw, and her hands drifted along his back, feeling the muscles tighten under her touch.

"Let's go get some air," he blurted, and she blinked.


His hand closed on hers, and he began to carve his way through the crowd, Blossom close behind. It did feel hot in here all of a sudden, stuffy, humid with people's sweat and drinks, and when they made it outside even the polluted city smell felt refreshing in their lungs.

Brick paused for the briefest moment outside to suck in a breath, and then they were moving down the street, back towards where he'd parked the car. Blossom felt a sticky mess—she really was soaked, she badly needed a shower, and her hair was an absolute disaster—but despite it, she could not believe how much she had enjoyed herself.

I never would've expected it, she thought dizzily as she loped after Brick, her hand still clenching his. Never. I can't believe how fun that was. Even the obscene, skeezy people around them hadn't been enough to deter her mood. And in the hazy, yellowed street lamps, flickering in the dark, she knew with strangely ethereal clarity why that was.

She laughed in semi-disbelief, and he, him, Brick, he turned and stopped to look at her.

"What?" he asked, and his voice held onto that rough quality it'd taken on in the club. His eyes too were dark and heavy-lidded; he looked far away and yet that gaze still cut into her, stirred some painful longing in her chest. She let go of his hand and clasped at her front, feeling her damp shirt and how it stuck uncomfortably to her body, and that seemed very funny, so she laughed again. She realized with a start that she was still panting for breath, and stepped back a little, her chest heaving.

"I can't," she started, and had to smile, take a breath again to collect herself. She shook her head and closed her eyes, said, "I can't," again.

I can't believe I had such a nice time today, she was thinking, trying to say, but she couldn't get enough air. The lights from the club still flickered behind her eyelids, intoxicating, dizzying, like Brick and the scent of the sweat on his neck.

"I," she tried again, and opened her eyes. She froze, the lights behind her eyes disappearing.

Brick's hand touched her chin, skimmed along her jaw to the back of her neck, and he pulled her flush up against him and kissed her.

"My girl's got rhythm," Boomer said affectionately into Bubbles' hair. They were sitting next to each other on her bed, cross-legged with their backs against the wall.

Her arm wound around his and she sighed, leaning her head on his shoulder.

"And the voice of an angel," he went on. She nudged him.

"Stop. That's so cheesy."

He responded by kissing her temple, and she closed her eyes and smiled. He looked around, spotted something on her pillow, and picked it up.

"Who's this?" he asked, and she looked up to see Octi in his hands.

She laughed, taking her precious childhood toy from him. "My bestest friend ever, and the first love of my life."

"Really?" Boomer squinted at Octi. "He doesn't get jealous, does he?"

"Give him a second." She held the purple octopus up so his sleepy eyes could look into Boomer's. She set him on top of Boomer's head. "Octi approves."

Boomer exhaled. "Thanks for your blessing, Mr. Octi." He reached up and shook a tentacle, eliciting more laughter from Bubbles.

"It's just Octi," she corrected. "No need for formalities."

Boomer took him down and placed him back on Bubbles' pillow. "What now?"

She shook her head, turning her face so her breath puffed out against his neck. "Nothing. Just this."

He stroked her hair away from her face, again and again. "Okay."

Her arm drifted across his chest, up around his neck. She kissed him there, feeling his pulse quicken and his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. His leg shifted uneasily; her dress had ridden up and her bare knee was resting on his thigh. He inhaled, about to say something, then seemed to change his mind and just sighed.

She couldn't help but tease him. "You're so cute when you get all scared."

"What the—I do not get scared!" he cried, indignant. She held him fast so he couldn't pull away.

"Shh." She lifted her head, kissed his chin.

He was still pouting. "M'not scared."

"Of course you're not," she whispered, kissing the corner of his downturned mouth. He made a little Hmph noise and turned his face away from her.

Not one to be deterred, Bubbles bounced up on her knees and began to plant kiss after tender kiss against his unresponsive lips, a giggle threatening to spill out of her throat.

"You're such a five-year-old," she teased; already his frown was disappearing and his arms wove around her waist, holding her close.

"I'm pretty sure five-year-olds don't kiss like this," he murmured, and kissed her back, soft and slow. That was what Bubbles liked most about Boomer's kisses—how gentle they were, how hesitant. He did come off as a scared little boy, more than he or anyone else could know.

They kissed with their eyes closed, and without realizing it Bubbles crawled into his lap as his kissing began to get braver, deeper—

A siren-like buzz blared, and she pulled away from him with a great deal of reluctance.

Boomer looked frightened. "Is that the Boyfriend Killing Machine?" he squeaked, despite his clear effort to not squeak.

"No." Bubbles floated up and patted down her dress. "It's the hotline."

For all that Buttercup had vocally expressed how much shit she was going to give Harry for falling asleep, she had no trouble dozing off herself.

Butch had stopped the DVD player; Harry was still conked out and Mitch and the twins had dashed out to the convenience store, overcome with the munchies and having eaten their way through all the treats Buttercup had brought over, as well as a box of Brick's cereal.

Buttercup had fallen asleep on the carpet, sprawled on her right side. Butch polished off a can of soda as he sat next to her, studying her sleeping face. He set the empty can on the coffee table and recalled that one photo of Buttercup sleeping in Mitch's bed, looking very much like she did here, with the exception of the long hair. Despite the length, her hair still curled in circular, wavy patterns against the carpet, like black ink on a blank canvas.

He settled himself down flat on his stomach and played with a strand of it, picking it up and letting it fall into a different pattern each time. He traced the path it painted—her hair was smooth, and it smelled like... like something. Maybe just like her.

He took the end of the strand and dusted it along her chin; she twitched and groaned as her hand swiped at her face, but she didn't wake up. She settled back into sleep, her angry brow relaxing and her lips parting.

Butch's eyes trailed down, tracing the outline of her body. Funny how girly Buttercup looked when she was asleep. Her breasts smushed a bit against the carpet, and the line of her hip struck him as exceptionally curvy. The shadows—shadows that tucked themselves in the crease of her fly and spread along her lower leg and in between her thighs in an almost-sensual manner—only heightened her sleeping girlishness.

Butch rested his chin in his hand, staring at her and wondering with a little irritation how often Mitch had borne witness to this exact image. Mitch had said that they'd never done anything worth mentioning, which sounded stupid to Butch. He didn't understand how any guy could stand to keep his hands off her when Buttercup looked like this.

Except him. But Butch was different. He didn't know how, but he was different.

I get her, he thought, a little fiercely. We're going through the same shit, we understand where we're coming from. He'd never been able to talk about fighting with anyone else but her. Never mind that they hadn't talked about fighting or mortality or being better than everyone else in ages, nor had they even sparred, not once since the outburst at the beginning of the year...

I'm different. I get it.

Buttercup inhaled deeply in her sleep and curled into herself a bit, her lips parting that much more. Butch glimpsed the faint white of her teeth, just beyond her bottom lip.

She was never able to talk with Mitch about any of this shit, he thought, reaching a hand to stroke the swell of her lower lip. Buttercup's brow furrowed, but she didn't wake up, nor did she pull away from his touch.

Dimly, Butch applied a little pressure. She sighed in her sleep.

"Wake up, Buttercup," he said, so quietly that only someone with superhearing would ever hear it. She shifted and made a little moaning sound that sent his mind reeling.

He sat up and scooted away from her, unsure of what the hell was going on with his brain. His mouth felt thick and sour from the soda and the part of his hand that had touched her tingled. He forced himself to pull his eyes away from her.

I'm stoned, he thought, even though he'd barely smoked one joint. It's the drugs. I'm just...

Something went off, like an alarm, and Harry snorted as he shot up.

"I'm up, fuck, I'm up!" he shouted blearily.

Buttercup, too, had jerked awake, and she blinked before yanking her phone out of her pocket. She brought it to her face, her hair matted to her cheek and the imprint of the carpet embedded in her skin.

Butch resisted the urge to reach over and brush her hair away from her face as she slurred, "Hotline. Powerpuff hotline. It's Buttercup. What's up?"

It was a relatively chaste kiss, merely lips against lips, and it was with a great deal of reluctance that Brick pulled away from Blossom, unsure of what came next. His chest heaved with the arduous task of breathing—something was clearly wrong with him; he was breathing so hard—and the blood in his head was screaming, pounding as his heart jackhammered in his chest. He didn't untangle his hands from her hair, and then she looked up at him, and Christ, it was almost unbearable.

He felt her hands drift up, alight on his midsection, then, when he didn't pull away, they swept up his chest, along the side of his face and under his sweat-drenched cap into his sweat-drenched hair, and he gasped for one desperate gulp of air before she opened her mouth against his—

Her cell trilled a loud, earsplitting screech, and she yelped and they wrenched out of each other's grasp. They stared at each other for a brief, horrified moment, then she turned away and searched frantically on her person for her phone. Unable to find it, she paused, confused. Then she turned and stared at Brick's pants.

He jerked to and fumbled in his pockets for it—she'd given it to him in the car, of course, how had he forgotten? The distress signal was still beeping, loud and stubborn, and fuck, when had these pants grown so many pockets?

He finally located it and yanked it out, almost dropping it twice before practically throwing it at her. Again she turned away, and flipped it open.

"H-hello?" she said meekly, then cleared her throat and said, in a much more confident tone, "Blossom speaking."

Brick ran an uneasy hand over his head, then realized his cap was gone. He looked around, spotted it laying on the sidewalk, and picked it up.

"Bubbles, hi... jewelry store? I—yes, I'll get on it. I'll be right there. See you. Yeah. Yeah, bye." She shut her phone and turned, a little uncomfortably, to Brick. "I... I have to go."

The shrill cry of the distress signal echoed in his head. "Right. Of course."

"Can I grab my purse?"

Blossom followed Brick as he dashed to his car, opened the passenger side door, and dug her purse out of the glovebox. He handed it over and she looked at him, blushing as she shouldered it.

He jammed his hands in his pockets and averted his eyes.

"I..." she started, her face a bright, scalding red. "I'm... busy tomorrow."

Something wrenched in Brick's gut. He bit his lip.

"But I'll see you Monday?"

He inhaled to steel his nerves before meeting her eyes. The hope in her face was almost crushing, but he forced himself to look her in the eye anyway and twitched his lips in some semblance of a smile.

"Yeah. Monday."

She lifted off the ground, hovering. Now it was her turn to glance away. "I, uh... I had a really nice time today, Brick."

"Yeah," he said, trying to swallow down the lump that had risen in his throat.

She lifted her eyes to his again and still hovered there, unsure. Maybe waiting. But for what?

The memory of her lips pressed to his fluttered across his mind.

"You should—you have to go," he urged, gesturing and blinking too much. "Your sisters are probably wondering about you."

She nodded, a little too vigorously. "Yeah, okay." And then, a smile, a smile that twisted a little knife into his chest. "Bye, Brick."

"Bye," he whispered, then shook his head and tried to say it again in a stronger voice, but she'd already taken off. His gaze followed the pink streak as it sailed back to Townsville, already fading in the dark night sky. Even after it was gone he stared upward, moving to lean his back against the driver's side door of his car.

He buried his face in his hands, feeling wretched.

"Fuck," he whispered, and that didn't come out in as strong a voice as he would've wanted, either.

The next morning the Professor eyed Blossom with trepidation. He leaned over to Buttercup and Bubbles at the breakfast table. "What is wrong with your sister?"

They all watched as Blossom pranced about the kitchen, packing the picnic basket with food for their hike. She skipped to and fro, a distracted smile on her face.

"Nothing's wrong with me, Professor," she sang. "It's a bright and pretty day, is all."

The rest of her family exchanged looks. Blossom was not one for flightiness in the morning, especially on days where the family was going out. She was generally all business, harping on the rest of them about deadlines and missing daylight and why on Earth wasn't this stuff packed already, honestly, how could they expect to go anywhere if they were never prepared for anything?

"Um..." Bubbles started, then steeled herself with a smile and said, "That dress looks really nice on you, Blossom." She had borrowed one of Bubbles'.

Blossom giggled and twirled for her family's benefit, ending with a little curtsy. "Doesn't it?"

Buttercup, after a horrified moment's contemplation, reached for Blossom's glass of milk and sniffed it.

Blossom glanced outside. "Oh, let me go put my hat in the car. I might forget it."

"You never forget your hat," the Professor pointed out warily. "If it gets over eighty degrees you never leave without one for fear of sunburn and skin cancer."

Buttercup looked up. "Are we immune to that, by the way? The cancer, I mean."

"Oh, Professor, you're exaggerating. Be right back!" Blossom floated out of the kitchen, humming all the while.

"Okay, you know it's like... Bubbles transplanted part of her brain into Blossom's body," Buttercup said, gesturing with her spoon.

"I did not!"

"Of course you didn't, sweetheart," the Professor soothed, placing a hand on Bubbles' shoulder. "Did Blossom do anything special yesterday?'

"Yes, let's run through Blossom's exciting day to see if we can unravel this little mystery," Buttercup drawled. "First she goes to the museum. For school. For extra credit. Because she's Blossom, she spends, like, five hours there."

"She ate something at some point," Bubbles said. "She didn't come home for dinner."

"I saw two bowls in the dishwasher," the Professor said abruptly.

"I got hungry twice," Bubbles said with a shrug.

"So, what, five hours between the museum and a place that serves food. Maybe six total. Then what?"

"Then the bookstore," Bubbles said.

"Was she still there when the hotline buzzed?" Buttercup asked.

"I think so. I mean, I guess. I didn't ask."

"Wasn't it, like, three hours after she told you she was going to the bookstore?"

"Your sister could spend an entire day there, easily," the Professor pointed out.

"What bookstore is open past eleven?" Buttercup asked before polishing off her milk. At that moment Blossom flew back into the kitchen, flowers in hand.

"Look! These were blooming in the yard!" She had tucked one in her hair, and now did the same to Bubbles and their father. "One for you, one for you..." She reached Buttercup, who was glowering at her, daring her to touch her hair. Blossom studied her for a moment, then plunked her last flower into Buttercup's empty milk glass.

"And one for you," she said, unperturbed. Buttercup scrutinized the flower in her milk glass with what looked like ill-concealed malice.

Blossom sighed as she threw open the window and leaned against the sill, staring off into the direction of the city. "Oh my gosh, you guys," she said, her voice and stance wistful, dreamy. "Isn't it just a lovely day?"

The Professor looked between Blossom and Bubbles, then whispered, "Are you sure you didn't—"

"No part of my brain is in that girl's body, I swear."

Boomer eyed their leader from the kitchen, then leaned over to Butch and whispered, "What's wrong with him?"

Butch turned and looked at Brick, who was seated at the kitchen table with his head buried in his arms. He was still wearing the clothes he'd gone out in yesterday and smelled of day-old sweat.

"Nothing's wrong with me," he said, his voice muffled through his arms. "It's just..." He trailed off, then concluded lamely, "Nothing's wrong with me."

"Yeah, obviously," Butch said, bored. "Nothing wrong with a guy who slept at the kitchen table in yesterday's clothes and smells like a gym bag. Totally normal."

"I didn't sleep," Brick said.

"Oh, well, in that case," Butch snarked, rolling his eyes. "That does make it a little weird."

"Have you eaten anything since you got home, Brick?" Boomer asked.

"I'm not hungry," Brick muttered, a little petulantly. "Besides, somebody ate all my cereal."

Butch looked around and whistled.

"Well, do you want anything?"


"Are you sure?"


"Not even a shower?" Butch interjected.

"Later," Brick responded, head still buried.

"If you say so."

His brothers flipped on the TV and channel-surfed while Brick remained in the kitchen, his position unchanged. Eventually they retired to their own rooms, leaving Brick by himself at the table.

Slowly, Brick lifted his head. He stared at the sleeves of his shirt, which reminded him of last night. Not that much of anything wasn't reminding him of last night. But seeing his clothes made him feel like he should get out of them.

He rose against the protests of his stiff, aching body and drifted to his room, shutting the door with a soft click. Starting with his cap, he peeled his clothes off piece by piece as he floated to his bathroom. The porcelain tile was cold; he suppressed a shiver and cranked the water warm. It felt good to wash the stickiness off of him, even if running his hands over his hair and around his neck and shoulders reminded him of her touch.

When he was done, toweled dry, and clothed again, he laid on his back on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He hadn't turned the lights on and the daylight filtering through his blinds was dim; his room got more afternoon sun than it did morning. His body was grateful for the comfort of his bed, but despite the physical relief Brick didn't fall asleep. He turned over on his side, curling up a little.

I can't believe I did that.

What a stupid thing to do. His entire day yesterday had just been one bad decision after another; he hadn't thought anything through and as a result he had kissed her and now, now he had to contend with the consequences of his stupidity.

I shouldn't have taken her to the club. No, it went farther back than even that. He shouldn't have spent so much time with her at the coffeeshop. He shouldn't have sought an excuse or an opportunity to allow them to spend any more time together than was absolutely necessary. He shouldn't have walked around with her at the gallery, shouldn't have talked to her so much, definitely shouldn't have driven her around in his car or danced with her or touched her at all—

His memory fluttered to that moment of complete brainlessness when he had looked at her, flushed and panting and smiling, still looking radiant even in that ugly yellow light, and something had welled up in him, something that had made him reach for her and pull her close and press his mouth to hers.

His chest twinged, much like it had yesterday at so many points during the day, points where he should've turned around and come home. He ran a hand over his face and shook his head, wishing he'd never kissed her. Because when Brick had kissed Blossom, something had happened.

He'd felt something in him—no, her—no, in the very core of the Earth—shift. Something bright. Something like a match sparking into life. Something heavy, otherworldly, maybe even Heavenly, if he'd believed in a thing as silly as Heaven. The whole world—or maybe the universe, he wasn't sure—had changed.

I'm overdramatizing things, he thought. It was the moment. He had been wrapped up in it, in the atmosphere of the club and the dim city lights and the pretty girl. That was all Blossom was, really. Just a pretty girl. Her lips had been as soft as anyone else's. They'd puckered slightly, then yielded to the pressure of his, maybe with just a touch more hesitation. It hadn't been that much different from kissing Cindy, or any other girl.


He thought of Blossom in the museum, in the coffeeshop, in the club. He thought of her dancing, fighting, screaming at him until she was blue in the face. He thought of her in all the hundreds upon hundreds of photos he'd taken, of all the sketches he'd done of her, trying to capture that beauty—and before he could stop himself he was thinking She is, she is beautiful, she's stunning. She was almost heartbreakingly so.

And he had kissed her. And the worst part of it was how... fulfilled he'd felt when he had, how... like he was a puzzle, and she'd been the missing piece.

It's just the hormones. He was a teenager. It was to be expected. Of course he'd react to things like this with more emotion. He was only seventeen, after all. Teenagers were like walking emo bombs. Everybody was looking for a connection, and teenagers would react more strongly than anyone else. There were studies on this. It was all due to hormones. It was all chemical.

Brick ran a hand through his hair. That made it a little easier, when he took the time to break things down like this. It cleared his head. He'd forgotten for a second—or a day—that something like this absolutely could not happen because of who she was and who he was and what he wanted—no, needed—to do with his life. In all the time he'd been away from JS he'd lost track of his priorities. She had distracted him. And instead of remembering that she was a former enemy and would continue to be one if he managed to succeed at taking control of JS, he had let her. Fuck, he'd practically invited her to do so.

The buzz of the hotline last night echoed in his head. Even if he was seriously interested—which was impossible, by virtue of his age—she was a Powerpuff Girl. It'd never work. They'd never work.

Those wretched fucking adolescent emotions overcame him again, and he was filled with a sad sort of melancholy as he remembered how her hands had felt on his body, how they had brushed along the nape of his neck as she'd moved in for a second kiss.

The door to his room flew open, and he shot up.

"What the fuck, you two—"

"Cheer up, Emo Brick," Boomer announced. Butch trailed in after him, a lit joint in his hand. His bed bounced as his brothers flopped onto it.

"Don't suppose you're gonna tell us what's up," Butch said, taking a puff.

Brick sighed and leaned back on his hands. "Fuck off."

"Thought so." Butch offered Brick his joint. Brick stared at him for a second, then reached for it. He closed his eyes as he inhaled, then passed it on to Boomer, who did the same. The joint made its rounds, over and over in an endless circle as the boys reclined on Brick's bed.

"Yep," Butch said, after some time.

Boomer laughed. "You said it."

Brick watched the smoke spill out of his mouth and float up to the ceiling. In the dim daylight the smoke could look like anything, like a girl, or a dancing couple. He blew it away.


Blossom's good mood persisted all the way through Monday morning, inspiring her father to go through the medicine cabinet "just in case." Honestly. Her family was being so silly.

She woke up a little earlier on Monday to take her time making herself presentable. She considered a dress, but then thought that might be too forward; instead she opted for her favorite jeans and a nice blouse. Up or down with the hair? She tried it out a million different ways before settling on her standard hairstyle. She didn't want to make it seem like a big deal or anything. She had kinda half-hoped he might call on Sunday, but then she'd reminded herself that she'd told him she was busy, and Brick seemed like the type of guy who'd listen to what you said and respect that. If he respected you, of course.

Her family was still wary at breakfast—Buttercup greeted her as "Frankenblossom"—but she assured them they had nothing to worry about. She didn't feel the need to tell them just yet. Besides, she wanted the Professor to calm down before revealing to him that she was dating again.

Dating Brick. Just thinking it made her giddy and she couldn't fight back her blush. They weren't practicing this morning, and she only had two classes with him today—Physics and Environmental Science. They didn't sit at the same table in the first, but were pretty near to each other in the second. Her heart thrilled at the thought of him showing up at the studio, before classes started, just to see her.

Maybe, she thought, allowing herself that small hope as she got changed and went into the studio. If he showed up to surprise her she wanted to be doing something lovely, something pretty. She put on something slow and proceeded to dance likewise—fluid, graceful. And then she'd turn, and he'd be at the door, stupefied by her beauty, and she'd look surprised and blush and say Oh my gosh, Brick, I didn't even realize—

Maybe he'd start dancing with her. Maybe they'd just sit and talk, or he'd offer to take her out for a quick coffee before classes started. Or maybe he'd just kiss her.

She glanced frequently at the door, wondering, wondering, and when the bell rang and Brick had not shown up once she could not help but feel disappointed. Dance, then, was spent making excuses for him in her head while she led the class through warm-ups. Her favorite was that he actually had made the attempt to come see her, but had been so overwhelmed by a sudden shyness about what had transpired Saturday evening that he couldn't bring himself to actually do it. Okay, that was a bit out of character, but it was Blossom's favorite, nonetheless.

She bolted to Physics, opting to linger outside to keep an eye out for him and... well, maybe walk in together, or something. The class began to fill, the minutes ticked by, and still Brick did not show up. Blossom paced, her gaze darting ever to the clock, and finally went inside alone five seconds before the bell rang. Brick was still not there.

Thirty seconds after she had taken her seat he walked in. She straightened in her chair, her chest going light.

"Tardy, Brick," the teacher said flatly.

"Sorry, sir," he muttered, and took his seat. He didn't even glance her way. Blossom sat back, confused.

She came up with more excuses for him as class went on, though these were feebler. Her confidence was shaken a bit. Had she imagined things? He'd seemed... receptive Saturday night. Was he just embarrassed?

It is a school day, she told herself. They had things to concentrate on, classes to go to. Of course.

But... he could've just spared a glance, or something. Again she thought he might just be shy, but that was seeming less and less likely the more she thought about it...

Then she remembered how he had stuffed his hands in his pockets after she'd gotten the call, how he'd looked away from her, his face flushed and his voice soft, stumbling over words and stammering. So unlike his usual stoic self. Her heart swelled at the memory. She wasn't giving him enough credit. Every boy got shy in the face of a girl he genuinely liked, right?

She tried something different in EnviroSci; they were a row and one seat apart. Instead of waiting for him this time she walked right in and took her seat, her eyes on the door. Again, Brick was the last to walk in, though he made it before class officially started.

He had to pass by her to get to his seat, and she smiled at him and quipped, "Beat the bell this time, huh?"

"Yeah," he said, and took his seat without another word. The smile dropped off her face, and she swallowed as she faced forward, embarrassed.

No excuses this time. There was something wrong. Why else would he be acting so strangely? The thought flew into her head: what if their benefactor had changed his mind? What if he wanted the boys to leave now? This weekend? This night, even?

You're being irrational, she thought. She had no evidence. She hadn't even talked to him yet...

They had the late lunch together. The second the bell rang he was on his feet; she had to make an effort to catch up to him. What on Earth was the matter?

"Brick!" she cried, sounding too desperate. She grasped his sleeve and tugged, and he stopped.

She colored when he turned to her, his expression detached. "Yes, Blossom?"

A lump knotted in her throat. There was no warmth in that tone; it was nothing like the gravelly voice with which he'd spoken to her on Saturday, all flirty and playful and suggesting things Blossom would never admit secretly thrilled her.

"I... I think we should talk," she said, feeling very much like a little girl and regretting that she hadn't worn the dress. "About... you know, Saturday, and what we..." She waved her hands about, searching for the right word.

"Are," she finally said, her shoulders slumping a little.

Brick—still looking neutral, almost uncaring—looked around, then indicated an exit. "Let's go outside. To the roof, maybe."


He did not take her hand. He did not smile. He did not even look at her. All Brick did was turn away from her and start for the exit. He didn't even wait for her to catch up.

Brick had meant to talk to her before this. Each time, though—before school, before both their classes—he'd hesitated. Not because he was a coward; that had nothing to do with it, absolutely nothing. He just couldn't. That was all.

It took an enormous amount of willpower to keep his expression blank. He was so nervous. He couldn't believe it; after all the shit he'd been through rejecting a girl should've been a fucking piece of cake.

His hands felt numb as he pushed open the doors, and he shook them out as he floated to the top of the school. He landed with his back to her, waiting until he heard the soft tap of her shoes against the concrete before taking a deep breath to steel his nerves.

One breath wasn't enough. He was still nervous as fuck. He inhaled again, and then, once more.

"Brick," Blossom said, her voice confused but level, and how did she manage that? "What's wrong?"

He felt her hand at his wrist, and before he could stop her she touched him. He drew his hand away and instantly wished he hadn't. Fuck, why had he kissed her? He could practically see her now, stunned, like a wounded animal.

"Look, Blossom," he started, and everything he'd thought of saying to her up to this point vanished from his mind. He couldn't recall any of it. All that remained was I can't, I can't.

"I... Saturday, it just got..." He thought of turning to her and realized that if he couldn't do this with his back to her, how would looking right at her make it any easier? "It got kind of... heavy, for both of us, I think. And I don't know if that's... if that's something that's right, right now."

He waited for a response, then, when he heard nothing, he added weakly, "You know?"

Silence. He wondered if she was still there. Just as he was about to turn around and check, he heard her say, quietly and coolly, "No. I don't—I don't know what you're saying."

"I'm saying," he started, and he didn't know either. He closed his eyes. "I want—"

No, stop, his brain said. That's not it. You can't share what you want with her.

He swallowed and tried again, blinking like mad. "I think Saturday night was misleading. I don't think... I don't think we should... go from that."

Another pause. Finally, Blossom said, "I still—I still don't know what you mean."

He cringed. Fuck, what did she want him to say?

Just say it. Tell her you can't. You've got these goals, and it just wouldn't work, no matter how much you want—

No. He couldn't say that.

"I just want to go back to the way things were before Saturday," he said in one hasty exhale.

All these silences in between were agonizing. Brick swallowed, waiting for her to say something and wondering if he should.

"You mean," she said, her voice quiet, almost a whisper. "You mean... like it didn't happen?" A disbelieving laugh broke the last word; it sounded bitter, hurt.

That's not what I mean, he thought, but he knew that was exactly what he'd said. In reality, he needed things to go back to how they were before he'd ever come back, before he'd ever even laid eyes on her again. She was distracting him, she was messing up everything—

He squeezed his eyes shut. "I just can't do something like... like a relationship, right now. I mean, it's just... you know, we're only seventeen, and right now, there's just no room for something like this... in my life. I just don't think we're ready for this, right now," he said, trying to make that sound final, conclusive. He turned his eyes downward and stared at the cracks in the concrete.

"I'm sorry," he added, and he meant it. He meant it with every fiber of his being.

She still said nothing. He wondered if she was angry, or sad, and his curiosity overwhelmed him and he finally turned to face her.

It was the latter. But there were no tears. She only looked at him, those wide eyes of hers drooping a little, as if she'd just woken up. When he turned to face her she blinked, then cast her eyes downward, at their feet. After a pause, he did the same.

"Okay," she said, and God, that voice of resignation made him regret everything. She nodded, then looked up, a thin smile on her face. "Okay. You're right. It's... you're right." She took a deep breath and exhaled, forcing a little laugh. "We've got a lot going on, so... yeah."

The false brightness of her expression was too much to bear. Brick looked guiltily off to the side.

She clapped her hands together, once, then rubbed them. "So, um, I've got—I better go eat lunch, the period's half-over."

"Yeah," he croaked, feeling miserable.

"I'll see you," she said, backing away.

"Yeah," he said again. He looked up as she turned away, his stoic expression failing him now that her back was turned to him. She floated to the edge, and he winced and said, "Blossom?"

She froze for a moment, then angled her head, just enough to look back. He'd composed himself again by then.


"I... you know, for what it's worth, Saturday... I had a really good time. A great time, even. With you."

He knew that he might regret this a million times over later, but all he wanted at that moment was for Blossom to not look like that, to not try and look so okay when it was so clearly the exact opposite.

She held still for a long moment, staring past him.

"Yeah. Me, too."

And then she disappeared off the edge of the roof. He heard her touch down on the concrete below.

He took a deep breath and hated himself for the way he shuddered as he did so. It was weak and it was stupid and it was all thanks to those fucking teenage hormones, they kept fucking everything up, everything with him and with her and with his future...

He flew off the other side and down to the school parking lot where he landed next to his car. As soon as he was seated and had his keys halfway to the ignition he stopped, realizing he needed to be home, he needed to be home right now, and so he got out and picked up his car and just flew. He forced himself to set his Coil down in the garage carefully, trying to keep himself from throwing it—damaging it would only be another thing to hate himself for later—and then he was dashing up the stairs, through the door of their apartment, and into the training room that he hadn't touched in months. He punched blindly at the console, shedding top layers of clothing in the process, and locked himself inside. He needed fighting, a distraction, something, anything, anything to keep him from thinking about it, about what he'd said to her and how horrible it had felt to glimpse that look on her face as she'd tried to smile and say it was Okay when even he knew, even he felt it was anything but.

Blossom sat on the curb for awhile, grinding the soles of her shoes against the gravel. Then, because it occurred to her that somebody might see and ask what she was doing there, she got up and went to the cafeteria. She ran into Buttercup and lied about going out for lunch; she wasn't hungry. Her sister shrugged it off, but gradually grew suspicious.

"Hey, you're not nearly as... 'up' as you were this morning," Buttercup said, eyeing her. Blossom shrugged.

Her next class went by in a sort of blur, though she made an effort to concentrate. It was easier than she expected to not think about what had happened on the roof, and she buried herself in her notes and her textbook. After that there was dance practice with the Company; Homecoming was next month and they had to practice their routine for the game.

She felt okay. Yeah. It had stung, of course—quite a bit, really—but from a rational standpoint, Brick had a point. They were only teenagers. Wasn't this why she had avoided dating for so long? Because of the immaturity of those surrounding her? Perhaps there was a bit of irony in having encountered someone who—while maybe not quite mature, but at least above average compared to other boys—wasn't interested in getting into a relationship for the very reason that because of their age, they couldn't be mature about it.

By all accounts, Brick had made the right decision. They were too young, really. Really.

Blossom started the girls warming up. It felt good to sink into the routine. She was so used to this by now that even her commands were automatic and she could allow her mind to wander as they went through their stretches. In retrospect, though, maybe allowing her mind to wander wasn't the best thing.

Inevitably, her mind went to the conversation on the roof. She had, in all honesty, been pretty... disappointed. Brick had not touched her. In fact, he'd barely looked at her. He'd even pulled away from her when she'd only tried to touch his wrist, and that had been quite a blow, to see him recoil from her like that. Like she was some sort of disease.

Stop that, she scolded herself. Don't exaggerate. Though Brick could've handled that better. Did he have to pull away? He hadn't had a problem with holding her hand on Saturday night—but wait, they were supposed to pretend that hadn't happened. She went numb at the thought, then shook her head, tried to rationalize it. Saturday evening was a loss of control, of discretion. Brick was right. It was better to pretend that it hadn't... that they hadn't...

Her heart gave a sudden lurch, and her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and repeated, louder, "Switch sides and hold."

The girls did so. Blossom swallowed, but the lump in her throat didn't move. It made her think of Brick's neck as she'd stared at it in the coffeeshop, in the club, how he'd let her skim her hands across it as she drew herself up and—

She inhaled sharply, almost a gasp. A few of the girls looked at her. She blinked furiously and announced, "Okay, up girls, and bend, nose to your knees."

As they all complied she pushed her hair back, trying not to think about it. Don't think about it.

So then, of course, the only thing to do was exactly that.

Saturday, all in a flood—talking to him for hours, watching him consider the coffeeshop pastries, sitting in his car and the way he had twisted to back the car out, her ribbon, the dancing, the holding, the kiss—

Burning behind her eyes, then, and she stood, turned to Mel, and said, "I'm sorry, Mel, please take over."

The Senior Lieutenant blinked and said, "Sure. Is everything—"

"I just need some air," Blossom said, already on her way to the door and losing feeling in her legs, no, all over. "I just don't feel very well. I'll be back."

It was better outside. It was easier, less stifling, and she paused to take a deep breath of it and closed her eyes. She could almost feel his lips on hers; the memory was that vivid and sharp in her mind, and her eyes flew open and she gasped again. Her vision was swimming, and she stumbled around the corner. The main building was on one side and the athletics building on the other, with a small, canopied walkway connecting them, and it was here that she stopped, her hands skimming the rough concrete wall and yet numb to the sensation of the building against her skin.

She pulled up the old t-shirt she wore over her dance clothes to dab at her eyes and sniffed, trying to take deep breaths to calm down. Her breaths hitched as she inhaled, and it felt good to do that, so then she thought maybe crying would make it better after all, and that did it.

Blossom collapsed against the side of the building as her tears spilled over, dripping on the concrete, her knees, her arms; she didn't bother to wipe them away. She tried to be quiet about it in case somebody came—God, she hoped nobody would come—and clamped her mouth shut so her sobs wouldn't be so loud. When she hiccuped, then, there was only a small, subdued squeak.

God, this is so pathetic, she thought, trying to make it funny, but that just made it worse.

She pressed herself against the wall in her crouching position, trying to bury herself in it as she sucked in her breaths through her teeth and sniffled and squeezed her eyes shut, feeling tears spill out anyway. He could've at least touched her, or hugged her! How could he ask her to pretend it hadn't happened? How could he ask her that? Why had he kissed her? Why had he taken her to the club, or walked with her at the museum? Why had he let her into his car? They used to hate each other, and now he was telling her they couldn't be together because they were too young and irresponsible, but they were more responsible than anybody, they were more mature, so why couldn't they be responsible and mature together?

The happiness that had overcome her when he'd kissed her in that horrible city was still crystal clear in her memory. How could she forget something like that? How could he ask her to just forget a moment in her life that was one of the happiest she'd ever experienced?

I thought, she started, and then tried to stop, but it finished itself. I thought he liked me.

She held her t-shirt over her face and tried to get her breathing to even out a little. She would manage a few breaths and then relapse, so it took awhile. Eventually, though, she was breathing pretty normally, with only a hiccup here and there, and she rose to her feet, her legs shaking a bit. She took one last, deep, calming breath, and rubbed her soaked t-shirt over her face, trying to dry her eyes as best she could. She was still sniffling a little—she couldn't go to practice like this. She couldn't let anyone see her when she was so volatile.

I'll call it a day and go home, she thought.

She heard a door open, and she hastily turned to round the corner back to the studio entrance.


Buttercup's voice was confused, and Blossom halted, clearing her throat as she turned just enough to glimpse her sister staring at her from the canopy, on her way to the athletics building.

She held up a hand and grinned. "Hey, Buttercup."

"What are you doing out here?"

"Air. Just getting some air." An uncontrollable sniffle punctuated the statement; Blossom wasn't wracked with crying anymore, but she still wasn't a hundred percent.

To Blossom's dismay Buttercup caught it. Now her face was concerned as she stepped forward. "Why are—your eyes are red, I mean, redder than usual... and what the hell's up with your shirt?"

"Language," Blossom said, then added, "Um, allergies. And I had a bad run-in with a water fountain." She sniffed and took a deep breath.

Those sharp green eyes scrutinized her. Buttercup's brow was knitted with what passed for worry on her.

Finally Blossom looked away and said, "Um, hey, I'm going home. I'm not feeling so great."

"Yeah, okay," Buttercup said, nodding. "That sounds like a good idea."

Blossom smiled and waved as she turned. "Bye, Buttercup."

"Bye." After a pause, Buttercup added, "Blossom, feel better."

"Oh, I'm fine," Blossom chirped, not looking back.

I'm fine. I'm okay. I'm fine.

Blossom's appetite was not much improved by dinner, but she took a few token bites and pushed her food around a bit before asking to be excused.

"Quite a bit of homework," she explained to her family.

On her way up the stairs she heard Buttercup say, "She barely ate."

Blossom shut herself in their room and sat at her desk. Honestly, she had nothing to do. Since she'd come home early she had blasted through all her homework already. The only thing left was to read more of Agnes Grey for English. As she tugged it out, she suddenly remembered—the extra credit. She'd gone out on Saturday and Sunday and had completely forgotten about it. It was due tomorrow.

She powered on the computer she and her sisters shared and reluctantly thought back to Saturday. What had she thought she might do her piece on? She remembered the shadow sculpture and the couch.

She bit her lip and typed up her heading. The poems. What had the poems been?

"Um," she said aloud, and her voice cracked. She didn't want to do this again, but she felt it coming on anyway.

No. Focus. This was just an assignment, an extra credit assignment, and in order to do it she had to remember the poems. This was separate from him. Brick had nothing to do with this.

since feeling is first—

may i touch said he—

Blossom covered her face with her hands. She clambered out of her chair and sat on her bed, her shoulders shaking and her hands wet with tears as she prayed that this bout of crying would finish before either of her sisters made it up here.

Bubbles hummed as she floated up the stairs while Buttercup helped the Professor clean up after dinner. She had to change for tonight's date...

She swung the door to their bedroom open and froze. Blossom was sitting on her bed hugging her pillow to her face to muffle the noise—the only way Bubbles could tell she was crying was from the telltale hitching of her shoulders.


At the sound of her sister's voice Blossom tensed, but her crying didn't stop. Bubbles dashed to her side, pulling the pillow away so she could comfort her properly.

"Blossom, what's wrong?" she asked, smoothing her sister's hair back and wiping away some of her tears. Blossom squeezed her eyes shut and tried to cover her face with her hands, stifling a sob.

"Shh, it's okay, Blossom, please, tell me what's wrong..."

Blossom couldn't take a breath without hiccuping or sniffling, but after a few tries she finally managed, "S-S-Saturday... I saw Brick..."

Bubbles' eyes widened as she stroked her sister's hair. "Uh-huh?"

Blossom swiped at her eyes. "And we... and we went out..."

Bubbles felt a sudden, tense anger build up in her. "And then?"

Her sister buried her face in her arms and sobbed.

"Blossom, Blossom, shh," Bubbles soothed.

"We just..." Blossom sniffled; Bubbles had to lean close to make out the words. "We had such a good time... I thought..." She started to clutch at the bed, feeling around for the pillow, and Bubbles pushed it aside and pulled Blossom into her arms instead, rubbing her back and shushing her.

"It's okay," she repeated again and again as a fresh wave of sobs wracked her sister's body. She had never seen Blossom like this before; she was usually so composed, so above her emotions. What had happened?


Blossom looked up, horrified, and Bubbles turned to see a frantic Buttercup in the doorway, already moving towards them.

"What's going on?! Why are—you were crying earlier today too, weren't you? What's the matter?"

Bubbles spoke up. "Something happened with—"

"No, no, it's nothing," Blossom sniffed, batting at Bubbles to stop. She was inhaling deeply, trying to calm her breathing down. "I'm just really hormonal right now, that's all—"

"Bullshit! What's wrong?"

Bubbles looked up at Buttercup, but Blossom clenched her arm and when she turned back to her their leader's eyes beseeched her, begging her not to say anything.

"It's okay," Blossom told Buttercup, hiccuping and swallowing. "I-I'm okay—"

"Are you kidding me? I found you crying at school, you barely ate a thing at dinner—I'll bet you didn't eat lunch, either; you told me you went out—"

"Girls?" The Professor's voice rang out downstairs, and all the girls winced. "What's going on up there?"

Blossom leaned forward and shouted, her voice cracking, "Nothing, Professor!"

She said it too loudly, which immediately announced to their father that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

"I'm coming up," he said, and Buttercup leaped up and slammed the door. "Girls!"

"No, no, no, don't let him come in," Blossom hissed to Bubbles, tearing up again.

"Are you going to tell me what's wrong or not?!" Buttercup cried.

"Buttercup, please," Bubbles said. "She's upset, can't you please just give her—can you leave us alone, please?"

Buttercup gaped at her sisters, looking like she'd been punched in the gut. "What?!"

Bubbles just shook her head and turned back to Blossom to soothe her.

"I'm her fucking sister, too! Why don't—you guys never want to tell me anything! You—I asked you earlier today, Blossom, and you lied to me, and you're doing it now, too—"

"Buttercup," Bubbles said sternly, "she didn't lie to you—"

"Stop covering for her!" Buttercup shouted, and the Professor pounded on the door.

"What's going on in there?!"

Buttercup was taut with anger. "You guys are always doing this! You never want to tell me anything, you always keep me out of the loop, you always gang up on me and—"

"Nobody's ganging up on you!" Bubbles cried. "We're just asking for a moment—"

"Fine!" Buttercup exploded, and shot out the door in an angry streak of green, past a stunned Professor.

"Buttercup! Girls, what the—what on Earth is going on?!"

Boomer was just about on his way out the door when he got a phone call.

"Hey, Bubbles," he greeted, smiling. "What's up?" As he listened, his smile faded. "Really?"

Butch looked up from the couch where he had settled in for a night of television. The door to the training room opened, and a soaked Brick emerged and quietly shut the door.

"Dude," Butch said, "you've been busy."

Brick grunted in response.

Boomer knit his brow and said, "So you wanna take a rain check on tonight? ...Okay. Is she okay?"

Both of his brothers looked up at him.

"Who?" Butch said sharply. "Is who okay?"

Brick stared at Boomer, wide-eyed, one hand still on the doorknob.

"Alright, yeah. I'll talk to you later. Bye." Suddenly he blushed, then, in a much more subdued voice, "Me too."

Butch bolted upright as Boomer shut his phone. "Is something wrong? What happened? Who were you two talking about?"

Boomer shook his head. "She didn't go into detail, but—"

He was interrupted by pounding at the front door, and Buttercup's voice screamed, "Butch! It's me!"

He exchanged glances with both of his brothers, then shot to the door and flung it open. Buttercup stormed inside, her shoulders stiff with anger.

"I can't stand those two! Ugh! I swear to God, I can't fucking stand them!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, what the shit?" Butch cried, watching her stalk back and forth in their living room. "What's wrong?"

"Fucking Bubbles and Blossom!" Buttercup snapped. "It's like I'm not even part of this God damn family! You know?! I see Blossom crying at school—"

Brick suddenly hated himself, more than anything.

"And then she lies to me about it, shebarely eats anything at dinner, and when I go upstairs she's in our room bawling to Bubbles, and both of them immediately shut up when I come in and nobody wants to tell me what the fuck is going on!" Buttercup stopped in front of a bewildered Butch and, without looking at him, shouted, "I'm their fucking sister too! They're always doing shit like this, they've always done it! Ever since we were kids they'd always talk to each other about this stuff, they'd always leave me out, they'd only ever share secrets with each other, and you know, fine, whatever, you can do whatever you want, but when something's wrong, really wrong?! To the point where Blossom—Blossom—is in tears about it?! And they don't wanna tell me?! Like I wouldn't care?! Like I wouldn't get it?! That's bullshit! Fine! Fuck them! If they don't wanna treat me like I'm part of this family, then fine! I'll stop giving a shit!"

"Jesus Christ, Buttercup, calm down," Butch said, and her head snapped to, livid.

"Don't give me that shit! I'm pissed off and I'll calm down when I'm ready to calm the fuck down!"

"Okay, okay, fine, be fucking angry." Butch raised his hands in surrender. A strange look entered his eyes, and before she could turn away he snatched her arm and said, "Hey, come on."

She halted, blinking at him. "What?"

"Just come on," he said. "You can keep screaming if you want, but just come on."

Both his brothers watched as Butch led Buttercup out of the apartment, slamming the door behind them. Boomer turned to Brick.

"Geez, what the hell do you think is going on over at the girls' place tonight?" he wondered.

Brick's gaze was far away. He didn't respond.

Boomer frowned and stepped a little closer. "Brick?"

Brick looked at Boomer as if he'd just now realized the blond was there.

"Everything okay?"

Brick inhaled and held his breath for a second before sighing, "Yeah." He turned and started for his bedroom. "Yeah."

Buttercup looked around, a little confused. Butch had taken her to an asteroid belt, not unlike the one she and her sisters—If I can call them sisters, Buttercup thought bitterly to herself—had retreated to all those years ago, before the city had wanted and loved them.

Now they were landing on one, the rocky surface of the asteroid crunching under their feet, and Butch finally—she'd almost forgotten—let go. She hesitated, then rubbed the spot where his hand had clutched her arm.

He turned to face her, his gaze still looking strange, almost distracted. "You still pissed off?"

She blinked at him, then muttered, "Of course I'm pissed off."


She huffed. "Because... they don't fucking tell me anything, they don't treat me like—"

"Bullshit," he said.


"Bullshit that's your problem," he snapped, his face vicious and unkind. "Your problem is you're a worthless piece of shit."

Buttercup gaped at him before screaming, "What?!"

"You heard me," he growled. "You wanna know why you're so pissed off? You're pissed off because you don't like your sisters calling you out on what a useless little bitch you are!"

Buttercup sputtered for an indignant moment before recovering her voice and shouting, "Fuck you!" She turned and stalked away.

Butch was close behind. "You got some nerve, coming and crying to me—"

"I'm not crying!" she snapped.

"And whining about how unfair it is, how mean they are to you—"

"Shut up!"

"Like a little pussy, that's what you are, you think you're all tough but you're still just a little fucking girl who goes crying to her friends—"

She whirled on him and screamed, "Why the fuck did you bring me here?!"

"Some fighter you are," Butch spat, disgusted. "Your sisters didn't make you feel like a worthless little bitch, you just are—"

Before she could think twice about it Buttercup drew her fist back and punched him in the jaw, and then, before he could recover, she charged into him, sending debris sailing into space as the two of them hit the ground, snarling.

Bubbles had thwarted the Professor by claiming Blossom's moodiness was due to girl troubles of the monthly variety. He had still been intent on getting to the root of it, but Bubbles had insisted, and eventually he'd retreated back downstairs.

Curled up next to her on Blossom's bed was her heartsick sister, the last of her sniffles subsiding. When finally alone, she'd literally cried on Bubbles' shoulder, her endless tears soaking the cotton of her shirt. Bubbles stroked her sister's hair, mulling over everything Blossom had told her.

"I see his point, but I don't much like it."

Blossom sniffled.

Bubbles took a deep breath and sighed. "I should've made you come home for dinner."

"We were having such a nice time," Blossom mumbled.

"You did. It sounds like it."

"I can't believe he wants to forget it all happened."

"He's a boy," Bubbles said sagely. "Boys are stupid."

"This one's smart."

"No boys are smart when it comes to girls."

Blossom sighed. "I don't know how I can look at him without wanting to burst into tears."

"So stay home for a day or two."

Even through her swollen, teary eyes, Blossom glared at her sister. "I'm not missing school."

"Then just don't look at him." At the look of uncertainty on Blossom's face, Bubbles added, "Though, yes, it'll probably be hard not to. He's pretty, after all."

Blossom squeezed closer, and Bubbles gave her a reassuring hug. "Why doesn't he like me?" Blossom mumbled, her tone childlike, plaintive.

Bubbles thought about it, about saying, It's not that he doesn't like you, it's just that he doesn't want to let himself like you, but decided against it. How would saying that out loud to a heartbroken Blossom make anything better?

Instead she kissed her sister on the forehead and whispered, "To Hell with him. I like you."

Buttercup panted for breath, her muscles aching and joints sore. Butch was draped on top of her, his elbows shaking as he propped himself up; he, too, was panting. Her fist opened against his stomach, skimming along the tense muscle before gliding over that chest of his, rising and falling in an incessant, almost calming pattern of movement.

She bumped her forehead against his shoulder as she pressed her cheek to his sweaty neck and whispered, "Thanks. I needed that."

One of his hands thumped clumsily against her head, and she laughed. "I was ready for that, too," he breathed, and she rolled him off of her, an awkward laugh breaking her heavy breathing.

He gulped some air before saying, "I grabbed your hair pretty hard, did it—"

"I didn't lose any," she said, patting the side of her head. Her scalp was sore from where he'd yanked her hair, but even in the heat of the moment he hadn't torn anything out. She remembered something and sat up, despite the protests of her muscles, and started feeling around. "Ah. Here."

She turned, offering two of his teeth to him in her upturned palm. He sat up, then took them and spit on them to clean off the dirt before setting them carefully back in place.

"Sockets didn't close up yet, did they?" she asked.

"Nope, still fresh," he said once he'd taken his hand back out of his mouth. He ground his teeth a little, wincing as he evened out his loose teeth.

"Sorry," she said sheepishly.

"Naw, it's nothing. Good as new in a minute." He brushed his hand along the bruise on his jaw. "Got me good, there."

She sniffed and rubbed the back of her hand along her face, pausing to study the blood she'd smeared from her split, swollen lip. "You didn't do too bad yourself."

"Your arm okay?"

She rolled her shoulders, wincing a little. "Still there."

"It made a pretty gross sound when I—"

"It's still there," she repeated. She nodded at his knee. "That?"

He glanced down.

"Your knee looks like fucking Octomom's stomach."

"Looked a lot more like it a minute ago," he said. "Can't move it much right now."

"I think I shattered it," she said guiltily.

"Yeah, well." He grimaced. "Ugh, weird. I can feel the bones moving back into place."

"Fucked up!"

"Yeah, and all the little muscles and tendons, or what the hell ever they are..." He sucked in a breath, sweat breaking on his forehead. "Chemical X isn't doing shit for the pain right now."

"Probably not, if it's having to reconstruct a knee." She placed one hand on his shoulder and another on his chest. "Come on, lie down."

"Oh, Buttercup, I know you wanna get busy, but wait till my knee's fixed up—"

"Fuck you, Pencildick," she sniped, but she was grinning as she forced his back to the surface of the asteroid. After a moment's contemplation, she crawled over behind his head so she could lie on her stomach and stare at his face upside down. "Still hurt?"

"Barely feel it," he sneered, but then winced and hissed a breath. If Buttercup listened, she could hear a faint grinding noise coming from his busted knee.

She reached for both of his arms and clasped his forearms; he clenched back. "Something to hold onto," she explained, not needing to.

"Couldn't you just let me grab your tits instead?"

"Fuck off, or you'll have to wait for two knee repairs," she warned.

Butch laughed, and she smiled. A stretch of silence passed, during which Buttercup watched his own smile fade. A few times he grimaced and clenched her arms, his good leg scraping against the ground as his other went about the tedious process of self-repair.

"You... feelin' better?" he finally asked.

She chewed her lip—gently, since the swelling hadn't completely gone down yet—and finally nodded. "Hitting something did just the trick."

He laughed again. "Didn't just hit something, you cut up my jaw and fucked up my knee. You were hardcore pissed off."

"You worked me up pretty good."

"Good," he replied. Then, after a pause, "Good?"

"Yeah. I told you, I needed that."

A small, slow smile worked its way onto his face. She watched it form, almost mesmerized at the gradualness with which it appeared.

His eyes flicked to her chest, and he said in a sing-songy voice, "I can see your bra."

Buttercup found she couldn't bring herself to care about it. "Your fault, ripping up my clothes."

"You ripped mine up, too," he whined.

"Don't see your bra showing."

"I like to let it all hang out there, you know."

She started laughing. "Right." She paused. He was still staring. "Butch."

His eyes snapped back to hers. "My bad." He swallowed as she glared at him. After a long pause, he said, "Black?"

She blinked, then realized what he was referring to. "Dark blue."


"Why the surprise?"

"Don't strike me as a blue kinda gal."

"What, then?"

"Maybe polka dot."

"Fuck you."

"Right," he said dimly, staring past her into the vastness of space. She shifted a bit to get more comfortable, and the ends of her hair dangled in his face, tickling his skin. He tried to blow it away. She laughed.

One of his hands squeezed her arm—first gently, then a little harder. "Your hair's too fucking long," he said, his voice thick.

She snickered and swished it in his face; he made spitting noises.

"Seriously, you should cut it."

"Been meaning to," she said, the smile on her face almost apologetic.

"You look better with short hair." He was still staring past her; she could see the stars reflected in those deep green eyes. "You should get it cut." After a moment, he added, "Makes it harder for me to grab if we happen to do this again."

"So you're giving me a handicap in the next fight, is that it?" She nodded at his knee. The swelling was already going down, and he was clenching less. "If anything, you oughtta get the handicap. Wasn't my knee that got all fucked up tonight."

"Mmm. This weekend. Let's go."

"Go where?"

"To get a haircut."

"You, too?"

"Why not?"

She sighed and looked up, taking in the endless empty blackness of outer space, marred by the glittering of an uncountable number of stars. Butch's hands shifted against her forearm, not clenching anymore, just touching.

She thought back to Blossom in tears, clutching at Bubbles as if she were her only lifeline. It had looked familiar. It had even felt familiar. Her brow furrowed.

"Sure," she said, her hand tracing a light circle on Butch's elbow.

Blossom was lying in bed, unable to sleep and curled towards the wall when she heard Buttercup finally come home. She watched her sister's shadow glide along the wall, pausing over Blossom. Nearby, Bubbles' heavy breathing was faint and regular, lost in sleep.

Blossom shifted and did not look up. Buttercup stood there a long moment, studying her.

"Three days," she said, her voice soft, and Blossom's eyes widened, just a little. How did Buttercup...?

"But that's all you're getting from me," Buttercup added, and then moved to get ready for bed. Blossom curled into herself a little, unsure whether to respond or not. Instead she just laid there, long after Buttercup had succumbed to sleep herself. Her sisters' deep, regular breathing was an odd comfort in the dark stillness of their room, and she didn't feel quite so much like bursting into tears as she listened to them inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.

I'm better than this, she thought, tracing shapes into the wall with her eyes. I'm better. I'm stronger. I have to be.

This was such a small thing, in the grand scheme of things. This was so insignificant. Of course, it didn't feel that way now, but she was young and it was her first real rejection, so it was only natural for her to react in such an emotional manner. She could dwell on it, or move on. The smart choice was, obviously...

She had to stop pining over Brick. And that was the truth: she was pining. It was impossible to deny something that had become so obvious—Saturday was all the evidence anyone would need to show just how "into him" she'd been.

But now I have to move on, she thought, a little dismally. But of course she'd be dismal about it. Who wouldn't be?

In any case, he could not see her like this. He couldn't know how much his rejection had affected her. Then he'd just pity her, and Blossom... Blossom was not someone to be pitied.

I'm better than that, she thought again, jaw set and face hard. I'm stronger.

A part of her clung to that memory, that precious moment of sheer happiness when Brick's lips had met hers, and she felt tears well up in her eyes again. She squeezed them shut and took a deep breath.

I have to be.

Sleep never came to claim her, but daylight was bright and early, as always, and by the time her sisters awoke Blossom was already dressed and on her way out the door.

Brick sat in English, irritated with himself for letting his nerves get to him. She hadn't looked at him once in Statistics—that had been their second class today—though, granted, they sat on opposite ends of the room. But previously—and it had gotten to this point without either of them realizing it—something they'd always been able to count on was the weight of each other's gaze when one of them wasn't looking.

Well, Blossom had refused today to even acknowledge Brick's furtive gaze, period. He'd had to remind himself that was the way it should be, and really, he'd only been staring because...

She doesn't look like she's been crying, he'd thought to himself. Maybe her eyes had looked a little puffier, as if she hadn't slept much, but she didn't seem... he hesitated to say heartbroken, but wasn't sure what to say in its place.

Maybe he'd misunderstood. Maybe she'd been upset about something else. Or maybe she was just over it already.

The thought filled him simultaneously with frustration and disappointment. Plus a sort of resignation. He'd basically asked her to get over it, hadn't he?

In Art, Bubbles had not talked to him once or cast an eye in his direction. Well, that had kinda killed his theory that Blossom might be upset about something else. Bubbles had canceled a date with Boomer because Blossom had been upset, and now even the cheerful blonde was ignoring him. Funny, how class had been quieter, and yet Brick had found it vastly more difficult to attempt work. Especially with English looming...

He fidgeted in his chair as the students filtered in. He checked to make sure his stuff wasn't situated too near to her seat, then flipped through all his things to keep his eyes from going to the door. He didn't want it to look like he was just waiting for her to show up.

He recognized her footsteps and was angered by how tense he got, how quickly the color rose to his face. He didn't dare look up and rifled blindly through his things as she slid around him and took her seat.

He stared at a handout he'd received in Econ. "Hey."

"Hello," she responded, her voice painfully neutral.

Then that was it. Brick stared at his handout for a while longer before setting it down. He finally chanced a look at her; she had opened Agnes Grey and appeared devoutly focused on reading. Even up close she didn't look like she'd been crying. Maybe tired, at most. He thought of asking her how she'd slept, then decided against it.

"How... are you?" he finally said.


Her eyes were glued to the page. Brick looked away, a part of him bothered by her response, or lack of it. He wanted to say something else to her, but he couldn't think of a fucking thing.

He looked back at her. "Really?" he asked, his voice coming out softer than he'd intended.

"Yes," she said. Again, not looking up.

Brick's eyes drifted back to his section of the table just as the bell rang.

"Alright, class," Mrs. Yang announced. "Who's got extra credit for me?"

Brick's eyes widened. He'd forgotten! In the midst of all that had happened since Saturday, he'd totally—

"Blossom?" Mrs. Yang asked, when the girl didn't rise with the other few students, and Blossom looked up.

"I didn't do the extra credit, Mrs. Yang," she explained, her voice a little tight.

"I—you didn't?"

"Some things came up," Blossom said.

Mrs. Yang stared, then looked down at her desk and made a note. "First time for everything," she muttered. She looked up again. "Brick? What about you? Did you go to the E. E. Cummings exhibit?"

Brick thought back to when Blossom had first appeared in the museum, glowing in the soft daylight. He suddenly missed that image, missed that afternoon, that entire day, with a childish longing that nearly made him sick to his stomach.

"Brick?" Mrs. Yang asked again, and he looked up. Even now the memory of that day was fading, faster than he wanted it to, and even if it was for the better he tried to cling to it, wishing he could etch it into his memory in permanent ink.

"No," he said, the words feeling heavy in his throat. She was sitting right next to him and did not so much as glance at him. "I didn't do the extra credit, either."

Three days, Buttercup had said, and Bubbles had probably said it, too—after all, she'd originated it in this family. Blossom was remarkably undemanding, save for a couple of things.

First, every day Blossom came home from practice, set down her stuff at the coffee table, and said, "Girls. Homework."

A grudging Buttercup and Bubbles would take their places at the coffee table and suffer through their assignments. Blossom made sure they were working, too, rather than just staring at the table.

Second, she asked Buttercup to make a new French dessert for each of those three days. After dinner Blossom would help herself to two servings and eat it at the table in silence, unless the Professor asked her questions. Her responses were limited, and after she retreated to their room he would exchange looks with Bubbles and Buttercup as if to say, "What's wrong?"

Blossom wasn't talking much at all; she'd only speak when spoken to. Bubbles was brave enough to chance a question one night:

"How's the show with Brick coming along?"

Buttercup looked up from where she was struggling to finish her homework on her bed, amazed that Bubbles was trying to instigate conversation.

Bubbles added, "Have you guys been practicing?"

"No," Blossom said, and that was that.

It didn't occur to Buttercup until later that there might have been something significant about Bubbles asking in the first place.

Boomer attempted a little softshoe around the apartment as he got ready for his Friday night date with Bubbles. He managed alright, but...

"Hey, Brick," he said, an anticipatory grin on his face. "Show me how you do this."

Brick was at the dinner table, staring at his homework. "I'm busy."

"You've been stuck on that page for the past twenty minutes and haven't written a thing. The shit you're busy. Humor me a second."

Brick sighed the sigh of one most heavily burdened. "Don't feel like it."

Butch called from his room, "Boomer! There's a really fucking scary horror movie out! Take your girl to that and she'll be crawling all over you!"

"What's it about?" Boomer asked, grooving his way into his jacket.

"Ghosts in a couple's house at night. Do it. Me and Buttercup and the boys are checking it out tonight. Supposed to be scary as shit."

"I don't think Bubbles will go for that."

"Fuck, do you always let that chick decide everything for you two? Don't you ever get to do what you want?"

"I just want to spend time with her," Boomer said, and there was the slightest of huffs from the kitchen table. Boomer looked at Brick just as Butch emerged from his room.

"Whatever you say, homo," Butch said, shrugging.

"You're a dick."

Butch turned, sneering as he opened the front door. "The biggest there is! Peace, brothers. See you later."

The door slammed, and Brick said, "Butch has a point."


"You let that girl get to you. You listen to her too much, you drop everything you're doing if she so much as utters a word, and honestly? You're spending way too much time with her."

Brick sounded serious, and Boomer reacted the way he usually did to his brother's lectures: with lighthearted humor. "Well, she is my future bride-to-be—"

"No, she isn't," Brick said sharply.

"Got a house picked out and everything—"


"Names picked out for the kids—"

"Cut that out!" Brick bellowed, jumping to his feet. Boomer halted, his smile fading at his brother's outburst.

Brick was glaring at him; Boomer couldn't tell if his eyes were glowing or not. Tension worked its way up and down Boomer's nerves.

"Break up with her."

Boomer stared at his leader, stunned. "What?"

A humorless Brick repeated deliberately, "Break up with her."

Boomer blinked a couple of times, forced a bewildered laugh, then turned away and scoffed, "Fuck you."

Brick was suddenly at Boomer's elbow, and he whipped his brother around to face him. "I'm not playing, Boomer."

Boomer made a half-hearted attempt to jerk his elbow away. "Neither am I," he muttered, not looking Brick in the eye.

"You want to do it that way? Fine. I'm ordering you—"

"We're not on the job; you can't order me to do a fucking thing," Boomer spat, and wrenched his arm away.

"You don't do it now, then I'm going to make it a lot harder when we are on the job," Brick snarled. Boomer said nothing and zipped up his jacket, even though it was still warm enough not to. "And don't think that just because you're my brother I'm going to make it easy—"

"Fuck you," Boomer muttered again. "Fuck you, you fucking—fuck you."

"Boomer, ever since you've gotten together with her you've acted like a leashed dog. You follow her around everywhere, you don't do anything unless she's there, your whole life now centers around her—"

"Jealous, Brick?" Boomer snapped, and Brick's arm tensed.

"Who told you to quit the band?" Brick said viciously.

Boomer turned away.

"If you know what's good for you, Boomer—"

"Don't fucking threaten me," Boomer warned, wrenching the front door open.

"You'll dump her ass—"

"Shut up!"


"I love her!" Boomer shouted, and Brick flared.

"No, you don't, jackass! You don't even know what the fuck that is—"

"Go fuck yourself, Brick," Boomer snapped, and slammed the door. Brick almost went after him, ready to beat some God damn sense into him, because fuck, what did Boomer know? What did he know about anything? He didn't get that this was all his stupid teenage emotions getting in the way of rational thought, that he was blinded by affection for her, and she had no idea, she wasn't looking at him, she wasn't talking to him, no matter if she was only doing exactly what Brick had suggested they do—

Brick stopped, his hands flying to his temples. "Stop," he hissed aloud; he was talking about Boomer, he was thinking about Boomer. Boomer was being an idiot. Boomer had let himself be trapped. And by who? A fucking Powerpuff Girl, a fucking enemy, or at least former enemy, someone on the wrong side, someone who threatened everything Brick needed to accomplish in his life with her stupid voice and her stupid legs and all her stupid fucking brains and talent—

"Stop," he said again, squeezing his eyes shut, but that only made her image sharper in his mind, and he could almost feel her arms encircling him, almost feel her lips on his, a ghost of a memory that he was never going to rid himself of no matter how much he wanted to or how much he tried.

The doorbell buzzed, and Bubbles looked up from the vanity. Boomer was early...

She dashed down before the Professor could emerge from the lab—she had just finished getting ready—and opened the door.

"Hey," she started, surprised. "You're ahead of—"

Boomer took her face in his hands and kissed her, hard. She suppressed a gasp, then, after a second, patted his arm.

As he pulled away, she blinked and whispered, "What—what's wrong?"

Boomer's face was conflicted; he looked as if he were somewhere between going on a rampage or maybe bursting into tears. His gaze was fixated on their feet, and he gulped, still touching her face and stroking her cheek.

"I love you," he breathed, still unable to look her in the eye, and her heart stilled. She heard shuffling coming from the lab; the Professor was moving up the stairs, and she maneuvered them outside and shut the front door behind her as they took off.

They flew aimlessly—they'd talked about going to see a movie tonight, but it didn't seem like Boomer was in the mood—until finally Bubbles touched down at the docks, deserted on Friday evenings, with Boomer's hand in hers.

"Bold of you, to kiss me like that with my dad there," she said, smiling at him.

Boomer stared at their clasped hands. "Yeah."

After a long moment she gave his hand a reassuring squeeze and drew up close to him. "Hey." She ruffled his hair, and finally he looked up at her. "Is everything okay?"

"I mean that," he blurted, swallowing again.

She smiled. "I know."

"I really... I love—"

She pecked him on the corner of his mouth. "I know."

His arms went around her waist and he pulled her close. "He... he wants me to break up with you."

She snorted as she hugged him back. "Brick doesn't strike me as the sensitive type."

"He doesn't get it," Boomer whispered, his grip tightening.

"Something tells me Brick's not going to get a lot of things," Bubbles said cheerfully. Like a girlfriend.

"He was saying... saying that I let you rule my life, that I'm too... too into you, or something..."

She could hear the franticness in his voice, how he was struggling for words, trying to make sense of it by saying it out loud. She kissed his shoulder, trying to calm him down.

Boomer barreled on, unable to stop. "He just... he doesn't understand. He doesn't know. He doesn't know how... how I feel when I'm with you, how you make everything else just not... matter."

The faint smile that had appeared on her face—an attempt at lightheartedness, at diffusing his almost panicked state—faded. Boomer clung to her, and all she could do was hold him and listen.

"Brick keeps—he has plans, and great, so he's got plans, for him and me and Butch, and I... I just, I always go along with him, because he's my brother and the leader and it's not like I've got anywhere I want to go or anything I want to do, so I might as well, right?" His hands drifted down her back, clenched around her even tighter. "But this... I want this. I want you. You're like... you're the only thing I've ever wanted, and I mean, really wanted, in a way that makes me..." He took a shuddering inhale and shook his head. She waited, her heart numb at this, at hearing all of this...

"That makes me not care about anything else," he said, and her breath left her; she wanted to kiss him, she wanted to hold him and kiss him forever. "And he should let me have it! Because it's the only thing that makes me feel... I mean... you know, Brick's the boss, and he's got the brains, and Butch is the psycho, or whatever you want to call it, and he's got the muscle, but I've got nothing. I've never had anything. I'm just the fucking runt, the clown, I don't do anything, they don't need me for anything..."

"Shh," she whispered, petting his hair. "Boomer, don't—"

"No, it's true," he said heatedly. "I've never had anything that was really mine. I mean, even my... even my music thing..." He trailed off, his grip on her loosening.

"Boomer?" she said, her voice quiet.

He pulled away from her, his eyes downcast. He shook his head again, stepping back. "And that's something even you won't let me have, just because I made a deal with Him for it, and it's like, you don't think I can take care of myself or make my own decisions—"

"Boomer, no!"

"And it's just like Brick! Neither of you want me to do things on my own—"

"That's not it—"

"You don't trust me, you guys don't think I can handle Him, or a girlfriend—"

He wasn't looking at her. He was staring at the ground, his expression growing more upset by the second, and Bubbles grabbed his face and tilted it towards hers, pressing their foreheads together.

"Stop," she said. "Stop, for a second. Okay?"

Boomer swallowed, then sighed, closing his eyes and reaching a hand up to grasp one of her wrists. As Bubbles pulled him in for a tight hug, she mulled over everything he'd just said, trying to dissect it, analyze it. She hadn't realized how much of a little boy Boomer was, how much he bought into this idea that he was the dumb one who couldn't do anything, to the point where he assumed everyone thought that of him and resented them for it. It made her sad, that he felt that. She kissed him, her mouth soft, trying to offer him some form of comfort.

Boomer pulled away again. "I," he started, then looked her in the eye. "I think... I think I should tell you something."

"Auuuugh!" Buttercup stood outside of the theater and flapped her hands as she shook out her nerves. "Holy shit! Holy shit, that was freaky."

"Yeah, fuck driving home alone," Mitch said with a shudder. "Harry, come on. I'll give you a ride home. Fuck, I'll even sleep over at your place tonight."

"Like hell you will," Harry said in mock disgust.

"You guys don't wanna do anything else?" Butch asked.

"Well, I don't know about you, but I sure as hell don't want to be getting home at two AM or nothing tonight," Buttercup said. "My sleep's going to be fucked up enough as it is."

Mitch lifted an eyebrow. "More so than when you saw The Grudge?"

"Oh, fuck that movie!" Buttercup cried, laughing. "That was cruel! Putting that bitch in the bed?! Bed's supposed to be one place you're safe!"

Mitch laughed and said to Butch, "She kept me up on the phone for weeks after we saw that—she refused to fall asleep without talking to someone—"

Buttercup kicked Mitch in the shin. "Mitch! Go to hell!"

"Oh my God, that reminds me of the best Halloween costume ever," Lloyd said.

"The year we did The Ring? Holy crap, yes!" The rest of the group, sans Butch, broke into laughter.

"What was so funny about that?" he asked.

Buttercup swept her hair into her face and said, "Back then I had long hair, so I just, you know, draped it so it covered my face. Dressed up like the ghost chick, and the guys got all made up like they were my victims. Then we just trekked all over Townsville and stood in elevators, waiting for people to get on." She cackled as the rest of the guys laughed. "Ugh, it was awesome! People were freaking the fuck out! The doors would open, and they'd see the guys lying on the ground all blue and dead with those crazy fucked up expressions, and I'd just be standing there in the middle of it all—we got kicked out of so many hotels that night."

"I think we're permanently banned from a few of them," Floyd said.

Butch gave a good-natured laugh. "Sorry I missed that."

"We gotta think up something good for this year," Harry said, rubbing his hands together.

The group voiced their assent, and after recounting some of their less successful Halloween exploits they went their separate ways. Butch and Buttercup lingered, waving as the guys split for their respective cars.

Butch looked at Buttercup. "You going to Robin's party tomorrow?"

"Yeah, we live right next door. She's, like, one of our best friends, besides. You?"

"Yeah. I mean, probably."

"I guess I'll see you there, then," she said, and held up a hand. "See you."

As she turned and took a few steps before preparing to take off, Butch said, "You don't want an escort home?"


He sneered at her. "Make sure the ghosties don't get you?"

"Oh, fuck you!" She laughed, beginning to hover. Butch did likewise and started to trail after her.

"I mean, just to be safe!" he called.

"Like I'm any safer with you!"

But she didn't tell him to go home, all the same.

Bubbles paced, feeling Boomer's eyes on her. He sat on the edge of the docks, his legs dangling over the water, and didn't seem to like the distressed look on her face. He turned his eyes back to his knees.

She took a deep breath and finally said, "What... what kind of... 'jobs' do you do?"

He looked at her, his mouth compressed into a thin line, and she closed her eyes and covered her face. "No. Don't tell me. Don't. I don't want to know, actually." He'd told her everything except that. Well, she assumed everything. She couldn't know for sure. But Boomer had seemed so sincere. Besides, why would he make something like this up?

"You—you're not going to break up with me, are you?" he asked, and she looked up to see him twisting towards her, his face mirroring the panic she'd heard in his voice.

She bit her lip and sighed, then sat next to him. As she leaned her head on his shoulder and reached for his hands, she whispered, "No." He sighed in relief, and she brushed her hand along his, again and again.

She cleared her throat, then asked, "But... are you guys... done? Do you have to go back and do... more?"

Boomer hesitated, squeezing her hand before answering. "I... I have to help Brick out with something."


"Like... in four years."

She sat up in shock. "'Four years?' That long?"

He nodded. She blinked at him before slumping again, not leaning on him this time.

"He's my brother," Boomer said. "I... I need to help him."

"What does he—no, wait, never mind." She buried her head in her arms. "I don't want to hear it."

She could feel Boomer tensing beside her. "But after that I'm done. Forever. I'll come back here."

She lifted her head just enough to rest her chin on her arms. "Four years is a long time, Boomer."

"I know it sounds long, but... but I'll come back," he finished lamely. Then, in a stronger voice, "I swear."

The conviction in his voice touched her, and she glanced at him. At the look she gave him his steely expression crumpled. "Please don't fall in love with someone else when I'm gone."

She couldn't help it; she gave a little laugh.

"I mean it!" he cried, pleading.

"Just..." she whispered, laying a hand on his. "Just don't... don't do anything bad. Anything else bad. While you're here." She leaned in a little. "I want to see you be a good person. I need to know you can be."

He nodded fervently, resolutely. "I can. Anything."

She gave him a small kiss. Then she leaned on his shoulder, staring off into the sky. Four years. They'd barely been together a couple of months. She didn't know him, not really. They didn't know each other.

He turned his face into her hair. "Promise me you won't fall in love with someone else, Bubbles?"

I don't know, she thought to herself, trying to be realistic. I don't know what I can promise.

"Please," he whispered. "I love you."

That was true, though. In this moment, here, she loved him back, despite everything he'd told her. That made it a little easier.

"I won't," she said, and it wasn't a lie. "I promise."

He sighed against her in relief, and she wove an arm around his waist.

"Hey," she said, and he pulled back to look at her. "Next month. Boomer... will you go to Homecoming with me?"

He blinked at her, dazed, then broke into a delirious, happy smile.

Blossom stared out of their bedroom window and heaved a sigh. That Saturday morning, Robin had chalked a message on their driveway, huge and easily readable from a mile above. It singled Blossom out.


"She is such a dork," Bubbles said, giggling as she drifted by the window.

Blossom looked at her. "You almost done?"

Bubbles fluffed her hair. "Blow-dried and dressed and just about ready to go! Going to drop by Boomer's first."

"Why doesn't he just meet you over..." Blossom trailed off. Bubbles had snatched a pair of haircutting shears from the vanity.

"I want to go give Boomer a trim before the party—"

A bolt of pink zipped to Bubbles' side and grabbed at the back pocket she had stuffed the shears into.

"I can't let you do that," Blossom said, her expression grave.


"Has Boomer seen what happens when you get a pair of scissors in your hands?" Blossom had no ties to Boomer, but on a moral level she could not allow him to be dealt the cruel fate that she had faced at her sisters' hands.

"Oh, Blossom, that was years ago!"

"Do you cut your own hair, Bubbles?"

"Of course not, I can't see the back." Bubbles tried to wave her away. "Now let off, he's waiting—"

"I cannot stand by while such a heinous deed is about to be committed," Blossom said.

"Ugh, fine." Bubbles grasped her wrist. "You come with me, then, and do it yourself."

"Wait—what? What? That wasn't what I meant!" Blossom cried, but by then Bubbles had already thrown open one of the windows and catapulted the both of them into the air.

"Um." Boomer blinked at a less-than-thrilled Blossom as Bubbles tied a towel around his neck. "Why the change in plans?"

"You want a haircut, not a butchering, right?" Blossom asked, and Bubbles pouted at her.

"I just want a trim," he clarified, leaning into Bubbles' hand as it drifted across his cheek. They were situated in the dining area of the boys' apartment, having pushed the table and chairs off to the side. Blossom had looked uncomfortable at first, but she'd squared her shoulders and refused to let the setting get to her. She was the mature one, after all.

"Brick already left, you said?" Bubbles asked him, her eyes on her sister. Blossom started to examine his hair.

"Went for a drive not long ago," Boomer said. The scissors began to snip around his head. "Um... do you cut hair often, Blossom?"

"I cut the Professor's occasionally, but that's it."

"She cut Buttercup's hair, once," Bubbles added. "She's handy with the scissors."

Suddenly a key turned in the lock, and the three of them looked over to see Brick entering the apartment. Bubbles winced, her gaze darting to Blossom. Blossom shot down the panic that rose in her throat and kept her expression stoic.

"Brick!" Boomer said, surprised. "Back already?"

"I forgot—" Brick looked up, his eyes catching on Blossom. "Something." After a second, he cleared his throat and said, "Um, what are you guys doing here?"

"Giving Boomer a haircut," Blossom said stiffly, before either of the blonds could respond. She resumed snipping. "Don't trust Bubbles with scissors, which led to me getting manhandled into doing it."

"I didn't manhandle you!"

"Brick," Boomer said, a little roughly. He made sure Brick saw him reaching for Bubbles' hand; she let him grasp her. "Haven't you been talking about getting a haircut, too?"

Bubbles kicked him, and he looked at her in shock. "Ow!"

"Careful," Blossom reprimanded. "Jerk around like that and you're going to wind up with a lot more hair missing."

"He's been talking about getting his hair cut!"

"Not the time, Boomer," Bubbles hissed through gritted teeth.

"If you want a haircut, Brick, give me a minute and I'll be done with Boomer's."

Bubbles gaped at Blossom. Brick swallowed, unnerved by the forced neutrality of her tone.

"Do you want one or not? I'm already over here with scissors, anyway."

Forced contact might be good, he thought. He might get over this quicker, then.

Within five minutes Boomer was dusting the loose clippings from his hair while Brick settled in the chair. Blossom shook out the towel and tied it around his neck rather mechanically; he expected to feel the tingle of her hands brushing along his neck but no such luck. She then pushed the cap off his head, into his lap. He stared at it as she wet her hand in a bowl of water and combed it through his hair. His chest lurched at the contact despite her brusque movements, and he clenched his fists underneath the towel.

"How short do you want it?" she asked.

"Short," he said. "Short."

Bubbles leaned against the wall, cocking her head to study him. Boomer had retreated to his room to change. "Close to the head would be good, Blossom."

"Alright, then," Blossom said, and snipped off the hair gathered at the nape of Brick's neck. "Say bye to your mullet, Brick."

"Wh—I did not have a mullet!" Brick snapped, his discomfort forgotten.

Blossom grunted as she shook his hair out and began cutting.

Brick scowled for a while, irritated by the snide remark. Eventually, though, it faded, and he was only aware of her hands, drifting around his head, skirting the nape of his neck and his scalp as she snipped away.

Within minutes Bubbles was smiling. "Looking good."

"I'm a pro," Blossom said quietly, then came around to the front. "Just gotta do your bangs."

And then she was there staring right at him, and he tensed, trying not to stare back. She may as well not have been looking at him, though. Her eyes seemed to barely skim the crown of his head; hell, she almost seemed to be looking past him. At first he'd averted his eyes, but, after getting the dim sensation that he wasn't really being looked at anyway, his gaze gradually slid back up. Her expression was flat, unchanging. She merely gathered up what remained of his too-long hair, closed the shears on the strands, then went about evening them out.

"There." She lifted his cap, blew some loose hair off of it, and thumped it back on his head. Brick stared at the orange clippings on the floor, then angled his head to watch as she... left.

"See you guys at the party," she said, and the sound of the door slamming almost stung. After a moment, a numb Brick tugged the towel off. Bubbles was sweeping up the floor.

"Are you going, Brick?" she asked, and he wadded up the towel into a ball.

"I..." In truth, he hadn't been planning on it. Well, in truth truth, he had been planning on it, but then last Saturday and... yeah.

But she wasn't being hugely emotional about it. She seemed to have taken it okay, even if she was being a little cold. It was better than tears and screaming. Maybe he could just talk to her. Tonight. Maybe.

"Yeah," he said, standing up and scratching his neck. "Yeah, I'm going."

"She cut your hair?!" Butch grabbed Boomer and shook him. "Why didn't you call me?!"

Boomer tossed his brother off, and a few of the other partygoers dodged him as they made their way up Robin's walkway. "I didn't know she was going to cut my hair! Besides, what the hell, you were out already getting your own haircut!"

"Which does look sharp, if I may say so," Buttercup volunteered.

"I like yours too, Buttercup," Bubbles said, playing with the shortened black strands. Buttercup made a noise and swatted her away.

Butch looked on the verge of tears. Buttercup patted him on the shoulder. "Oh, Butch. It's not like Blossom would've willingly touched you anyway."

Butch moaned. Bubbles peered at a grocery bag he had with him. "What's that for?"

He snapped to and shielded it from the rest of them. "'S a surprise."

Buttercup's gaze hardened. "This is a friend's house. If you're going to try anything—"

"It's not going to fuck up Robin's house, I swear. It's not targeted at her."

"'Targeted?'" Before Buttercup could press the issue, she spotted Brick approaching. "Hey! You got your hair cut, too?"

"Yeah, Blossom did his, too," Bubbles said.

Butch's jaw dropped as Brick passed them and grunted.

"I hate my brothers," Butch whined. "I hate you both so very, very much."

Brick ran into Julie and Mike, and made small talk with them in the kitchen while he kept his eyes peeled for Blossom. He didn't want to actively go looking for her just yet. It was a party. Nobody was in a hurry.

"Brick, have you heard about the photos yet?" Julie asked, jarring his attention.


"For Modern Girl."

"Oh... no," he said, grabbing a can of soda and popping it open.

"I'll bet that was something," Mike said. "I heard from Bubbles that they had these ridiculous costumes—"

Julie groaned. "Oh, Lord, don't remind me."

"They were terrible," Brick agreed, his eyes suddenly drawn to the flash of orange-red hair in the dining room.

"Oh, Brick, I didn't even notice you got a haircut!" Julie pointed at the nape of his neck. "Usually you keep your hair pulled back. Take off your cap and let us see?"

Brick merely shifted his cap back on his head.

She rolled her eyes. "Brick."

"I took my cap off, I just did it at a speed too fast for normal human beings to see," he said, eyes wandering to the dining room. Red bow. It was Blossom.

Julie turned her attention to Mike. "So," she said playfully, nodding in the direction of the dining room. "Care to explain why Robin is wearing your letter jacket?"

"She was cold," Mike said.

"Right. How long has—"

"Excuse me," Brick said, and moved for the dining room. Blossom and Robin had just disappeared around the corner. He reached the doorway and lingered, watching them climb the steps to the second story, and, once they were out of sight, he trailed after them. Robin had led Blossom to a second living area upstairs, where Butch, Buttercup, and the rest of their friends plus a few others were gathered in a circle, laughing.

As Brick reached the second story landing Robin dashed by him to what looked like her bedroom. Blossom was resting against the banister, but when she saw Brick she instantly took off after Robin and shut the door.

Brick stared, speechless.

The smile on Buttercup's face dissolved as she watched Brick turn and trudge back down the stairs. Mike bounded in past him and joined the group, sitting cross-legged next to Mitch and the twins. "Are you kidding me?!" he laughed, pointing at the empty bottle in the center. "Spin the Bottle? What are you guys, like, twelve?!"

"It's not Spin the Bottle, it's Truth or Dare," Bubbles clarified from the corner, where she and Boomer were lounging on the couch, chatting with some friends from Choir.

"Oh, so you guys are, what, thirteen instead of twelve tonight," Mike amended, snickering.

"Miiiiiike," Boomer jeered. "Why is Robin wearing your letter jacket?"

The room Oohed and whistled in response.

Mike bit his lip to suppress his grin. "Because she's coooooold."

"Riiiiiiiiight." Mitch rolled his eyes. "You in or what?"

Mike dove for a bowl of popcorn. "What're the rules?"

Buttercup chimed in. "No stripping, no Frenching, no groping, no—"

"Well, the hell with this," Mike said, and made as if to go.

"That's what I said!" Butch exclaimed.

"Let's get Robin back in here and he'll stay," Kim said.

"And no flashing," Buttercup finished. "That's it."

"Okay, well, come on." Mike settled in. "Whose spin is it?"

"Bobby, go," Kim said, moving from the couch to sit next to her boyfriend in the circle. Bobby spun the bottle, where it eventually stopped on Butch to scattered applause and catcalls.

Butch spread his arms wide open. "Dare. Bring it on, fucker."

"Kiss the hottest person in the room."

"Oh, please, that is so unoriginal!" Harry groaned, and a number of other folks voiced their assent.

"Damn!" Butch looked distraught. "Blossom was just here!"

"I thought there wasn't any kissing!" Mary cried.

"No Frenching," Bobby corrected.

"Double damn," Butch said.

"Just so you know, I don't want you choosing me, Butch," Boomer announced. "I mean, I am pretty hot and all, but that's just sick."

Buttercup raised her hand. "Excuse me. I would pay good money to see that happen."

"I'm in Buttercup's camp on this one," Kim added, raising her hand as well.

"Me too," another girl said.

"Same," said another voice.

"I'm very susceptible to peer pressure," Mary said, raising her hand.

"Count me in," Bubbles said, and at the horrified look Boomer gave her she shrugged. "Why not?"

"I'd rather kiss Brick than you," Butch sniped at Boomer.

"Holy crap, I'd pay twice as much to see that happen!" Buttercup shouted, raising both hands, and the rest of the girls whooped and hollered.

"Brick!" Bubbles screamed. "Where are you? Get up here!"

"No no no, fuck you all!" Butch cried, standing up. "I'm gonna choose now!"

"If Brick gets in here you're kissing him!" Buttercup ordered.

"Shut up, I'm choosing!" Butch announced, and the room went quiet as he scanned it. His gaze swept from one end of the room to the other, lingering on Harry, and as soon as the room started cheering he laughed and shook his head.

"You wish," he said, and skipped over Buttercup to the other corner. He swept his eyes back around the room a couple of times, drawing the room's ire.

"Dude! Pick already!"

"If you can't pick the hottest, pick the least ugly one."

"That's impossible," he sneered, his gaze skipping once more over Buttercup. Then it came back, shifting between her and Harry, and Buttercup felt the smile on her face start to fade.

He's not serious, she thought to herself, starting to panic. He's not—

"Hey, what are you guys up to?" Julie appeared in the doorway, and everyone, Butch included, turned to look at her. "It got all quiet in here!"

Butch clasped his hands and made praying motions to Heaven. "Saved!" he sang, and Buttercup exhaled.

Butch stepped over to Julie and pointed at the can in her hands. "Whatcha drinking?"

She glanced from him to the soda. "Oh, just—"

He then grasped her by the chin and tilted her face up for a kiss. Julie's eyes went wide and her shoulders stiffened; Buttercup didn't realize until Butch let go just how tense her own shoulders were.

Butch licked his lips thoughtfully. "Cherry soda." He winked at Julie as he sat down, and as Buttercup stared furtively at him it seemed to her that he was avoiding meeting her eyes.

Julie blinked, still a little shocked. "Okay, I guess I just walked in on the Kiss Random People Game?"

"Truth or Dare," Bubbles corrected.

Julie laughed. "Seriously? Are we all in middle school or something?"

"Thank you," Mike said.

"My turn!" Butch spun the bottle with a flourish, and the room watched until it finally landed pointed squarely at Buttercup. She covered her face and groaned as the rest of the room clapped again.

"Finally!" Butch cried, grabbing at his grocery bag. "I've been waiting for this moment all night!"

"God, of all the people for you to land on," Buttercup moaned.

"Truth or Dare, Buttercup?" Mitch asked.

"Dare," she responded.

"Alright!" Butch chortled, beside himself. "Buttercup, you paying attention?!" He dropped a full bag of cherries in her lap.

She stared at it, horror welling up in her gaze as she turned her eyes on him. "No way."

He adopted a smug, cocky grin. "Do it."

"No. No way. Oh my God, you're shitting me."

"Wait, what? What's the dare?" somebody asked.

"Buttercup," Butch said, "I dare you to tie a knot in every one of those cherry stems with your tongue."

She glared at him while the rest of the room murmured amongst themselves.

"Butch, is that why you had the cherries?" Bubbles asked. "You got lucky. What were the odds of you daring Buttercup to do that tonight?"

"That's going to take forever," Mike said. "That's like five pounds of—"

"I'll bet you she can do that whole bag in five minutes or less," Butch interjected. "Somebody time her."

"Butch, you fucker," she said, shaking her head.

"Less talking, more knotting," he said. "You told me you could do it! Now I wanna see it!"

"Buttercup, is he serious?" Bubbles looked up. "Can you really do that?"

Harry handed her the empty popcorn bowl. "Here. Spit the stems out in this so we can see."

"You guys, you all just suck," Buttercup groaned, ripping into the bag.

"Buttercup, if you can do this, I will be in awe of you forever," Kim said.

"Time her!" Butch crowed. "Somebody!"

Mitch undid his watch and held it up. "Okay, ready?"

With a heavy sigh, Buttercup grabbed a handful of cherries.


The room cheered as she worked the first one, and went into surprised cries of glee after she spit it out perfectly tied in five seconds with the cherry still attached.

"Holy shit, you're kidding me!"


She burned through the first handful, then another, then another, and the cheering increased each time she spat a tied stem into the bowl. Halfway through the bag, though, the cheers faded off. The room continued to watch in silence, slack-jawed, as Buttercup worked her way through the rest of the rapidly diminishing bag.

"Dude," Harry said in wide-eyed awe, watching the pile of tied stems multiply.

"If I had a bunk I would so be in it right now," Mike whispered.

Butch stared, his smile long gone and his gaze fixated on the movement of Buttercup's jaw as she tied stem after stem. Soon enough she was down to the last cherry—or two cherries, with their stems still connected to each other. She examined them, then popped them into her mouth. Within a few seconds she reached her hand to her lips, extracting the final two cherries from her mouth, and placed them on top of the pile, where everyone could see she had tied a knot in each stem while they were still connected.

She rubbed the back of her hand against her mouth, looked around the room, then fixed her eyes on Mitch and asked, "Time?"

Mitch glanced down. "Four minutes and fifty-five seconds," he murmured.

"I guess you win that bet, Butch. Now, excuse me." Buttercup grunted as she rose to her feet. "Before I take my turn I'm going to grab something to drink."

The room watched in reverential awe as she left the room.

Julie broke the silence. "That girl needs to teach a class or something."

Bobby latched onto Kim. "Please take that class. Please."

"I thought that was just a rumor," Harry hissed to the twins. "I didn't think she seriously had a mutant tongue!"

"Okay, Butch?" Mike tapped his fist against his chest and pointed at him. "Respect. Mad, mad respect for you. Because, holy crap. I mean, holy crap."

A few of the other guys voiced their hearty thanks to him. Butch, meanwhile, stared at the full bowl, the image of Buttercup's jaw, open wide and with her cheeks slightly sucked in, playing over and over again in his memory.

He suddenly felt a strong, strong craving for cherries.

Brick sat on the back porch, watching the gray dusk sky give way to the dark blue of night. He could hear them; most of the party was upstairs playing a party game. Truth or Dare, it sounded like. He nursed can after can of soda as he rocked on the porch swing.

He shouldn't have come. He could tell Blossom still hadn't emerged from Robin's room; her voice was nowhere to be heard in the upstairs chatter. It was dimmer, further away, as if she were whispering very quietly, but even with superhearing Brick couldn't make it out.

He lifted his cap and ran his hand through his hair. It felt nice short. Cooler. He almost wished she had taken more time with it, that she had let her hands linger on his scalp, touch him a little more than was necessary. But that was the wrong wish to have, obviously.

Why did he keep second guessing himself? This was stupid. Things were exactly as they should have been. Brick shouldn't have come to the party to talk to her, he should've just come to the party. He didn't need to go looking for her. There wasn't anything to resolve. He rolled his empty can in his hands, then crushed it and tossed it into a bin nearby.

"You know how many guys she's turned down?"

Brick jumped to his feet and whirled to find Buttercup standing in the doorway, her green eyes shimmering in the dim evening light.

"What?" he said, confused.

"I never really kept track of it. But it's gotta be in the double digits. More than twenty, probably. Can you imagine that? Turning down over twenty guys?" She stepped closer, her voice barely audible and almost threatening. "I mean, that's nuts."

Brick only stared at her.

"You know," she started, then stopped, and sighed. "Fuck it, whatever. I hope it's worth it, Brick. By the way, this is a dare."

Before Brick could respond, Buttercup—blushing, he now realized, visible even in the darkness—took his face in her hands and planted her lips firmly against his.

Suddenly the light switch for the porch flicked on, and the people at the windows erupted into applause. Buttercup let go of him, swiping at her mouth and still red in the face.

"There, it's done," she announced. "Can we fuck Truth or Dare, now? Get some video games going or something?"

Brick stared after her, stunned. The rest of the people who'd collected at the windows to watch filed back upstairs in her wake. Finally, Brick too went back inside, mulling over the kiss in his head. There had been something about it. Something important. He couldn't quite think of it but it was right there, within his grasp—

He shut the door to find Butch behind it, glowering at him. Brick glanced at him and frowned. "What?"

Butch just stared at him, fuming.

"What, Butch?" Brick sighed.

"You're a fucking dick," Butch spat, shaking his head, and shoved past Brick as he went back upstairs.

After dropping by Robin's room to check in on her sister, Bubbles went back to the upstairs living room to find that Truth or Dare had been tossed aside in favor of Rock Band. Buttercup was belting out tunes with the No Neck Joe guys rounding out the rest of the band, and the room was singing along with her. Only Boomer was silent, perched on the edge of the couch and smiling thinly at the exuberant crowd.

When she sat next to him his smile broadened and he gave her a kiss. Then they held hands and watched while the room finished the song in various degrees of non-harmony.

"Go sing with them," she said, and he blinked at her in shock.


"Go on. It's okay. Go sing. Have fun."

"You're... not worried about—"

"You can handle Him, Boomer," Bubbles said. "And come on. If it makes you that miserable not to, then you should. If that makes sense."

His smile illuminated the room, and he kissed her on the cheek before leaping up to snatch the microphone away. Bubbles drew her knees up to her chest and watched him, a possessive pride swelling in her as he started to sing. Even so, it was hard to keep the smile on her face.

One of these days, Him would come for Boomer. She was sure of it. So it didn't matter how much he sang or played. Boomer was already in danger. Any day now. It had been years since he'd first asked. Five? Six? It could be another five years. It could be tomorrow.

She watched Boomer sing his heart out and nail every note, his enthusiasm contagious, infecting the room. One of these days, Him would come, and He would try to take that away.

Let Him come, Bubbles thought, her face hardening for a second, for one brief moment where she forgot to keep it inside, to herself. He can bring it. Let Him try.

She focused on Boomer's bright expression, on that happy smile, and summoned up a cheer. Let Him come, she thought again. Her hands tensed, gripping the cushion of the couch. He won't take Boomer from me. I won't let Him. I swear to God, I swear, if He lays a hand on Boomer, if He so much as touches a single hair on his head, I swear I will make Him regret it.

This was a mistake.

Brick claimed one last soda for the road and was just about to head for the door when a sudden cacophony of noise exploded downstairs, followed by a small train of people that entered the kitchen screeching AC/DC at the top of their lungs, Bubbles, Buttercup, and Boomer among them.

"You!" Buttercup snatched a pan off the rack and aimed it at Brick. "Shook me aaaaallllll night long!"

Boomer cut in, twirling Bubbles around. "You really took me when you—"

The upstairs crowd jumped in with a collective "Whoo!"

"Shook me aaaaallllll night long!" the small group in the kitchen continued, Brick trapped amongst them.

God, why do I let people talk me into going to these things? he thought balefully, and then spotted Blossom floating down the stairs and opening the front door as she exchanged her goodbyes with Robin.

His eyes widened and he pushed forward, but Buttercup was still brandishing the pan in front of him, plus there were about five other people behind her and not enough room to fly over—

He steeled himself and muscled past them, bowling over a few other people in his desperate bid for the front door. Blossom had long since disappeared.

He flung it open, stumbled outside, and looked up and down the street. She was nowhere to be seen.

He heard a front door slam and looked to his left, spotting the Powerpuff Girls' home right next door. His exhale was heavy, defeated, and his shoulders slumped as the weight of his missed opportunity sank in.

Three long circles of light suddenly pooled in the street, and Brick's eye was drawn to one, where he could see Blossom's silhouette. Alone in the front yard, Brick stared at it, wondering for the first time that evening what he had wanted to say to her. Nothing. He could think of nothing, and yet, he had wanted to say... wanted to...

Why bother?

He stared at that oval of light, at that silhouette. Then he tore his eyes from it, trudged down the walkway, and pointed himself homeward. Soon enough he had ventured so far from the party that even with superhearing, no matter how hard he strained, he couldn't hear it at all.

-end Ch. 9-