A/N: Okay, so I know usually I just blather stupidities in these things, but this time I'm gonna… I'm gonna try to be serious. *stupid giggle* Okay. Starting now.

I did a change thing. Instead of the flashbacks being three years back, they are now two. I've been thinking about them as two this entire time, so why I kept writing "THREE YEARS IN THE PAST" is beyond me. Just more of my carelessness on display, I guess. So yeah, I went back and changed that. No biggie. We're, like, currently in early January in this thing so since Phil's bday is November, and we just passed Christmas, that means he's only recently turned 11… Tell me that's not adorable. -w-

Honestly, I preferred that over making him 12. I almost did, but JFC, I just couldn't. xD He's been 11 too long. Like, literally 4 years now. I'm not ready for change. *hugs teddy and sucks thumb*

And all those times I said Phil was 11 in the past, well. Let's just say we were rounding. *snort*

Oh, I hate myself. Let's just move along.

~Genius Supermodels with Sparkling Personalities~



conor dachisen

acosta perez jose ramiro




Special thank yous to coldblue and puffball :'D I love your thoughts and reactions to things so much! Thank you for taking the time to review with them. You guys make me smile. *BIG AWKWARD HUGS*

Disclaimer: Pam belongs to Panfla and I. Mike belongs solely to Panfla, technically... but he's my husband, so in a way, he's mine, too. -w-

Breathing Slowly

Part 5

"I try to bring you down, but

a level isn't good enough."

You Me at Six

A Week from the Present

"See, here's now, lunchtime, and then right after that is math, language, chemistry—Ooooh, look, we're in the same classes! We're going to have so much fun! You're gonna love Mr. Portly. He's fat."

Lee squinted uncertainly at her schedule, staring at the little yellow box Kayla was pointing at. "But I still don't get…"

"Yeah, I know. The schedule's are cruddy, they take a little getting used to, but you'll get the hang of it. It's kinda like a zigzag, see? You start here, then go down, across…"

Lee squinted even harder, and then huffed and slammed the paper onto the table, rubbing furiously at one of her eyes. "This is impossible. This school sucks. And these contacts are making my eyes all itchy!" She whined.

Kayla laughed. "That's what you get when you transfer to a school in the middle of nowhere. No one cares." She watched a little while as Lee continued rubbing at her eye and then grabbed her wrist in a fit of annoyance. "Stop scrubbing at it, buttmunch, you're gonna make your eye fall out!"

Lee slammed her hand down on the table beside her schedule and let out a wary breath. "Whatever, just tell me what's for lunch. I need comfort food and I need it last week." As Kayla grinned and walked her eyes along the ceiling, pretending to ponder her question, Lee's eyes drifted blankly to someplace over her shoulder and caught sight of a headful of brown hair. Her eyes flew wide and she instantly shoved Kayla out of the way right in the middle of her joking reply. "Who is that?"

Kayla gave her a funny look before turning around to look. For a second, she had no idea what she was talking about, but then her eyes zeroed in on the short kid leaning against the wall in the lunchline and her head whipped back around to face her friend again. "Ohhhh, that's Phil, but he's—"

"Out of my way, sweetheart!" She was shoved haphazardly out the way again, this time with enough force that she fell backwards out of the bench and slammed into the ground, legs erect in the air, as Lee stood from her chair with the determination of a thousand Spartan warriors shining in her eyes. "I can smell emo from twenty miles away. He is mine." Snapping her head down to look at Kayla, she asked, "How do I look? Do I look hot? Wait—" she held a hand up as Kayla opened her mouth to respond, "Don't answer that. I know I'm hot." She stepped over the immobile corpse of her friend and sauntered over to her target.

Kayla stared after her with her jaw unhinged a couple seconds before slamming her hands over her face and erupting in giggles.

Meanwhile, Lee scooted up close to Phil. He hadn't appeared to notice her yet, so she cleared her throat delicately and said, "Hey."

He still didn't look at her.

He must not have heard her, she determined. Leaning over into his face so he could see her, she repeated, "Hey."

His uncovered eye made contact with hers and she fought to hold back a grin. He had green eyes. Probably natural, too, by the looks of them. Heck yeah. Her lips trembled with the urge to grin but she forced them into a calm, flirty smile. "Sorry to interrupt you from your thoughts, I was just… in the area, and thought I'd introduce myself." She held her hand out. "I'm Lee Breeze."

His eye shifted down to her hand, then back to her face. He looked utterly indifferent, and made no move to take her hand. He remained silent.

A challenge then. She liked challenges. It made it all the more sweet when they inevitably broke. She slipped her hand smoothly into the back of her beach blonde hair, pretending to scratch and 'unknowingly' ruffling it up a bit, before allowing her hand to gracefully fall down to hook a few strands of hair around her finger. "So you're not the handshaking type, that's cool. I—"

The line moved up then, and he turned around and moved up with it. Her eyes widened at being swept to the side like that, but she dumped some ice over the negative emotion and took a deep cooling breath. He was an aspiring bad boy. The hair said that. The blank look on his face said that. Everything about him reeked of it. Of course he'd be aloof. This was just his way of keeping her interested. Feeling sufficiently calm now, she moved up behind him again. "You know," she kept her voice low so only he could hear, and she'd conveniently have to lean in close to his ear to pass on her message, "I know your name is Phil. You might say I've been… asking around. But I never managed to catch your last name?"

He took two long strides forward as the line moved again, and said nothing.

This was getting less and less cute by the second. She sashayed aggressively forward (even though he couldn't see her, she needed that confidence right now) and planted herself very deliberately beside him. And this was as desperate as she was going to get, darn him. "I'm sorry. I know it's a little weird that I just came out of nowhere, but, I have to confess, I just felt this strange connection to you. It's too weird, I can't explain it. It was almost like we'd… met before." She looked at her from the corner of her eye. If that didn't get him to react, she was going to eat her schedule.

Meanwhile metal was screeching as it was forced against other metals in Phil's head. Outwardly, he showed no reaction. Slow, measured breaths came in and out of his nose, and he said nothing.

Lee stood there like that for a full minute with bated breath, when the line moved up again and he walked away. This time she didn't follow. Letting her mask drop, she scowled and stormed back to the table where Kayla was laughing almost manically, with her face bright pink and her arms spread out across the table for support.

As soon as she was back in her seat, she yelled, "It's not funny! You should have warned me!"

"I… tried…" she rasped out between squeaky laughs, shaking almost violently against the table. "That was so… beautiful, though, holy God—"

"Shut," she whined.

"What was that even about?" she wheezed. "You were like a, like a machine—"

"I have a weakness for brown hair and interesting haircuts." She shrugged. "I also haven't got any money so I thought I could get him to buy me something. It's standard procedure. I didn't expect—" She stopped short and scrunched up her face. "That. What was that? Normally guys are falling all over me. That sucked. Who does the little pipsqueak think he is? I was doing him a favor just by looking at him!" She huffed.

"He's…" Kayla took in a large gust of breath, trying to gather some semblance of composure before exhaling with a grin, "like clinically shy. He never talks."

Lee gaped. "Never?"

"Well, I mean, for a little while I thought he was mute but then I saw him talking to that girl friend of his—"

"He has a girlfriend?"

"No idea! I've never seen them kiss or touch or anything, but they're always together. Mostly I just see her doing stuff for him. Some chick named Dolores, I don't know. But we're getting off topic." She flailed her hands a moment and took a breath before continuing, "He can talk, he just rarely does it. That's it. That's what I was gonna say."

Lee pouted, picked up her schedule, and tore it in half.

"Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?" She moved to stop her but Lee pushed her hands away with a shake of her head.

"I told myself if I wasn't able to make him react, I'd eat my schedule. I haven't got any lunch, so I might as well." She sighed forlornly, putting on the most heartbroken expression she could as she put the first sliver of paper into her mouth. "It figures. Here I thought he was playing the bad boy act and he's just shy. What a disappointment."

"Well," Kayla tapped her chin thoughtfully, "there are the rumors."

Lee paused in her chewing. "Rumors?"

Kayla smirked, slamming the hand that had been on her chin onto the table as she leaned eagerly forward. Lowering her voice for effect, she trilled, "Uh-huh. When he first came here three years ago, they say he got into some really questionable crowds. Candy trading, gang-type stuff. There was gossip going around for months that he was mentally unstable and out for blood. A whole bunch of people were terrified of him. Some still are."

Lee stared at her with her jaw swinging, the paper a flat white square on the middle of her tongue. And then she blinked. "You're making that up."

Kayla drew quickly away and threw her shoulders up. "I'm not! Ask anyone. You'll see. He's a total kuku clock."

"Are you seriously serious?"

"As seriously seriously serious as I can get, girl."

"Well, in that case." She spat the paper out of her mouth and balled it up with a mean grin. "We can have some fun with this."

Kayla's eyes lit up. "What are you thinking?"

Lee quirked her pink lips to one side and glanced to her left, where the kid in question was sitting down at an empty table and tucking obliviously into his food. The wad of paper danced between her fingers as her plan finished its formation, and the little quirk in her mouth transformed into a full smile. "Let's see how accurate the rumors really are."

The spitball bounced off the back of his head, and he snapped up straight as a rod, looking sharply around. Kayla had to slap a hand over her mouth to keep from bursting into tearful laughter. Lee watched carefully as the situation slowly processed with him, and he turned his head to look at them. Kayla's smothered giggles became nearly deafening, but Lee grinned the most blindingly gorgeous smile in her arsenal and gave a saucy wink.

He blinked and turned back around as if nothing had happened.

The grin dropped and shattered against the table into a thousand pieces. "Oh, he did not!"

Kayla squealed and slammed her forehead into the table. "Oh my God, I can't breathe!"

"He thinks he can remain indifferent to me? Me? I'm Beverley Breeze! Does he know how hot I am? Is he blind?"

"Did you see his face?" Kayla cackled, banging her fist against the table. "Work of fricken' art!"

Lee growled, rubbed viciously at her eye again, balled up another piece of paper, dampened it, and then threw it with all her might so that it ricocheted off his back and went kersplat against the floor. He seemed to pause a moment, but then he went back to eating, not even bothering to grace them with a look this time. Lee's face was a bright apple red progressively becoming more and more vibrant, when she finally released the breath she'd been holding and her face dimmed to a much less disturbing shade of light pink. She rolled her eyes over to her friend. "You of course realize this is war."

Kayla's laughter immediately tapered off into a devious grin. Two straws were produced seemingly out of nowhere, and several tears of paper were wadded up and spat on like an assembly line. "Way ahead of you, Beverley."

For the rest of lunch, the two shot torpedo after torpedo of saliva at his back, and when they ran out of torn shreds of Lee's destroyed schedule, they turned to napkins. When he got up and walked over to put his tray back, they did not relent, nor when he walked over to the trashcan and threw his plate and plastic utensils away. It was only when he finally turned around, shook the balls out of his hair (Kayla got a good giggle at the thought), and started walking in their direction that they ceased fire.

Lee was entirely convinced he was going to strut right up to them and either yell, glare, give her his phone number, or some combination of the three. Instead, he passed right by them, his eyes never straying from their set path to the door, and walked out seconds before the bell rang for class. Lee nearly had a heart attack. Kayla did, too, but for entirely different reasons.

As it would turn out, Kayla was able to talk her new friend down by telling her Phil was in her class, and, effectively, her's as well, so they had plenty of time to get revenge. The two brainstormed for the short five minutes before class, and when Kayla warned her they could potentially get into a lot of trouble for this, Lee mentioned she probably wouldn't be going to this school for very long anyway so she really didn't care for consequences. She was just here to have fun. Six months at most was to be expected, since the only reason they were here was 'cause they'd moved in with her mom's new boyfriend, and then they would hopefully be moving to someplace with a pulse. Kayla was already known as a bit of a troublemaker, so she was all too eager to set their plan in motion.

They caught Phil on his way to class then and followed him, taking turns saying, "React," while poking him with a pencil. He glanced at them a couple times, but that was it until they walked into class and he blatantly refused to sit down before them. They were finally forced to take the seats in the middle of the room, and he took the one at the far back, behind them. They both shared looks at that, having not anticipated this, but then at the last second managed to persuade the boys two desks behind them to switch, which placed Lee right beside Phil. He stared at her. She smiled. Mr. Portly turned around from where he'd been writing on the board the next second, and the games began.

A piece of paper was flicked onto his desk. He looked down at it and, not missing a beat, picked it up and tore it in half. Another was flicked. He tore that one, too. Seven more were flicked all at once three minutes later, and he shot a glare at them. They just grinned innocently, keeping their eyes locked forward on the teacher.

Mr. Portly noticed his distraction and traipsed through the desks so he was in front of him. His mustache twitched and danced like it was alive as he said, "Mr. Shortman! What is all this? Do you have something you'd like to share?"

Phil's eyes widened and he opened his mouth. Lee and Kayla leaned in closer to him in anticipation, but then he clamped his mouth shut and shook his head. All the notes were swept to the floor and promptly stomped like he was trying to put out a fire. Mr. Portly seemed satisfied with this, and pivoted back around to tiptoe back to the front of the classroom. The second his back was turned, another note whacked Phil in the head. His hands grabbed hold of the sides of his desk and held, his head turned pointedly down for the remainder of class. Mr. Portly's eyes were intent on the two girls after speaking with Phil, though, so the two weren't able to throw as many things as they would have wanted before math was over and they were moving on to another subject.

It was right when Kayla was about to chuck an eraser at him that he stood up, shouldering his backpack, and walked to the front of the room. A slip of paper was handed to Mr. Portly, who read it over and raised an eyebrow down at him. His mustache twitched over, "You have to leave now? Your aunt can't wait?"

Phil spoke dryly then, nearly sending the two girls into apoplexy, "No."

There was a loud thump, and all eyes turned to the back of the room. Mr. Portly's eyebrows furrowed. "Ms. Reynolds, are you okay?"

Kayla clawed her way back up from the floor and back into her desk. "Fine," she wheezed. "I think—I—I can't—" She shook with the effort not to laugh herself into oblivion, looking half-crazed.

Lee's hand shot up like a bolt of lightning. "Permission to escort Ms. Reynolds to the nurse's office, sir?"

Phil's eyes squinted suspiciously, but Mr. Portly thought the request very reasonable. "By all means, go, go." He watched on with concern as Lee helped Kayla to her feet and slung her arm over her shoulder to assist her in exiting the room. Phil followed shortly after them.

The moment the three were out the door and alone in the hall, Phil rounded on them and stared. He didn't say anything, he didn't move to touch them—he simply stared, daring them to make the first move.

The two just giggled and ran off. He was surprised for a second as he watched them round the corner, but then he realized the direction they were running and his shoulders slumped, his eyes rolling.

He turned to march in the opposite direction of them, and gave a little tap to each locker he passed as he traversed the familiar halls. Finally, he heard a tapping coming from one in particular and he stopped. Listening carefully, he tapped at the lockers again, and sure enough, the tapping came again. He walked calmly in the direction it had come and gave the tapping locker an experimental knock. As soon as the responding knock came, he pulled the lockpick he'd "borrowed" years back and grabbed the lock. Within ten seconds, the lock was pulled free and several books, sheets of paper, and thick notebooks poured like a waterfall from the locker. Accompanying all this came a hard plop of a girl whose face smashed into the floor just inches from his feet.

Phil tossed the lock into the locker and shut it. Returning the pick to his pocket and flicking a piece of paper still fluttering in the air away from him, he greeted, "Dolores."

Dolly sprung up from the pile, her glasses askew and a book open on top of her head as she looked up at him. She wheezed heavily and scrabbled up from the floor.

As soon as she was on her feet, he related the necessary information, "Mom should be here soon, so we're on a tight schedule. I'll need my history and Spanish books, along with the yellow notebook. Got that?"

Dolly nodded and was already starting down the hall when he yelled, "I'll meet you at the front in five minutes!" She waved her hand in acknowledgement before disappearing around the corner. The second she was out of sight, he allowed his eyes to narrow and pulled one of the notes that'd hit him in the head out of his shirt. It was time to assess the damage.

It read, "REACT" in bright pink lettering. Perfect. He turned around and hotfooted it down the hall, the note fisted in two separate shreds at his sides.

Without worry of being seen, he conspicuously darted down an abandoned hallway, his backpack preceding him as he slid it across the floor into the shadows and threw the shredded note on the floor.

The light overhead flickered occasionally, but otherwise the hall was completely dark and rather dank, the only light emitting from where he'd come. The lockers were rusted and decrepit, a few barely hanging onto life as their doors hung and twitched from the draft created by what could only be the malfunctioning air conditioning, even though the air was suspiciously cold. It led to nowhere. It served no purpose. The only door available was an exit that opened out into the woods. It had long been boarded over.

Phil stormed in like he owned it and barked, "Melvin!" His shoes crunched on the dirt and stray candy wrappers as he walked deeper into the abyss. Not getting a response for several seconds, he growled a little and shouted, "Melvin, I don't have time for this game! Show yourself!"

A laugh rang out from somewhere in the shadows. "Phillip the second. How good of you to grace us with your presence. How may I be of service, old friend?"

Phil stopped and glared in the direction the voice had come. "We're not friends, Melvin, and you know why I'm here."

The laugh came again, quieter this time. "You wound me, Phil. You know I've always thought of you in the fondest sense."

Phil rolled his eyes. "That's a lie."

"Bravo." The darkened figure stepped out of the shadows. Little Vinny smirked at him, his shiny black hair sleeked back and suit immaculately kept. Behind him, two much larger forms kept away in the dark, but the threat was there. Vinny's poor Italian accent lilted unpleasantly, "You're right, of course. You always were."

Phil walked closer to him, his face betraying his irritation as he crossed his arms. "So why the act all of a sudden?"

His smirk didn't wane. "I still have eyes on you, you recall. Saw what them girls been doing. Thought it might be in my best interests to play nice." He unwrapped a tootsie roll and popped it in his mouth before burying his hands in his pockets, his posture lazy and self-assured. He stuck the bit of chewed chocolate in his cheek and cheekily said, "Don't want to get on bad terms with the school lunatic again, do I?"

Phil stopped in front of him and glared. "Do you have what I came here for or not?"

Vinny chuckled and shook himself. "Oh, with the glare. I'm shaking in my boots ova' 'ere. Relax, buddy." He scoffed and snapped his fingers. On cue, a large hand extended out from the darkness with his backpack. Vinny took it and threw the flap open. Phil leaned over to make sure it was all there, before he nodded and pulled back, already reaching into his sweater for his money.

Once he had the money in hand, he offered it and made a grab for the bag. Vinny snapped it away before his hand could make contact and clicked his tongue. "Ah, ah, Philly. I think I'm gonna need more than a few measly bucks for merch' this special." Phil's eyes flashed and he opened his mouth to retort, but Vinny smirked and interrupted, "Hey now, these are getting harder and harder to come by these days. I had to pull a lot of strings to get these fo' youz. I can't afford not to raise prices in this economy."

"Like you know anything about the economy." He made another swipe for the bag.

Vinny snapped it out of reach and clucked his tongue in mock-offense, something flashing behind his normally cool gaze. "Hey, you dunno what I been doin.' I could'a learned."

"Oh yeah?" He smiled sarcastically and widened his eyes to display the brightness of his incredulity. "How?"

Not missing a beat, Vinny raised his shoulders up and raised his voice a couple octives, "I could'a read about it in some book—"

"You read? Unlikely." He made another grab.

This time, Vinny's mask fell to reveal a dark scowl and he took a swift step to the side, evading Phil's grabby hands just as he warned, "I'm within my rights—"

"You're a slimy bully who hides in the shadows and pays smarter kids to do his homework with money you weasel out of desperate losers and candy addicts. You have no rights," Phil informed him almost boredly. As Vinny was a little distracted reacting negatively at his words, he managed to snatch his backpack. Vinny held tight to it, and it ended up suspended between them, both with tight fistfuls of the material. Seemingly as an afterthought, Phil added, "You're also short."

Vinny snarled, struggling to gather his merchandise back to himself. "You're no better than me."

"Uh, actually," with a sharp tug, he finally managed to free the bag from Vinny's grasp and threw it across his shoulder, "I kinda am."

There was a short pause where Vinny just looked at him, as if he were a science project. Then he blinked. "You still think you're untouchable," he observed, suddenly all cool reserve and flawless formality once more. He smirked. "You're funny. And you still owe me $2.95. Unless, of course, you wanna pay me in labor." He rubbed his fingers together with a leer.

"It's been over a year. You know very well I don't." Phil rolled his eyes, still with that bored, approaching impatient look. When his eyes met Vinny's again, he saw something bold there he didn't like and his eyes hardened. Drawing closer, he sneered viciously, "Look, I don't have time to play games with you today, Melvin, so you'd better step back."

Before Vinny could respond, screams broke through the air, followed by the rapid footfalls of two terrified girls from somewhere up the hall. They passed their hall, a blur of yellow and brown just before the unmistakable shadow of Dolly came racing through, her breathing heavy but her feet strong. Shortly after, there was a loud thud, and a scream of, "You might have mentioned she's nuts!"

"I didn't know," came Kayla's anguished cry, "Oh, God, I didn't kno—" Another thump.

With a final crash and telling clang, all was silent for several beats.

Then Vinny raised an eyebrow at Phil. "Nice to know you haven't lost your touch."

Phil snorted. "You have no idea." He slipped his backpack on over his arms for safekeeping, hands lingering over the straps, and, figuring this interaction had gone on long enough, turned on his heel and began walking back up the hall.

Vinny called after him to finish his statement, eyes flashing, "You're still relying on everybody else to do your dirty work for you!"

Without turning his head, he replied snarkily, "You better be careful with that projection, Mel. It's very telling." He could have left it at that, but of course, since he was Phil, he went on, even nastier than before, "Especially since last I checked, you're the scum of the earth bathroom dweller, not me." Two steps. A harsh breath. Then his voice lowered, "Not anymore."

The mask clattered against the floor for the second time that day, and Vinny's voice raised to a yell, "You think you can hide behind your brothers and your nerdy little girlfriend forever, but ya can't! I'll find a way to make you pay! Nobody jilts Little Vinny! Nobody!" His voice broke.

Phil stopped for a second, and Vinny relished that second of reaction, but then he continued on, shoulders stiff.

Vinny growled and snapped his hand out. "Kevin, giraffe me."

A large hand reached out from the shadows again and dropped a doggy toy into his hand, with the rubbery likeness of a giraffe. He clenched his fist around its neck and gave it several angry squeezes, forcing squeak after pained squeak out of the battered toy. His breath deepened with each squeeze. "One year or twelve, you will never escape me, friend. I will break you." He forced out a slow, measured expulsion of hot air, hissing between his teeth. "After all, a deal's a deal."

The giraffe squelched.

"Hey… Hey, Mom… Mom, hey… Mother… Mama-Bear…"

"What?" she snapped in a deadpan, scrunched over the steering wheel as she stared soullessly at the road.

Zack sat forward, elbows resting on the sides of the front seats as he tried to get his mom to meet his eye. His eyes sparkled with amusement. "Think you could pick up the pace a bit?"

The engine groaned in response, the car inching meagerly along the sidewalk. Beside them, a slug cut ahead, a few birds started to circle, and Phil stood at the front of the school several yards away, staring at them.

"Why would I do that?" she groused, coated with latent sarcasm.

"So that we can meet up with Dad and Aunt Olga before the road's slick from the second ice age?"

"Oh, you mean like your tone?" she asked casually, before her voice dropped into a girlish baritone. "Watch that tongue of yours, mister. I'm the one running the show here, so you'd better stop hovering over and park it before I—"

"Park it? I've got plenty of time then." He grinned.

Helga blinked dully. Her hand came up to hit the wipers for a moment and sweep off the few leaves that had gathered on the windshield. "Kid thinks he's clever," she commented to no one in particular. Zack's grin only warmed.

"Uh, sorry to say this, but," Ham clocked in, glancing at his watch, "we really are gonna be late."

"Ha, there ya go." Zack whipped his head between the two, smirking victoriously. "The good son has spoken. No denying it now."

Helga was just beginning on her reply when Zack's eye caught on a peach mass sidling up beside Phil up ahead. His eyes widened and he shoved himself forward suddenly, bumping shoulders with his mom in the process. "Well, well, well, what's this—"

Smashed up against the side of the car like a starfish now, Helga huffed and elbowed him back as the car swerved along the (thankfully) empty road. "Enough with your shenanigans, Zachary, get back in your seat! Damn it, I'm too old for this shit."

"You're not forty yet, Mom. You can't make that excuse yet," Zack muttered distractedly, still staring straight ahead. The mass of distinctly female peach seemed to be asking Phil something. Phil responded in how only Phil could. With lots of flailing and frenzied exclamations. The girl seemed to like this, though, and brushed a hand against his arm before skipping back into the school. Phil was apparently fed up with standing there like an idiot after that, because he came marching purposefully in their direction.

Helga finally noticed Zack wasn't listening to her – which was normal so she wasn't too mad; there wasn't enough energy in the world to throw a fit every time his attention wandered – and followed his eyes to see what he was looking at. She got an eyeful of angry brunet then and her eyes widened. "Oh."

The car door was yanked open the next second and an unsuccessful attempt was made at pushing Zack out of the way. "Move," Phil commanded.

Zack pouted jokingly as Phil continued to push at him. "But I want the window seat."

When his shoulder knocked against Ham's for the third time in five seconds, Ham finally snapped, "You're a skyscraper, you always have the view. Let someone else have it for once, geez."

Zack snapped a laughing look on him, but obligingly scooted over to make room. Phil huffed and hopped in, the door slamming shut after him.

"Is there something wrong with the car?" Phil asked immediately.

"Hey, you're welcome, nice to see you too," Zack muttered. Phil elbowed him. Ham flicked his eyes up and pressed his earphones harder into his ears.

Helga waved a halfhearted hand back at them to calm down, not bothering to turn around. "Nah, I was just stalling the inevitable." Sighing, she pressed down on the gas and maneuvered them back onto the main highway. "ETA 20 minutes," she grumbled, pouting at the road like it was the cause of world hunger and diseased puppies.

Phil blinked listlessly at her. "Is this about Aunt Olga?"

"No! Yes. Criminy, no, it's just—" Helga squeaked before falling into silence. After another few seconds, she said, in her more collected, 'I'm a thirty-nine year old woman with four kids and a 401K plan' voice, "Olga and I have had our disagreements in the past, but we've come a long way from how we once were. We've fought hard for what we have today and our relationship is very important to me. She is my sister and I love her." Abruptly her tone changed and her hands turned a startling white over the steering wheel, "But she's still a stinking lunatic!"

"Agh, well," Zack lounged back, "that's why her and Phil get along."

Phil shot him a look of utter contempt. Zack opened his mouth a little, widened his eyes, and spread a hand over his chest, as if to say, 'For me? You shouldn't have.' Phil kicked him in the leg and he sniggered.

Phil's growling alerted Helga of the danger and she started snapping her fingers back at them. "Hey, hey, no fighting, I want you boys in one piece when we get there. And you know what? While you're at it, brush your hair, too. Straighten clothes, wipe your cheeks. Try to look like the perfect, well-behaved young gentleman I attempted to raise and not the small mob of wild beasts you actually are for once in your lives, thanks." She shot a firm glare back at them that barred any questions.

Phil asked one anyway, "Have you even talked to Aunt Olga recently?"

"Yes." She was a little indignant. Perhaps immaturely (her kids seemed to bring it out in her), she shot back, "Have you, Mr. Smarty Pants?"

"Yes, last week. Remember the phone call?"

"I thought that was Helen chatting your ear off."

"Yeah, but that was after she pried the phone from Aunt Olga's hand ten minutes in."

"Oh, I see…" Helga turned her head just a smidge to look at him out of the corner of her eye, staring like he was mutinous with her facial muscles chillingly motionless and eyes wide. Her fingers tapped along the steering, and her voice was deceptively sweet, "And just whatever did you talk about?"

Phil shrugged and turned his attention out the window, his head resting on his fist. "Stuff."

They fell silent for a while after that. The silence lasted for approximately… six seconds.

Then, in a deadly mutter, "Stuff?"

Phil nodded complacently. "And things."

Helga's eyes cut. "You're just screwing around with me for fun. That's not perfect little gentleman behavior."

"Since when have I ever—"

"Since I told you to, and you listened because you're a little angel. Do you hear me, young man? Little. Angel. Learn it, live it, love it. I have a flawless ladida older sister to knock the socks off of and you're going to help me whether you like it or not. I don't care how many glorious nights of discussing stuff and things you two have had, you are my son, and as such you will obey me!"

Phil stared at the back of her head, his face twisted comically, unsure of how to react.

Zack chose that moment to chime in with a completely off-topic question, "Was that your stalker back there?"

Knee-jerk, Phil punched him in the shoulder, and while it didn't hurt, it did cause him to bump shoulders with Ham again. Ham clenched his teeth and glanced warily over at them.

Zack was highly entertained, and not at all dissuaded. "You know, that girl you were talking to. It was that one that follows you around all the time, right?"

Phil snapped a distressed look at Helga. "Mom!"

Helga snorted, something that sounded suspiciously like a laugh trailing the sound. "Don't turn to me for help, you little traitor. If you're not gonna respect your parents, you'd better be prepared to deal with the karma."

"But I hate karma," he whined back in distress, as if that should settle the matter.

Zack seemed to take this failed escape attempt as a confirmation and faked a swoon. "Oh, how sweet! Love at first creep! I'm so glad you've finally decided to take a mate. I was getting worried for a while there that I wasn't gonna be an uncle. After all, who knows when Amanda Faith'll hook one, and the likelihood of this beef byproduct here getting a wife at the rate he's going? Like a thousand to one." He bumped into Ham with a healthy smirk. Ham pressed a finger to his temple and counted to ten.

Phil looked at him like he was something vile and unusual. "What is wrong with you?"

Helga made a choked sound but covered it up with a quiet sneeze and a stroke of her nose.

"What? I just think it's nice, that's all." Zack smiled innocently, with just an edge of wickedness that most wouldn't be able to pick up on. Unless you'd grown up with him and could spot one of his schemes from twenty miles off. Like everyone currently in the car. "To see you maturing. Learning, growing, all that. New year, new you, right?" His smile widened, the wickedness unmistakable now, gleaming in his too-blue eyes. "Any idea when I should be expecting a wedding invitation, little man?"

Ham had gone round-eyed. "Zack…"

"First of all," Phil began, and Ham slapped his forehead, Helga threw her head back a moment, and Zack smiled guiltily at them, though not at all apologetically, "I am not a little man, I am an eleven-year-old boy with intelligence far superior to your own piddling excuses for thought, so I would appreciate a little respect. Yet clearly, since I've already explained this to you on numerous occasions and it has yet to sink in, I'll have to conclude that you are even stupider than I originally estimated. With that conclusion in place, it's only natural to also conclude that any attempts to explain the distinctly unromantic nature of my involvement with Dolores and my complete disdain for anything even remotely romance related would also be moot. Even if those points are obvious and shouldn't even need to be explained in the first place, but you are apparently so thick—"

"Okay, okay, that's enough!" Helga slammed her hand down without thinking, and the car horn blaring out of nowhere sent everyone in the car in near-cardiac arrest.

The car was quiet for a time as everyone sat stiff and wide-eyed, the car luckily still moving forward in the correct lane.

Swallowing, Helga forcibly calmed her jitters and managed a semi-authoritative voice, "We're going to be there any minute, so Zack, stop provoking your brother, and Phil, try to calm down, please."

"Mom, Aunt Olga already likes me," Phil tried to argue, with a sarcastic edge and still clearly upset raise of his voice.

"Oh yeah?" Helga swiftly interjected before he could say anymore. "When you're calm and cute, sure, but has she ever seen you when you go off the deep end?"

Phil fell silent.

As they were in a slow lane now, she reached a blind hand back and felt around for him. Once she had a grip on his arm, she gave it a reassuring squeeze and softened her tone. "Hey, I know how infuriating siblings can be but try to temper yourself. I want you to have a good time for…" her voice turned to a grumble, "however long she decides to hang around. Two weeks, two months, whatever." Then softly, "No matter my feelings about it, this is supposed to be fun for you kids."

Zack put his hand over hers on his arm and gave it a squeeze back. "Thanks, Mom," he choked, heartfelt. Helga immediately withdrew her hand and gave him a slap. He cracked up. "You can't tell Phil to 'temper himself,' he's not capable of it. It's all Looney Tunes all the time over here." He jabbed his thumb in Phil's direction, almost aggressively.

"Hey, Mom," Phil suddenly snapped, something almost maniacal in his eye, "is your latest poetry book finished?"

That surprised Helga enough that she had to glance back at him a moment, bemused. "Uh… yeah. I finished it last week." She blinked, a funny little smile on her face. "Since when are you interested in my poetry books? You know they're all love poems."

Phil made a soft noise and nodded. "Oh, right, right. Sorry, for a second there I forgot I was a boy."

Zack stared agape, speechless.

Phil sprawled himself back in a clear mocking imitation of him and laced his hands behind his head, raising his eyebrows high at him with a smug smirk. The threat was laid bare for his eyes alone, as he'd made it for the past month at every possible opportunity, and it was too much.

Before he knew what he was doing, Zack roughly grabbed him and forced him to sit up. This naturally set Phil off, and he started trying to slap his hands away. Zack didn't let up, though, forcing him against the side of the door and stretching his sweater out in their struggling. As soon as the car was stopped, Phil grappled for the door handle and managed to get it open, just in time for Zack to give him a hard push backwards and launch him head-first into the dirt.

There was a loud gasp from… somewhere, and car doors being slammed, but all Phil could process at the moment was the shocked look on Zack's face as he leaned over him out the car.

The shock was neatly swept away a second later and replaced with a cocky grin. "What? I thought you'd be eager to see dear Aunt Olga as soon as possible."

Malice overwhelmed him, but before he could respond, Helga was upon him, grabbing him up from the ground and dusting him off, brushing the dirt from his hair and sweater in no time flat with a fevered incoherency of, "The things that come outta my vagina—" Noticing Arnold's car parked some feet ahead of them, she swallowed and barked, "Zachary Shortman, the moment we make it to the boarding house, I'm bolting your ass to a chair and yelling at you for a good twenty minutes. You are not off the hook for this, are we clear?"

Zack made an unconcerned noise of consent and gracelessly pushed himself out of the car, making quick work of the lawn with long strides and an eagerness for easy amusement and forward motion. The Patakis had moved out of the old lavender brownstone around when Helga left for college, and into a larger brownstone with a small lawn and healthy tulip garden on the wealthy end of town. It was well-kept and lovely to look at, but Zack was up the steps with barely a glance and knocking on the door before Helga could even turn around and realize what was about to happen.

Within the split-second directly after his first knock, the door flew open to reveal a beautifully aged blonde woman with a stylish up-do, flowing white sundress and a light brown leather jacket. Her stunning chestnut eyes shone in the afternoon sun with light reflecting brilliantly off her flushed cheeks and plump red lips. With a gleaming white grin, Olga gave Zack a playful push back so he was standing a couple steps down and not almost towering over her, before throwing her arms around him. He laughed his surprise and grabbed her back with equal zeal. "Oh, Zachary, tu m'as manqué!"

"Tel enthousiasme," Zack laughed. "I've missed you too."

Pulling back, she looked him up and down with open wonderment. "Oh, look at you, so tall and handsome! And looking more and more like your mother every day." She gave him a kiss on both cheeks and grabbed him for one last embrace, one leg popping up behind her for the second it lasted before she skipped down the steps and stopped dead in her tracks. Slowly, her grin grew to painful intensity as she slowly spread out her arms. "Baby sister…" she teased.

Helga threw her head back and reluctantly stood from the ground, where she'd been hunched down like a statue from the moment she heard the door open and pointless French being spoken. Turning around with a resigned air, she wearily returned the grin and held out her arms in return. "Big sister…" she sighed.

Olga squealed and was crashing into her before Helga could even process that she'd moved. She just managed to repress a gag, but it was a close thing.

"Oh, Helga…" Olga sighed, squeezing her with everything she had, which was just a little too much for Helga's taste. "It's been much, much too long."

"It has," Helga coughed, smiling despite herself as she returned the hug, albeit with a bit less crushing enthusiasm. She patted her back with a sigh of fond exasperation. "Been a while, with all those holiday showings you agreed to. Your next visit better not take so long."

She breathed, "Never," just when movement caught her eye and her attention noticeably drifted.

The movement was Phil trying to hide himself behind Ham. Figuring he probably wasn't too keen to get the air smooshed out of him, Ham nobly took a step forward to Olga and forced a smile. "Auntie."

The distraction worked, and was disturbingly instantaneous. Olga's eyes flicked to him and a giddy smile split her face open again. Pushing away from Helga for the moment, she launched herself at him and let out a rush of breath. He caught her with a light wince, and she happily began trying to squeeze all the air out of him when suddenly, she froze, and pulled back. New eyes swept over him before snapping up to meet his own, clearly surprised. "Joshua, dear, you've gotten so… so big! And—oh, you've gotten a haircut!" She laughed and started playing with the dark blond strands. "Oh, it's been far too long since I saw you! You really must send more pictures."

Ham laughed awkwardly, eyes centered on the hand currently twirling through his hair. "Uh, yeah, I guess… I go by Ham now, actually."

Olga hummed thoughtfully, her focus still devoted to fluffing his hair. She murmured almost absentmindedly, "Hm, I do think I remember hearing you preferred that now. I almost forgot." Her eyes met his again and crinkled warmly at the sides as she allowed her hands to drift down and rest lightly on his arms. "Ham."

The easy acceptance and refreshing lack of judgment in her tone made his smile more sincere.

Finally, the moment could no longer be avoided, and Olga stepped away to smile slyly at her youngest nephew. "Ah, Phil, I see you trying to hide… I want my hug…" She held out her arms.

He stared at her, stricken.

And then there was movement, too fast to process, Phil was turning to make a break for it when Olga swooped in and snatched him up, arms coiling around him like an octopus and nose nuzzling into his hair with a grin. He let out a long groan and slumped over in her arms, accepting defeat.

Olga giggled and set him back down on his feet as quickly as she'd grabbed him up, thoughtful to keep a hand on his shoulder to stop him from stumbling. "Oh, Philly, you look…" she blinked over bright eyes, her smile unfaltering, "bigger!"

Two coughs and low murmur of, "By two centimeters," was heard from Zack's general direction.

Olga ignored him and kneeled down on the grass, her dress falling flawlessly about her knees without her having to adjust it, so no dirt could dig into the light airy fabric. She ran her hands down his arms and gave him a softer, more familiar smile. "It's so good to see you again. I'm so sorry I haven't been able to visit in so long, Phillip," she said his name with the slight flourishing accent she said all their names with that annoyed Helga to no end, and she moved a bit closer upon hearing it, eyes sharp. "It's been such a long time. Oh, but don't fret, I'm going to try to be around much more often from now on. I hate not being able to watch you grow up."

Phil regarded her a bit glumly.

Helga didn't like what she was implying one bit and decided now was a good time to step in and bury her with questions. Directly behind her now, she loudly interrupted, "Ey, what did you do with my husband? Daughter? And how was your flight?"

Olga laughed softly and stood up from the ground, sweeping her hands gracefully down the front of her dress even though it was spotless and wrinkle-free. "Oh, first class was wonderful, Helga. They served the most delicious brunch, and I told the attendant that I simply had to know the chef's secret because the foise gras was exquisitely—"

"Yeah, yeah, that's great. My husband and daughter?"

Olga made a noise of surprise and a manicured hand flew to her cheek, eyes glittering and unreasonably round for such a simple question. "Ah, they must still be upstairs unpacking my things."

Helga stared at her for a long, blank-faced moment, before sighing and turning to walk inside the house. It was probably best not to comment. "Right."

Olga happily prattled on with her nephews as they followed her inside, going on and on about all manner of subjects that thoroughly entertained Zack, bemused Ham, and interested Phil. "And Charles so wanted to come, but was piled in work so he can't be here for another week yet. Tragic, no? Of course, Angelique and Genevieve are off at Wellington in Berkshire, and sweet Helena is still at the all girls boarding school in Paris. Each with honors, and never a grade below an A." She sighed happily.

Halfway up the staircase, Helga barked, "Phil, Josh, tell your aunt how smart you are."

Zack made a vaguely offended face and joked, "Hey!"

But Olga had already snapped her eyes onto Ham, intrigued. "Oh?"

Ham flushed slightly and straightened. "Er, yeah. I'm at the top of my class now. Honor roll and everything."

Olga gasped in pure delight and grabbed his arm excitedly. "That's wonderful! Félicitations! Bon travail!"

Ham smiled slightly, though still with an edge of discomfort. "Uh, thanks."

Zack smiled teasingly and slowly said, "Félicitations means Congratulations and Bon travail Good work—"

"Shut up, Zack."

The bright grin and sparkling blue eyes captured Olga's attention next and she cooed, "Zachary, you must have so many admirers. Your pronunciation is c'est magnifique."

That got Zack smirking again. "Oh, yeah, well. French was my favorite class just because it finally meant I could understand what the heck Mom's always going on about. Language and English are admittedly my specialties, though really, I am good at most everything."

Phil snorted and Ham's eyes flew up.

Zack quickly moved on, "And actually, I'm still with Sophie."

Olga blinked, dark eyelashes fluttering like a butterfly's wings against her cheeks. "Sophie?"

"Yeah, you know, raven hair, pretty blue eyes? I brought her to dinner the last time you visited—" he paused, his lips pursed and head light bobbing as he thought, "oh, two years ago? Criminy, has it really been that long?"

Phil deadpanned, "Two years, three months."

Zack snapped a surprised look on him that he didn't catch, his eyes focused on the freshly polished hardwood floors, when Olga's loud, "Ohhh," grabbed his attention again. Olga nodded slowly. "Yes, I remember her. Such a sweet, demure soul, and with the loveliest presence. That was right after Phil's play, wasn't it?" She cast a warm look at him, only for him to avoid her eyes, and she blinked, wondering if he'd gotten shy since her last visit. He'd said barely a word since she met up with them.

Zack noticed this, too, and looked curiously between the two a couple times before responding, "Yeah, it was, now that I think about it…" He snapped out of it with a laugh as the memory flashed in his mind. "Oh, man, I nearly forgot about that! How could I? Phil with a mustache." He cackled.

They had been standing in the foyer for a while now, so Olga decided to lead them all into the family room to warm up by the fireplace. While they settled in, Olga said, "It's still such a shame I had to leave so soon after the show, and right in between dinner, too. Phil showed such promise for improvement. I was loathe to be unable to speak with him properly afterwards." She pressed a single finger to her bottom lip in thought, humming. "I seem to recall that was the night he decided he wanted to take over the family business, too." Her laughter tinkled like wind chimes.

Phil snapped a look on her from where he was standing in front of the fire, his face hard.

Olga was amused by this, and had something so knowing sparkling in her eyes that Zack's had to widen. "Of course, acting is a family business, especially now. Not that Daddy would agree." Phil relaxed at that, and she gaily continued, perched on the couch with her posture straight and hands folded neatly in her lap, "With the family's long history in the arts, it was only natural one of you would take an interest in it. I noticed dear Amanda Faith has an enthusiasm for poetry that if nurtured properly could—"

Zack's slinging an arm around her shoulders startled her out of her line of thought. "Say, Aunt Olga, sorry for interrupting, but I just wanted to express my deep regret that we're not closer than we are. Your last visit flew by so quickly—"

"She was here for a month," Phil flatly interjected.

Zack talked right over him, "—and we hardly had any time together. I'd like to remedy that, wouldn't you?"

Olga was surprised at this sudden desire for a closer relationship, but not at all put off. Continuing in her joyful, breathless tones, she agreed, "Nothing would make me happier."

Zack grinned madly. "Great!" Smashing a kiss onto her cheek, he flew up from the couch and bounded out of the room with a wave. "Tell Mom and Dad I have an errand to run, I should be back in a couple hours. Love you, see you soon, bye!" The door was heard slamming shut shortly after the last word reached their ears.

Olga blinked owlishly after him for quiet seconds after, a hand on her freshly smooched cheek. "Well, he hasn't changed at all."

"No," Ham dryly affirmed. "No, he hasn't."

Olga turned her dark brown eyes on him and smiled, revealing a thin strip of white. "How about you two? How have you fared?"

"Fine," Ham answered shortly, and offered nothing more than that. Olga blinked at him, slightly taken aback. Had he developed some shyness as well? Or…

Shifting her eyes between the two, she asked gently, "Are you uncomfortable with me?" When no answer was forthcoming, she crossed one long, sculpted leg over the other and relaxed the set of her shoulders, her eyes gentling. "You should know there's no need for that. I know it's been a long time, and much can change in a year, never mind two, but we are still family. Be easy around me. Please, there is no need for discomfort."

Ham blew out and scratched at his ear, head tilting slightly as he looked away. "I really am fine. I don't have anything else to say."

Olga frowned, disappointed with this flippant assessment. Edging closer to his chair on the couch, she murmured tactfully, "How about your little friend? Kori, was it?"

Ham didn't react at first to the obvious hedging around well-known information. Then he tilted his head towards Phil, who snapped an innocent look away from him, and Ham sighed and reluctantly met Olga's eyes. "I got an email from her a month ago, and she said she was fine, so… I can only assume she still is." He gave a light shrug of one shoulder.

Olga nodded sympathetically. "I'm away from my loved ones a lot, too." She reached a hand over to clasp his knee. He looked down at it, catching her radiant smile out of the corner of his eye. The unspoken 'We haven't spoken in almost two years' hung between them a moment before she said, "It's hard, but distance doesn't diminish love. Not when it's real."

Ham didn't think that was very comforting, but he smiled gratefully at her anyway. It looked just as forced as it felt.

A bit disappointed, Olga turned her eyes on Phil, expectant and hopeful. He met her stare and pursed his lips. Placing his hands on his hips, he nodded, eyes determined and jaw set. "Well, I'm fine, too. Better than I was," he forced out, the words feeling clumsy. Somehow talking to her to her face was worlds different from hearing her voice in his ear once every couple of months. He cleared his throat. "You?"

Olga's expression brightened slightly, and she extracted her hand from Ham's knee, missing his relieved sigh. "Oh, très bien, très bien! Thank you." She laughed, needlessly, maybe a bit hysterically. "It's good to hear that. How go your studies?"

"Fine." The light in her eyes dimmed considerably and he repressed the urge to sigh. "I'm not doing anything interesting, if that's what you're asking. My new school doesn't have a drama club. Or any clubs, as far as I know."

Olga looked scandalized. "That's horrible! What have you done? How have you coped?" She looked on the verge of next asking, 'Have you alerted the authorities?' but Phil spoke before she could.

"Calm down, I'll be going into middle school soon, it doesn't matter. Nobody cares, and frankly I'm not in any hurry to be working with idiots again. Those pea brains back at PS 118 had no idea what they were doing, no thanks to that pompous whelp they were calling director. I don't even want to think about what kind of torture might await me at my new school." He shivered at the thought.

"Mr. Leichliter?" Olga frowned scoldingly, her eyes faintly disapproving. "Phillip, he is a very well-respected musical critic! He's been in the business for over forty years. That you ever had a chance to work under him is a privilege. You shouldn't speak of him like that."

"He's still alive?" Phil's face scrunched.

Before any questions could be asked or further insults thrown, Arnold walked in. "Hey, boys," he smiled, walking over to stand behind Ham's chair and fold his arms across the back of it, the tips of his fingertips drifting over Ham's hair. Leaned forward like that, he nodded once to Olga, looking to be in a pleasant mood. "You're all set. Everything's hooked up so you should be able to video call any time you like now without issue."

Olga smiled beatifically. "Thank you. I don't know how I'd be able to sleep tonight without seeing Charles' smiling face."

"Well, there shouldn't be any problem with that." He smiled kindly. "You'll be able to see it… All thirty-four inches of it."

Olga beamed.

"Where's Mom and Amanda?" Ham turned slightly to ask him to his face.

Arnold's eyes drifted off, exhaling gustily. "Amanda claimed an allergic reaction to a leaf that blew in from the window so Helga's tending to it."

Olga gasped dramatically, reeling back as if she'd been struck. "Oh, no! Is she going to be all right?"

"Yes," Arnold cleared the rustiness from his throat and plainly continued, "she'll be fine."

There was a long silence in the room, filled only with the crackling of the fire and slight shifting of fabric. Olga's look of concern did not diminish.

"She's faking it."

Arnold nodded at Phil in confirmation. "I think she's trying to get out of tutoring today."

Even with her back as straight as could be, Olga somehow managed to perk up. "Tutoring?"

"Yeah, she helps me tutor a little boy in my—our—class. Mostly in math, English, and spelling. He's good with the more hands-on subjects, but anything that takes a little too much brainpower, he gets frustrated with. He's a bright kid, but he just refuses to put the effort in. I think he's afraid if he tries, he'll fail."

Olga nodded sympathetically. "It's always something like that. Poor dear. Perhaps I could assist?"

Remembering the few times Olga had tutored him as a kid, he didn't have to think long before he agreed. "That would be great. Any and all encouragement is welcome. Try to be gentle, though, ease your way in—he's slow to trust people so he's likely to be a little defensive at first."

Olga nodded solemnly. "Of course."

Meanwhile, as this conversation was taking place, Phil was gaping like he'd just witnessed the planning of a murder. "You invited him to the Sunset Arms?" Arnold inclined his head to him with a blink, and Phil scowled at the confirmation. "First you invite him into our home fifty gajillion times so he can get his ucky little eight year old germs on everything, and now you're gonna defile the boarding house, too? Is no place sacred?"

"No," Arnold calmly replied, "I'm going to defile this house, and then the boarding house. I'll be picking him up in about half an hour." He dropped his voice to a stage-whisper and leaned forward with large eyes, "No place is safe."

Phil eyed him, his lips in a tight line. "You're mocking me."

"No…" He had the nerve to sound unconvincingly shocked.

"Fine, laugh until your lungs shrivel up but when your little matchmaking games go kablooey and every property we own is tainted with the memories of crushing failure, I'd just like to have it on record that I didn't support you." He pointed a finger at him, eyes flickering ominously. "You'll regret this, mark my words…"

Olga's eyebrows flew up and her eyes glinted dangerously. "Matchmaking?"

Phil threw his hands up.

Just then, footsteps thumped from somewhere in the hall and produced Helga and Amanda at the doorway. Arnold made a brief 'quiet' motion with his finger on his mouth before smiling at them. "How are we doing, ladies?"

"Awful," Amanda croaked, her pigtails sagging more than usual. "I don't feel so good. My throat's all scratchy." A violent hacking cough wracked her tiny body.

Arnold raised an eyebrow at Helga, and she gave a subtle shake of her head and upward flick of her eyes.

Before he could say anything, Olga shifted around in her seat and smiled. Her voice was soft, like a kitten's caress, "Hey, I think I have just the thing for a scratchy throat, if you're willing to try. I'd hate to have you sick on my visit. There's too much fun to be had." She stood and walked around the couch to face her, her hands pressing into her knees as she leaned down. "Do you like honey and lemons?"

Amanda frowned, but reluctantly nodded. Olga's smile widened and she offered her hand. Amanda took it, and she led her off to the kitchen, a light skip in her step that only seemed to emphasize the drag in Amanda's, the sunshine that usually followed her everywhere apparently swallowed up by a dark black cloud.

As soon as the two were gone, Helga threw herself back on the couch and slumped down, kicking her feet up on the coffee table. "Those two together…" She massaged her temples, shutting her eyes tight. "This can only end badly. And probably with an inexplicable amount rainbows and puppy dogs."

"She offered to help tutor, too," Arnold added helpfully.

Helga threw her head back and groaned.

Phil sniffed and jumped out of his chair to briskly exit the room.

Arnold watched him go with eyebrows high. "Phil, where are you going?"

"Places," he yelled just before disappearing out the door. Arnold and Helga shared a look. Ham just continued to sit still in his seat, wondering if a normal life was even possible if everyone related to him was going to keep insisting on being more and more ridiculous.

Since no door slamming was heard several minutes after his departure, the couple relaxed and made small talk, Josh occasionally adding his two cents. For a little while, it almost seemed as if they might have a peaceful moment to themselves.

Then Arnold asked, "Where's Zack?"

The conversation kind of went downhill from there.

Pam lounged back on her powder pink bed, the mattress sinking and practically swallowing her up as she lazily kicked her feet at the clear white curtain hanging over her. The checkered pink and white comforter lay in a tangle on the floor, a lighter blue blanket with clouds on it underneath her, and a round blue pillow with a poodle on it and the words "Le Woof" held tightly to her chest. Her free hand played absentmindedly with one of the pillow's tassels as she spoke into her cell, cushioned between her shoulder and ear, " 'Poor, naïve, ignorant Pam,' he said. Ignorant. I am not ignorant. He has no idea the stuff I've seen, the things I've lived through. He has no right—Are you listening?"

There was a commotion over the other end, and a shot of static before the voice came back, "Yeah, I'm sorry. Still a bit busy."

Pam let out a gusty sigh and sunk farther back into her bed, bringing the pillow up to bury her face in. Out of the corner of her mouth, she grumbled, "Well, like I was saying, the asshat has no right to talk down to me like that. He's always doing that, he has this tone he uses—like he's Zeus or something and the rest of us are just—just—poor, naïve, and ignorant." She groaned exaggeratedly, half-muffled by the pillow. "And he had his arm around me, too, like I needed to be comforted for my sad case of stupid or something. 'Oh, the pathetic ginger thinks she knows things again, poor dear. Let me just cradle her to my chest and rock her back and forth while I bestow her with my infinite wisdom.' " Several expletives and colorful noises of disgust followed her impression, before she went soundless.

After a long period of silence, Sophie finally responded with, "You're a funny girl, Pam."

Pam let out a gusty sigh at the predictable response and sunk farther back into her bed. Out of the corner of her mouth, she griped, "I just don't get what you see in him."

Soft laughter. Static. "Yes, I know. You've only said that twelve times in the last hour. And somewhere around a hundred times in the last month."

Pam blew a raspberry into her pillow, rolling her eyes. "Well, it's true. You could do so much better."

There was a short silence, the sound of a box falling, then Sophie's voice came back, "I don't understand why you're so fixated on this."

"Jaron—" she gasped, throwing the pillow aside, "Jaron is so cute, why don't you date him?"

"Jaron?" Sophie sounded extremely amused.

"Or that Willy kid, the hippie one. He seems nice, and you're around him all the time anyway. Or, hell, Billy Green would be a better alternative to Zack Shortman—"

"Pam," Sophie spoke softly, patiently.

"I mean, I don't know what your type is. Jaron implied you're some weird species of girl who likes it a certain way or something, but I don't know what the hell that means. What do you like? If you're attracted to confidence, Reuben's kind of pompous in his own right – granted not nearly as much as Zack but that's kind of the point – and he's really nice and really loaded, so maybe—"

"Pam," Sophie said a little more firmly. "I'm not interested in—" There was a sigh, and what almost sounded like a chuckle. "What… What is this about? Really?"

Pam sat up on the bed, folding her legs under her Indian-style with eyes unconsciously drifting to her window. She stared at the sunlight streaking through from her perch for a couple seconds, the see-through curtain rustling a little from the breeze, before she picked her cell phone up from where it had tumbled onto the bed and asked, "Does Phil seem depressed to you?"

There was another long silence over the connection. Then, "No."

Pam grabbed the zebra pillow at the foot of her bed just for the purpose of throwing it violently across the room. "No way, not you too!"

Helplessly, Sophie replied, "I'm sorry, but I've known him for two years, and for all that time, he's always been… the same."

Pam looked around for another pillow to throw.

As she did this, Sophie continued speaking, "You're changing the subject."

"Am not," she sniped, hanging half off the bed, hair splayed in a tangle on the floor, in search of something to sling violently against the wall that wouldn't break.

"You are," Sophie countered, not missing a beat. "You've seemed pretty intent on persuading me to break it off with Zack. There must be a… reason."

Pam thought the way she said 'reason' sounded kinda fishy, but there was enough blood rushing to her head that she ignored it. "Yeah. There is a reason. And it's exactly how it seems." Pushing herself up from the floor, she fell back against the bed and glowered up at the ceiling, face half-hidden behind a sea of red hair. "I hate watching people getting taken advantage of. I hate seeing people getting used and mistreated and swept aside. Which, in case you haven't noticed, is exactly what Zack does—to everyone—including you."

The stretch of silence was long enough this time that Pam felt compelled to go on, almost pleading, "You don't have to be with Zack out of some weird obligation, Sophe. You're better than that. If he's—" she sighed, rubbing her forehead, "If he's blackmailing you or something, tell me, and I'll help you get out of it. You don't need to do this. It's obvious you're not into him. A blind person could see it, and it's painful to watch. Just… please."

Silence reigned, until finally, there came a soft murmur, "You have it all wrong."

Pam blinked.

After a moment, and what sounded suspiciously like a long exhale, more words came, "I'm not with Zack out of… obligation, or because he blackmailed me, or anything. I'm with him because… because I love him. He's sweet and kind and thoughtful and I love him. That's… it, Pam, that's really all it is."

Pam's temper flared. "Oh, yeah, sweet and kind and thoughtful. Right. That's Zack to a T. My mistake."


"It's not like I've been around the guy every day for a month or anything. It's not like I've had a front row seat to every obnoxious, callous, thoughtless thing that's popped out of his mouth ever since I met him. It's not like I haven't had to sit back and bite my tongue while he treats Jaron like a slave or snores like a hog in class or parades around like he owns the place. It's not like he forced me to be his friend or anything. Oh, no. He's really just a poor misunderstood angel. Once again, the ignorant ginger has no idea what she's talking about."

More silence. Then, hoarsely, "That isn't what I said."

Pam stilled. After a much longer, more uncomfortable period of dead silence, she sighed and ran her thumb over the edge of her eyelids, eyes closed. She'd forgotten who she was talking to for a minute, her logic made hazy in the midst of raging defense. Sophie had been sheltered most of her life, and had a delicacy about her—she didn't understand true, honest to God hatred. Let alone hatred for her perfect lovely boyfriend, but then, Pam had never been one to let sympathy get in the way of her resolve. Some might call that a flaw. She called it a healthy case of the stubborns. Yeah, that's right. Healthy.

Because health had everything to do with blowing a fuse over someone defending the guy they'd been in a relationship with for two years. Stupid. She dug her thumb harder into her eye, hoping distantly that she might go blind so she wouldn't ever be expected to look Sophie in the eye again.

But then, Sophie had been sheltered, Jaron had never had any other friends before Zack came along, and for someone perfectly all right, Phil could look awfully unhappy—Pam couldn't shake the feeling of protectiveness it brought out in her. Zack was dangerous, that was all too clear; it had been proven time and time again. She wasn't seeing things. The others were just biased, blinded by the carefree smiles and gooey blue eyes and plastic charisma. Pam couldn't deny he had a way of making you want to take down your defenses. He was… warm. Somehow. Something in his eyes made you want to trust him; to vent all your problems as he patted you on the back and told you it was going to be okay.

But it was all fake. Pam had experience in this, experience that the others didn't have. She could spot an asshole from a hundred miles off, and the moment Zack came stampeding into her line of vision, she'd been practically blinded from it. The guy was a jackass. He even confirmed that. A manipulative, self-serving, evil jackass. She wasn't about to let him weasel his way onto her good side next. That was how you ended up locked in closets and stuck in dead-end relationships.

So yeah, she felt bad about shocking her friend's innocent sensibilities, but she couldn't regret it. Someone had to pull these poor babies out of the sky before Air Asshat came through.

It was with exactly this thought in mind that she lifted her finger and opened her mouth to say—


She blinked and shut her mouth. She blinked again and squinted her eyes. "I think someone else just tried to call me."

"You can call me back," Sophie replied just a little too quickly. "Or put me on hold. It's fine."

Pam's eyes squinted further, but she relented. She didn't have a choice. There were only so many people that could be calling her. "Okay. I'm gonna put you on hold, but don't think you're getting out of talking about this."

It could have just been a breeze, or it could have been a sigh. It was hard to tell. "Very well."

A few taps later, and an automated ringing was filling her ear. She scrabbled a blind hand between the sheets and fished out a lollypop just as the phone was picked up. She popped it in her mouth and asked over the stick, "Yellow?"

A smooth, male voice responded, one that made her instantly slam her eyes shut, "Blue. Indigo. Purple. Green. Polka dot. Am I winning?"

She threw an arm up over her eyes. Her voice sounded foreign to her own ears when she replied, "You forgot red."

A deep, slow chuckle. Wind slapping against the receiver. "Shoot."

This could not be happening. Static crackled in her ear. She sighed. She didn't know why she was surprised anymore. "What do you want, Zack?"

His response came swiftly, "I would like my wife to meet me at Slausens in exactly one hour. No ifs, ands, or buts about it, honey. We have important business to discuss. I'll see you there. Bye."

The line cut, and Pam gaped at nothing. The next second she was holding the phone directly in front of her face and yelling, "You can't expect me to drive that far at random, I don't even have a license—Zackass!" as she pressed furiously at the redial button.

After the fifth time he didn't pick up, she yanked her blanket up, balled it up, and threw it across the room, hissing his name like a curse. Shooting up from her cozy nest on the bed, she gave a hard press of a button on her phone and spoke as she yanked on a pair of pants, "I want a divorce."

"That was Zack?"

Pam snorted. "Of course it was. Oh, and you're right. He's a real angel-pie."

More boxes dropping. "He is."

Some of Pam's disgust leaked into her tone, "Sophie, I know you have trouble with the concept, but I was being sarcastic."

"I wasn't." She could hear Sophie's smile as she said, "Have fun being married to my boyfriend."

The line clicked off.

Zack whistled softly as he reclined back in his booth. A foot was perched comfortably on a knee and his hands twined unworriedly together over the table as he awaited his archenemy's arrival. The light patter of footsteps and soft murmurs of enthusiastic conversation surrounded him. He whistled on over it.

A scuffling came from beside him then and he opened his eyes. The flash of white out of the corner of his eye made him grin and he turned his head back to face the waitress, hair flopping out of his eyes as he did. "Rosie, my love. Sneaking up on me again?"

Roselaine met his eyes dispassionately. "Look, you've been loitering here for over half an hour now, are you gonna order anything or not?"

Zack blinked at her serenely, his grin undimming. "Your concern is warming, but I think I'm good for now. Thanks for asking." He winked and, with that, turned his head back and shut his eyes, resuming his whistled melody.

There was a moment of silence that wasn't filled with the sound of retreating footsteps, before she started talking again, sounding exhausted, "You've gotta order something or get out, you're creeping people out just sitting there."

Zack spoke without opening his eyes, loudly and to the general area, "Is anyone creeped out by me?"

There was a much longer pause this time, before there came some tentative, "No's" and "I guess not's" and "The hell you talking about, I just came here for ice cream's." Zack grinned and nodded to Roselaine, opening his eyes just long enough to make a sweeping motion with his hand and tell her, "See? Not an offputting thing about me. Plenty of other open tables. Relax."

Her already straight mouth somehow became straighter. "Okay, I'll restate. You're creeping me out just sitting there."

That got Zack to really look at her, giddy with amusement. "Oh, Rosie, I distract you?"

"That's not what I said."

"Ah, but it was what you meant. I know how to read between the lines." He wagged a knowing finger at her.

Roselaine opened her mouth to reply, then seemed to think better of it and just sighed, turning on her heel to trudge away.

Zack chuckled and threw a, "I'll have a strawberry milkshake and a bag of lollypops," at her back. She gave no visible reaction and came back with his order five minutes later, not saying a word. That was okay. He wasn't expecting her to.

It was right as he was sticking his straw in that the entrance door jangled open and an unkempt, extremely pissed off redhead came storming through.

Zack greeted her with a wave and beaming smile. "Pam Cake, so glad you could—"

"Stuff it," Pam instructed as soon as she was standing before him, hands coming down on either side of the end of the table. Her eyes blared into him behind dancing strands of crimson hair, setting her face in a foreboding shadow. "You can't just order me around like that. You can't just…" there was something very heavy in the way she breathed, even as she only took in light huffs of air, "command me to travel thirty miles at the drop of a hat."

"I told you just today that we were probably going to have to meet up here." He raised half an eyebrow at her, skeptical.

Pam's knuckles were turning a little yellow. "We never discussed when. If we had planned to meet up here today, you wouldn't have had to call me. I assumed today you were visiting with your aunt." Her shoulders lifted imposingly. He was not intimidated. Her voice rose a bit to her usual pitch, squeaking around the edges in her fury, "How do you know I didn't have plans today? I could have been getting ready to go to my big poker game with the president and bigfoot when you called."

Zack's skeptical eyebrow rose even higher, and she turned her eyes down, pursing her lips. He knew very well she had nowhere to go these days. He'd been living next to her for over a month now, watching, waiting for her to do something dastardly. She never did.

She was turning out to be a pretty pathetic excuse for a nemesis, actually.

She was determined to ask stupid question, at least. That was kind of diabolical, he supposed. Face coloring, she appeared to hold her breath for all of three seconds before suddenly bursting, "How did you even know I knew where Slausens was?"

At this rate, his eyebrow was gonna be on Mars. "It's a candy store."

Almost before he'd finished talking, she was bursting again, "I don't even know how to drive!"

"Oh come on, now you're just grasping at straws." His eyebrow lowered, along with his eyelids. His lip quirked up at one side. "You and I both know Ms. Idleberry was more than happy to drive you down here when she heard you were meeting with me. It's not a problem—not in this life, nor in any other, will it ever be." His eyebrow lifted. The lids stayed down. "Why do you want to be angry?"

She clenched her teeth. "I didn't come with my mom."

The door jangled again but he kept his eyes trained on her, trying to make sense of her words. It wasn't until the heavy footfalls made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up that he turned to look at the new occupant, who was very blatantly heading straight for them.

Sharp onyx hair styled down half of his head, lined with dark blue highlights, was headed his way, in a faded blue tee with a chain rattling around his neck. That was where the color ended. Past that was a thick black coat, ripped black jeans, and – you guessed it – black combat boots. The guy was almost skinnier than him yet still somehow managed to look like he could take down ten guys on the spot. It wasn't too terrible, in Zack's experience—he'd come across punks before with much more… enthusiastic looks. It wasn't until he came close enough that he could get a good look at his eyes that his blood ran cold.

Blazing hazel eyes sought his and stayed there once locked, unbudging. His eyes crinkled a few moments as he strained his face, before he stated, "I've only just met you and I hate you."

Zack stared at him, still as a statue. An instant later, he asked quietly, perfectly composed in direct eye contact with the man, "Pam, who's the big creepy guy?"

Pam's eyes shot between the two of them bemusedly during their exchange, and sighed at his question when it came, eyes rolling up. "My ride, you knucklehead." She swung a hand between Zack and the big creepy guy. "Zack, my brother, Mike. Mike, this is the asshat."

The man, now identified as Mike, shot his eyes around the room before pushing Pam to slide into the booth opposite Zack. She did so with a snort, and he slid in beside her, snatching up a menu that same second. He buried his face in it, and spoke no more.

Zack continued to stare at him, eyes fallen almost completely closed and eyebrow drawn. "You couldn't have waited in the car? This is kind of a private conversation. Really important."

Mike gave no response.

Zack exhaled through his nose and looked back to Pam. "Is he safe?"

Pam's eyes were deadly when they met his. Ah, she was royally cheesed. He'd almost forgotten. She replied lowly, laden with sarcasm, "He won't breathe a word."

Zack caught Mike's menu lowering just enough to reveal a light smirk on his face. His eyebrow shot up in increasing alarm. "Then what's that look on his face?"

"Zackass," Pam leaned forward over the table, partly in front of Mike, shielding him from view, "get to the reason I'm here. Now."

Zack huffed out a laugh. "Touchy, touchy. I'm starting to see that runs in the family." Mike's shoulders tensed and he quickly moved things along. Tapping the table with the end of his spoon, he quietly said, "I need that evil brain of yours for a… dilemma, I've been working on solving."

Pam's face cleared slightly. Her eyebrow lifted. "What dilemma?"

The tapping ceased. "My baby brother."

Pam's eyebrows flew to Mars.

Zack went on to explain the entire pitiful situation then. About how her meddling had put him off his game, and he'd gotten conked on the head after Taro's party only to forget all about the poem until the next day. How his little brother had gotten a hold of said poem and confronted him about it. About how insufferable he was and he needed her help to put him back in his place.

Pam's eyebrows only climbed with each period mark heavy with tacit accusation. Finally, when he seemed to be done, she said, "You think this is my fault."

His slow, confirming blink made her already sizzling temper rise to heights of whipping inferno, and when she spoke this time, it was underlined with disgust, "You've gotta be joking—This is your fault! You're the one who got sloppy! It's not my fault you don't know how to keep your own deep, dark secret," she said this deeply, with a mocking twist of her face and cross of her eyes, "a secret. Take responsibility for your own oafishness for once and quit blaming me for everything that goes wrong in your life. I am not your own personal scapegoat."

Zack didn't react to her outburst. He didn't move, he didn't yell—he barely even batted an eye, but she knew better. She'd heard others go on about how laid back and cool-headed Zack was, but she'd never seen it. She supposed this should be a sign that he was getting more comfortable with her, that he felt less threatened, but she'd seen him run, face red, nostrils flared as he insulted her and told her to buzz off. Heck, he'd been yelling at her just a few hours ago. He was holding himself back.

Probably because of Mike. She glanced at him, noting how he was staring vacantly into his menu.

Zack cleared his throat and pulled his melting milkshake closer. "I never had any problems with this until you came along. My family was none the wiser for six years. You're the one who forced all this poetry business out into the open and since you're the one who screwed with the equilibrium, you have to help fix it."

Pam threw herself back in her seat in a soundless groan.

A menu was suddenly slid across the table. It whapped into the napkin dispenser just as Mike cut in, "Hey, Ella doesn't have to do anything for you."

Pam shot a glare at him and whispered menacingly, "Mike…"

He waved her off without so much as a glance. "I'm your ride, sweetheart. I leave, you leave."

Zack still wasn't reacting. Pam was reacting quite a bit, with her pink face and clenching fists, but Zack stared straight through the both of them. "Oh, Ella's informed me of that little fact more than once, never you worry."

Pam belted out an anguished groan and slammed her head into the table. Neither Mike nor Zack seemed particularly perturbed. Rather, Mike narrowed his hazel eyes and replied very reasonably, belying his ticked off body language, "Yeah, well, it clearly hasn't gotten through to you if you're trying to force her into helping you get revenge on your little brother—"

Zack continued in his soft tones, "I'm in the business of seeking justice and fairness. I'm a pacifist, my brother is not. I merely want things back to the way they were before your sister plowed down my entire way of life. She owes me."

Pam snorted and scoffed from her position over the table. Mike's eye may have twitched, but he couldn't be sure. "You wrote a poem, in five minutes," his voice pitched high in his skepticism. "What do you want? A trophy and twenty-five thousand cash prize? I paid you back."

"Twenty dollars."

Mike bared his teeth, the first true announcement of the temper bubbling beneath the styled blades of charcoal, blue hair. It was that, this hideous combination of safety and evil, that made Zack crack.

"Look," he suddenly hissed, rising up on the palms of his hands with previously calm blue eyes blazing dangerously, "this wasn't just a poem. This was something very private and personal of mine that got forced into the light against my will for the sake of you and your sister's gain. I'm sorry that upsets you, but this was kind of a big deal for me, and now thanks to that, my little brother – who is off kilter and really doesn't know any better, by the way – is holding it over my head to make himself feel superior. Now I don't know what your beef is with me, but if this is just about having to drive down here, you were going to have to do it anyway by the sounds of it. Or, hey, if the poem wasn't to your satisfaction, I have plenty more where that came from!" Snatching up a napkin, he produced a purple pen from—somewhere—and began scribbling something down at the speed of light. Several verses later, he pocketed the pen and slid the napkin across the table to a stunned Mike Idleberry. "There, a selection. I've further compromised my pride for you. Now can Pam help me?"

Mike stared down at the napkin for a long time, silent and slack-jawed. Pam stared at Zack like an apparition, like she was waiting for him to either pop out and scare her or disappear. Finally, Mike reached over and slid it closer to himself.

Pam's eyes shifted to him as he read. A sense of dread settled over her.

Finally, Mike slowly looked up at Zack, his mouth closed a little too purposefully, and he began to stand. The chain around his neck swung forward in time with his movements. "Now you listen here, you monkey-faced little punk. I don't know who you think you're talking to, but you can't just treat my little sister like she's some kind of—"

"Mike," Pam hissed, standing abruptly to grab him by the back of his jacket and jerk him back. "This is not your fight, I can handle—"

He flailed a little and elbowed her arm away. "I'm the one who got you involved with the kid! This is too my fight!"

"Yes," she lowered her voice to a near whisper, mindful of the eyes on them and Zack's wide-eyed stare, "but I went into it of my own free will. For pay." She gave him a meaningful look. "I can handle this." Eyes fluttering, she tilted back and smiled. "I mean, it's just Zack, right?"

Mike stared at her.

She stared back, eyebrows lifted, holding her smile.

Finally, after a few more seconds of staring, he pursed his lips and swayed back. "I'll be in the car." He shot Zack one last cutting look before he stepped out of the booth, then slowly out of the shop.

As soon as he was gone, Pam released a harsh sigh and fell back in her seat. "Sorry about that. Mike's kind a big overprotective idiot. All talk, no action, though. Don't worry about it."

Zack didn't reply.

Pam blinked. "Zackass?"

He pursed his lips and slowly shook his head.

Pam blinked again and glanced at the napkin. She was just thinking about sliding over to read it for herself when Zack suddenly plucked it up and tore it to shreds. Pam snapped her eyes back on him, perturbed. "Damn, you really have no respect for your gift, do you?"

The now-shredded pieces were stuffed in his pocket, suddenly very calm. Too calm. His arm shook. "It's..." he breathed in deep, "not a gift." He left it at that. The lull in conversation was just a second long enough that Pam was starting to get worried Mike had seriously freaked him out. She knew what a big wimp Zack was about these kinds of things.

Then, that changed.

Meeting her eyes unexpectedly, he grinned; a stupid, lopsided grin that reminded her with a jolt exactly who she was talking to, and she felt like an idiot for ever being concerned. "So, you'll help me?"

She didn't miss how he phrased that. It didn't even sound like a question. His cockiness irritated her, but the fact it wasn't misplaced even more so. She really wasn't sure she had a choice anymore. Still, hesitantly, she said, "You want me to help you put your kid brother in his place… That wasn't anywhere in our original agreement. I said I'd be friends with you, I didn't say I'd be your associate in raising hell."

"It's your responsibility," Zack repeated, needlessly. "Think of it as keeping the peace."

"By enabling you and your ridiculous need to be top dog?" Zack bristled at that, proving that he was more open with being a negative son of a bitch in her presence when her 'creepy brother' wasn't around, and it spurred her on. Lowly, as all their conversation had had to be in the very public location, she fumed, "Keeping the peace my ass—You just can't stand the idea of someone having something over you for once. How is what he's doing any different than what you've always done? Why can't you just let him have this?"

"I don't—" he began furiously, then seemed to check himself. With a sigh and a hand through his hair, he began again, "He's young, and he doesn't understand—"

"Oh, what great power he holds," she mocked, flying back in her seat with her fingers waving in the air and eyes crossing. She snorted, a very unladylike sound, and Zack wondered not for the first time if she wasn't just a man in a woman suit. That thought flew out the window when she slammed her fist down in front of him. "It's a poem. One little wisp of paper. I had access to all your past poetry assignments, that's why I was able to hold it over you—he's just got one. Why is that such a big deal?"

"He doesn't understand," he said again, and wouldn't meet her eye now. She purposely sought it, but he wouldn't meet it. And then suddenly he did, and she didn't like that look in his eye. It was too much like he'd suddenly gained control of the situation again, and she knew how he loved that. His tone was slimy as he spoke again, and she instinctively recoiled back into her seat just as he leaned forward. "Hey, you're the one who was so concerned he might be depressed earlier today. I'm on a quest to figure out if he's hiding anything." He tilted his head and grinned teasingly. "Don't tell me you're not at least a little bit curious. To find out why he's so… angry all the time?" He was clearly humoring her. "So tragically pessimistic?"

She was curious. He wanted her to help him dig into Phil's background, he never said she had to use any of what they found against him. Zack would, but if she didn't help him, he was just going to do it by himself anyway. If she was there, then she could at least be aware of what was going on and moderate the proceedings. Maybe, she could keep him from hurting Phil.

It was that, or go home, put on her headphones, and be consumed with guilt and wave after wave of roiling, soul-crushing curiosity. Zack didn't think he was depressed, Jaron didn't think he was depressed, Sophie didn't think he was depressed.

Pam had to admit, she was pretty sure he was depressed.

Zack stuck his hand out to her then, like he already knew he'd won, and she grudgingly reached out and shook it.

The little shock she got made her instantly snap her hand back, though, and Zack's laugh fell pleasantly against her ears. "Oh, sorry. Something about the air in this place and my shirt." He shook his head and stood up, picking up his now completely melted strawberry milkshake as he went. He threw something at her, and she caught it with a gasp, the bag crinkling as it fell into her chest. Zack grinned and winked at her. "Pleasure doing business with ya. Cancel your poker plans and pack it up, we head out in five."

She observed the bag of lollypops as he swiveled on his heel and yelled, "Rosie-Pose, I need a to-go cup."

It was between the moments of tossing the bag in the car with her brother and having a slap fight with him over whether or not he should leave (which she won), and waiting for Zack to finish pouring his milkshake into the cup with his tongue stuck out like a toddler, that Pam asked Roselaine, "Hey, you've known Zack a long time, right? What's your opinion of him?"

She didn't look up from her notepad. "I have no opinion."

It was the wisest thing she'd heard all week.

Two years in the past

"Dagnabit! Best fishing weekend of the year and we didn't catch a single thing!" Grandpa Phil gripped the steering wheel tightly, his knuckles gone white. He paused then, and looked down at the boots on his feet. "Well, save these snazzy new shoes. A little soggy, but nothing a quick run through the ol' wash and dry routine can't fix." He grinned over at his great-grandson.

"We have enough berries to last us three months," Phil noted, staring glassy-eyed at the giant cooler full of red and green berries.

Grandpa chortled. "Well, we couldn't just show up empty-handed! What would they think of us?"

"That we stink at fishing?"

"No. That we can't provide for our family, that's what!"

Phil sat back in his seat and yawned, his eyes focusing drowsily on the road. "Okay."

"It's the principle of the matter, Phil. Fishing's one of those things that we're required as men to excel at."

"I thought fishing was an excuse to get away from the women while we laze back in a boat for hours?"

"That too."

Phil smiled, and reclined his seat back a little so he could lay his head back and close his eyes.

"So…" Grandpa started innocently enough, before something a bit sly entered his tone, "the big n-i-n-e coming up."

Phil groaned and turned over on his side, his back to him. "Don't remind me."

"Oh, come on now! Don't tell me you're not looking forward to that! Nine is a good year. Not to mention one step closer to you getting the boarding house all to yourself."

Phil opened his eyes. "Right."

Grandpa huffed, amused. He murmured sarcastically, "Your enthusiasm warms me…" He shook his head. "Honestly, Philly, when you were born I was counting on you to be my partner in crime. The trick to my treat. The Bonnie to my Clyde—" he heard Phil snort and smirked slightly, popping a couple berries into his mouth. "Instead you're just a big party pooper. Just like—like—" he slapped a hand to his face, "Arnold. Oh, Heavens to Betsy, you're going to be the end of me. Please don't tell me you're going to be a repeat of that. Never wanting to play any games, easily exasperated over a joke, always looking at me like I'm crazy or something…" He sighed and tried to run a hand through his hair, but then remembered he didn't have any and frowned as his hand met open air.

Phil turned back over and sat up with a sigh. "I'm not, Grandpa, really. I'm just a little tired."

Grandpa looked at him out of the corner of his eye. "Uh-huh. So if I stopped at a bank, here and now, ran in and came back out with two sack-fulls of hundred dollar bills, would you be my getaway car?"

"I can't drive—"

"Would you?"

Phil jerked back at the outburst, and yelled without thinking, "No! No, I wouldn't! I'd jump out of the other end and claim to never have seen you in my life!"

Grandpa relaxed, his face melting into contentment. "That'a boy."

Phil stared at him like he was senile, his chest heaving.

Grandpa jovially switched topics, "But anyway, you're going to love being nine. Trust you me, it's a big milestone for Shortman men. Oodles of fun." He stuffed a few more berries into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Making a small noise, he looked over at Phil and offered him a few. "Want some?"

Phil pushed the hand away, laughing a little uneasily. "I'll pass. Um…" he scratched the back of his head, leaning back, "why is nine a big milestone? Are you going to send me out into the wilderness for twenty-four hours to discover the meaning of life and what it means to become a man?"

Grandpa scoffed. "'Course not! What do you take us for? A bunch of crazy people? No, no." He chuckled. "This is just when the family curse sets in."

Phil snapped a wide-eyed look on him. "The what?"

"You know… the Shortman family curse." A flashlight was produced out of thin air and clicked on beneath Grandpa's chin, casting shadows over every jutting bone and sagging wrinkle on his face. "Every generation, as far back as any of us can possibly know, has had something very strange happen to them on their ninth year…"

Phil bit his thumbnail to the quick. "What? What is it? What happens?"

Grandpa clicked the flashlight off and threw it in the back, causing a violent clatter and smash. "They get the living daylights snogged out of 'em by a girl."

A beat.


Grandpa laughed at the confounded look on his face. "You heard right. Or, well, I guess we didn't all get snogged. Both me and your dad did, that's for sure. I guess a better way to put it would be… Something major's going to happen in your love life. Like… you might actually get a love life." He chortled.

Phil stared at him a long moment, before he rolled his eyes and turned his eyes back out the window. "Interesting. What happened to Grandpa Miles then?"

Grandpa stopped at that, and looked up, a hand to his chin. "Huh… Now that you mention it, I don't know. Must've skipped over him." He shrugged.

Phil repressed another eye roll. "Okay."

"You don't seem all that concerned."

"Why should I be? I don't care about any girls."

"Not even the girl you're inevitably going to marry?"

Phil paused at that, before looking back at him. "Huh?"

Grandpa gazed ahead innocently, leaning forward in his seat to avoid the searching eyes of his protégé. "Oh, nothing, nothing… What do you feel like tonight? Chinese, Mexican…?"

"I'm thinking French," Phil muttered sarcastically. "Cough it up, Grandpa. What do you mean 'inevitably going to marry'?"

Grandpa looked at him wryly, his eyebrows high. "Why, exactly what I said. The girl you are going to marry. You know, marry as in," he hummed 'Here Comes the Bride,' his shoulders doing a small dance in tune with the song.

Phil blinked, dumbly. "But I'm eight."

"Not for long, you aren't." He winked, an impish grin spreading across his face. "Not after we send you out into the wilderness." Snickering, he leaned back in his seat and made an abrupt left turn, the tires momentarily squealing. Phil slammed back into his seat and gripped his seatbelt with an iron grip. Once they were on straight road again, Grandpa slowed the car and smiled.

After a couple minutes, Phil's racing mind finally managed to properly absorb and process this information, and once it did, his face fell flat. "Okay." He leaned his head against his window, crossing his arms. "Sounds like fun."

Grandpa hummed. "Unconcerned again, are we?"

Phil shrugged vaguely, staring blankly out the window. "It skipped over Grandpa Miles, so it's clearly not an exact curse. I don't see why it couldn't just skip over me too. Besides, all these 'family curses' never come true. Wasn't there a curse that we're all gonna die at ninety-one? And yet you're well into your hundreds now, Grandpa."

Grandpa's eyes sparkled. "Agh, I rigged that one. I've been celebrating my 90th birthday for well over twenty years now. I don't even remember my exact age anymore."

Phil quietly snorted. "Right," he stretched the word out. "Whatever you say, Grandpa. But still, there's just as much chance the curse won't happen, as it will, so whatever happens this year is still a mystery. Nothing's changed." A small shower of tiny water droplets splattered against the glass. His eyes followed the path they made as they slid down.

Grandpa put on the wipers. "What if it comes true?"

Phil looked over at him, shrugging again, more bluntly this time. "She'd better be a stone-cold fox then, that's all I've got to say."

Grandpa burst out in a cackling laugh at that, and grabbed up his canteen so he could toast it in his direction. "Here, here." He threw back a swig.

Phil took the canteen from him when it was offered and took a swallow. Swiping his tongue over his chapped upper lip, he looked back over at Grandpa and asked, "Was Grandma everything you hoped for? You know, before she…" He spun his forefinger in a circle near his temple with a grimace.

"Oh, yeah." He bobbed his head, keeping his eyes focused on the road. "In her younger years, she was really something. Wickedly intelligent, feisty, stubborn as a mule. I'll admit, I wasn't expecting much outta her—barely even saw her after I had to drop out of school to go to work, so I didn't ever know what became of her. But when I came back from the war, I caught her snooping around the train station, peeking around the train cars; apparently to make sure I was alive. I confronted her, and I was shocked by how… much she'd grown." He coughed. "Anyway, she said she just wanted to make sure I got home, she was glad I did, etcetera, etcetera—tried to write it off like it was nothing, basically, but I saw through her. And so I—"

"Wait a second," Phil interrupted, looking at him queerly, "you didn't get with her when you were nine?"

Grandpa snorted. "Heck no! She was a sadistic, raving sociopath who tortured me on a regular basis. When she confessed to being in love with me, I did what any sensible nine-year-old boy would do. I told her she must be off her rocker if she thought I would ever even consider going steady with her and high-tailed it out of there. We never spoke since."

Phil stared at him, his eyes large and jaw dropped.

Grandpa stroked at his chin. "Now then, where was I? Oh, yes! Train station, directly after World War II. It was a sunny day in ol' Hillwood, New York as I whistled a jaunty tune and enjoyed a nice cold-cut sandwich—"

"No!" Phil practically shouted, wild-eyed. "You were talking to Grandma!"

"Oh! Right, right. Thanks, mini-me. Don't know what I'd do without ya. Anywho, back to the story—Geez Louise, it's really pouring out here!" He leaned forward to squint out through the rain.


He snapped out of it. "Okay! Hold your horses! I was getting to it." He took a deep, long breath… and then exhaled, relaxing his shoulders. He repeated the process. Meanwhile Phil practically vibrated in his seat, his hands clenching and unclenching with each second he didn't speak. Finally, Grandpa let out a tranquil sigh and said pleasantly, "Now then, as I was saying, your grandma tried to weasel her way out of it, but I saw straight through her act. It had also just been raining, so I saw straight through a couple other thing as well, if you know what I'm sayin.'" He nudged him with his elbow, winking a couple times with a wide grin.

Phil just stared at him.

Grandpa leaned away and coughed again against his fist, nodding. "Right. You're eight. Hehe, anyway—I told her I knew why she was there, that I thought she was a pretty all right dame, and asked her if she wanted to be my gal. Her response was to punch me in the face."

Phil winced.

"Yep. Guess she caught onto the fact I wasn't asking her out for her chess skills 'cause she called me a pig and stormed off after that. I was pretty torn up about it. Couldn't remember the last time a girl rejected me so soundly." He scratched his head, baffled. "I followed her around a lot after that. I don't know why. To spite her? Maybe as some personal irony? Point is I ended up learning a lot about her. Where she worked, what she did, what she liked to do… and the oddest thing happened."

"What?" Phil asked quietly, dreading the answer.

"I fell in love with her."

Phil slapped his forehead. "Ahhh, you didn't…"

"I did! Whoo! I've gotta tell ya, you never really know a girl until you follow her around between the hours of 6:15 and 11:30. The things you learn—the things you learn that you wish you didn't." He shook his head to the ceiling, whistling. "Oh boy. I could write a book."

"And let me guess," Phil counted off on his fingers, his tone dry, with a mother load of ruefulness, "you confessed to her, she swooned, you got married, had one kid—the end." He crossed his arms violently and threw himself back in his seat with a dark pout.

Grandpa snorted out a laugh. "You kidding? I had to work my keister off to get her to even give me the light of day again! It took months! Finally managed to wear her down enough to get her to go out on a date with me, though, and after a few months more of chasing her down, she gave up and we got hitched."

Phil looked like he was in physical pain. "That's… lame."

Grandpa chuckled. "Maybe story-wise, but I think you'll find as you get older, that the women worth having are often the ones you have to fight for. Or fight with." He chortled. "You'll see what I mean. For us Shortman men, finding the perfect woman is never an easy task. I kept all this from your dad when he was your age, but you—I think a little word of warning isn't going to hurt anything." He winked.

Phil clasped his hands over his mouth and closed his eyes, feeling sick to his stomach. The canteen lay forgotten between them on the seat.

Grandpa laughed, something a tad smug crossing his face. "Not so unconcerned now, are ya?"

"Oh, believe me," Phil muttered hoarsely with painful sincerity, moving his hands down over his chest, "I am very concerned."

Grandpa whooped with victory and grabbed another handful of berries in celebration. "There ya go! Nine's starting to look pretty good now, eh?"

"I think I'm gonna vomit."

Grandpa didn't react for a while. The words took their sweet time processing with him, but once they did, he whipped his head around. "What?"

Phil's face was as green as his shirt. "I—I think I'm gonna—" He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth.

The Packard skidded up to a gas station almost within that same second, water spraying up like a tidal wave and soaking the gas jockey to the bone. The jockey stood dead-eyed, dripping head to toe, and spat a long stream of water out of his mouth like a fountain as soon as the car was in park.

The car door opened slowly, warily, and Phil came stumbling out, one hand over his stomach and the other on the door handle. He looked hopeful a second, but then his stomach gargled and his face soured and the next thing he knew he was rushing over to the bushes and puking his guts out.

Grandpa stepped out of his side of the car and looked over at him worriedly.

"Fill-up?" the jockey asked tonelessly.

Grandpa mumbled something his brain thought were words but was actually a bunch of garbled pig Latin, and waved a distracted hand in his direction as he wandered over to where his great-grandson was wreaking havoc on the scenery.

Hovering over him, he asked, "You ate the green berries when I wasn't looking, didn't ya?"

Phil groaned, and with a few final hacks to make sure the bush was as good as dead, stepped away and fell back on the concrete. He kept his eyes shut and panted into the rain-thick chill of the wilderness, supported by little more than his trembling limbs and force of will.

Grandpa gave his best chiding, serious frown, hands fisted on his bony hips. "Now I know you think they look pretty—"

"I don't want to grow up," Phil interrupted, opening his eyes to stare up at him. His eyes were glossy, his breathing still heavy, almost panicked. "I can't do it. I won't."

Grandpa's eyebrows flew up.

"Fill-up?" the jockey called.

Phil's breathing was only getting quicker, and he shifted with agitated speed to pull his legs up and scoot back up against the greenery. "I can't marry Mercy, I just can't! You can't make me!"

"Whoa, whoa," Grandpa made a motion to settle down. "No one's making you do anything. What's this all about?"

Phil continued on as if he hadn't heard him, face twisted in agony, words fast as the rain trapping them under the veranda. "You don't get it, nobody gets it, she's evil. I'm gonna be stuck behind a desk and wearing suits and answering phones and doing paperwork with everyone dead and it never ends, it never ends, and now on top of all that I have to get married to Mercy Laporte?" His voice raised an octave, looking on the verge of self-destructing on the spot. "I can't do it, Grandpa, I just can't, it's too much—"

"Now, now, just hold your horses for a minute here." Grandpa stepped over, bent down and carefully perched himself on the shrub's edging, legs spread with a few cracking bones and a long sigh. Phil snapped a distressed look on him. He shook his head. "Let me see if I've got this straight. You've got some little girl picking on you who drives you up the wall, and now you're afraid you're doomed to be shackled to her for life in the most thoroughly binding of holy ordinances. Do I have that right?"

Phil hesitated, obviously still shaken. "Well. There are three, actually."

Grandpa paused. The corners of his mouth jumped. "Three?"

"But they're like her minions, they don't have any brains of their own," Phil quickly amended, his hands fumbling between his legs. "They just do whatever she wants them to."

"Ah, cohorts. I know how those are." Grandpa nodded, a wry smile curling his mouth. "Pookie was in league with my sister. Sometimes the pranks and hair-pulling would get so bad that I'd sneak out and sleep in the woodpile just to escape 'em. Oh, the back aches I used to wake up with—I can still feel 'em." He smiled in fond recollection.

Phil threw his head into his hands.

Grandpa chortled. "Aw, Phil, this is a gift! Now you won't be flabbergasted when she lays one on ya and declares her eternal devotion!"

Lightning quick, Phil was scrambling back and vomiting his intestines into the bushes again.

Grandpa had to scratch his head. "This is quite the reaction." When Phil didn't immediately rise after emptying his stomach, he made a consoling noise and reached over to pat his back. "Oh, there, there, short man jr., growing up's not so bad. Sure, you're stuck in a life of endless drudgery and you're surrounded by hair-brained oafs who don't know the difference between a fire extinguisher and a can of gasoline and you haven't spoken to your sister in seventy-one years," a soft exhale, "and eventually your bones start to ache and your mind goes and the foods you used to love don't agree with ya anymore and you can't… you can't remember…" He stopped. A moment stretched on. "What was I saying?"

"What's good about growing up," Phil rasped.

"Oh! Right, right. Well, sure, you've gotta deal with all that stuff, but, you get to drive cars."

Phil hung his head.

"You can also get into all the juicy, x-rated films," Grandpa added slyly, nudging him with his arm.

Phil's head fell lower.

"Fill-up?" the jockey called again.

With a long-suffering sigh, Phil pushed himself up from the ground and sweeped the front of his shirt off with his hand. "Come on, Grandpa, let's go home."

Grandpa frowned at him, his eyebrows scrunched. "No, now, something's still troubling ya and I'm determined to set you straight. Can't have your fragile young psyche sustaining any life-long trauma just 'cause your poor old grandpa couldn't keep his trap shut." He lowered his voice and hunched conspiratorially forward, "Also, your parents'll kill me." Leaning back, he made a circling motion with his hand. "Now come on, let's hear it."

"I'm tired," Phil murmured unhappily, his shoulders slumped. When Grandpa continued to stare expectantly at him, he straightened a little and looked away with a sigh, crossing his arms. "It's just… Mercy's not like Grandma Gertie, or Mom, or Grandma Stella, or, anyone in our family. She's cold and vapid and boring. She's not smart, she's not funny, she's not clever, she's not nice—she's got a lot of nerve, but I wouldn't call her particularly brave either. There's literally nothing good about her. I can't see myself being friends with her, let alone f… feeling…" He shuddered.

Grandpa rubbed his chin. "Hmm, that is a pickle. You sure she's not secretly—?"


"Not masking any—"


"Not even—"


Grandpa whistled. "That's a shame."

"So that's it?" Phil gaped like a fish, spreading his arms out pleadingly. "I'm just doomed?"

Grandpa frowned and reached over to pat him consolingly on the shoulder. "Sorry, kiddo. All the signs are there. You can't help who you fall for."

Phil grabbed at his stomach with one hand and clapped his other over his mouth, his eyes going hazy with illness. But there wasn't anything more he could throw up, unless he wanted to upchuck his heart and lungs. Maybe that would be okay, though. If he really didn't have a heart, then maybe he couldn't be cursed. Now there was an idea. He filed it away as a last case scenario.

"But… but…" he spoke when he was sure the threat of organ vomit wasn't imminent anymore, "you cheated death! I don't see why I can't cheat l—l—" Oh, boy, there was the nausea again.

Grandpa's eyebrows had already flown to the sky in understanding, though. "That's true!" His eyes wandered away in thought. "You know, I think this is the first time a Shortman really knew what he was in for before it happened. I betcha we could find some way around it. Like, we could, ohhh… we could always celebrate your eighth birthday this year again."

Phil was unimpressed. "Er, yeah. No. I don't think Mom and Dad'll go with that. Plus it could get creepy when I'm twenty someday and still celebrating my eighth birthday every year."

Grandpa frowned thoughtfully. "True."

They both thought about it for a while. The rain-tinged wind whipped by every few moments, carrying with it a brisk chill and the light scent of gasoline and earth. The gas attendant stood a few yards away, gazing boredly in their general direction.

Finally, Phil asked, "What if I just found another girl?"

Grandpa raised an eyebrow.

Phil's mind was racing, growing more awake by the second. "Yeah… Yeah, if I just ignored Mercy for the whole year and stuck with this other girl throughout that entire time, maybe the curse won't have any other choice but switch to her? Like a trade-off?"

"You can't stop her from torturing you," Grandpa pointed out ruefully, smirking ever so slightly.

Phil frowned. That was true. And he wasn't very good at ignoring her. She always managed to find some new reason for him to want to crush her into the dirt, to make her pay, to get even. There was no way that could be the beginnings of a love that would last the rest of his life. There was just no way. But the curse… the signs… and it would so figure

Helplessly, he muttered, "I have to try."

"Okay." Grandpa shifted to get a little more comfortable, and smiled humoringly at his protégé. "Let's say it does work, and you find yourself entangled with this new girl. You realize you'll have to marry her, then? Have anyone in mind?" He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

But Phil's face twisted, dispatching that notion with an all-answering snort. "Ha, and be like Zack and Josh with their heads always stuffed up their butts? As if. I don't have time for that kind of nonsense." With rounding eyes, he quickly amended, "But I've never looked, I'm sure I can find someone. At this point, a fire hydrant would be better than Mercy."

Grandpa burst out with a laugh that Phil imagined rustled all the leaves behind him, rather than the breeze. "Well, if anyone can cheat fate, it's us Phils! I support you one-hundred percent!" He swung his fist through the air.

Just as Phil was returning his grin, the jockey yelled pointedly at them, "Fill—Up!"

Phil tossed a scathing look over his shoulder while Grandpa sighed and began the treacherous task of standing on his own two feet. Things were going decently enough for the first few seconds, but then something cracked mid-hunch out of the blue and he howled, falling back on his butt. Phil snapped a panicked look on him and rushed over to stand behind him. Gently at first, he started to push.

With both their efforts, and only a few close calls, they managed to get him upright. Grandpa laughed his way through the pain and reached back to run a hand over Phil's hair in thanks. Phil closed his eyes and leaned into it for the second it lasted, a small, sad smile on his face as he did.

Just before they left, Grandpa flipped a nickel into the jockey's scrabbling hand with a wink. "For your troubles."

Phil rolled down his window so he could stick his tongue out at the man as they drove away. Rain smacked him in the face as soon as they were out from under the awning, though, and he gasped and quickly rolled the window back up with a sneeze.

Eventually they came across a cool little diner appropriate for dinner.

Grandpa laughed the whole way there.

A/N: What's all this plot nonsense?!

So yeah, we've passed the opening-establishing-junk chapters and now we're onto the actual plot and stuff.

Oh yeah. Things are gonna get interesting now. -w-

Sara next chapter, guise. Cross my heart.


All right, now for questions! Writing this from a hotel and the TV's blaring, so I'm a little distracted. Forgive me if I don't quite sound like myself. x'D

See, I almost typed "sound like I'm all there," but I never sound like I'm all there, so it wouldn't have worked.

Q - Will Phil junior find Arnold/Grandpa Phil old prank/present that BLINDED Helga against his bullies?! XD

A - Who says he hasn't already? xDDD Phil's been pranking these guys since... second or third grade? And Phil's good at pranks. He's had the best teachers at his disposal growing up. I'd be surprised if he hadn't already found that old thing in a box one day, accidentally blinded himself, then pulled it on the girls. Then when they went blind, rather than feeling guilty, he snickered evilly to himself. Prolly even told them it was permanent. He's a little brat that way.

There'll hopefully be at least one chapter detailing some of the hijinks between Phil and the girls. Like, here I portray it as super angsty 'cause it's all coming to a head, but it's really kinda hilarious. xD Phil just makes a big deal out of it like an overdramatic little baby. It's just who he is.

Honestly, I put a LOT of psychology into this stuff, and a lot of what Phil does is just displaced frustration. He's unhappy with how his life is, but he can't pinpoint what exactly it is about it that he finds so distasteful. So he just gets super upset about everything.

He's... probably both the stupidest and smartest character I've ever created. xD

Q - What is it about blood relations of Helga and Arnold that attracts extremely violent affections and stalkerish behavior? Poor Phil XD

A - S'that damn Shortman/Pataki blood! What can ya do?

Okay, usual drill. The faster and more reviews I get, the faster I'll post. I hope you enjoyed this segment of Bull ShI mean, Breathing Slowly.

It's really hard to think with the TV on, so sorry if any of this is weird. I'm rubbing my temples over here. x'''D Love you guys!