Monday was going to be a pain, Freddie knew this as soon as he woke up in the morning to find an indignant text from Gibby on his phone. Gibby apparently wanted to know why he had been kept out of the loop on the big news about Freddie and Sam. The text message came with an attached picture of Gibby, looking stern, with no shirt on.

'There is no big news. False rumour!' Freddie texted back, before throwing some clothes on and hurriedly trying to finish his breakfast under his mother's watchful eye -- but not too hurriedly, because he did not need to hear the why-we-chew-our-food-carefully rhyme again. He had to be at school early that morning for an AV club meeting before class.

The problem was, apparently it was big news.

The topic kept the other AV club members preoccupied when they were supposed to be in the middle of their meeting. After a few minutes Freddie gave up trying to explain that none of it was true, that it was just a rumour with no basis in fact, but his friends seemed happy enough to discuss it amongst themselves.

"Hey, remember when Sam made him eat that bug in seventh grade?" said Jeremy, one of these so-called friends. Freddie ignored him. This was a lot easier to do since Jeremy had grown out of the worst of his allergies in the past year. Poor guy had developed a bit of an acne problem instead, but even he agreed it was far better than all the sneezing.

"What about when she pantsed him in front of everybody?" supplied a tenth-grader named Tim.

"Which time?" said Jeremy.

They all laughed. Freddie grimly concentrated on his laptop.

"Hey and that time she punched him so hard he threw up!"

"I'd just eaten a really big meal," Freddie broke in defensively. All right, so ignoring them wasn't working all that well.

"Oh, and when we went on that class field trip last year and she pushed him in front of the bus?"

He rolled his eyes. "It was coming to a stop! I bounced right off it."

"Hey, we're not judging you man," said Malcolm, a loud kid with thick glasses. "Sam Puckett is the meanest girl in school, but she's hot."

"She could pants me any day, if you know what I mean."

"Yeah," someone else agreed. "Not as hot as Carly Shay, but still tasty."

Freddie made a face. One downside to having girls as best friends was how much it bothered him when he heard other guys saying stuff like that about them. And then he had to do this. "Guys, come on, cut it out. You're talking about two of my best friends."

It wasn't even fair, anyway, comparing them like that. Carly was all girly, while Sam was all... not, somehow managing to still be pretty wearing yesterday's clothes with ketchup in her hair... Well she was pretty. Even if he would never say it out loud. If this bunch of, all right he could admit it, kind of socially awkward guys could see it then it wasn't a big surprise if he did, too.

He cleared his throat. His not-at-all nerdy friends were all giving him the same sort of look -- that look they got when they remembered who exactly he spent the majority of his time with. A mix of awe and envy and grudging respect. "And for the last time, I'm not dating either of them!" he said, and got a bunch of doubtful looks in return. "Seriously, I'm not! Now can we get on with the meeting already?"

There were a few shrugs, and the guys moved to take their usual seats around the room.

Jeremy sidled over to Freddie, who was setting up the display, "You're not dating Sam, for real?"

"No, I am not," he confirmed. Glad if only because someone finally someone seemed to believe him.

"Y-you think she'd go out with me?"

He almost laughed. "What?"

Jeremy sighed. "She is really hot. I think I've always been too afraid of her to notice. You think she'd say yes if I asked her out?"

"No." Jeremy's face fell and he hurried to add, "Uh, sorry. I don't think you're her type."

"But --"

"No." He patted him on the shoulder in a show of commiseration, and Jeremy shuffled off to find a seat. Glad to finally get down to business, Freddie hit the last button and started the meeting. He really could not wait until this day was over. And technically, school hadn't even started yet.

By lunch he was getting paranoid. It felt like everywhere he went, sitting in class, walking through the halls, everyone was talking about it. He knew he was probably imagining it, or most of it, anyway, and that his dating habits were really not universally interesting. But even if everyone wasn't talking about it, enough people were to make him glance around warily as he stood in line in the cafeteria. At any moment someone else might approach him and start interrogating him about his love life.

Making it through the lunch queue unaccosted, he made it over to their usual table to find that Carly had brought a bottle of Pepto-Bismol to lunch with her. This told him everything he needed to know about her current state of mind.

He knew she'd decided to tell Jude the truth after all, but hadn't managed to actually do it before being sidetracked with a whole new thing to worry about. He started on his lunch, watching Carly chase her side salad with a swig of pepto.

When Sam joined them some time later she slammed her tray down and dropped into the chair next to Carly. "Man, they only had strawberry pudding left. Who eats strawberry frickin' pudding?" she complained.

For a second he saw her eyeing the chocolate pudding sitting uneaten on his own tray. He assumed she was going to grab it and claim it for herself, but then she just switched to glaring down at her plate of meatloaf. Feeling a small flush of disappointment -- what, suddenly his food wasn't good enough for her? -- he followed her example, carefully studying his own uninspiring lunch before taking a bite.

"Where have you been?" Carly asked Sam. "Lunch is nearly over."

"Chet Winters was bugging me. I had to spend some valuable eating time stuffing the guy in a locker."

Freddie frowned. "But Chet Winters is six feet tall. And our lockers are half-size."

"Yeah, it took some doing."

Carly sighed, but her tone was accepting. "That's my girl."

The three of them ate in silence for a minute, Sam, her lunch delayed, shovelled down her meatloaf and tater-tots like it was freshly baked ham.

Carly sighed again and took another swallow of the lurid pink liquid. Freddie knew she wanted to say something, but none of them, it seemed, really wanted to talk about it.

"So," she said finally, her voice high and nervous, "How are things?"

"Oh just peachy," Sam replied around a mouthful of food.

"Freddie?" Carly tried hopefully.

He shrugged. "At least I already know what it's like, having the entire school talking about you," he said, eyeing his limp salad portion. "I guess this really isn't as bad as that other time." There was a lot less pointing and laughing this time, at least.

"Yeah, for you maybe," Sam said, stabbing a tot with her fork. "No one cares what you do. I'm the one getting grief for going out with the king of the nubs. It's humiliating. But you don't see me running home to cry about it for a whole week."

Grimly he forked up some shredded lettuce. He couldn't believe she was going there. That whole thing had been her fault. "Gee you don't think you're exaggerating a little?"

"No, you really did run home to cry by yourself for a whole week because some kids were pointing and laughing at you. Like they haven't been doing that your whole life."

His fist tightened on his fork. "I meant that--"

"Yeah, I know what you meant."

"Would you guys stop talking to your tater tots and actually look at each other?" Carly pleaded suddenly. She had a vibrant pink moustache and the little bottle was by now almost empty.

"I don't wanna look at that while I'm eating," Sam replied. "You want us both chugging down the pepto?"

Freddie really didn't need this today. He stood up, gathering his tray, and scrounged up an excuse for Carly, who was looking up at him with big upset eyes. "I've got a Spanish quiz after lunch, I want to read over my notes. Adios, mis amigos."

He dumped the contents of his tray in the trash, momentarily thinking he should have left his pudding for Sam, before dismissing the thought. She probably would have just thrown it back in his face.

Inevitably, by the time he got out of the noisy cafeteria and was on his way to the Spanish classroom he was feeling a little bad. He didn't want to fight with Sam. Well, not like that. Fighting with her had gotten a lot less fun lately. He just wished everything could go back to normal.

He walked home with Carly that afternoon after school.

"I want you to give Sam a break," Carly said when the two of them were walking home from school together that afternoon.

"What do you mean? I haven't done anything to her." His tone sounded a little resentful. Maybe even a little petty.

"Look, I hate talking about this because it makes me sound totally conceited but you know a lot of people at school get jealous of us, right? Because we're kind of famous and we get heaps of attention and sometimes we end up on TV or win awards. Some of them kind of hate us, especially me and Sam. They hate you a little too, but you're not in front of the camera that much. Plus you're a boy. No offence."

"So you're saying that Sam really is having a hard time?"

"I think she is. She's trying not to let it get to her..."

"But it really sucks having everyone hassling you about something embarrassing they know about you -- or think they know. I'm an expert, remember?"

She smiled slightly. "I wish you and Sam would talk. I think you need to, I think... I think it might help."

He shrugged. "Anything's possible, I guess," he said doubtfully. He was pretty sure Sam wanted to talk to him just now about as much as she wanted to become a vegetarian. Even though none of this was his fault, because when had that ever stopped her from taking anything out on him?

That was it. Today had royally sucked. On top of everything else, he hadn't done that well on his Spanish quiz. Time to change the subject.

"So how are you and Jude?" he said.

"Oh shut up, you," Carly replied, and they both laughed.

And then he got home and realised his chiz of a day hadn't even begun.

"Freddie," his mother said as soon as he walked through the door, "Will you come and sit down, please? There's something we need to discuss."

"Okay," he said warily. Her tone was weird. And it almost looked like she'd been crying. He started to get worried. The last time he remembered seeing his mother cry was when he'd lost his last baby tooth.

"Freddie," she said, once they were seated and his mom was looking at him seriously. "I ran into Spencer in the lobby this morning. We were chatting, as neighbours do, and he told me some things. Some things regarding you and young Samantha, about which, I have to say, I'm concerned."

Every thought he'd had -- maybe she was sick, maybe someone they knew had died -- flew out the window and were replaced by a new kind of dread. "Oh god no."

"Particularly when he mentioned that, apparently, there has been kissing involved."

"No no no, listen Mom, it's all a big misunderstanding, I swear!"

"You haven't been kissing anyone?"

"Well," damn his honest nature, "Technically, I have, but --"

"Honey, I realise I'm only your mother and you think you don't need my approval but I can't just let you endanger your health this way. It's not that I don't like Samantha," she said, pausing just long enough to make it clear this was a lie, "But I do question the state of her oral hygiene."

Oh gross. "Mom!"

"That's why I bought you a new bottle of extra strength antibacterial mouthwash when I was running errands today." She took a large paper bag that had been sitting on the table along with her purse and a few other shopping bags, and presented it to him. He peered in the bag and saw the most enormous bottle of mouthwash he'd ever seen. "I want you to keep it with you at all times, in case you... well." She paused, flustered. "If you are going to be... doing things like that, all I can do as a mother is make sure you're prepared."

For a kid who had endured years of tick baths, rhyming couplets, and having his temperature taken in completely unnecessary places, it was really saying something that this was one of the most horrifying moments in his entire relationship with his mother.

"Mom," he choked out, his voice cracking in abject humiliation, "I am not doing anything with Sam."

"I understand why you don't feel you can be honest with me. She certainly isn't someone I would have chosen for you to explore your adolescent urges with."

"Oh my god." He buried his face in his hands. His mother had just said 'urges'.

"On the bright side, perhaps she'll be nicer to you now."

"Not likely," he muttered.

"And maybe the other children will be less likely to pick on you if you have someone like that to defend you."

Well that was just ridiculous. Sam? Defend him? The past year had sort of been one long growth spurt and he wasn't getting hassled by older and bigger kids nearly as much as in the eighth grade. Sam was the only one who picked on him anymore. Not that he really thought of that as being picked on, exactly...

None of this he told his mother, he just wearily said, "I can take care of myself, Mom."

"Oh Freddie, I just haven't seen any evidence of that."

"Mom, come on, I'm fifteen now, I --"

"None!" she insisted shrilly, and then took a breath, visibly attempting to calm herself. "When I do," she continued tightly, "I'm sure I'll be very proud. Now, would you like stewed spinach or Lima Bean Surprise as a side dish tonight?"

He just sighed. What was the point?

"You're right, we'll have both," she said, and returned to the kitchen to finish making dinner.

Freddie escaped to his room. He had homework to do, as well as his usual webmaster duties.

Not to mention psychological trauma from which to recover.