Gif #: 48

Title: Pinky Swear

Word count (not including author's notes/header): 5622

Pairing: Bella & Alice (friendship)

Rating: MA

Summary: Sometimes friendship is a soothing balm on your soul. Sometimes it's a noose around your neck. Alice and Bella have been together so long, they no longer know the difference.

Category: Friendship/Angst

Warnings: Contains mature language, drug use, and sexual situations

~~~~...~~~~

Pinky Swear

April 1996

The rusty swings across the field squeaked back and forth like a lazy metronome, ghosts of children long-grown playing in the nighttime breeze. The playground on the east end of the park had seen better days. Cracked rubber seats on the swings, spiky waffle-metal footholds on the too-tall slide, sharp bolts jutting out from under the seats of the seesaw, loose railings rattling on the merry-go-round—all decaying into scrap metal and junk. In stark contrast to the gleaming new structure on the west end—which boasted ergonomic handholds, graduated steps, and meticulously-engineered safety features—the east end was an invitation to disaster. A lawsuit waiting to happen. A death trap.

In short, it was fun.

Most of the neighborhood kids had spent that spring making as many illicit trips as possible to the east end of the park, or "the old side" as it'd come to be known, feeling the certainty of its imminent demise in their bones. They all knew it was simply an oversight that the city hadn't yet sent a crew out to haul away the battered pieces of their refuge. They saw it in the envious glares passed from neighbors east to west. Inequality of this sort could not stand. So while there was still time, the children shared whispered words, a kind of suburban code to signal when it was safe or to spread the latest gossip.

"Mom's out for the afternoon. Meet me on the old side."

"Hey, Nate got one of his brother's Playboys—we're gonna check it out on the old side."

"Did you hear? Cass saw Sarah's princess undies on the merry-go-round on the old side!"

None of the mothers with children toddling in diapers ever ventured to the east end of the park, so the older kids had it to themselves. Through clear cerulean afternoons until the first flash of street lights, it was a secret clubhouse, a graffitied haven, a place of quiet rebellion for children too young to know the meaning of that word.

Bella Swan was old enough to know about rebellion. Which was why she was now flat on her back, face framed by a halo of brown hair, shirt pulled down and pants unzipped, splayed on the smooth plastic bridge of the new play structure on the west end of the park. She watched the stars winking down on her and listened to the swings squeaking across the field, finding distraction where she could. Alec Harrison was in her mouth, and it was a new sensation—the guy on top. She didn't like the feeling of him pressing against the back of her throat, the lack of control. But she didn't say anything because she was a nice girl, and nice girls didn't talk with their mouths full.

She was relieved when his hips shimmied further down around her shoulders, and she no longer had to fight against her gag reflex. Then Alec groaned, and she felt something hot and sticky dribbling down her chin and neck and into the hollow space behind her ears. She grimaced, and as Alec moved off her and tucked himself away, he was surprised by her stunned disgust.

"I thought that's what you wanted."

Bella swallowed her reply and wiped herself clean with her shirt, because she was a nice girl, and nice girls didn't complain. Even as she felt a sick twisting in her stomach, she told herself it wasn't really that bad. She didn't know how Alec had gotten the idea he should let loose on her like a porn star, but she figured she must have signaled him in some way. No one would do that without provocation, right?

"We should see where James and Ali are," he said, looking across the field.

As she zipped her jeans and readjusted the straps on her bra, she knew Alec was a mistake. It'd seemed like a good idea at the time. Alice had been seeing James for a few weeks and Alec was his friend, so they figured they'd double-date. Nothing that formal, really, just some kids hanging out. After burgers and shakes at Blueberry Hill, they'd ended up at the park across the street from Alice's house, like always; and like always, Alice had led her current beau over to the old side, while Bella tried to decide how far she'd let James' friend go.

She was still a virgin, and nice or not, she wasn't giving it up to a boy she barely knew—and definitely not outside, around the block from where her parents were sleeping. But kissing was fine. And a little more. When Alec had unzipped his pants, Bella wasn't entirely certain she wanted to go that far, but it wasn't anything she hadn't done before, so she figured why not? At first it was exciting—the risk of being caught, the rush of knowing how exposed they both were. But as things progressed, and that spark she kept hoping to feel failed to show, she just wanted it to be over with. So when Alec nudged her shoulders down and placed himself at her mouth, she went along.

It was all fodder, anyway. Another page in her journal.

Alec was a jock, but one of the smart ones. They had a few classes together, though they'd barely spoken in their three years of high school. He wasn't a part of her crowd, if Bella had a crowd. She seemed to straddle the line between a few—honor students, AV geeks, weekend burners—without ever finding a home in one. Alice Brandon, on the other hand, dipped her toes into everything and felt at home everywhere. She fell in with the skaters as easily as the prom queens, and as long as people lived up to her standards of authenticity, she didn't care about labels. It didn't matter if she wasn't that athletic or had no real interest in photography—she joined the track team and photo club, she worked tech backstage and wrote for the school paper. She was a social butterfly, and she went where the people were. Bella fluttered along like a moth in her wake.

"Hey, asshole!" Alec shouted across the field as he and Bella took turns descending the new side's play structure on its regulation, reinforced slide, "Put your pants on! We're coming over!"

Bella wanted to shush him, but thought the gesture was a little too intimate for someone she didn't know that well. Then she shook her head, realizing she'd be showering him off her skin later that night. She was glad when he didn't make a move to hold her hand as they crossed the patchy green field. There would be no pretense about this being anything more than what it was—an unsuccessful experiment, a failed attempt at connection.

James and Ali were twirling on the merry-go-round as their friends approached. They paused, and Bella took a seat on the swings, forehead resting against the chain links as she pushed lazily back and forth. Ali's short, dark brown hair was rumpled, like her clothes, and James was wearing a wolfish grin. He smiled at Alec and said, "You guys have fun over there? I hear Bella gives one hell of a blowy."

The sound of Alice's hand meeting the back of James' head echoed sharply into the blue-black sky, and Bella's cheeks burned crimson.

"Shut up, James!"

"Aw, baby, she knows I'm just teasing. Right, Bella, you know it's just a joke?"

"Dude, that's not cool," Alec murmured, but he winked at his friend when he thought the girls weren't looking, and they shared an unconcealed laugh.

James was a lot like Alice, at least on paper: he played varsity soccer, he was Treasurer of his class, he was on the debate team, and he worked on the yearbook. He was popular—more preppy than Ali's usual type—but she was willing to overlook it for his sharp wit and irreverent nature. Except when it came to her friend. Unwaveringly loyal and fiercely protective, she wouldn't put up with anyone shitting on Bella.

"Come on, Bells, let's go. These assholes can find their own way home." She threaded her arm through Bella's and started toward her house, where her car—the boys' ride—was parked. Bella leaned her head against Ali's shoulder and shuddered at the sudden chill in the air. She wondered if that was it for James and Ali, and as her friend tugged her along with motherly determination, she knew it probably was.

"That's like a mile away! Don't make us walk!" James adjusted his pants and frowned. "Come on, baby, I'm sorry!"

"Fuck you, James. Enjoy your blue balls."

As the girls crossed from old side to new, Alec's shrill laughter spiraled into the air, mingling with the sound of vacant, squeaking swings.

~~~~...~~~~

Ali popped her Angry Grrlz mixed tape into the stereo, jabbed PLAY, and twisted the volume dial up. On a good day, Shirley Manson, Gwen Stefani, and Courtney Love weren't on Bella's list of favorite chanteuses. On a night like this, the music made her teeth ache. She wouldn't ask Ali to change it—she knew this was what her friend needed to vent—but she was bound to get a migraine. It was past eleven, so Bella felt justified in turning it down.

"Your parents," Bella responded to Ali's furrowed brows.

Ali rolled her eyes and sifted through her drawers. She left her wife-beater on and dropped her jeans, pulling on fleece pajama bottoms adorned in little pink skulls and crossbones. Bella tucked herself into the corner of Ali's bed, drawing a threadbare Snoopy onto her lap and worrying its plastic nose absently.

Both girls knew Bella's solicitousness was unnecessary—the tell-tale blue glow and smoke curling out from Mr. and Mrs. Brandon's door was sign enough they weren't yet asleep—but even though this was her second home and a place unrestrained by typical middle-class convention, Bella couldn't buff away the midwestern manners that had been carved into her like writing on a tombstone. Permanent, everlasting politeness was engraved on her soul.

Bella had no idea how two people who smoked so much pot could function in the real world, but the Brandons seemed to manage fine. Ali's mom showed up for work every day, rescuing kids from homes where a little bud was the least worrisome substance on the coffee table. Beverly Winthrop-Brandon cited her stressful job as a Clark County social worker as justification for her habit, but Bella knew she didn't really need an excuse. She had seen the aging beauty lounging by the pool in the backyard weekend after weekend, year after year, pulling long drags on a rainbow bong while Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan played in the background. Bev was a hippie through and through. No matter that she was too young to have properly experienced the Summer of Love, she lived in a perpetual fog of naive, optimistic bliss. Ali's dad didn't bother to defend his habit. Joe Brandon owned an occult book shop, and for him, a daily joint—or two, or three—was his own form of worship.

Bella absently scratched under her chin, dusting away flecks of dried Alec, then picking them out from under her nails. She really wanted to take a shower, but she knew Ali wasn't ready to be alone. Her relationship had just imploded, and while it wasn't like she was that attached, there was a method to an Alice Brandon break-up. She had already set the mood. Next would come the sullen outburst, the swearing off of the opposite sex. Right on cue, Ali flung herself onto the foot of the bed.

"I hate boys. Why do I even fucking bother?"

Because the idea of being alone—even for a second—terrifies the shit out of you, Bella mused.

But she said, "So that's it?"

"What do you think? James is a total douche-nozzle. I knew it was too much to hope he'd be any different from all the other sheeple."

Ali wouldn't say it, but she was glad for the excuse to let him go. James had been getting on her nerves for awhile now, and that little scene in the park was just the thing she needed to cut him off. Quick and clean.

"You didn't have to be so hard on him, Ali. It was just a joke."

"Are you fucking kidding?" Ali raised a pierced eyebrow and glared in disbelief.

Bella shrugged, knowing how great an offense it was to go off-script right now, but unable to help herself. She didn't want a magnifying glass leveled at her humiliation, and that was exactly where Ali was headed. Ali huffed and looked away, frustrated that her rant was being cut short. If she were honest with herself, she was angrier at Bella than James right now.

It was all such familiar territory—a scene that had played out more times than either of them could count. Bella the victim, Ali the rescuer. Both full of reluctance and resentment toward their assigned roles. Ali couldn't stand Bella's numb disinterest, couldn't fathom her willingness to be stomped on. And Bella was weary from the effort of recognizing Ali's superior strength. They were trapped, powerless to escape the prison they had built around themselves, moment by moment, day by day. The groundwork had been laid on their first meeting, their fates sealed in the back of a school bus with a pinky swear. Neither would comment on it now, but they felt the unspoken resentment creeping like a cancer under their skin. It was only a matter of time before the cancer surfaced.

Alanis Morissette was busy reminding a boy of the mess he left when he went away, while Ali reached under her bed to pull out the little hand-carved wooden box that held her stash. If Bella wasn't going to play her part, Ali would move onto the next regularly scheduled program. She sat up and grabbed a thin hardcover book of illustrated fairytales from the shelf above her and set the box on top, pulling out the contents.

Unlike her parents, Ali didn't smoke to get obliterated. She didn't understand how they could stand being so far gone—like walking underwater, everything muted and difficult and slow. She just wanted to relax, wanted to watch the shitty day float off in a haze of swirling gray. She mixed tobacco into her joint, rolling a little piece of cardstock into the end for a filter.

The tangy-sweet smell of the weed relaxed Ali, and she decided to overlook Bella's transgression. Hell, if her friend didn't want to commiserate, she wouldn't force her. Bella absently rubbed Snoopy's nose, like she'd been doing since she was eleven—more little girl in this moment than near-woman—and quick as that, Ali felt the motherly draw. It was like this between them: emotions rolling up and down, slingshotting between fierce extremes.

"I should just start pitching for the other team," Ali said, extending an olive branch as she licked the rolling paper and sealed it. "You'll be my girlfriend, right? I mean you already are, short of rubbing uglies."

Bella smiled noncommittally, as she did every time Ali broached this subject. It wasn't that Bella had no interest in girls—they were approaching the new millennium, after all; one had to explore all one's options. Even though she knew Ali was joking, knew Ali liked boys too much to honestly consider the alternative, Bella had always held her cards close to the chest on this subject—not because she wasn't interested, but because Ali wasn't her type. If Bella was going to be with a member of the fairer sex, she imagined it would be somebody soft and sweet and tender—things Ali, with all her sharp edges, could never be. With a start, she realized the partner she had just described was herself.

Bella smiled wryly as Ali took a hit and passed the joint.

"You know, half the school already thinks we are."

Bella sucked the words in as she inhaled. "What? Rubbing uglies?" She liked the unabashed crassness of that phrase. Ali had a fantastically filthy mouth.

Ali nodded.

"Half the school are idiots," Bella said.

"No argument here."

Bella took another hit and passed it. She could already feel the events of the playground dissolving into white noise. She knew the ache would return—the stab of embarrassment, the twisting disappointment—in unguarded moments it was sure to surprise her with the unexpected sharpness of a bee sting. Once the haze of her avoidance had worn off, she knew the park would be tainted for her. She had more memories than she could count of that open expanse of green, those broken-down swings; but she knew with unbearable certainty that the park—and its Jekyll and Hyde playgrounds—would forevermore incite a feeling of deep, burning humiliation. But for now, Bella's thoughts were dulled, her unruly emotions loosely caged.

They traded a few more puffs in silence. Bella watched the twisting streams of smoke buffeted by sluggish turns of the ceiling fan and felt the same swirly-whirly loosening in her limbs. She felt better. Not good, but better.

"Do you think the boys made it home yet?" Bella couldn't help herself. Even half-baked and fighting off simmering sadness, she worried about them walking the suburban streets of Las Vegas alone at night.

"Doubt it. With the state I left James in, they're probably wrapping up a circle jerk on the merry-go-round."

Bella paused, eyes wide, then burst out in cackling laughter, slumping over the edge of the bed and landing with a thump on her back. Ali joined in laughing and crawled down next to her, both girls feeling the last of their aching hearts bleeding out onto the hardwood floor, scarred organs rinsed clean with mirth. Their hands crept together—pinkies kissing—then interlaced of their own accord, Ali's chipped black nails checker-boarding with Bella's unpolished ones.

"You know I love you, right?" Ali said, drawing deep on the last of the joint before stubbing it out.

"I know," Bella returned, uncertain where her tears were coming from, but too stoned to stop them. "I love you, too."

Ali didn't know what had happened between Bella and Alec on the new side, but she wasn't stupid. She'd seen her friend's face as she slumped into the swing, she'd caught the boys' shared snickers, and she knew James' comment wasn't the only thing that had bruised Bella this evening. But she wouldn't ask. If Bella wanted to tell her, she would.

"I'm sorry about tonight."

"Don't."

Bella stifled the urge to add, "It's all right," or "I'm fine," or "It was nothing," because for once she didn't feel like lying.

"Okay."

As late night lapsed into early morning, they held hands and watched the ceiling fan make lazy rotations, listening to Fiona Apple's Sullen Girl and feeling calm under the waves, in the blue of their oblivion.

~~~~...~~~~

September 1990

Bella tugged on her jean jacket and shifted her feet, careful to keep from scuffing her straight-from-the-box, snow-white Keds. The coat was too tight in the shoulders, and it was too heavy for September in Las Vegas, but she didn't care. It was her favorite piece of clothing—a hand-painted work of art emblazoned with dolphins leaping across a glitter-rainbow sky on the back. It was a treasure begged and bought last summer at the county fair in Grand Island, and she wore it like armor as she waited for the bus on her first day of school.

New city. New school. New Bella.

"I can walk to the bus stop alone, Mom," she'd insisted when Renee Swan opened the welcome packet from the Clark County School District a few weeks ago.

The thought of riding the bus made her nervous, but she was eleven—she wasn't a baby anymore—and her house was just around the corner, so she didn't need Mom or big brother holding her hand. Mike wasn't even going to her school anyway; he was going into the tenth grade, and he could walk to his new school.

"You're all grown up now, huh?"

The wistful look in her mom's eyes gave Bella the heebs. Any second now the baby album would magically appear from the stacks of unpacked moving boxes, and it'd be kisses and snuggles and tousled hair all day.

"Why isn't my school closer to the house, anyway?"

Bella's attempt at distraction worked. The sorrowful shine disappeared from Renee's eyes as she explained the new system—the way schools in Las Vegas were broken up, how all the sixth-graders were bussed across town to where the "less fortunate" kids lived, to make things fair. Bella didn't understand how it helped anyone for her to take a bus to school instead of just walking down the street like she had always done in Nebraska, but she had too many other things on her mind to spend much time on it.

Bella pulled her braid over her shoulder and considered taking a few steps toward the other kids waiting for the bus. She'd done her hair in a French braid because Daddy said it looked pretty that way, but also because it would leave the dolphins free to frolic and shine without any impediment. She noted with distress that some kids had strayed from the sidewalk. Lunch boxes and coats were piled on the concrete, abandoned as their owners bolted for the grassy playground a few paces away. Bella stayed rooted to the spot her mother had shown her when they'd done their first day test-run and worried about the other kids getting in trouble if they were caught.

With envy she watched a petite girl with long, dark brunette hair lead the charge to the merry-go-round, and she hoped she'd get a chance to play after school. The playground reminded her of the one back home—back in Grand Island, she corrected, this was home now—one of the few things that looked familiar in a place so full of change.

Everything was different here. Everything was dusty and dry and brown. The houses were stucco clones of one another—not like the brick and wooden structures full of character she was used to—and they were painted in strange pastel colors that made her think of chalk bleeding into muddy gutters from a rainy sidewalk. Half the yards were landscaped in sandstone rocks and spiky sage-colored plants and palm trees—palm trees!—and so little green.

She thought of the cherry tree in her old backyard and picking cicadas shells off the branches in the summertime with Mike. She thought of husking corn on the back porch, pulling silken threads from ripe golden ears while fireflies danced around her head. She wondered if Las Vegas had cherry trees or cicadas or fireflies. She knew the answer was probably no.

A few paces away, a girl with long blonde hair and sparkly jelly shoes waved and beamed at her. Bella was startled by the welcoming gesture and smiled and waved back, admiring her pretty floral dress. She took a step closer, feeling brave and hopeful. Maybe they could ride the bus together. Maybe they'd be in the same class. Maybe she would be Bella's new best friend. She felt hope blossom in her chest as a world of possibility opened up.

Just as Bella opened her mouth to introduce herself, she was interrupted by a voice from behind.

"Lauren! Oh my gosh! I can't believe you colored your hair!"

She whirled, connecting the dots a moment too late, feeling hot shame slink down her spine as the girls came together and embraced.

"Do you like it? I told the lady to do it like Christina Applegate."

Bella stiffened, moving her gaze to the cracked blacktop at her feet and praying she hadn't been noticed. A surreptitious glance toward the pair told her she wasn't that lucky. She could hear the giggles and feel the heat of their quiet mockery on her face. She shuffled her feet and noticed a black smudge on the tip of her crisp white shoes—perfection marred so quickly, before she'd even had a chance to enjoy it.

She was rescued by the approach of the bus. The kids on the playground streamed back to their discarded belongings, forming a loose clump around the accordion doors and stepping up one by one. Bella was near the end of the line—keeping her distance from jelly-footed Lauren and her friend—followed only by the merry-go-round brunette pixie in ragged cut-off jeans and a Grateful Dead t-shirt. Bella eyed the bus driver expectantly as she stepped up, prepared to introduce herself, but he didn't glance her way, so she moved on silently. The seats in front were all occupied, so she smiled tightly as she passed Lauren and Friend, at last finding an empty space near the back.

She settled in as Pixie passed by, not sparing Bella a glance on her way to the rear of the bus. The short, thin girl had bruised knees and was early to establish the pecking order, dislodging a boy from the back seat with nothing more than a curt, "Move it, Tyler."

The bus smelled of gym clothes and gumballs and day-old cheese sandwiches. The cracked pleather seats had seen better days, and Bella noted with surprise that there weren't any seat belts. She wondered how that was safe, but was distracted from the thought by the poorly-rendered picture of a penis graffitied on the back of the seat ahead of her. Her hopes weren't high to begin with, but still, her first bus ride was proving disappointing.

The bus lurched forward, and Bella jolted. She could feel each uneven patch of asphalt in her bones, the vehicle's tight shocks sending her bouncing into the air as it rolled over cracked pavement and gaping potholes. She steadied herself and stared, unseeing, out the window.

In front of Bella, Lauren and Friend snickered, and though there was no particular reason for her to believe it was aimed at her, she knew it was. Bella slunk against the window, hiding her burning cheeks.

"Did you see that jacket?" Friend said, no longer bothering to whisper.

"I know, it's like an after-school special. Punky Brewster trapped in a puff paint nightmare! Call the fashion police!"

They squealed like hyenas, and two boys in the seat across from Bella craned their necks to the get a better view of the show.

"And the hair," Lauren continued. "Like, hello farm-girl."

"Hey, Lauren! Jessica!" Pixie called from behind, and Bella inched herself lower in her seat. Great. Now the three of them could make fun of her all the way to school.

The little jackals peeked over their shoulders and glared at the interruption.

"What?" Lauren asked with ill-contained annoyance.

"I just wanted to know how your summer was," Pixie drawled, undeterred. "Did you ever get those warts on your feet taken care of?"

"What? I don't—"

"You know, you shouldn't wear jelly shoes unless you want them to come back. All that sweat pools in the plastic like a petri dish, and nasty shit just grows out of control."

"Shut the hell up, Alice! I don't have warts on my feet!"

But the damage was already done, and the bus erupted in laughter.

"I'm sorry—that's right—it was Jessica with the warts. You had the yeast infection."

"You are such a cunt, Alice Brandon. Try taking a bath sometime—you stink."

"I could sleep in a pigpen, and I'd still smell better than your nasty jelly feet, Lauren. Now why don't you turn around and quit talking shit, you fucking lemming."

Lauren gaped and stuttered, searching desperately for a clever retort. Jessica tugged on her arm when she saw it wasn't going to come, and said, "Come on, Lauren. Just ignore her. She's trash."

Bella couldn't believe her ears. She had no idea what had inspired the catfight that had just erupted around her, but she was glad for it. Bella and her jean jacket were forgotten, it seemed—humiliation scooped off her shoulders and redistributed.

As the bus slowed and came to a stop, Bella heard a sharp whisper from behind.

"Psst! Hey, Dolphins!"

Bella turned and grimaced at Pixie—Alice, she corrected—terrified she was the next target of that venomous mouth.

"Come here," Alice said, as the doors on the bus opened and a new crop of kids came streaming in. Bella fought the urge to turn around and hide in her seat for the rest of the ride. Somehow, she knew that wouldn't go over well with the tie-dyed smart-ass. Instead, she raised her brows innocently and hoped for the best.

Alice snorted and said, "Yes, you. Come here. I don't bite."

Bella gathered her things and shuffled two seats back, settling in nervously next to her tentative ally.

"Are you okay?"

Bella examined the girl's steel-blue eyes for any sign of mockery, but found nothing. She was genuinely concerned.

"Yeah, I'm fine." She tugged on her jacket, desperate to take it off, but afraid to draw any more attention to it than necessary. "Thanks."

"Sure. Those two are total assholes. Don't let them bother you."

Bella wasn't sure how to respond to that. Of course it was going to bother her. She'd spend the rest of the day replaying the scene in her head, and when she got home her favorite jacket would be buried in the back of her closet, never to see the light of day again.

Since she couldn't say that, she went with, "I'm Bella."

"Ali. You're new here." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah, we just moved from Nebraska."

"Seriously? Like, corn and cows and shit?"

"No. I mean, yeah, there's lots of that, but I didn't live on a farm or anything. My mom's a teacher."

Ali nodded as the bus rolled away from the stop, and they continued on their stilted, bouncing journey.

"Why'd ya move? This place sucks eggs."

"My dad's a cop, and he was offered a position. I guess it pays better, and houses are cheap out here."

"Cop? My dad would freak if he knew I was talking to a cop's kid."

Bella thought that was a strange thing to say and wasn't sure how to respond. She didn't really feel like talking about moving or her parents or Nebraska. She wanted to know who this force of nature was, and why she'd invited her to share a seat.

"Did you—" Bella wasn't sure she should bring it up, but curiosity got the better of her. "Did you make that stuff up—about her feet?"

Ali snorted and grinned evilly. "What do you think?"

"Um. Yes?"

Ali was silent for a moment before leaning in close to Bella's ear. "I've seen Lauren Mallory behind the lunchroom with Emmett McCarty. I wouldn't be surprised if she had warts in places a lot more uncomfortable than her feet."

For a moment Bella had no idea what the girl was talking about. Then her eyes grew wide as saucers as she figured it out.

"You mean she's—" But she couldn't finish the thought. Sex wasn't a part of her world. It was forbidden glimpses of Cinemax and too-wet teenager kisses and Mom and Dad giggling on Valentine's Day. It wasn't something someone her age did.

"Who knows?" Ali said, wiping away the topic as though the truth were irrelevant. "She's a cunt, and watching her squirm was the best thing that's happened to me all week. So thank you for that."

"But I didn't do anything."

"Sure you did." Ali didn't elaborate, and Bella didn't press.

"Hey, who do you have for homeroom?" Ali asked after a minute.

"I'm in room 26—Mr. Banner."

"Cool, I've got him too." Ali looked out the window as she considered her next words. Finally, she said, "Do me a favor, okay? Tyler Crowley has had a crush on me since fourth grade, and he's always trying worm his way into the seat next to me. He has a wretched case of halitosis, and I just can't do another year with him breathing on me all day. You help me keep him away, and I'll keep Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum off your back. Deal?"

She held up a pinkie in a strange kind of salute, and it took Bella a moment to understand what she was doing. For a second, she hesitated. There was something dangerous about Alice Brandon. Something uncontained and uncontrolable. She was a lit firecracker with too little wick, and if Bella agreed to this, she was sure to get burned. Bella had no idea why this girl—this infinitely confident girl with the foul mouth and fuck-you attitude—would possibly want her around, but in that briefest of moments, she decided she didn't care. She wanted a piece of what Ali had, and she would take it, no matter the cost.

Bella smiled and held up her hand, latching pinkies with her new friend and sealing their fates.

"Deal."