Thanks for all the feedback, guys. I've opted to keep the chapter lengths the way they are. Comments appreciated!

Title: More Than Human
Chapter 2: All I Want Is Easy Action, or A Kiss With A Fist Is Better Than None
Pairing: RrB/PpG
Rating: R, because they're teenagers and a good handful of them use terrible, filthy language.
Disclaimer: Pay your respect to Craig, not me.
Summary: There is no way I can make this sound original, ever. My attempt to write a believable RrB/PpG in high school fic. Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal. - Camus
Notes: For mathkid and JoJoDancer and their mighty beta-swords of justice! 2/12/11 update – Fixed the formatting issues. Breaks now appear as they should.

More Than Human, Pt. 1 - Junior Spring Semester
February - All I Want Is Easy Action
or A Kiss With a Fist Is Better Than None

Blossom scurried down the hall back to her AP English class, fighting the crowds of students that were trying to leave.

"Mrs. Yang, hi," she said breathlessly as she tumbled back into class and started to collect her things. "Thanks for letting me go to the studio."

"No problem, Blossom," her teacher assured her, waving a dismissive hand. "We were just watching Hamlet, after all. How was practice?"

"Good," Blossom said automatically, her brow furrowing at the memory of Brick—she'd forgotten he was in the Art class.

Suddenly the door burst open, and one of the regular English teachers came striding into the room, waving a paper in his hand.

"Stella! You have to see this!"

"Charlie? What's the matter—"

"I need to transfer a student into your class, straightaway," he said urgently. "Here. This is the last paper I asked the class to do, comparing an essay of Camus' to another book they'd read of their choice."

"Why are there lines crossed out?" Mrs. Yang asked, squinting as she looked it over.

Blossom rummaged through her things—shoot, she was missing a book.

"I originally asked the class to do a simple five page paper—he turned that in this morning, look—eight pages. I told him I couldn't accept it, and then he took out a pen and scratched out parts of it, and handed it back, telling me that should take it down to five."

"It works," Mrs. Yang said incredulously. "He did this on the spot?"

"Yes! And it's an impressive paper. I mean, certainly not, you know, what I would've expected from a regular English student—"

Something occurred to Blossom as she located her book, and she turned slowly to look at the two teachers, engrossed in conversation. Buttercup's first period was English, and she shared it with the boys—

No. It couldn't be.

"He was the only student who chose The Stranger as the book to compare the essay to," Charlie was saying, but paused as Mrs. Yang held up a hand.

"That's on your reading list, though, isn't it?"

"Yes, but! All of my students hated Camus! I had trouble getting them to just finish it!"

"He does demonstrate... advanced knowledge of the material, if this paper is any indication," Mrs. Yang said thoughtfully, perusing the essay.

Blossom's curiosity overwhelmed her. "Um, excuse me?" Both teachers looked up. "I was just curious—who is this?"

It wouldn't be him. It couldn't. That was silly, that was...

"One of the new students," the man said, straightening and adjusting his glasses. "Brick."

Blossom felt her stomach bottom out.

"Have you talked to the Principal yet?" Mrs. Yang asked her colleague.

"At lunch." He beamed. "She's supposed to be calling him in right now..."

As the two teachers conversed, Blossom stealthily inched closer. The essay lay face up on Mrs. Yang's desk, and Blossom focused her supersight so she could scan the first page from where she stood. The pit in her stomach deepened as she read. He was comparing a book of Camus' to an essay of Camus'—not a creative approach by any means, but they were right, that style of writing didn't suit a student in a regular English class...

She excused herself, practically running out of the room. This was... unacceptable. She had to talk to Ms. Keane.

Brick walked through the crowded hallway, wondering what it was about today. He still had no idea what Mrs. Morbucks needed; just as she was about to go into detail, one of the office staff members had appeared, requesting he meet with the Principal. Mrs. Morbucks told him she'd call some other time.

The Principal. He racked his memory. Had he done something? Worse yet, had his brothers done something? Or—his eyes narrowed—had one of the girls accused them of evil plotting or criminal activity? He wouldn't put it past Blossom, that suspicious little—

His superhearing suddenly picked up on her voice as he approached the main office, and he paused, listening.

"Ms. Keane, it has to be a mistake—"

"Blossom, look, I've got all his assignments and test scores here from all his classes, he's aced every one of them, clearly he isn't being challenged—"

Brick's eyes widened. Shit. Shit! He thought he'd dumbed everything down enough! Damn it, he knew he should've purposely answered some of those questions wrong. If it weren't for his well-deserved pride! Damn. This was exactly what he was afraid of happening. Now Blossom was even more suspicious, knowing that he was intelligent—

"No, it can't be—he can't be this... this brilliant! He must have cheated, or—"

Brick's temper flared and it was all he could do to keep himself from breaking down the door. Cheated? What the fuck? Where the fuck did she get off, accusing him, when he hadn't even done anything?

"Blossom." Ms. Keane's voice was stern. "I think your emotions are clouding your judgment. From what I've seen and heard this past month, the boys don't show any signs of—"

"It's a trick, Ms. Keane—"

"As far as I can tell, they haven't been acting any different from any other high schoolers, and you, frankly, need to settle down. Now please, he'll be here any second, and how would you feel if he heard the nasty things you were saying about him?"

"Unremorseful," Blossom answered automatically, her voice grave.

Brick swung open the door, causing both student and Principal to jump. Blossom's eyes went wide, then steeled at the sight of him. He ignored her and strode up to Ms. Keane.

"You wanted to see me, Principal Keane?"

Ms. Keane smiled and gave Blossom a sharp look. The girl started to gather her things, but slowly.

"Your teachers have had a lot of good things to say about you, Brick."

"Have they," he said. Blossom hovered in his peripherals, pretending to fiddle with her cell.

"The quality of your work has demonstrated that you'd be well suited to enroll in the Advanced Placement classes—Blossom, did you need something?"

Blossom snapped her phone shut and shot Brick a look.

"Sorry, Ms. Keane. I'll get going." She started for the door.

"Hold it." Ms. Keane raised a hand, and Blossom halted. "On second thought. Please stay. Brick, what I'm getting at is, we'd like to move you to the Advanced Placement courses. Clearly the regular classes aren't challenging enough..."

Brick heard a tiny sound behind him—Blossom had stifled a scoff.

He had been prepared to deny Ms. Keane, to claim that the regular classes were fine, that he didn't feel comfortable transferring. But that sound, that tiny, little, insignificant sound from that insignificant person boiled his blood. He gritted his teeth. Fuck her.

Fuck. Her.

"You're right, Ms. Keane," he said in an even voice. "They're not." He could sense Blossom tensing behind him. "If you think I'm ready for something more... intellectually stimulating, I'm as game as you are."

Ms. Keane grinned. "Excellent. We'll set about adjusting your schedule—now, regarding this matter of the girls... you know, 'watching you,' I don't mean to imply that you're untrustworthy, I mean, over the course of the past month you haven't given us any reason to doubt your integrity, but I feel certain... parties might still feel more comfortable if you continued to share classes with—"

"Me," Blossom interrupted, her expression one of shock. "You're saying he would be sharing classes with me."

Brick looked at Blossom and turned back to Ms. Keane, instantly dismissive. "I'm sorry, I don't think that's—"

"Now, now, it's a compromise, isn't it?" Ms. Keane's harsh eyes were on Blossom, who stilled under her glare.

"I suppose," Blossom mumbled.

"Principal Keane," Brick said firmly, "on second thought, I'd like to rescind my request to—"

"What's the matter?" Ms. Keane said, concerned.

"To be frank?" Brick glanced at Blossom out of the corner of his eye, and his voice was a low growl as he continued, "I'm afraid we don't like each other very much."

"Ha!" To both Blossom and Brick's surprise, Ms. Keane let out a sharp, short laugh. "Don't even think about using that as an excuse."

"I'm serious!" he cried.

"It's true!" Blossom clamored.

"It's called 'high school,' ladies and gentlemen," Ms. Keane declared, unwavering in her lack of sympathy as she waved them away. "We bid you welcome. Now deal with it."

Brick and Blossom filed back into the empty hallway, semi-stunned. After a moment, Blossom shook her head and issued a scathing glare at him, which he gladly returned.

"You may have won her and all your teachers over, but you don't have me fooled for a second," she snarled.

Brick scoffed, "'Fooled?' Aren't you supposed to be the smart one?"

"Don't you dare insult me—"

"Or what? You'll arrest me? Under what charge? 'Officer, he's in all my classes, it's so horrible, I can't go on—'"

"Ugh!" Blossom shook her head, fuming, and snapped, "You're such a despicable person! You aren't even in any of my classes yet, and I'm already sick of you—"

She lifted a hand and stabbed him in the chest, and he brusquely swiped it away, jabbing his own in her face. "Don't you fucking touch me—"

"Watch your language—"

"Back off—"

"Blossom?" A timid voice broke through their confrontation, and they both whirled on the girl who'd interrupted them. She cowered underneath their glare.

Blossom's face instantly softened, and she said, "Oh, drills. I'm sorry, I just..." She glared at Brick once more before joining her fellow teammate. "I got distracted," she said bitterly.

Brick glowered as he watched them both stroll back to the studio. Blossom issued one final glare over her shoulder before she disappeared down the hall.

"Fuck," he hissed to himself as he burst out the doors and took off for home. Within seconds he was flying up the stairs of their complex, fumbling for his keys so he wouldn't break the damn door down.

"Hey, dude—whoa." Boomer made to greet him as he burst into their apartment, still seething. "What the fuck happened—"

"Outta my way," he snapped, instantly heading for his room, Penny's number echoing in his brain—

He stopped as he reached his door and let out an anguished noise of frustration. Fuck! No, calling her for a job would be stupid! What good would it do? He twisted and headed for the opposite side of the apartment—thank God he'd had that installed, thank God JS, Inc. had bought the property, thank God he'd insisted on a training simulator in the house—

"Brick?" Boomer's voice echoed behind him as he flung the door open. "Are you okay?"

"Don't bother me," Brick called back, and slammed the door.

Boomer blinked.

Five seconds later, Butch was thrown out of the training room, landing in a heap at Boomer's feet.

Butch blinked slowly, stunned. "What the hell just happened?"

Buttercup dashed home after practice, cursing under her breath. It was her turn to do dinner tonight and she had absolutely nothing planned. She was going to have to scrounge around in the fridge for something

"Hey," she called out as she crossed the threshold, dropping her stuff in a heap by the door. "I'm home!"

Bubbles' voice called back a muffled greeting from the depths of their room, and Buttercup started for the kitchen.

Suddenly the front door banged open, and an extremely pissed off Blossom stalked inside, headed straight for the training room in the lab.

"Not that anybody cares," she announced loudly, "but this is the worst possible day!"

Buttercup and Bubbles both poked their heads out in time to see the door to the lab slam. Soon after, it opened, and Blossom gently shoved their father out.

"Please, Professor," she said in a strained voice. "I just need a bit."

The door shut again, and three confused faces turned to look at it. After a second, the Professor turned to his other two daughters.

"Um. So... how was your day?"

"He was in there for, like two hours the other day," Boomer said, a tad concerned. It'd been two days since Brick had come home in a fit of rage and dove into the training room. Since then he'd been extremely pissy, damn near unapproachable, and not very prone to conversation.

"What's your point?" Butch shrugged, unperturbed. It was their first lunch day without Brick.

"I dunno, it's... he hasn't been this mad in awhile."

"You're not counting the day he found out we were coming here for our 'vacation?'"

"Oh yeah," Boomer admitted. "There was that." He thought for a moment. "But that was still different."

"Whatever, dude." Butch chugged his soda. "That bastard's getting no sympathy from me. He gets to share damn near every class with that gorgeous, walking, talking slice of heaven. God. If it was me, I would've jumped her bones by now, for sure."

Boomer laughed politely, then clapped a hand on his brother's shoulder and stood. "Hey, I'll see you. I'm going to go chill out for a bit."

After bidding his brother goodbye, Boomer shuffled out of the cafeteria and over to the music hall. Neither Buttercup nor Bubbles made to follow him; at this point they tended to leave the boys to their own devices. Several students were clustered in small groups in the music hall, with more groups occupying the practice rooms. Many of them waved at him to join them. He grinned.

Popularity was a happy luxury to Boomer. Where Brick had been pissed as all hell when the company had decided to send them to Townsville to "take a break," Boomer had been secretly... well, kind of elated. Townsville was just big enough, not quite a huge, sprawling, metropolitan city, which practically made it the perfect place to be noticed. Granted, with their history, it would've been hard not to be noticed. But still.

Boomer got along with his brothers, but the life Brick had led the boys into was all... professional. Naturally, Brick had evolved into the idea man and Butch into the guy who was so bloodthirsty he practically needed a leash. It didn't leave a lot of room for Boomer to shine; he was too... easygoing, too laid back. Kind of a clown, but nobody really needed a joker around. Jokers always got chucked out of the deck.

Except in high school. In high school he could be somebody besides a... a soldier, or whatever you were supposed to call him and his brothers. Hired men. They were still kids, regardless of what Brick thought. And Boomer was a kid who wanted to have friends, to be liked, to have a girlfriend, even.

So thank God for Townsville. It was as if it existed within its own little dome, closed off from the outside world. Its citizens were naive, gullible, and easy to win over. The memory of the crowd cheering after Boomer's first performance with the band made him giddy; he couldn't stop grinning when he thought about it. Even Brick's shadowed expression afterwards had not deterred his mood.

He only had a semester, he reflected, a little wistfully. But when he set his heart on something, even his smarter, stronger brothers had a time of it trying to shake him off. And he was determined to make his brief fling with high school a memorable one.

"Hey, guys," he said brightly as he waltzed into one of the practice rooms. People shouted their hellos; with that boyish smile and relaxed gait he came off as far less intimidating than either of his brothers. He laughed as he sat with them, catching the eye of one girl in particular, pixie-ish and trim. He'd seen her before; she'd been a bass player at the Battle of the Bands. She'd been cute there, too.

He smiled a winning smile at her, and she laughed, too comfortable in his presence to blush.

"Hi, Haley," he addressed her, and the rest of the room Oohed.

Maybe he'd have a girlfriend by the end of the school year after all.

Brick had had better days.

As annoying as Buttercup and Bubbles had been, after a couple of classes with the boys, they'd settled back into their own routines. This one, though. God. Every time he moved or took a breath, she was on his case, glaring daggers and fuming. She never took her eyes off him for a second. He hadn't thought anyone, superhuman or no, could go that long without blinking.

The last class of the day was a relief. She was doing a presentation in English that day, giving her something to focus on besides functioning as watchdog, and Brick welcomed the brief respite.

Blossom perched herself at the front of the class, introducing the topic of discussion: Socrates. Brick faded in and out of her presentation; he'd read Plato and didn't feel the need to revisit the dialogues with an unwelcome narrator.

"But to give you all a real idea of the sorts of discussions Plato's works were based on, I thought we could have our own Socratic dialogue, right here in class," she stated with a mischievous grin. Class discussion led by Blossom. Brick sighed. Great. A number of students perked up, eager to participate.

"So someone should start us off with a question," Blossom urged.

A girl seated next to Brick spoke up. "What is love?"

"Baby, don't hurt me," someone called out, and everyone laughed.

"Is a formal education truly necessary?"

"Does rain have a purpose?"

"Is there an afterlife?"

"Can I get fries with that?"

"Well, some of those work," Blossom slowly admitted, pursing her lips in thought. "Though obviously that last one doesn't count—"

She paused, and Brick suddenly felt the weight of her gaze bearing down on him.

"Brick," she said, her tone just shy of smug. A wave of silence blanketed the room. "Do you have a question you'd like to pose to the class?"

"No." He looked up, his face expressionless. "I'm afraid not."

She furrowed her brow in mock curiosity. "Is that so?" was what her mouth said, but her tone was all, "Didn't think so." She turned away, and the class collectively exhaled.

Brick flared; like hell would he let that slide. "On second thought."

The breath the class had released was sucked back in. Blossom turned back, her expression grave.

His gaze was steady, challenging.

"What is evil?"

She went still as the rest of the room iced over.


Butch snapped to attention and looked to his coach. "What up?"

"Quit watching the girls and get to work on your ballhandling drills!"

"Sorry, coach." Butch smiled sardonically and immediately went into a butterfly drill, eyes still on the coach, who, after satisfying himself that the boy wasn't going to renege on his apology, wandered off to pick on the rest of the team.

Butch glanced back over at the girls' team, working on their defense. The exchange between him and his coach had caught Buttercup's attention, and she glowered at him before going back to her own drills.

His coach screamed, "Butch, quit showing off and keep your eyes on the ball!"

Suddenly Butch fired his ball off towards the girls, where it collided with their own ball en route to Buttercup's hands.

Buttercup whirled on him as one girl went to retrieve them. "What the hell?"

"Sorry, coach," Butch said, shrugging as he grinned at those blazing green eyes. "Thought I had it."

The rest of the class sat stiffly at the tables, wishing there were more shadows to retreat to. For having such soft pink eyes, Blossom managed a lot of hard, angry stares.

"You're telling me people are naturally prone to evil?" she said, the edge in her voice sharp enough to draw blood. Brick wasn't fazed.

"You're telling me they're naturally good? Because a handful of you guys do charity work?"

"Saving the world is not just charity work!"

"You sure you're not just trying to buy your way into a better afterlife?"

"Don't change the subject," she ordered, her tone carrying the threat of bodily harm in it.

"You brought up 'saving the world,'" Brick shot back.

"You brought up 'charity work,' in a remarkably demeaning tone—"

"Because it's a waste of time," he growled.

"It is not a waste of time!" Blossom said, raising her voice as her fists shuddered under the weight of her anger. "It's for the greater good! Nothing I would expect you to know about! Why don't you tell me how many lives you've ruined outside of Townsville in all those years you went missing—"

"I didn't go 'missing,'" he snarled, rising from his seat because the intensity of her glare demanded it. "I left. You're quick to point fingers, aren't you? What about all the lives you've ruined in Townsville? Criminals have families, too, you self-righteous—"

"That's an unfortunate byproduct of my choice to make a difference in this world! There's no evil intent there!"

His gaze hardened. "People ruin each other's lives all the time, regardless of intent. Sooner or later anyone on the wrong end of your actions is liable to consider you one of the bad guys."

"I'd say the list of folks on the wrong end of your actions dwarfs mine," she hissed, "and I'm still for the side of light."

"Of course you are," Brick said, his sarcasm evident.

Blossom met it, word for word. "And you, you with your worldly knowledge and your deep, clinical understanding of everything there is to know about anything, you fancy yourself an expert on all of us. Whose side are you on, Brick?"

He set his jaw, his eyes tapering to slits. "You've got some nerve accusing me of being judgmental, Miss 'I know exactly who you are, Brick.' Whose side do you think I'm on?"

He watched as her muscles tensed, in sync with his own, when suddenly the final bell rang. There was a frantic scramble, a cloud of dust and papers, and Mrs. Yang blinked.

She looked around; Blossom and Brick were the only students left.

"Good Lord. I've never seen a class clear out that fast in my life."

"Again?" Buttercup gawked at the Professor and Bubbles in the kitchen, hard at work on dinner.

"Yep." Bubbles set the oven timer and turned to face her. "Came home early from dance and went straight for the training room."

"Actually, if you could clear her out of there, that'd be extremely helpful," the Professor admitted, slipping out of his apron. "I've got a lot of work to catch up on." After a second's thought, he warily suggested, "Maybe she could help with dinner...?"

Both Buttercup and Bubbles gave their father a look. Blossom was a talented girl, skilled at a great many things, but she had no gift for cooking whatsoever.

"You remember having to wolf down those Christmas cookies of hers year after year, right, Professor?" Buttercup said dryly. Blossom had done Santa's cookies for every Christmas until they found their father passed out in the fetal position one year by the plate, clutching an empty bottle of Pepto Bismol. For Blossom, the discovery that there was no Santa could not surpass the blow of realizing that her golden touch ceased to exist the second she set foot in any kitchen.

He must've remembered; he was looking a little green. "You have a point."

"I tried to teach her how to do spaghetti, once," Bubbles reminisced. Her face clouded over. "It didn't work out."

"She's really good at setting the table," Buttercup offered. "And, you know... moving food... to the table... you know what, can we just say she sucks and leave it at that?"

"Do you know what happened today?" the Professor asked.

Buttercup and Bubbles exchanged a glance.

"They just moved Brick to all AP classes," Bubbles explained.

"What?" The Professor suddenly had a hunted look in his eyes. "Did he ask her out?"

"No, Professor," they both sighed dully.

"They hate each other's guts," Buttercup elaborated.

"Oh." The Professor settled down and a slow, idyllic smile broke out over his face. "Excellent."

Brick sneezed as he got out of the shower. Showers tended to do Brick a lot of psychological good, often moreso than a training session. It felt good to step out of that bathroom and into fresh clothes, like a sort of therapy for the mind. He felt calmer. Sort of. So long as he wasn't thinking about school, or what city he was in, or that suspicious wench—

He muttered unintelligibly to himself as he toweled off his hair and pulled it into a low ponytail. No reason to undo all the good an hour's worth of training and a good hot shower had done. He knew better than that. As he passed by his desk, he glanced at its surface and paused, considering.

He didn't have to ask about a job. He could just... check in. See how things were going. That wouldn't be out of the ordinary, would it?

Brick reached under the desk and tapped in the combination, and a holographic screen the length of the desk shimmered into existence before him. He sat for the retinal scan and voice recognition, then navigated to his communications console, tapping in Penny's familiar ten digits.

"JS, Incorporated, how may I direct your call?" A young brunette flickered on screen, and her eyes lit up.

"Hi, Penny." Brick gave a little wave.

"Brick! What are you up to? How are you?"

Miserable. He shrugged. "Doin' alright."

"Your brothers? How are you guys adjusting? Is high school as fun as I remember it?" she snickered.

"If the look on your face is any indication, I'd say the answer is a definite yes."

"Aw, honey, it'll get better. So how are classes going? Did you get into Art IV?"

"Yes. Remind me to thank you for making me do a portfolio. It would've killed me to sit and 'learn' perspective and perfect circles and all that shit."

She grinned. "I told you you'd be bored in a beginner art class."

"It only helped a little." He sighed. "The regular classes were agonizing. I just got bumped up to the Advanced Placement program."

"I never would've guessed," Penny teased, laughing. After a pause, she added, "The guys miss you, you know."

Brick rolled his eyes. "Uh-huh." With the exception of John Smith himself, the board of directors was not a welcoming group, particularly when it came to Brick from the Special Cases division.

"I wasn't talking about the big guys," Penny said with an exaggerated sigh. "I was talking about your fellow field agents."

"How are they?"

She shrugged. "Fine."

"How are you?"

She smirked. "Fine."

"And John himself?"

"John's doing fine. Brick, why are you calling?"

"I just wanted to see how things were going!" He held up his hands, pretending to take offense.

Penny laughed and leaned toward the screen. "Boomer would call to see how things were going. Butch would call—"

"To ask if you had changed your mind about younger guys yet," Brick interjected.

"Not what I was going to say," Penny said firmly. "And either of them would call only if things weren't going well. And, considering it's been over a month and this is the first call I've gotten from any of you three, I would assume things are going pretty well, at least for the two of them. Seriously, Brick. Is this about a job?"

He sighed and rested his head in his hand. "No. It isn't." He suddenly perked up. "But if there is—"

"You are on vacation," Penny ordered. "You are supposed to be enjoying yourself."

"What kind of company sends their employees on vacation to high school?" Brick countered.

Penny shook her head. "The kind of company that has superpowered teenagers in their employ, Brick. Are your brothers having a good time?"

"They haven't called, have they?"

"So they are." She smiled. "So why aren't you?"

Brick bit his lip in thought. "Because I'm... not normal, Penny."

"And your brothers are?" she laughed, incredulous.

"They have an easier time pretending," he said resolutely.

Penny sighed and studied him a moment.

"Brick. Let me tell you the secret to being normal."

He made a noise halfway between a whine and a sigh. "I know, I know. One foot in front of the other, and always on the ground, never above their heads."

"I wasn't referring to your own personal take on it," she chided. "I'm referring to you, personally. You. Stop thinking so much."

"Blagh." He wrinkled his face. "What kind of advice is that?"

"Stop thinking about your future," Penny continued. "It'll still be here when you get back."

Easy for you to say, Brick thought. She had no idea yet.

"But you're never going to get these years back, ever. So enjoy them while you can. Stop thinking. Take a cue from your brothers, they know how to relax." She suddenly grinned, her eyes lighting up. "Hey. Has Boomer got his girlfriend yet?"

Brick's face clouded over and he sat up. "Did he tell you about that?"

She was laughing again. "He was... you know, kinda excited about the prospect. What about Butch? You know what, never mind. It must be going well for him if he hasn't called me yet."

"Nobody's hooked up with anyone yet, Penny," Brick sighed.

"Well, tell me when they do." She had a mischievous glint in her eye as she appraised Brick. "You could use a girlfriend too, you know."

"That is not funny," Brick grumbled sourly.

"Yep. You could definitely use one." She nodded, satisfied.

"You'll know when it happens, then, because Hell's going to get a lot colder," he muttered, closing the subject.

Her face softened. "Brick, honey. Cheer up."

"Mmph," he mumbled, chin in hand again.

She sighed, then looked around. "Hey. Look, I've got news for you that'll bring a little sunshine to your day."

"Darius suffered a horrible accident and is no longer with the company?" Brick said with false brightness.

"I am sorry to disappoint you by letting you know that Darius is in perfectly good health," Penny said neutrally. "But Special Cases isn't doing a lot of business right now."

He squinted at her. "What? How is that good news—"

"Because every client who calls in keeps specifically requesting the Rowdyruff Boys," Penny clarified, issuing him a pointed look. "With you guys 'on vacation,' everybody's holding off on requesting Special Cases until your return."

This was good news, but Brick kept his expression guarded. "How do you know?"

She slumped her shoulders and gave him a look. "Brick. I field every fucking call that comes in, seriously. I used to get over ten Special Case requests each day. Nowadays? I'm lucky if I get one. And when they do call, the first thing out of their mouths is, 'Are Brick and his boys still out?' And when I tell them, they thank me and hang up."

"Which clients?" Brick prodded, unable to subdue his interest.

"Oh no. You're not getting that out of me," Penny warned, shaking her head. "Anyway. I gotta get back to work."

"It's after hours," Brick pointed out.

She gave him a sly look. "Now, now. You know evil never sleeps, Brick."

"Ha. Ha."

"Call me back when you've got a girlfriend," Penny demanded, and signed off.

Boomer hummed to himself as he ducked out of the staircase onto their floor. Practice with the band tended to get a bit tedious, what with his... special ability, but he felt he should keep up appearances. He adjusted his guitar as he approached their door—someone was delivering a huge stack of pizzas. He could hear Butch on the other side of it.

"What the fuck did you say I owe, man?"

The delivery boy was shuddering, either under the weight of the boxes or the weight of Butch's glare.

"Um... two hundred and sixteen, sir—"

Boomer nicked the guy's wallet as he came up, excusing himself so he could weasel past into their apartment. "Don't worry, Butch, I got it," he said lightly. He riffled through the guy's wallet and tugged out some bills. "Here. Keep the change. Oh, and by the way, you dropped this."

Butch maneuvered the stack away to the kitchen as Boomer handed the delivery boy's wallet back to him.

"Oh, thanks—"

Boomer kicked the door shut and zipped to the kitchen, snatching a box off the top.

"Any of these got pineapple on 'em?"

"No, because only pussies put fruit on a fucking pizza," Butch said coldly. "Grow some taste buds."

"Hey, where's Brick?"

"Kicked the training room's ass again, then went to clean up."

Boomer gave his brother a concerned glance. "Again?"

"Again," Brick announced, opening his door. "Hey. Penny says, 'Hi.'"

Butch brightened. "You talked to Penny? How's that pretty little picture doing?"

"She wants to know if either of you have got a girlfriend yet," Brick said, digging through the boxes. "Do any of these have pineapple on them?"

"What are you, some kind of pussy?" Boomer joked, and Brick smacked him in the forehead.

"Tell Penny I'm working on it," Butch said. "Actually, just tell her to Google 'Blossom' and then let me know what she thinks—"

"Don't mention that name in my presence," Brick growled, settling on pepperoni. "I've had a bad enough day as it is."

"You should've called her after dinner," Boomer said through a mouthful of pizza. "You might have been able to tell her 'yes' for me."

Brick and Butch looked up. "What?"

Boomer gathered up three boxes and headed for his room. "I'll tell you all about it when I'm off the phone." He shouldered his door shut, and Butch turned to their leader, gaping.

"Are you fucking serious?" he said in an undertone. "First he's the most popular kid in the fucking school, and now he's the first one of us to get a girlfriend? Are you fucking serious?"

"Leave him be," Brick said, unconcerned.

"This is Boomer we're talking about! Mr. What Was My Mission Again, Oh Yeah, It's—"

Brick gave Butch a sharp look. "How many fucking buildings has Boomer blown up?"

Butch slumped his shoulders. "Dude. Not fair. Those were, like, ages old—"

"Let him have his fun," Brick said dismissively. "If anyone deserves to enjoy this dumb vacation, it's him."

Butch scoffed. "Everybody just loves the fucking runt of the litter. If I'd known that all there was to getting tail was to stand up in front of people and pull a few strings and make some mouth noise, I'd be a fucking god by now."

"We're already gods," Brick corrected. "It's the teenager part you need to work on. Don't you pay attention to anything?"

The door to Boomer's room suddenly burst open and a bright blue streak went bouncing through the room.

"Call Penny up! Tell her I've got a girlfriend! And right in time for Valentine's Day, whoo!"

"What?" Brick cried.

"What?" Butch clamored. "How can you have a girlfriend after one phone call?"

The blue streak screeched to a stop in front of them both, and a beaming Boomer pretended to rake a hand through his hair.

"Because I'm just that awesome, brother." He extended a palm to Butch. "Hey. Feel free to call me up if you need any pointers, man—"

"Oh, fuck off," Butch snapped.

"You know there's a difference between one date and a girlfriend," Brick said suspiciously.

This did nothing to deter Boomer's mood. "Right, I forgot! You're the dude who wrote the book on picking up girls." Boomer snapped and winked. "Chapter five. I was right there with you, man."

Brick narrowed his eyes. "You know what, I'm with Butch. Fuck off."

"Maybe later. Right now, I've got a date. With a girlfriend. My girlfriend. That's awesome, right? Yeah, it's awesome. Dating my girlfriend. Enjoy the sausage-fest, guys!"

And with that, Boomer spun out of the apartment, whooping as he bulleted away. Butch and Brick only stared.

"Haley is cute," Bubbles commented as she watched Boomer and Haley enter the cafeteria, holding hands.

Kim planted her elbows on the table and sighed wistfully. "Boomer's pretty cute, himself. Why couldn't he have walked into the choir hall and fallen in love with me instead?"

"You're saying he would've been able to pick your voice out of the many in a crowded room?" Mary said dryly, raising an eyebrow.

"Why not? He's got superhearing, right?" Kim turned to Bubbles. "Does he?"

"We all do," Bubbles answered, frowning playfully at Kim. "You're lucky Bobby doesn't, though."

"Me and Bobby have a very open relationship," Kim said practically.

Bubbles smiled and looked around the cafeteria. She spotted Mike a couple of tables away, surrounded by fellow athletes and cheerleaders, and waved at him.

Mary leaned over. "How come you're not sitting with the football team today?"

Bubbles sucked in her lower lip. "It's not—I dunno. The girls are acting all weird. They like... all they ever talk about is cheer, and that's okay, but I dunno, I feel... weird. Like a little left out, you know?"

"That's bitchy." Kim wrinkled her nose.

"It's not! They just... they really like it," Bubbles said defensively.

"How much you wanna bet they're doing it just because they resent you for leaving the squad?"

"Kim, no. These girls are my friends."

"Look, we didn't say this before because we were afraid of hurting your feelings, Bubbles, but Kim's right. Your friends on the cheer squad are kinda bitches," Mary affirmed, nodding apologetically.

"I don't want to talk about this anymore," Bubbles announced, picking at her food.

Kim shrugged. "Fair enough. Hey. You want to go karaoke with us? That place with all the individual rooms downtown is having a half-off special next weekend. You should totally come."

Bubbles beamed. "I totally will. It sounds like fun!"

"Bring Will this time," Kim urged. "There's no game that weekend, so he should be able to make it, right?"

"Oh... I'll ask," Bubbles said. Shoot. Will hated to sing. Maybe if she asked really, really nicely...

"They're pretty cozy," Kim said petulantly, squinting at Boomer and Haley. "They've only been dating, like, a week."

Bubbles looked over her shoulder at them and grinned. It was kind of adorable; she and Will had been an affectionate couple from the get-go and had narrowly avoided getting slapped with detentions for PDA several times over the course of their relationship.

"Yeah," she said, smiling as she watched Haley giggle and run her hands through Boomer's hair. "I guess they really like each other."

The way their schedules worked out, Buttercup had the later lunch period every other day. She actually shared this with Butch, Blossom, and Brick, but on these days Blossom usually took her lunch to the studio, while Brick spent it either in the library or outside. Blossom didn't know that Buttercup let him, but frankly, Buttercup had better things to do than shepherd the boys in one place. Besides, she had her hands full with Butch.

Since Brick had moved out of the regular classes, Butch seemed exceptionally keen on giving her grief. She wasn't sure if it was because his brother was gone, or if she was just noticing it more than usual, but whatever it was, it was really starting to piss her off. It wasn't enough that he had replaced her in her former circle of friends. Now it was like he was... trying to get her attention or something, jeering at her in Basketball, asking her how Blossom was doing before class started. It was all she could do to keep from punching his fucking lights out during the school day.

She glared at him, seated between the twins at her old table and laughing, while a few of the girls on the team chatted about their upcoming game.

"What about you, Buttercup?" one of them suddenly asked, breaking her concentration.

Buttercup blinked and looked to her teammate. "Huh? Say again?"

"I was just wondering—"

Something wet suddenly smacked Buttercup in the side of her head, and the girls gasped. Buttercup swiped at it—fuck, it was all in her hair—what the fuck was this shit—mashed potatoes?

Her jaw dropped and she looked up, spotting a grinning Butch still holding the spoon that had catapulted his food. The twins looked horrified.

"Buttercup?" One of her teammates reached a tentative hand out. "Are you o—"

Buttercup stood in a flash and sent the contents of her lunch flying across the room. Butch instantly dodged it and jumped to his feet as the unlucky students that had been seated behind him shrieked. He snatched a can of soda from a stricken Floyd's hand and quickly shook it up before aiming the can at her and pulling the tab.

The spray exploded across three rows of tables and the room burst into screams. Buttercup grimaced and grabbed her teammates' lunches by the armload, firing everything at breakneck speed in Butch's direction.

The cafeteria erupted.

Ms. Keane's forehead was flat on her desk.

"I do not understand."

"He started it," a sopping, food-stained Buttercup said instantly, pointing.

"She retaliated," an equally sopping, food-stained Butch retorted.

"Save me your excuses, I beg you," Ms. Keane moaned, sitting up and covering her face with her hands. "You don't—oh my God, do you have any idea, the cafeteria is a mess—" Her hands drifted up into her hair and she clutched at it. "Urgh. That's—you two? You two are going to spend your free period cleaning that up. You are, I am not kidding. Without your powers!"

"What? You can't be serious!"

"No way! That's going to take us forever—"

"How else are you going to learn your lesson?" Ms. Keane beseeched them. "The cafeteria's a mess! As are the hallways and the classrooms, because half the student body is walking around coated in food!"

"Ms. Keane—" Buttercup started, but was silenced by a hand.

"You are not whining your way out of this one, Buttercup," Ms. Keane warned, her eyes set.

"I'm not whining!" Buttercup cried, offended. Butch snickered next to her and she punched him in the neck.

"Ow! You little—"

"You two are not starting that business here!" their Principal yelled, and Buttercup and Butch lowered their fists, glaring at each other. "I'm not putting up with this, and you know what? Neither is the rest of the school. You both are banned from your next game."

Two sets of green eyes widened in shock.

"Wha—no! It's my first game!" Butch argued.

"You said I was the star athlete of the school! You can't make me miss this!" Buttercup protested.

"I don't care how many trophies you two win," Principal Keane seethed. "You are not going to carry on like this. If something similar happens again, consider yourselves dropped from any and all athletic activities for the rest of the semester! Now get out of my office and go clean up that mess!"

"Please," Blossom said in a thin, strangled voice, "please, please tell me this has nothing to do with you."

Buttercup looked up from her scrubbing of the empty cafeteria floor and said levelly, "He started it."

Her sister groaned and buried her head in her hands. She'd been bound to find out sooner or later. A good forty percent of the school had been present for the foodfight.

"Which one started it?" Blossom said, dropping her hands.

Buttercup scoffed, "Who else? Butch."

"And Brick did nothing?"

"Brick wasn't there."

The silence that met her response was tense, and Buttercup froze, suddenly aware of her slip.

"I mean—"

"What do you mean, 'He wasn't there?' Weren't you watching him?"

Buttercup bit her lip and scrubbed harder, refusing to look at her sister. "Look, he hasn't been doing anything, all he usually does is go to the library or something—"

"Buttercup! How... how could you? All I asked you to do was watch them—"

"Me?" Buttercup was suddenly on her feet, glaring at her sister. Where did she get off, when she was the one spending her lunch in the studio, when she was the Golden Child, when she wasn't the one who'd been exiled by her friends only to have them welcome that bastard into their God damn circle! She had no right, no fucking right.

"What about you?" Buttercup demanded, livid. "What about you taking some fucking responsibility—"

"Buttercup," Blossom said, her tone sharp—

"No! For the past month you've done nothing but bitch and moan and you keep telling me and Bubbles to 'keep an eye on them' while you go off to all your stupid advanced classes and your dance practices and even when you've got the same lunch as me you leave me on guard duty for both of them!" Buttercup hissed, gesturing wildly at the messy cafeteria. "You get one guy, one guy switched over to all your classes because you want to 'keep an eye on them,' and suddenly you're the fucking victim, you're sooooo upset, never mind that Bubbles and I have been doing it for the past month and your guy isn't the one starting food fights in the fucking—"

"That's enough," Blossom interrupted, but there was guilt in those eyes, and Buttercup sucked in a breath, trying to calm down. After a second more of silence, she knelt and resumed scrubbing at the tile.

"I'm sorry," Blossom said quietly, and Buttercup felt a hand on her shoulder.

She might have been sorry, but it didn't necessarily make Buttercup feel that much less angry.

She shrugged off her sister's hand and grumbled, "Yeah. Whatever. Don't you have a class to get to?"

She could feel Blossom lingering, probably debating whether to tell Buttercup off for her attitude or let her be. To Buttercup's immense relief, she went with the latter.

"I'll see you at home," Blossom said, then added, "If he acts up again, though, please... just, ignore him, okay?"

She grunted something akin to assent. Blossom waited a second more, then took off, seconds before the late bell rang. Buttercup sighed, relishing the faintness of her solitary breath echoing in the cafeteria.

Brick stared at Butch, seated against the wall of the hallway, a mop discarded nearby. "What?"

"There was a foodfight." His brother waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the cafeteria.

"I gathered." The stench of school food hung everywhere. "I also gather it's your damn fault."

Butch shrugged. "You surprised?"

"You rarely surprise me." Brick wandered over and kicked the mop. "You're not doing a very good job of cleaning it up."

"I'm taking a break. By the way, you got any pot?"

"Don't joke. What the fuck are you doing, starting foodfights in the fucking school?"

"Bored." Butch simulated a drag on a joint and exhaled slowly, a lazy smile lighting his face.

"You wouldn't have started it if I'd been there," Brick said quietly, scrutinizing him.

"I don't know, bro, I mean, you hold a lot of sway and all, but I got a lot of pent up energy, you never know when I'll just go off and do something crazy—"

Brick was suddenly in his face, forcing his back to the wall. Butch shut up and stared at him, his smile fading. There was the faintest glow in those red eyes, never a good sign, and they narrowed as they bored into him.

"You are up to something," Brick said, his voice low and dangerous. "And you better fucking stop it."

Butch gave his brother a grin. "Or you'll ground me?"

"Seriously." Brick smacked him in the head as he stood. "You want to fucking piss me off?"

"Why bother? You're doing fine on your own these days," Butch responded, rubbing at his head.

A streak of pink suddenly flew across the opposite end of the hall, and Brick looked up.

"Shit. Class."

He took off, leaving Butch alone in the hall. He sat back with a devious grin, once again lifting a hand to his lips and taking a protracted drag on an imaginary joint.

"Bubbles, I owe you an apology," Blossom said, and her sister looked up. The two of them were alone in their room; Buttercup was downstairs helping the Professor with the dishes.

Bubbles looked up, bewildered. "What for?"

"Buttercup pointed out that you guys... well, shouldered a lot of responsibility for the boys last month, and I wasn't really... you know, good about taking on my share of that."

"It's okay." Bubbles shrugged and went back to her homework. "I mean, you're certainly getting your share of it now, and Brick's kind of a hard person to get along with—"

"I don't have to get along with him, I just have to watch him," Blossom said firmly. "Why on Earth would I want to get along with that... that stuck-up, egotistical—"

"You know, he's really not that bad," Bubbles said innocently, and Blossom stared at her.

"Okay, Bubbles? I know you have exceptional people skills and all, but how could you possibly reach that sort of conclusion with someone as difficult as him?"

"He's just quiet and... okay, he's kind of mean, but only if you... you know, try to, um, talk to him..."

Blossom gave her a wry look. "You're not really selling your point here."

"That's not how I know, anyway," Bubbles said, shaking her head.

"So how do you know he's 'not that bad?'"

"Because I've seen his art," Bubbles said, smiling at something Blossom couldn't see. "And anyone who draws like that couldn't possibly be all that bad."

Blossom sighed. "Bubbles, you're so naive—"

The phone suddenly rang, and they both paused, waiting to see if it was for their father—the Professor was getting a lot of phone calls these days regarding the development on the citywide defense system. It stopped after a couple of rings, and after a pause, Buttercup's voice echoed up the stairs.

"Blossom! It's for you!"

"I wonder which boy it is this time," Bubbles laughed, and Blossom swatted at her as she reached for the phone.

"Hello, Blossom speaking," she said into the mouthpiece, waving Bubbles away as she attempted to eavesdrop. Her eyes suddenly went wide. "Oh! Mrs. Morbucks? Um, to what do I owe the pleasure?"

It was a sunny and oddly warm Saturday for February, perfect flying weather. Perfect Valentine's Day weather too; back at home Bubbles had been ecstatic and was probably still in the process of re-working her outfit for her lunch date with Will. Blossom had other plans.

She landed at the front gate of Morbucks Manor, feeling it would be rude of her to fly over it to the front door. That presented her with a wholly different dilemma, as she had no clue how to work the intercom.

She squinted. There was a keypad, and something resembling a button next to the little black screen—

"What are you doing here?" a gruff voice behind her demanded, and she jumped, whirling around. She returned Brick's scowl instantly.

"I could ask you the same thing. I was invited—"

"So was I."

A spiteful moment passed between them.

He inclined his head toward the intercom and said, "Well? What are you waiting for?"

She huffed and turned back to it, reaching for the thing that might have been a button, but then hesitated. Maybe that wasn't it? Maybe she had to hit a number first or something?

There was an irritated sigh behind her, and Brick reached around, stabbing the button-that-apparently-was-a-button, and within seconds an image flickered to life on the screen. Mrs. Morbucks beamed at them.

"Ah! Happy Valentine's Day! I was wondering when you two would show up. Thank you for not flying over the gate, Princess has some ridiculous missile system that goes off if so much as a bird flies over and I haven't quite worked out how to disarm it. Come in, come in—"

The gates swung open, and the both of them floated up the massive drive to the front doors, keeping their distance from each other. Mrs. Morbucks was already framed in the entrance, waving them in.

Blossom ignored the company and smiled at their hostess.

"Hello, Mrs. Morbucks. It's a pleasure to actually meet you. Bubbles told me about your first encounter. Do you miss France?"

Mrs. Morbucks waved off the question as she shut the doors and beckoned them to follow her through the foyer, away from the grand room the party had taken place in.

"Oh, France is home, so of course I miss it. After the business with Princess' father, though, I felt it necessary to stay and... clear the family name." She frowned. "The Morbucks were a very prestigious family. Princess' father is a bit of a bad egg, I'm afraid. No talent for business, not to mention he goes through money like a fish through water. I've spent most of my married life cleaning up his messes."

"That's terrible," Blossom remarked, frowning.

Mrs. Morbucks shrugged and waved them into what appeared to be a study with a large mahogany conference table in it.

"I suppose it is." She flashed Blossom a wry smile as they sat. "But I'm very good at what I do."

Brick finally spoke up, watching as Mrs. Morbucks took a seat across from them. "What exactly is it that you do, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Manage our properties, the family assets, that sort of thing. Philanthropy, too, I'm very big on that. Have to be, with my husband's history—easiest way to keep the Morbucks name clean, though don't get me wrong, I do enjoy it. I swear, I don't know how he's been raising Princess. I knew I should've kept that girl in France in the first place." The woman had a dark look on her face as she spoke, and Blossom was tempted to ask exactly how such a woman had gotten together with Princess' father in the first place.

Mrs. Morbucks suddenly brightened, though, and turned to her guests. "I'm sorry, can I get you any refreshments? A drink, perhaps?"

Both Brick and Blossom shook their heads no.

"Not that I'm in a hurry or anything," Brick said, "but what exactly did you call me here for?"

"I was wondering the same," Blossom added. "Your call came as a bit of a surprise—"

The woman across from them clapped her hands together, grinning madly.

"Ah. Yes. Well, of course, I mentioned I'll be staying here to clear the family name and all, and I also mentioned I'm a bit of a philanthropist, and also—this is something you'll soon learn about me—I adore planning events. And I think Townsville could use more of them."

Blossom shifted forward in her seat. "Events? Of what sort?"

"Primarily events for charity, raising money for a cause, the like. I know a wide circle of people who wouldn't hesitate to come out here if I were to throw a special dinner or fundraiser. Might as well put this... opulent manor to use, anyway. Of course Townsville's no New York or San Francisco, but it's really not a bad city, and besides, it's certainly very famous for one thing in particular." She issued a significant look at Blossom, who smiled as humbly as she could. Next to her, Brick rolled his eyes and tilted his head in the other direction.

"So," Blossom said slowly, "how exactly do, um, we fit in with your plans?"

Mrs. Morbucks smiled and her eyes drifted to Brick. "Well. It all started when I saw this boy dance."

Brick looked at her while Blossom stifled a distasteful little noise. "You saw me? At the party?"

"The party refreshed my memory. I'd seen you before, about... two years ago, I guess?"

Blossom had an even tougher time stifling her shock. "Two—two years?" She turned to Brick. "Do you two know each other?"

"I hadn't formally met him until now," Mrs. Morbucks clarified. "And I only recognized who you were just last week. Before, I only knew you as a certain young lady's dance partner—"

Brick's eyes imperceptibly widened. Mrs. Morbucks grinned.

"You were good then, but you've gotten even better now. She couldn't have asked for a better partner, you know. Her father was ready to throw in the towel, but she absolutely insisted on dancing—"

"So that's how you know," Blossom said, furrowing her brow. "There was a girl."

"It wasn't only the girl," Brick said gruffly. "Anyway, so you recognized me. So what are we doing here?"

"You know, I'm going to have a coffee," Mrs. Morbucks announced, pulling a phone over and paging someone for her drink. "Are you two sure you don't want anything? No? Just a coffee for me, then. After I realized who Brick was, and being the fan of the arts that I am, I thought, well, what better than to throw a charity event where the city's youth talent provides a bit of the entertainment? Dancing is very much a crowd pleaser for events like these. I couldn't very well have him dancing alone, though; that's impractical for the type of benefit I do, so I asked Mrs. Olson about finding Brick a suitable partner."

Brick and Blossom both figured out at exactly the same time where this was going.

"You are kidding me." Brick gaped, incredulous.

"She had a library of Townsville High's Dance Company performances, Blossom, and you just go out there and set that stage on fire in every one of yours," Mrs. Morbucks said with a grin. "Plus she said you're one of the two girls trained in ballroom. I thought it had to be a sign."

"You're serious," Blossom said slowly. "You… seriously expect us to work together?"

Mrs. Morbucks gave a careless wave of her hand. "I don't see why not."

"Call it a conflict of interest," Brick responded, glancing at Blossom with disdain. "In that there isn't any." She shot him a dirty look.

"Now, now, don't be so quick to dismiss it, you two," Mrs. Morbucks said soothingly. "There are certain incentives to participating that you might well be interested in." She reached into her jacket pocket and produced a folded slip of paper, sliding it across the table to Blossom. "Take a look at this, my dear."

Blossom eyed it warily before she picked it up. She blinked.

"A check?" Her eyes widened as they drifted to the amount scribbled on the line, and she gasped. "This... this is a lot of money," Blossom said in a small voice.

"It's all yours to do with what you will," Mrs. Morbucks said, beaming at the servant that appeared with her coffee. "Shopping, maybe. A family vacation? I know you do a lot of volunteer work, yourself—you could donate it to your favorite charity. Oh, and I'll be donating twice that amount to Townsville High's Fine Arts department."

"Twice this amount?" Blossom cried in shock, feeling her heart stopping.

"Mrs. Olson asked that I implore you to consider it." Mrs. Morbucks sipped at her coffee, a hint of smugness in her expertly composed face. "So consider this me imploring you to consider it."

The girl bit her lip, struggling with the decision. It was a lot of money. It would do someone—a lot of people—so much good. And Townsville High's Fine Arts department didn't receive nearly the funding or support that the Athletics department did... she could help not only the Dance Company, but Choir, Theater, Band, and Orchestra...

"How can I not?" she said quietly, then darted a glance at Brick. Her gaze narrowed as she met his cold eyes, reminded of the one large drawback were she to accept Mrs. Morbucks' offer. Well. Sacrifices needed to be made for the greater good.

Mrs. Morbucks was beside herself. "Splendid! Now, Brick—"

"I don't need the money," he said abruptly, shaking his head.

Blossom rolled her eyes. "You don't even know what number is written on this check—"

"It doesn't matter," he interrupted, giving her a sharp look. "I don't need the money."

"Oh, I'm well aware, my boy. I wasn't going to offer you money," Mrs. Morbucks said with a shrug. "John Smith tells me you're a fan of cars."

Brick suddenly went very still, the only movement being the flick of his eyes to Mrs. Morbucks' as she sipped at her coffee.

"You know Smith," he said quietly.

Blossom latched onto the name, filed it away in her mind.

Mrs. Morbucks allowed herself a very small smile. "That I do. How is he doing these days?"

Brick scrutinized the woman, who appeared completely unfazed. "He does."

"Might I ask who Smith is?" Blossom interrupted, attention concentrated on Brick's face in an attempt to read his expression. There wasn't the slightest change; he kept his own eyes riveted to the woman seated across from them.

She turned her attention to Blossom and gave her a warm smile. "Certainly. John Smith is this young man's employ—"

"Benefactor," Brick cut her off abruptly, shifting in his seat. Mrs. Morbucks looked amused.

"Straightened you out with money, did he?" Blossom said quietly, throwing him a suspicious look.

"I owe a lot to him," he responded cryptically. He shot Blossom a sidelong glance. "As do you, taking into consideration that if it hadn't been for him, this conversation would likely involve me trying to rip out your throat."

"Ah, such chemistry!" Mrs. Morbucks clapped her hands once, drawing both their attentions. "This sort of thing translates fabulously on the dance floor."

"I beg to differ—" The two of them started to speak at the same time, then halted to exchange glares, irritated at having similar opinions.

"I'm not dancing with her," Brick said, not bothering to mask the revulsion on his face.

"I wouldn't enjoy it, not in a million years, but would do it anyway because I'm a better person," Blossom said haughtily.

"Brick," Mrs. Morbucks sighed, "you completely missed the point of me even bringing up Smith—"

"I did not," he contended. "There is no vehicle I haven't been in that could even remotely warrant me appearing with this—" He jerked his head in Blossom's direction as he began to stand— "for any charitable effort. Now excuse me. I'm afraid it's time for me to leave."

"Really?" she said evenly, examining her coffee cup. "Surely, though, you've been keeping up with what Nikola Motors has been working on—"

He froze mid-turn.

Mrs. Morbucks was the Queen of Smug, Blossom noted as she took in the woman's self-satisfied demeanor. She'd never even heard of such a car company.

"They've been working on a number of projects," Brick said slowly, not allowing himself to jump to conclusions.

"And one of those projects just went on the market—"

"Yesterday," he said, voice soft.

"Mm hmm," Mrs. Morbucks responded, her own voice deep and rich like honey. Deep, rich, victorious honey. She slipped a folder from the chair next to her to the table and pushed it across the polished mahogany to Brick's empty seat. He stared. Blossom was sorely tempted to open it herself.

"The Coil, which, as you pointed out, just went on the market not twenty-four hours ago," Mrs. Morbucks elaborated as he reached for the folder and opened it. Blossom could've sworn she saw Brick shiver as his eyes settled on its contents. "They've only manufactured a very limited amount of these—"

"One hundred," he said dimly, eyes glazed and faraway. "Only one hundred."

"And you're looking at one that's already been purchased in your name."

His attention snapped back to her.

"M-my name? This… this is mine. You're serious. Are you serious?"

"Number seventeen of the One Hundred Series." Mrs. Morbucks shrugged. "I would've tried for one of the first ten if I'd anticipated your lack of enthusiasm earlier. There's already a waiting list for the Two Hundred Series. Of course," she added, "I'll only officially turn it over to you once the Charity performance is over."

He dropped the folder on the table and brought his hands to his head, turning and sucking in a breath. Blossom peeked at the photo, curious. It looked like any regular sports car, shiny and deep red, admittedly sleeker and sexier than most sports cars she'd taken note of in her life, but she couldn't understand what was sending Brick into such a spell.

She sat back, rolling her eyes as Brick turned and hastily picked up the photo again. Boys were so impossibly stupid sometimes. It was somewhat gratifying to discover that Brick, for all his supposed "brilliance," was no exception.

"Okay. I am having a hard time wrapping my head around this," Buttercup said, her voice muffled as she covered her face with her hands. "You hate him."

Blossom could feel the Professor's eyes drilling holes into her brain as he stared at her, so she addressed him when she vehemently stated, "Absolutely, positively, unquestionably hate him."

The Professor's gaze lessened very slightly in intensity and he resumed eating his dinner, while Buttercup lifted her head out of her hands and issued her sister a look.

"And yet you agreed."

"The woman is offering me a large sum of money that I plan on splitting between a few charities, as well as some significant financial aid to the school's struggling fine arts department." Blossom lifted her chin. "Being in the athletics department, I don't imagine you would understand what it's like to not have enough money for new uniforms, or functioning gym equipment, or—"

"Who wants more salad?" Bubbles interjected, shoving the bowl between her sisters. "Mrs. Morbucks is really sweet to do that. We could use new choir dresses. I had to take mine in from a size sixteen and it still doesn't fit." She looked at Blossom and said in a conspiratorial voice, "What really surprises me is that he said yes."

Blossom found herself unable to keep the haughtiness from her expression. "As with any other boy, all she had to do was wave some shiny car in front of him and he was all—"

"She gave him a car?" Buttercup was suddenly brimming with jealousy. "What kind?"

Blossom pursed her lips, trying to remember. "Something like... Curl, or Coil—"

"Huarck!" The Professor was suddenly gagging, his eyes as big as Buttercup's as he tried to focus on Blossom.

"A Coil?" Buttercup shrieked. Bubbles leapt to her feet and began to perform the Heimlich on their father. "She got him a Coil?"

A cherry tomato went flying out of the Professor's throat and across the room. He wheezed for breath and gripped the edge of the table, eyes wild and searching Blossom.

"Are you positive? Are you serious?" he gasped.

Blossom's eyes darted frantically between the two crazed family members at the table. "That's... that's what she said—"

"That thing's worth more than this house!" the Professor cried.

"It does like zero to eighty in five seconds!" Buttercup squeaked.

"State-of-the-art automotive engineering—"

"Motor gets 14,000 rpm—"

Their father and sister spent the next five minutes spitting out phrases neither Blossom nor Bubbles understood, like powertrain and chassis and shift quality and a plethora of other car gibberish. Bubbles' eyes started to glaze over at minute two.

"I don't blame him," Buttercup said finally, catching her breath. "I'd give up meat for the rest of my life if someone offered me a Nikola Coil." She saw Bubbles suddenly perk up and threw her a warning look. "Don't take that as an invitation, vegan hippie. You'd be, like, eighty before you could even come close to having enough money to bribe me with one of those. Man, Brick is one lucky son of a—" At the sharp look the Professor and Blossom issued in her direction, Buttercup caught herself and hastily amended, "Guy. Lucky guy." She considered a moment. "He'll probably hate himself five minutes into your first practice together, but for a car like that... man..."

Blossom sighed inwardly but tried to appear blasé. She shrugged.

"Everyone's got a weak spot. Even those of us with superpowers." She glanced at everyone's mostly empty plates. "Well, I'm done eating. Can I take anyone else's dish to the sink?"

After setting up the dishwasher and wiping the table, Blossom wandered upstairs, shaking her head at her family's invitation to join them on the couch for a movie. She shut the door to their bedroom, a distracted frown on her face. The more she thought about it, the more she fretted. Brick danced well—like her. He was smart—like her. And, she reluctantly admitted to herself, he was just as stubborn as she was. These shared traits were a peculiar coincidence...

She took a deep breath and started for the window, grabbing a jacket on the way. It had been years since the girls had seen Him—stupid of it to hit her only now, that the boys' disappearance and Him's disappearance not long after could be related. The day's warmth had disappeared, leaving a cold, biting wind in its place, and Blossom shivered as she slipped through the window and buttoned her coat all the way up to the neck.

"I hate you." Butch's voice was muffled behind a couch pillow.

"Uh huh." Brick picked at his Chinese takeout disinterestedly.

Butch tossed the pillow off and gave their leader a beseeching look.

"Can I ask you, like, one favor? Like one? As a brother? If you could cop a feel for me or something, I mean, your hands are going to be on her—"

Brick cringed in disgust. "Christ, don't remind me."

"As a brother," Butch said fervently. "Just do it, and tell me what it's like, I beg you—"

"I don't remember owing you any favors," Brick snapped. "If you're so hot about her, why don't you—"

Suddenly he stopped, his eyes widening and head snapping up. He slowly lowered his food, biting his lip. It was a weird sensation, one he hadn't felt since the year after he and his brothers had first left Townsville. It had flared up less frequently in the years after, and only as a very slight... tingle. He couldn't quite describe it. Now, however, it was intense—crazy intense, every part of his body could sense there was someone out there, trying to find Him. And, judging from the way Brick's body was reacting, whoever it was was on a serious mission.

"Hey." Butch was sitting up on the couch, staring. "Dude. What's wrong?"

Brick shook his head and started for his room.

"No... nothing. Sorry, I'm just going to duck out for some air."


"I'm good," he assured, and shut his door. He stepped to his window and frowned. Proximity had nothing to do with the intensity of the feeling; rather, it was the strength of the person's desire to find Him that Brick reacted to. Whoever it was, they were out of luck. Him hadn't been around for a long while.

Not that he was trying to pat himself on the back or anything, but Brick always suspected Him's disappearance had to do with the boys' departure. Their surrogate Father had not reacted well to Brick winning their freedom from Him, not least of all because it had permanently tied Brick to Him on this sort of level, and the Devil was one to keep secrets.

Brick opened his window, wincing against the cold burst of air that rushed in to greet him. He didn't seriously think he would find whoever it was, but something wanted to carry him out into that air, just because, just in case—

His phone suddenly went off, and he gave it an offending glare. Once he spotted the caller ID, though, he dropped the expression and shut the window.

"Mrs. Morbucks?" he ventured cautiously after he tapped the speakerphone button.

"Yes, Brick. Please transfer me to the videocam, if you would."

He bit his lip and darted a glance at his desk. "I don't have—"

"Oh, come on, my boy, there's no need to pretend with me. Get me up on screen. I'd rather talk with you face to face."

Brick suppressed a sigh and transferred the signal to his video display. Mrs. Morbucks' image flitted onscreen, and she smiled. "That's better."

Brick darted one last glance at his window—the sensation was still strong, but a little less intense than before—and he nodded politely at Mrs. Morbucks.

"So, what can I do for you?"

"Well, my boy, I was recently going through the guest list for next month's charity event—"

Brick's eyes widened and he unintentionally interrupted, "Next month? Is that enough time for you to prepare?"

Mrs. Morbucks scoffed. "Plenty. I throw these things all the time; your choreographer is back from his vacation just in time to start practice on Monday. Anyway, I happened to receive a phone call from an old friend of mine, and we got to talking..."

Brick fidgeted, resisting the urge to ask her to get to the point. What did he care about two old, rich people connecting over—

"I believe you're familiar with him—Reccardi?"

Thoughts of further investigating the tingle his Him Sense was emitting dropped out of Brick's mind like dead weights.

"Reccardi? Reccardi's attending?"

"Indeed he is. Would you like me to arrange a meeting?"

The gears in Brick's head were going haywire. Reccardi was a highly coveted client. JS, Inc. had fought for years for his business, and as it was, he had no favorite in the market, but if Brick met him, if he could only speak to him, he might be able to sway him...

"I'll tell you right off the bat, Brick," Mrs. Morbucks interrupted his plotting, "that names rarely impress him, and Reccardi isn't likely to meet with you just based on your ties to Smith's company, so might I suggest you put on something like a... performance piece? After all, he is quite the fan of the arts—"

"Painting," Brick interrupted, the gears still turning. "He's an art collector, I'm familiar with his catalogue." He bit his lip, thinking. "If I had a partner who could improvise, I could paint as she danced..."

"Oh, good! I was thinking I might call you and Blossom to the Manor again—"

"What?" Brick snapped out of his reverie and tried not to look too affronted at the mention of that name. "No, I'm sorry, I really don't think that's going to work."

Mrs. Morbucks, for lack of a better word, pouted. "Oh, you two haven't even started practicing yet! And really, Blossom's the most extraordinary performer of the Townsville High Dance Company—"

"I'll believe it when I see it with my own eyes," Brick said resolutely, ignoring Mrs. Morbucks' huff of frustration. "I'll find a partner by the end of the week, I swear." After a pause, he cleared his throat. "Um. Thank you, Mrs. Morbucks."

"My pleasure, Brick. But believe me when I say Blossom—"

"I know." Brick took a deep inhale and held up a hand. "I know. I'll decide for myself, thank you."

She bid him farewell, and Mrs. Morbucks flickered off screen. After a pause, Brick headed for the window again.

"What's he up to in there?" The post-Valentine's-date-with-Haley glow in Boomer's expression had faded when his eyes landed on Brick's closed door.

Butch blew a ring of smoke into the air and examined his joint. "Probably having phone sex with my girlfriend," he said bitterly. "Happy Valentine's Day indeed."

Boomer rolled his eyes and waved at his brother. "Come on. Pass it here."

Just as Butch extended his hand the front door burst open, and Brick stalked in with a stack of DVDs and some sort of booklet.

"Turn on the TV for me, would you?"

"What—where's all that from?" Boomer asked as Butch fumbled for the remote.

"The Dance Company's video library." Brick examined some cases, tossing a few aside as he settled on one.

"You mean you broke into the school?" Boomer sat up as Brick set up the player and floated back to the couch.

"And you didn't invite me?" Butch exclaimed, hurt.

"I'm doing research," Brick said cryptically, flipping through his booklet. He suddenly looked up, frowning at the joint in Butch's hand. After a protracted look at Butch, he snatched it away from his brother and took a drag on it himself.

Boomer peered over his shoulder as Brick flipped the pages. There were photos of girls—all dancers in the Company, he realized—with little blurbs next to each photo.

"What kind of research? And pass that thing here."

"Quality check," Brick responded, handing Boomer the joint. Finally he paused on a page, his attention focusing on the blurb next to a familiar redhead...

"Oh my God," Butch said slowly as he rose to his feet and floated to the television screen. "It's my girlfriend." He turned to Brick, misty-eyed. "You are the best brother ever—"

"We're not keeping those DVDs, so get your wanking off done while you can," Brick said distractedly, then began muttering to himself as he read. "One of the two current Jr. Lieutenants... Dancing for ten years... five spent studying ballet, the last five split between jazz, ballroom, and hip hop..."

"'Hip hop?'" Boomer squinted at the blurb. "Are you serious?"

"Says here she does a lot of charity work and teaching hip hop is 'a great way to connect with inner-city kids,'" Brick read. He scoffed, unimpressed.

"I looooove you," Butch drawled as he reached a longing hand to the dancing Blossom on screen.

"So what kind of research did you say this was?" Boomer asked, leaning back on the couch and exhaling smoke.

"The kind of research that hopefully ends with me finding a competent partner that isn't her," Brick explained. "For business and personal reasons."

Boomer snorted. "'Personal?' What kind of—"

"Personal sanity reasons," Brick amended, frowning as he stared at the screen. "I'd feel a lot more gratified to discover she's nowhere near the level people make her out to be—Butch! For Christ's sake, quit licking the God damn screen!"

Buttercup looked up from a magazine as Blossom re-entered their bedroom via the window.

"Where've you been?"

Blossom shivered as she shucked her layers and said, "Just... out. Trying to..." She pursed her lips in thought. "Trying to figure out where Him went."

"What? Why now?"

"I thought Him might be able to... I dunno, tell us something about the boys."

"Seriously?" Buttercup snorted. "What more could you possibly want to know about them?"

Blossom considered going into the particulars of her questions—why she and Brick were so similar, so...

She shook her head and shrugged. "I don't really know. But I thought Him would have something, nonetheless." After a moment, she sat next to Buttercup on her bed. "Say."

"Say, what?" Buttercup tossed her magazine aside and laid back.

"You remember how we used to find Him? How we'd just... think of finding Him, or going to Him's lair, and suddenly we were just... there?"

Buttercup shuddered. "Eugh. Yeah, that was creepy."

"Tonight was the first time I'd tried it in a long time," Blossom went on. "You know, since Him disappeared. And I thought maybe Him was just... I dunno, something stupid, like on vacation, or taking a break for awhile."

"Probably still is." Buttercup shrugged. "Maybe Him just doesn't want to be disturbed."

Blossom turned to stare out their windows, narrowing her gaze at the clear night sky. "Or doesn't want to be found."

Morning was just as chilly as the past weekend's evenings, and Brick winced against the wind as he flew to school, a good two hours before classes started. In his hands he carried the stack of DVDs and the Company Members book he'd "borrowed" on Saturday.

There were only a few students milling about in the locker rooms; he slipped in through one entrance and darted a glance in the Dance Company's locker room to make sure it was empty. His loot had to go back to the Director's office at the other end of the room, right next to the studio.

He dashed in, fumbling in his pocket for a pin to pick the lock. Within seconds he was inside, flipping the light switch and returning the DVDs to the shelf behind Mrs. Olson's desk. He grimaced as he put each one back in its place, the memory of their contents leaving a bitter taste in his mouth.

Mrs. Morbucks had been right. Even pitted against the Dance Major, even against the Senior Lieutenants, Blossom was clearly the best dancer in the Company. He'd gone through performance after performance, scouring the stage for the best dancer every time. He recognized Cindy easily; she was a strong performer, and even Mel from the Dance class they'd visited wasn't bad. But the instant Blossom set foot onscreen she immediately drew one's attention—compared to the rest of them, she was remarkably graceful and talented. It was impossible to not look at her.

Brick returned the booklet to the shelf and stood, sighing. Of course Blossom would be the best. Like him and his brothers, the girls were practically an advanced species. Their senses were more acute than any average human being's, their bodies more adept. Naturally Blossom would shine as the Company's best dancer. It was like putting a diamond in a bed of coal.

He regretted the analogy instantly, making a face. Ugh. He'd just compared her to the most precious gem in the world. Even on a rational level, it made him sick to his stomach. He made his way to the door.

His superhearing suddenly picked up on steps in the hall, headed for the locker room, and he shrank back into the shadows against the wall, flicking the office lights off just as someone entered the room. He checked the clock on the wall; it was still practically two hours till the first class. Fuck, did the Company start practice this early?

There was a large window that looked out over the locker room, and he watched as the girl's shadow traveled across the blinds. The thought suddenly occurred to him that maybe it was Mrs. Olson, and if so, well fuck, but no, whoever it was had opened one of the lockers and was changing. Even if Mrs. Olson had to change, she'd drop her belongings in her office first, so it wasn't her.

He heard the locker door slam shut and held his breath as a figure passed the window. His eyes widened—Fuck. It was Blossom.

Shit! Shit shit shit shit shit! Of all the fucking people to come in early, of course it'd be the one with fucking superhearing. How the fuck could he sneak out now? It was a miracle she hadn't picked up on his breathing yet!

He mentally cursed himself and waited. Maybe someone else would come in, distract her by talking, and then he could zip out? Fuck, damn it, fuck fuck fuck. He listened as her steps echoed in the empty studio and music started filtering in through the wall. A glimmer of hope wrestled for purchase in his chest; perhaps she'd get wrapped up in the music, in practice, and then he could make his escape.

He waited a while, mentally counting the slowest five minutes in his life, then crept forward to peek through the blinds. He had a terrible view of the studio from this angle, but if he used his X-ray vision it'd be very easy for her to pick up on the sensation of being watched. She flitted in and out of his range of vision—she appeared to still be stretching.

He bit his lip as the song faded, then perked up as a faster song with a pounding bass line started. Good. With that cacophony of sound he could probably find a moment to at least open the door...

Another minute passed before he tried it, praying the hinges wouldn't squeal. Mercifully, the door opened with the smallest of clicks, and, after he was sure she hadn't heard, he swung it open a little wider and crept toward the opening. He chanced a look at the open door to the studio—he could hear her footsteps at one end of the floor, far from the door, and he withheld a sigh of relief and slipped through.

The song abruptly stopped, and he halted, not daring to move while there was absolute silence. Blossom's steps echoed from her end of the studio. He could see his reflection against the mirrors through the open studio door and prayed she wasn't standing where she could see him. It felt like an eternity before the next song started, and he began to sidle away, his eyes on the studio as his back hugged the wall.

Suddenly she was there, there in the doorway, blocking his reflection, and he froze, his brain frantically seeking out an explanation, an excuse, and a split second later he realized he didn't need an excuse, all he needed to do was glare and dismiss her and that would be enough, and a split second after that he realized her eyes were closed and she hadn't seen him at all.

She executed a perfect pirouette en pointe, remained on one foot as she folded into herself. Ballet. She was practicing ballet. He watched as she lowered herself to the floor, swept her legs around in a wide, graceful circle as her upper body twisted and arched towards the ceiling. No, not quite ballet—something more contemporary? She rose to her feet, her arms extended towards the mirror, and she pirouetted once more out of sight.

She really was an excellent dancer, and Brick shot down the urge he had to move closer so he could continue watching. Appalled with himself, he lifted his feet and floated out of the locker room, not daring to take a breath until he was a good yard or so down the outside hall.

Reccardi. Everything Mrs. Morbucks had said about him was true, Brick knew, particularly his affinity for the arts. And if Brick put together a performance piece with Blossom as his dancer, Reccardi wouldn't even think of refusing him a meeting.

Brick shook his head and braced himself for the cold air as he exited the building, eager for his morning coffee. First things first. Their first practice was today, after school. If that went well, then he could begin to consider doing a second dance with her.

"I've got conditions," Blossom announced, making sure to keep her distance from Brick as she stared at Mrs. Morbucks and Jim, their choreographer.

"So do I," Brick added. Blossom ignored him and pointed at her lower half.

"At no point are these legs—" and here she pointed in Brick's general direction, "—going around that waist."

"These hands?" Brick held up his arms, then put one on his chest and one on his rear. "Not touching either of these parts on her."

"I'm sure Mrs. Olson's told you I don't do overtly... sexual dance moves in general."

"Nothing unmasculine, like ballet or contemporary, I'm not into that."

"I don't want to draw attention to my, you know... feminine parts."

"Put me in tights and I'll be mopping your blood off the floor with your skin."

"He is not to remove a single article of clothing from my body for the routine. Not so much as a hat, or a scarf, nothing."

"No swing. I'm not going to go out there with a stupid ass grin plastered on my face. I've got a reputation to keep."

"Absolutely no grinding."

"And I swear to God, no swishy hip movements."

"What?" Blossom paused and turned from their stunned choreographer to issue a glare in her partner's direction. "'No swishy hip movements?' I saw you doing Latin at the party—"

"I don't give a hundred percent on hip movement," Brick clarified. "I'll do forty percent, tops. Any more than that and it starts looking faggy."

Blossom's jaw dropped and she choked, "How insensitive are you?"

He gave her a scornful look. "Excuse me? 'Wah wah, don't draw attention to the fact that I have tits and don't make me do any booty shaking?' You don't want to look like a lady, and neither do I."

Blossom launched into a shrill, offended rant. Unruffled, Mrs. Morbucks put a hand on Jim's shoulder and comforted, "Just wait till you get them dancing together. They're bloody magnificent."

"You're standing too close," Blossom complained.

"You're standing too stiff," Brick groused.

"You are both too stiff and neither of you are close enough," Jim griped, grabbing them both by the arm and maneuvering Brick's around her waist (he recoiled) and Blossom's around Brick's shoulder (she gagged). Jim sighed and lifted Brick's other hand, placing Blossom's loose hand in it. He then backed away. "Maybe you two should just work on holding that position for five seconds without screaming at each other." In the corner, Mrs. Morbucks flipped through a magazine, humming to herself.

A tense five seconds passed, during which Blossom and Brick glared death spikes at each other.

"Time," Mrs. Morbucks declared.

They practically shoved each other away, simultaneously avowing, "I quit—"

"Oh, look, Blossom," Mrs. Morbucks interrupted, holding up her magazine. "Starving children in Africa!"

Blossom halted.

Mrs. Morbucks flipped the page. "And Brick! It's your car."

Brick froze.

Mrs. Morbucks lowered the magazine, eyebrows lifted in curiosity. "Oh, I'm sorry, I interrupted. What were you saying?"

Butch flew home that afternoon in high spirits. This was the one time of day where the cold air felt good: after he'd sweated a storm during practice. The basketball coach had been near tears when he'd discovered Ms. Keane had banned Butch from their first game—this Thursday, in fact. Butch almost hadn't gone to practice—he didn't see the point when he wouldn't be playing anyway, but frankly, he enjoyed upstaging the rest of the team. Plus, it gave him prime time to antagonize Buttercup.

She was wearing down. Recently she'd taken on ignoring him, likely because her hot sister had ordered her to, but Butch could be a real shit when he wanted to be. He'd pelted her incessantly with the ball when the coaches' backs were turned, stolen her own when the girls' team was running drills, tripped her both to and from the locker room—that last time she'd been close, so close, he'd seen that infuriated look in her eyes...

She'd disappointed him, yet again. She'd turned away, taken off, glaring at him all the while. Glaring wasn't good enough. But each afternoon she got more pissed off, and it was only a matter of time now...

He kicked open the door to their apartment and greeted Boomer, legs splayed on the floor as he re-strung his guitar. A second later a bright red streak went shooting through the door, ostensibly on the phone as it yelled in Brick's voice, "Absolutely not, Mrs. Morbucks! One is all I can take! Cindy will be my partner for Reccardi's performance, I don't care if she's the best, there is no way I'm dancing with her for more than one performance—"

Butch's hair blew in his face and Boomer grabbed at his loose guitar strings as they went flying. Brick's door slammed in the process, and Butch and Boomer cocked their heads, curious about the yelling that continued on behind it.

"What's that all about?" Butch said, perplexed.

Boomer shrugged. "I'm guessing your girlfriend."

"You have no idea how many times I had to remind myself that this was for charity!" Blossom screamed as she trashed the simulated monsters. "He was so infuriating!"

Buttercup leaned over Bubbles, reaching for the training room's console. "Better kick the level up."

"My thoughts exactly," Bubbles agreed, watching as Buttercup twisted the dial. Her eyes darted to a livid Blossom, who, in her rage, was making much too easy work of the horde of giant uglies bearing down upon her. Bubbles bit her lip and considered. "Um, you might want to go a little higher than that. She's running out of things to kill."

Blossom blasted through a new onslaught of monsters with her eyebeams.

"He's even refused to remove that hideous, disgusting cap of his for the performance! Can you believe how unprofessional that is?"

"I'm going to go call the Professor and see when he's getting home," Bubbles whispered, and started to stand. Buttercup instantly grabbed her and yanked her back down.

"Don't you dare leave me with her when she's like this," she hissed.

"And Mrs. Olson and Mrs. Morbucks agreed!" Blossom swung a slew of virtual beasts into the virtual distance. "I couldn't believe it!"

"She's out of monsters again," Buttercup said in disbelief, reaching to turn the dial on the console.

Bubbles watched as the numbers climbed. "No, higher. Higher. Higher. Okay, yeah. That should be good."

Friday night came all too slowly for Bubbles. One sister couldn't stop griping about her new dance partner. The other was coming home with her muscles tense and teeth gnashing, and try as she might, Bubbles couldn't wrestle anything out of her. Neither was making it very pleasant to be at home since they were both wound up so tight, and the Professor wasn't in much because he kept getting called to the lab downtown. So her karaoke appointment with Kim and company came as a relief, a much anticipated opportunity to wind down and relax.

The fact that Will had refused to come wasn't even bothering her. Much. She'd be seeing him tomorrow anyway, she thought cheerfully to herself—one of the guys on the team had just gotten an athletic scholarship to his top college, and she'd see Will there, at the celebratory dinner...

Bubbles' smile faltered as she changed her clothes and thought of the cheer squad. They'd flat out ignored her for the past few weeks, and by this point Bubbles was beginning to think it was intentional. They'd all be there, ignoring her again... no, it couldn't be intentional. It had to be Bubbles' imagination...

She sighed, pulling on her jacket and zipping down the stairs. After a casual wave at her sisters—still tense, even after dinner—she took off, trying not to wish Will were coming so she would feel less bothered about tomorrow.

"There you are!" Kim greeted Bubbles with a hug as soon as she landed. "No Will?"

Bubbles shrugged nonchalantly and said, "He couldn't make it."

"Oh? Football practice or something?"

Bubbles' eyes flickered to Mike (Number 24 on the Varsity Team) as he chattered with the rest of the group.

"Or something," she said quietly.

"You oughtta drag him out one of these days," Kim said, though not in an unfriendly way. "He's never been out for karaoke with us."

"Yeah, well…" Bubbles rubbed at her jeans and tried the nonchalant shrug again. "Singing's not really his thing."

"Not really my thing, either," Mary laughed, joining in. "Or Bobby's, or Jackie's—"

"Hey!" Bobby and Jackie said in unified, indignant tones.

They all shared a laugh that was almost instantly broken by a voice over Bubbles' shoulder.

"What, did Bobby start singing already?"

Bobby delivered his second indignant cry of the night, while the rest of them turned to greet the newcomer.

"Hey Boomer!"

"You made it!"

"Boomer, Haley, what's up!"

Bubbles turned and took a step back to give the couple some breathing room.

"Hey," she said conversationally, masking her surprise. "Nobody told me you guys were coming!"

"Last minute thing," Mike answered for them. "Sorry, I must've mentioned it before you got here."

The slightly offended look Boomer was giving Bubbles said something along the lines of Is this a problem?

She crossed her arms and smiled slyly. "Can you actually sing without a band and your mighty axe to back you up?"

Surprise flitted briefly across his face before he smiled in kind. "Still got the power of my heartbreaking good looks, don't I?"

"Ha ha." Bubbles laughed with the rest of them as they began making their way inside.

Bubbles sat nestled between Mary and Jackie, nursing her soda as Haley wrapped up a bubblegum pop song from Britney Spears' prepubescent heyday that Boomer had insisted—insisted—she sing. After initially shrieking her protest, she gamely took up the mic and delivered a more than adequate rendition. For someone who never sang onstage, Bubbles noted, Haley didn't have that bad a voice.

The dark-haired bassist of The Galaxy Girls pretended to curtsy as the room applauded and cheered, then hastily waggled the microphone at her boyfriend.

"Come on, Boomer! You haven't been up yet!"

Boomer made a show of dragging himself up to his feet as his seatmates frantically skimmed the song list. Haley passed off the mic and giggled as he touched his forehead to hers, giving her a smile and a quick kiss before taking center stage.

Bubbles shifted uncomfortably as Haley sat down, ashamed for letting the exchange get to her. She'd tried not to notice when, after first entering the room, the couples had gelled as if they were one unit, leaving her, Mary, and Jackie clustered at the end of one couch. The only three in the group lacking significant others.

But the thing that really got to her was that, at least in Mary and Jackie's case, they didn't have a choice in the matter simply because they didn't have significant others. That made it easy for them. She felt lonely; Bubbles was a sensitive girl. And that made it all the harder to keep from eyeing Boomer and Haley with jealousy when they reached for each other, pressed close together in the dim room, a blissfully happy couple in every sense of the phrase.

She turned her gaze on the knees of her jeans as the group finally made their selection, cackling. Boomer had a similar reaction when the opening chords of one of those illustrious Queen hits from the 80s began assaulting the speakers. A showman first and a good sport second, he dove into it with an ardor appropriate of any Freddie Mercury wannabe. His enthusiastic sendup was infectious, and eventually Bubbles couldn't help but laugh and cheer with the rest of them, her misery briefly forgotten.

He took a protracted bow as the room exploded into applause and cheering. As he rose, he caught Bubbles' attention and grinned.

"What did I tell you?"

She laughed back. "Not sure about the heartbreaking good looks, but your singing's not bad."

"'Not bad?' 'Not bad?'"

She shrugged apologetically.

"Geez, you're demanding." He gave a good-natured laugh and handed the mic to Kim before returning to Haley.

"Oh no," Kim said automatically, holding the microphone away from her at arm's length. "I've already gone."

"Bubbles hasn't," Mary helpfully offered, playfully shoving the girl in question.

"I'm still finishing my soda," Bubbles pointed out, punctuating this with a loud sip.

Mary responded by grabbing the bottle and chucking it in the trash. "Oh, look at that! I just saw Bubbles finish her soda! And it didn't involve me ripping it out of her hands and throwing it away for her! Well, I guess it's her turn now!"

"Guys," Bubbles resisted, but the room wasn't having any of it.

"Everyone else has sung except you!"

"Why do you always act so embarrassed?"

"You've got a great voice!"

Mary, Jackie, and Mike dragged Bubbles to her feet and planted her at the front of the room as these cries of adulation peppered the air. Kim got up and passed the microphone to Bubbles, who took it reluctantly.

"Okay, so what am I going to sing?" she mumbled.



"We just did Britney…"

"Who was that chick from the 80s? Tiffany?"

"We just did 80s too!"


"Yes!" Several people high-fived one another. Bubbles gawked at them.

"You guys! Her voice is off the scale! Like, literally!"

"I've totally heard you go that high before, Bubbles."

"But I haven't even warmed up!" she protested, yet the song had already started, sealing her fate.

As she gave in and lifted the mic, humming experimentally, she looked over the room. Save for Boomer and Haley, everyone's attention was rooted on her. Boomer was whispering something in Haley's ear, or nibbling it, or something, and Haley squirmed and giggled.

Boomer was as affectionate with Haley as Bubbles was with Will, and she wished Will had come so she wouldn't be feeling lonely, wouldn't be guiltily watching other couples in his absence.

More than anything, though, as she closed her eyes and let her hum build up to a full-throated vocalization, she wished Will were here so Boomer could see that he wasn't the only super-powered being in this world who knew how to be carefree, happy, and in love.

"See you guys Monday! Drive safe!" Bubbles waved as the crowd slowly dispersed under the stars. Before she could take off, however, Kim grabbed her by the arm and maneuvered her away, assuring Bobby that she'd only be a minute.

"Walk with me," Kim muttered, and Bubbles obliged, blinking in surprise all the while.

"Um, okay…"

When the shadow of the building had fallen over them, Kim stopped and leaned in conspiratorially. "What's up with you and Boomer?"

Bubbles jumped back, scandalized. "What?"

"Shhh!" Kim hissed, and continued in a quieter tone, "There's something going on with you two. You kept staring at him and Haley—"

"Okay, really, they were an incredibly affectionate and very distracting couple—"

"—And he kept staring at you."

This was an unexpected revelation. Bubbles eyed Kim warily. "Are you serious?"

"I am the epitome of seriousness right now," her friend whispered. "I mean, he wasn't paying much attention to anyone but Haley at the beginning of the evening, until you got up to sing and opened your mouth."

Bubbles crooked an arm on each hip, obviously disbelieving everything Kim had said about seriousness and the like.

"Are you serious?" she repeated, dryly.

"I was sitting right next to them! The second you started singing, he immediately stopped necking his girlfriend and couldn't take his eyes off you!"

The horror on Bubbles' face should've been enough indication of her non-involvement in this non-relationship. She hoped Kim was making note of that.

"I didn't—Are you serious? I mean, I would've noticed..."

Kim crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. "No offense, Bubbles. I mean, you're good with people, but you aren't exactly Sherlock Holmes when it comes to your powers of observation."

Bubbles' shoulders slumped. "Okay, I know it's true, but ouch."

When she had finished her song, the cheering hadn't been anything out of the ordinary—the crowd was well-aware from previous karaoke excursions that Bubbles could indeed sing. And the open-mouthed reaction of the two newcomers—Boomer and Haley—wasn't that out of the ordinary either, considering most people reacted that way when they realized what everybody else in the room already knew.

"That was incredible! Where'd you learn to sing like that?" Haley had exclaimed, and Bubbles had responded with a shy smile, a modest shrug. She couldn't remember Boomer saying anything, and if he had been staring, she'd had no idea. Fueled by the exhilaration that always overcame her when she sang, she had resolved well into her performance that she was here to have a good time and not to sulk about Will.

So the rest of the evening was spent laughing and joking with friends rather than staring covetously at the demonstrative couple in the corner.

"I had no idea," she said conclusively, and sighed again.

This didn't necessarily mean anything, though. Just that Boomer had been really blown away by her voice. It didn't mean anything besides that, right?


"I'm in love," Boomer announced as he flung open the door. Brick and Butch barely batted an eye.

"… Hello?"

"Yeah, yeah, Haley's super hot. I totally wish I was doing her, and I totally could, but I won't out of respect for my pussy-brother's fragile, delicate heart," Butch said, waving the remote lazily at him. Boomer wandered over to the kitchen and began rummaging for a soda.

"Hilarious. But I wasn't talking about Haley." He shot a look at Brick, who was seated at the kitchen table and perusing his AP World Studies textbook. "Brick?"

"Are you asking if I'd like to venture a guess?" Brick said in a bored voice, not looking up from his text.

"Guess away," Boomer invited, popping the top of his soda.

"You caught sight of that vintage Gibson Invader sitting in the display window of Guitar God," Brick offered, flipping a page.

"Wrong! I—wait, they've got a Gibson Invader?... Fuck you, stop distracting me." He paused to make a mental note to stop by Guitar God the next day and drool at his new friend. "Anyway, you're both wrong." He waited for them to ask why.


He made a face, then said carelessly, "My fickle heart is now the property of a certain…" He paused dramatically, then said, in a barely audible voice, "…blue-eyed, blonde-haired, superheroine…"

Finally, he had their attention. Butch was looking at him now from his perch on the couch, face twisted in astonishment. Brick had paused, mid-page turn, and Boomer felt icicles forming between them as Brick turned a grim eye in his direction.

"Otherwise known as Bubbles," he finished with a glint in his eye, and moved to join their leader at the table.

"You aren't serious," Brick said darkly, his voice frosting over the very air. Boomer waved it away as he sipped his soda.

"I'm in love," he repeated. "She sings, and flowers bloom. Stars fall from the sky. The sun starts revolving around the Earth. The Earth starts revolving around the moon. The moon—"

"I get it," Brick said sharply. "But you still aren't serious—"

Butch interrupted by slamming an open magazine down on the center of the table.

"You see this?" he queried Boomer, voice hysterical. Boomer and Brick both glanced at the page. Butch was indicating the infamous shoe ad depicting a stiletto-heeled Blossom from the neck down, the fabric of her white blouse and A-line skirt hugging her slender form like a desperate lover.

Brick groaned and covered his eyes as his sex-crazed brother took out a Magic Marker and began drawing outlandish arrows on the page.

"Hips. Boobs. Legs. Oh God, her legs. Neckline." He punctuated each of these with a wide circle, then held it up for Boomer to see. "You get that? This is the sort of thing you fall in love with. Not this—" He flipped two pages to Bubbles' ad, where, from the neck down, the blonde girl could be seen hugging a puppy to her chest as she walked three more, clad in what was now the cutest variation on a Catholic schoolgirl outfit he'd ever seen.

"But this," Butch said, flipping two pages back to the diagrammed Blossom ad. Boomer calmly took the magazine and marker from his brother and flipped back to Bubbles' page, where he started doodling hearts all around her.

Butch flung his arms up into the air. "Hopeless."

"You're going to stand there and tell me Bubbles isn't the damned cutest thing you ever saw," Boomer said carelessly, coloring in his hearts.

"Cute, yeah! But clearly you are missing the whole Blossom setting the world's loins ablaze with the perfection that is her body—"

"Until she opens the imperfection that is her mouth," Brick interrupted shortly. He lowered his hand and turned his attention back to Boomer. "Butch's intentions are all fucked up, but he's got the right general idea: You aren't serious."

"I think her body's adorable," Boomer shrugged, focusing on the hint of a smile at the very top of the page. It cut off just so he could glimpse part of her open mouthed grin. He pointed at her throat. "Besides, this is the part I'm really interested in."

"Are you a fucking vampire or something?" Butch wrenched his marker away.

"Her voice," Boomer went on, eyes glazing over at the memory. "When she started to sing, flowers—"

"Okay, yeah, we got the memo," Brick said, silencing his brother with a hand. "Flowers fucking stars fucking Earth. But the reason I know you're not serious is the stone cold fact that she. Is. The. Enemy."

Boomer rolled his eyes. "Not anymore. And anyway, you're being a bit melodramatic."

"Is. Was the enemy. Whatever. But this violates all sorts of protocols—"

"What 'protocols?' You didn't say anything about wanting to date one—"

"I said not to engage in anything that would draw unwanted attention!" Brick snapped, directing a brief glare at Butch, who suddenly became very interested in the year and make of his marker. "You, you're lucky your God damn food fight didn't draw any unwanted attention! And you? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure falling for one of them will draw unwanted attention!"

"Dude, Butch doesn't make it a secret that he thinks Blossom is the hottest piece of ass to walk the planet!"

"Oh God, yes she is," Butch moaned, swaying a little.

"But I don't have to worry about Butch when he says he's in love, because he isn't being serious!"

"Okay, okay," Boomer muttered. "Fair enough." A thought occurred to him, and he directed a thoughtful look at Brick. "Wait. 'Unwanted attention?' This from the guy who's dancing in a very public fundraising event—"

The shock that entered Brick's face was quickly replaced by fury. "That is not the same thing—"

"But just because you don't enjoy her company makes it okay to—"

"Believe it or not, it's actually kind of work-related," Brick seethed.

"Except we're on vacation," Boomer sang, his voice climbing to a falsetto for the last two words.

"And I'm getting a car out of my deal."

Boomer shrugged. "And I could get a cute girl out of mine."

"She is not cute—"

"Hey! Isn't that, like, a matter of opinion—"

"Blossom's cute," Butch interjected.

"Shut up," Brick snarled. "Boomer. Look. Here is the problem. You get really... worked up about shit. Like, personally invested."

Boomer's shoulders slumped. "Brick, seriously—"

"I'm serious," Brick interrupted. "And so when I hear you say you're in love with this girl—"

"Come on!" Boomer exclaimed.

"I know you—"

"Oh, fuck off, you like to think you know me and Butch, but—"

"Trust me, Boomer, I know you," Brick said in a dangerous voice.

Boomer bit his lip, glaring. Finally he took a deep breath and sighed, closing his eyes.

"Brick. Listen. You... you're right, I can get a little... too into things." He opened his eyes and looked his brother square in the eye. "But this is different, and here's why: we're only here until June. I know whatever fucking relationship I get into is going to end in a few months, and honestly? I'm cool with that. Whatever, you know? I'm just trying to have fun, you know, dick around, whatever." He grinned. "And come on, you know I like to fuck shit up sometimes."

Brick sighed. "We are not here to 'fuck shit up—'"

"I didn't mean literally. I mean I'm trying to enjoy this vacation," Boomer said firmly. "And trust me: when I say I'm in love with her, this is coming from a... hormonal teenage boy. I mean, how many hormonal teenage boys say this and mean it?" After a moment, he added, "Except Butch."


"Butch, he's got a point." Brick settled back in his seat, but was not entirely reassured.

"I've got a point, too," Butch said, and flipped back to Blossom's ad. "A point for her. And by point I mean—"

"We know what you fucking mean," Boomer griped.

"Urgh." Brick banged his head on the table. "You have terrible taste in women."

Butch shoved at Brick. "You can't claim I have terrible taste when I'm lusting after something as fine as this." He started to write Brick would totally tap this ass next to Blossom's hips—

"Gimme that," Brick snapped, grabbing at the magazine. One of the pages flipped in the process, and he did a double take. His shoulders slumped, and with an exasperated sigh, he turned back to Butch.

"Does psycho girl know that you've given her double H tits here?" he asked dryly, holding up Buttercup's ad. Butch had, indeed, doodled a humongous rack underneath what one could only assume was a trademark Buttercup scowl.

"What she doesn't know won't kill her."

"But what she finds out might kill you," Brick retorted.

Boomer took the magazine back and flipped over to Bubbles' page one last time, an idyllic smile on his face as he noted the clouds of hearts surrounding her. He could feel Brick's wary eyes on him again, and without making eye contact, he snorted.

"Come on, Brick. It's fucking high school. I'll have a new love interest in a week."

With a defeated sigh, Brick finally relaxed in his chair and returned to his textbook.

"It is a testament to our lifelong brotherly bond that I am choosing to trust you." He gave Boomer one last glare. "Don't disappoint me."

The weekend was kind to the girls. Blossom and Buttercup eventually ran out of angry energy, and at dinner on Saturday Bubbles wound up flanked on either side by Will and Mike, who was a kind friend and always easy to talk to. And after mulling it over, Bubbles dismissed her conversation with Kim as paranoia on her friend's behalf.

Monday, then, was a rude awakening.

Brick had his first period free and wound up being pulled into Blossom's Dance IV class to watch them practice their routine.

Buttercup walked into English to find everyone with a photocopied page of her shoe ad. Butch's photocopied page of her shoe ad.

And Bubbles. The subject of the conversation with Kim that she'd shrugged off turned out to be more than just a passing concern. And the entire school seemed to know about it.

She didn't realize it immediately. The first major clue had been running into Haley in the girls' bathroom, who greeted her with a hurt glare. The second major clue happened the instant she reached her locker after first period.

Boomer was leaning against it, and he beamed as she warily approached.

"Hey," he said affably.

"Uh... hi," she said slowly, darting glances at him as she fiddled with her locker combination. He didn't say anything after that, and she tried to ignore what Kim had said as she struggled for conversation. "Hey, I saw Haley earlier... is everything okay?"

"Oh, we broke up," Boomer shrugged.

Bubbles' eyes widened and she gaped at him. "What?"

He hunched his shoulders up. "I mean, I broke up with her. If you want to get technical about it."

"What... what for? You guys looked so... so happy on Friday—"

"Yeah, it was fun while it lasted," Boomer said, staring off into the distance and grinning. He turned his attention back to her. "Did you have fun?"

Bubbles blinked, suddenly aware of how quiet it seemed in the hall for a passing period, how everyone's eyes seemed to be on her and Boomer.

"Um... yeah, I did..."

The smile on Boomer's face widened. "Good."

She granted him a nervous smile, then closed her locker. "Well, I guess I'll see you in—"

"Algebra II? You mean our next class?"

Bubbles had to suppress her surprise; it'd completely slipped her mind that they shared second period. Then she was wondering why she was nervous. Then she realized it was because he was talking to her, and Kim had said things, and Haley had been upset, and everyone was staring at them—

"Can I walk with you?" he asked, his eyes bright.

"No, I'm sorry, I don't think that's a good idea..." She instantly shook her head, glancing around the hall. His brow furrowed and he cocked his head.

"But we're heading in the same direction. To the same class, even."

"I know, I know," she said hurriedly, starting to walk and feeling dismayed when he followed. "I just... no, I don't think that's a good idea... I mean, it's really nice of you to offer, Boomer, but..."

He was walking beside her, matching her quick pace. "I understand. I probably make you nervous, since, you know, I was a real prick when I was a kid and tried to, well, kill you. Sorry about that, by the way."

"Yeah, okay," Bubbles said distractedly, nodding and keeping her eyes trained on the floor.

"Say, you want to go out with me sometime?"

Bubbles stopped and whirled to look at him, agog. "Wh-what?"

"You know, like a date. Dinner, movie, concert, whatever, I'm game—"

"Excuse me, but I have a boyfriend!" she cried, indignant.

"Ooh." He sucked in a breath and winced. "You think he'd mind?"

Bubbles was thoroughly repulsed. "I mind!"

"Look, why don't I just give you some time to think about it—"

"I do not need time to 'think about this,'" Bubbles hissed, and resumed walking.

Boomer picked up his pace and followed her. "I get it, this is a bad time—"

She scoffed, "Yeah? You think?" She stopped again and stared at him, not bothering to mask her disdain.

He blinked for a second, then snapped to attention and held up his hands in surrender.

"Right! Not walking you to class. Sorry. I'll just, you know, take the long way around. Even though it's like, two doors away." He grinned and started backtracking. "So, I'll see you in class."

Bubbles shook her head and stalked away.

"Think about it!" he called after her as she shoved open the door.

Robin raised an eyebrow.

"He broke up with Haley over you?"

"Looks like it," Bubbles muttered, picking at her lunch.

"You sure are letting it get to you," Buttercup said lightly, but she was glaring in Boomer's direction. Though Bubbles wasn't sure whether it was because he was sitting with Mitch and the boys, or because Butch had just joined them.

"How can I not let it get to me?" Bubbles moaned. "I just basically ruined Haley's life!"

Robin patted her friend affectionately. "Not her life, sweetie. One short high school relationship. There's a difference."

"Not in high school," Bubbles muttered, then winced. "I feel eyes. Is he looking over here?"

"Yes," Buttercup said venomously. Her sister buried her face in her hands.

"God, I hope Will doesn't know yet. He'll throw a fit."

"Understandably," Buttercup said, turning back to her food. A sudden flash of metal sparked in the air, and Buttercup instantly caught a fork a split second before it hit her in the head. "I saw that, asshole!" she screeched at Butch, livid. Butch cocked his head innocently.

"One of these days I'm going to fucking kill that guy," Buttercup snarled under her breath, stabbing into her food with renewed vigor.

"You girls sure are getting a lot of unwanted attention these days," Robin observed. "I wonder how Blossom's holding up."

"I wonder if Blossom's heard," Bubbles said distractedly, grimacing as Boomer caught her eye and smiled.

On the days where Blossom wasn't spending lunch in the studio—which were happening less frequently since the small row with Buttercup—she followed Brick out from their last class before lunch to wherever he happened to go. Naturally, neither enjoyed the other's company, exchanging glares instead of words as they studied and ate in silence.

Today, though, she was feeling exceptionally upset. Not just because of the dancing, but because of something she'd overheard in the hall during the passing period...

So she broke their quiet habits and stalked across the courtyard to him, making sure to block his sunlight as she came to a stop by his side. He gave a heavy, exaggerated sigh and looked up. "What."

"What does your brother want with my sister?" she demanded.

"I don't like to get into the details with either of my siblings when it comes to girls," Brick said simply.

"Maybe you ought to," she said, her voice low and threatening.

"Maybe you ought to mind your own God damn business." His tone reflected hers to a T.

"Language." Those pink eyes narrowed. "Tell him to stay away from her."

Brick's lip curled. "Tell him yourself. Now why don't you get out of my fucking sight—"

"Language," Blossom hissed—

"—because Christ knows we've spent more than enough time together as it is," Brick finished viciously.

It was a long time before Blossom stiffly huffed away and settled back at her end of the courtyard.

Bubbles adjusted her backpack as she made her way to the school entrance and the final bell of the day rang. Will was already hovering at the door, ribbing his teammates and laughing as they passed an old football around, and she couldn't help but smile as he caught sight of her and flashed her a grin.


She giggled as the guys parted to include her. "Hi to you too, cutie."

He took her hand as the group of them muscled their way through the after school crowd and out the doors. She leaned into him and sighed, relief washing over her as her eyes fluttered shut. Obviously he hadn't caught wind of Boomer's misguided affections yet, or else he'd be—

"Good thing your girl's only got eyes for you, huh Will?"

Bubbles' eyes flew open as her stomach bottomed out. Will caught the football his friend tossed to him and gave his other buddy a quizzical look.

"What's that mean?"

She tried to shoot meaningful looks at the rest of them, but they barreled on, oblivious.

"Are you kidding me?"

"You haven't heard about that guy yet?"

Now he had stopped, his grip tightening on Bubbles' mitt. He glanced at her. "What are they talking about?"

"It's nothing, Will," she said hastily. "Just some dumb rumor—"

"Hey, there he is!"

Bubbles could've punched someone. And boy, did she want to, as she winced and followed everybody's gaze to Boomer a good distance away, chatting up a storm with his band around the flagpole.

He hadn't noticed them yet. And Bubbles was hoping to keep it that way.

She began tugging on Will's arm. "Come on, sweetie, let's just go—"

"Hold up." To her dismay, he shook her off, and turned his attention to the rest of the guys. "Him? One of those guys with the superpowers?"

"Man, you should've heard him! I was sitting behind him in English, and he kept going on about how cute your girl is and how sweet he is on her and Bubbles this, Bubbles that—"

"Guys, stop." Bubbles shouldered her way back into the circle and made Will look her in the eye. "I don't care what he says, Will, I'm not…" She trailed off as his eyes drifted back to Boomer, anger slowly building in his gaze. He wasn't listening. She reached for him and said desperately, "Will, don't—"

To her horror he snapped his arm back and flung his football at Boomer. It arced beautifully in the air, sailing above the heads of other students before thumping into the back of Boomer's blonde nest of hair.

"Will!" Horrified, Bubbles immediately started yanking at his arm.

Based on the force with which Will had thrown the ball, any normal student would've been out cold. Boomer, whose head had barely twitched forward, turned around, brow knit in confusion as he scanned the air and swatted dubiously at an imaginary fly.

"Hey! Asshole!" Will bellowed, causing several students—including Boomer—to turn in his direction. "Yeah, you know your name, don't you?"

"Will, no!" Bubbles pleaded, gripping his arm. "You don't know what he could—"

"Is this piece of shit here yours?" Boomer called out, having noticed the football wobbling at his feet. He picked it up and examined it shrewdly. He looked back at Will, eyes glimmering as they skimmed over Bubbles. "You got some nerve, man."

"You're the one who's making passes at my girl," Will shot back. "You got any idea who you're messing with?"

The look that passed over Boomer's face was incredulous. Soon enough, though, it settled into something darker, and Bubbles felt the air go cold as he said quietly, "I think you've got it backwards, friend."

The ball was suddenly a blur of blue flame, hurtling like a bullet towards Will, and Bubbles shoved him out of the way, bracing herself as she caught it, concrete piling up behind her feet as the force of it propelled her back.

She stared at the thing in her hands as the blue flames fizzled out, then looked up, jaw set and furious. Students were screaming and cheering and widening into a circle of onlookers. Will had already scrambled up and was stalking towards an unfazed Boomer.


She flung the ex-ball aside and streaked towards them, dodging the other students. Boomer was shifting his weight, head cocked to the side as he studied her boyfriend.

Bubbles could see Will's hand reaching out to clench Boomer by the collar, at the same instant Boomer lifted his…

"Don't touch him!" she shrieked, zipping over the rest of the crowd as she snatched Will's hand and shoved Boomer away. In her urgency she jerked Will hard enough for him to buckle to the ground, and Boomer was flung back against the flagpole, wincing as he dented the metal. He blinked and groaned.

She dropped Will's hand and, ignoring the gawking onlookers, stepped closer to Boomer, glaring at him as he steadied his footing. He shook his head to clear it, then looked up at her and beamed.

"Hey, beautiful."

"Don't you dare," she snapped, and at the look on her face his grin dissolved. "Listen. I don't care what you say to me, or anyone else, but if you so much as come near my boyfriend again—"

"Now hold up, I didn't start—"

"Yes you did!" she screamed, and he clamped his mouth shut. "You're the one who started this stupid rumor—"

"Wha—'rumor?'" he sputtered. "You think I'm lying about liking you—"

"You don't like me! You're saying these stupid things to make me angry, to make Will angry, because you're a bad person and you do bad things!"

"Wait a minute—"

"I will not wait a minute!" she screeched, and several students slapped their hands over their ears as her piercing voice reverberated in the air. "I don't care what you say to me, I don't care what you do to me, but if you start on anybody I love, I swear I'm going to make you regret it! So don't touch him! Don't you dare touch him, okay?"

"Bubbles, I didn't—"

"Okay?" she interrupted, voice shrill and eyes wild with panic. She could feel herself threatening to choke on her words and explode into hysterical sobs at any second, but she held her ground and didn't take her eyes off of Boomer.

He swallowed. "Okay," he said quietly. "Okay."

At his concession her expression slackened, as well as her resolve not to cry, and before Boomer or the rest of the school could see her crumple she turned, scooped Will up, and zipped off.

An eerie, uneasy silence fell over the crowd. Somewhere in the distance, Butch punctuated it with a loud cackle.

Bubbles had only managed to make it a few blocks before she had to stop; she was so shaken up. She dropped Will as gently as she could on the sidewalk and sank to the ground herself beside him, hugging her knees to her chest and biting her lip to fight back tears.

He had threatened someone she loved. Someone she cared about. Someone whose life meant nothing to him and more than anything to her. How could he turn around and claim he liked her? That he actually had feelings for her?

Will shifted, and she instantly stood, blinking furiously.

"Will? Will, are you okay?"

"I'm fine," he said, his voice brusque. Bubbles hesitated, expecting him to continue. After some time, she stepped closer and reached for his hand.

"Are you sure? You're not—"

The sudden glare he gave her stung almost as much as the sight of him snatching his hand away.

"Quit mothering me! I said I'm fine!"

He turned away from her and stalked away. Away. She felt that sudden fear drop down on her like a dead weight, that overwhelming, suffocating sensation of an impending relationship-breaking fight stinging like arrows in her heart.

"Will!" She started after him, scrubbing at her face to keep the tears at bay.

"What," he grumbled, not turning, not waiting. She swallowed and, instead of reaching for him, fell to a soft pace behind him.

"It's just… you don't seem fine," she whispered.

"Yeah, well, really? I'm not." He stopped abruptly, and she stumbled a bit in her effort not to run into him. "You didn't have to do that."

She blinked. "What?"

"I would've been fine," he clarified, finally turning and looking her in the eye. "I can fend for myself, Bubbles. I don't need you to take care of me, superpowers or not."

Her jaw dropped, mind flashing back to that grin, that sinister little grin that had spread across Boomer's face as he reached for Will—

"What?" she shrieked. "Are you crazy? How can you—"

"I would've been fine!"

"No you wouldn't have! You don't have any idea what he's like, what he could—what he could do to you—"

"Well, tell you what! Stay out of it next time and let me find out for myself!"

"Will, you don't understand—"

"I can walk home myself," he snapped in an ugly voice, and she stopped, stunned and hurt as she watched him stalk further and further away from her.

You don't understand, she thought to herself, and through the tears in her eyes she couldn't even see him at all.

"Come on, Bubbles, cheer up," Buttercup teased as they flew to school the following morning. "You know what his complaint is? That you're basically more awesome than him."

"Mmph." The look on Bubbles' face was significantly less than awesome. "You're only saying that because you don't think he's awesome anyway."

"He isn't," Buttercup said automatically, her tone grave. "Especially after saying something like that to his girlfriend."

"He was just upset." Bubbles sighed and rubbed her eyes as they landed. "Look, um, I'll see you later." Without waiting for her sister to respond, Bubbles darted off into the building, losing herself in the crowd. After dumping her books in her locker, she made her way to the hall where Will's locker resided and waited. It wasn't long before she saw him coming her way, and she instantly straightened and tried not to look like a wounded puppy.

"Hey," Will said quietly.

A brave smile. This was easy, all she had to do was say, "Morning—"

Bubbles felt her face crumple and she fell against him, biting back the oncoming tears.

"Whoa, whoa," he said in a soothing voice, stroking her hair. "Chill out, it's fine—"

Bubbles mumbled something into his shirt, and he gently pushed her back.

"What? You were all... you know, muffled..."

"I said, 'Please don't break up with me,'" Bubbles repeated, her voice small and her eyes glistening. "I'm sorry."

He gave her an amused, heartstopping smile. "Why would I want to break up with you?"

"Because I'm a bad girlfriend," she whimpered, looking at the ground.

He laughed and hugged her to one side as he opened his locker.

"Baby, you're the best girlfriend ever."

"Really?" She allowed herself a small smile but sniffed.

"Really." He fished one book out of his bag and tossed the rest in his locker before shutting it. She sighed and leaned on him as they started to walk.

"How am I the best girlfriend ever?" she wheedled, a mischievous glint in her eye.

"Hm. Well, you're super cute..."

"Yeah? Oh, wait, turn this way, I left my choir stuff in my locker—"

"And you're a great singer..."

Bubbles laughed as they reached her locker and she started rummaging for her music. "Yeah...?"

"And you worry about me, like all the time..."

"Walk me to Choir?" Bubbles beamed, linking her arm in Will's as they started navigating the crowded halls again.

"And you also look super hot in your Cheerleading outfit... Um, I mean, looked..."

She laughed nervously, suppressing a wince.

"Of course, you look super hot all the time." Will punctuated this with a kiss to her forehead. They were nearing the music hall. Bubbles squeezed his hand.

"Say, Will... does it bother you that I dropped—" She cut off as they rounded the corner, spotting Boomer and Brick not five feet away.

Will's grip on her hand tensed as Boomer's eyes drifted from his brother to the couple. Brick turned and glanced in their direction, his expression grim.

Bubbles bit her lip and tugged. "Come on, Will."

"See you, Boomer," she heard Brick say as they approached, though it sounded more like an order—

"Hey," Boomer reached to touch her as they passed, and Will instantly spun Bubbles out of reach, clenching her hand.

She glimpsed Brick disappearing into the crowd and was slightly disappointed he didn't stay to mediate. Then she realized if Boomer and Will got started and it came to choosing sides, Brick had no reason to ally with her...

"What do you want," Will demanded, narrowing his eyes at Boomer.

"Will," she started, beseeching him—

"I didn't come here to pick a fight," Boomer stated loudly, holding his hands up in surrender. "I wanted to…" He paused, a grimace on his face, and Bubbles could've sworn she saw his eyes twitch briefly in Brick's direction. "Apologize." He looked up. "Though I am gonna say I wasn't the only dumbass out there yesterday."

Bubbles could sense Will's shoulders going taut, and she gripped at his hand, her attention torn between the two of them.

"I'm not going to lie and say I'm not a little bit jealous of you, man," Boomer continued, and suddenly Bubbles was fervently thinking that of all the superpowers she had, being able to scream into other people's brains with your own brain would've been a really handy one to have. She had to settle for glaring daggers at Boomer, which, miraculously enough, appeared to work. "But I'll back off."

He gave them a thin smile and saluted them before turning away and joining the rest of the school traffic.

The two of them blinked.

"Huh," Will said thoughtfully, his expression still suspicious.

Bubbles didn't blame him.

Gym was spent out on the track, and Bubbles watched Boomer out of the corner of her eye as the class warmed up. Neither of them really had to, but she did a few perfunctory stretches before squaring her shoulders and approaching him.

He was going through the stretching motions too, but paused as she came up. He smiled.

"What's up?" His open expression took her by surprise; she'd expected him to look more... bitter, or disappointed.

"Hey, I just... wanted to thank you for this morning." She took a deep inhale and sucked her lips in between her teeth, nodding.

"Yeah, that was pretty classy of me, wasn't it?" he said innocently, grinning. He stood and looked at her expectantly.

She chewed her lip and hunched her shoulders up. "So..."

"Was that it?"

"Yeah, pretty much." Bubbles nodded.

"Oh." He blinked, looking surprised.


"No, I just thought you were coming over to apologize yourself," he said airily, waving it off.

It was her turn to look surprised. "What? Me? For what?"

He stifled a snort; she wasn't sure if he was offended or not. "For calling me a bad person."

She tilted her head, eyeing him as he crossed his arms and waited.

"I don't... I don't know if I can yet," she said slowly, then shook her head vigorously. "I mean, no offense, I just... I'm not so sure I'm wrong about that yet."

He looked skyward and shrugged. "Ouch. But fair enough." He scrutinized her for a second. "I did say I was sorry about trying to kill you, right?"

"You did, thank you," she affirmed, nodding.

"Ah, well, I've done all I can, then." The coach was starting to herd the students to the starting line to time their mile runs.

Bubbles held up a hand in peace. "Well, I'll see you."

"I hope so," he said as she started to turn, and she paused to give him a warning glance. He looked amused. "Don't tell me you think I'm totally giving up on you?"

"What—" She gaped at him. "You were lying?"

"This morning? No way. There's kind of a difference between apologizing for attacking your boyfriend and apologizing for liking you—"

"You said you'd back off!" she hissed, trying not to draw the attention of the other students.

"I said I'd back off," he affirmed, nodding. "Didn't say I'd give up, though, did I?"

Bubbles blinked, stunned. Finally she turned and took her place behind the rest of the students at the starting line.

"That's what I mean when I say I'm not sure you're any good," she muttered. He leaned in, close enough for his breath to disturb the hair at the nape of her neck.

"I don't care what you think as long as it's about me," he sang in a low voice as the coach fired his cap gun into the air.

The past week had not been fun. The past month, in fact, had not been fun. Brick wasn't sure why, but for being the shortest month of the year, February sure had taken its time.

Last week, he thought, ignoring Blossom's eyes searing holes into him as the World Area Studies teacher wrapped up the lesson. Next week would be the first one of March, which took it down to three months before he was out of here, hopefully for good. Three months. Three months.

"Thanks for a great discussion today, class," the teacher said, giving Brick and Blossom a significant, satisfied look. The two of them smiled thinly and nodded. "See you next Tuesday!"

Finally, the bell rang, and Brick swung out of the classroom with Blossom on his heels.

"Excuse me," she hissed as she strode up, keeping up with him step for step. "But maybe you'd like to explain exactly what happened back there."

"What garbage are you spewing now?" Brick snorted, eyes straight ahead as he shouldered through the crowds. She scoffed, matching his pace.

"More like evidence. You and your brothers drop back into town, completely unexpected after years and years of absence without so much as a backstory, spout off about 'bigger things—'"

"Oh, please, are you still on about that—"

"And in a simple high school class discussion, start expounding upon war strategy and Machiavellian principles—"

"First off, The Prince is on the required reading list for any high school English class," Brick said shortly. "Second, it is a college level course we're both in, so you'd think this type of discussion wouldn't be discouraged between students who are presumably intellectually superior to the average high school student—"

"Intellectually superior or no!" Blossom grabbed Brick by the arm and spun him around to face her, bringing them both to a dead stop in the middle of the hallway, much to the surrounding students' chagrin. "Do you really expect me to believe that any high school student spends as much time as you clearly do studying and scrutinizing exactly what actions one would take to come out the victor in full-fledged international warfare?"

Brick narrowed his eyes at her. "Well, clearly you haven't been surrounding yourself with the particular caliber of high school student that—"

"There you go, insulting my home again!" Blossom snapped.

"Maybe if you stopped annoying me with your ridiculous claims about being 'up to something,' I'd stop insulting you!" Brick snapped back. "But I'm finding it pretty impossible at this point!"

"You're one to talk about impossibilities! Because I don't see any possible way you aren't scheming or plotting, the way you carry on and flaunt your knowledge about—"

"Maybe it's a hobby! Maybe I like to read! Much in the way you like to play the part of the Noble Hero and pander to the press—"

"Taking potshots at someone who makes an effort to better this world—"

"And build up her public profile in the interest of primetime news coverage—"

This was quickly escalating into an all out shoutfest in the middle of the hallway, and now kids were slowing as they approached the pair, instinctively opening into a circle to gawk and stare. Blossom and Brick barely acknowledged their presence.

Blossom blew her hair out of her face, her pretty features flushed with anger. "You aren't exactly in any position to be critical—"

"Of someone who's done nothing but criticize me for engaging in activity that I'm not actually engaging in!" Brick was seething, no trace of his typically aloof demeanor present in that tense, taut frame. "You make all these ridiculous accusations with no real evidence to back it up! Isn't that Crime 101 in Misguided Superhero Justice Academy—"

"The mere facts of your history, disappearance, and presence now are all the evidence anyone would need!"

"RRRGH!" Brick leaned in, eyes angry and teeth gritted. "I'm so sick of you, you little parasite!"

Blossom's face was in his, spitting mad. "'Parasite?' I'm the parasite? More like pest control! And I know a cockroach when I see one!"

"Are you serious? Did you seriously just call me a cockroach?"

"I don't care if it sounds stupid!" Blossom shouted. "I'm really angry right now and you're a very irritating person!"

"What the hell is that racket?" Buttercup grumbled, trying to muscle her way through the mass of stock still students. "People! Seriously! Move it!"

"Why isn't anyone moving?" Bubbles followed the trail her sister was carving as she bodily hurled people out of the way.

"Geez," Buttercup panted, whacking a particularly stubborn group of freshmen who seemed hellbent on not moving. "You'd think there was a friggin' fight or something, the way these guys are—"

Bubbles squinted. "Is it just me, or does that sound like—"

"Oh my God." Buttercup suddenly stopped. Bubbles peered over her shoulder, wondering why her sister wasn't moving into the odd, open clearing.


And then she saw Blossom, prim, proper Blossom, and Brick, grim, stoic Brick, in the center of it, engaged in a screaming match that seemed to be escalating at a ridiculously high rate in terms of fervor and volume.

"Oh my God."

"What the shit is going on? Could you maybe get the fuck out of my way?" Butch shoved an entire line of students to the wall and scoffed. "Fuck, man."

"Um," Mitch remarked, eyeing the dazed students as he stepped over them. One of the twins mouthed an apology at the kids on the floor. "What's up with you?" Butch looked around, trying to figure out where the hell she'd gone.

"Nothing. People just piss me off." He elbowed another kid in the back, who instantly cried out and buckled to his knees.

"What the hell is up with all these people?" Harry was heard calling from the back. "What the hell is going on?"

"There's a fight," one of the kids in the crowd said, possibly in an attempt to avoid getting trampled by Butch. Butch stopped trampling and looked intrigued.


"Not an interesting one," another student responded. "Just a shouting one."

"Pft." Butch rolled his eyes. "That doesn't qualify as a fight. I can show you a fucking fight." He resumed shoving his way through the crowd, leaving a pained trail of convulsing students behind him.

Mitch jumped over several more victims and suggested, "You know, you do have superpowers, genius. Why don't you just fucking fly?"

"… Touché, Mitch," Butch said after a moment's thought, and rose into the air.

He stopped, catching sight of the source of this crazy, immovable crowd.

Blossom and Brick were nearly at each other's throats, with Bubbles and Buttercup unsuccessfully trying to break it up. Across the hall, he saw Boomer coming down a stairwell. He stopped at first sight of the crowd, then dropped his books upon spotting what the crowd was fixated on.

Butch's eyes drifted back to Buttercup, taking in the surroundings and feeling the airy high of promise overwhelming his spirits.

That familiar, manic twist of a grin curled onto his face. What an opportunity.

"Would you two stop it?" Bubbles cried, clutching at Blossom's arm.

"Really!" Buttercup voiced her assent. "Who's supposed to be the mature one, now?"

"You evil maniac!" Blossom shouted at Brick, completely ignoring her sisters.

"Oh, come on," Buttercup snorted.

"You annoying little bitch!" Brick snarled, and suddenly Buttercup's eyes flashed and she whirled on him, shoving him back.

"Cool it, Brick," she said darkly.

The look on his face was equally threatening. "I'll cool it when your sister lays off."

Before Blossom could respond, Buttercup cut in. "My sister may be annoying, but she's got a point." She shifted her weight and narrowed her eyes. "If I had a track record like yours, I wouldn't argue with anyone about not being trustworthy."

Brick recognized that mien, the type one settled into just before going into physical battle.

"Buttercup," he said quietly, and a chill washed over the hall. "I don't want to fight you."

She didn't look the least bit fazed. "Fighting me, fighting my sister," Buttercup muttered, crossing her arms. "What's the difference?"

"There isn't." Boomer suddenly appeared at Brick's side, face calm and smiling. "He doesn't want to fight either of you."

"Didn't look it to me," Buttercup said, voice ominous.

"You know, Buttercup, this really isn't any of your business," Blossom interjected, shaking Bubbles off.

"No, Blossom, I wanna know too." Buttercup's attention flickered between Brick and Boomer. "What are you boys up to?"

Bubbles, sensing a shift in the situation, moved away from one sibling to tug the dark-haired one back.

"Buttercup, that's enough."

Brick suddenly seemed to grow taller while Boomer just shrugged and laughed.

"Nothing, unless you count being in high school as 'up to' something. Now look," he said, gently pushing Brick back and stepping forward. "We're not—"

"Cut the crap," Buttercup spat, and Bubbles jerked her back further.

"We're not fighting anymore!" she said shrilly.

"We weren't fighting in the first place," Blossom said, eyes set on Brick. "All I did was ask you a question."

"And all I did was answer it," he growled, stepping forward.

"That wasn't an answer," she hissed.

"I said we weren't fighting," Bubbles said desperately, not sure who to grab now.

"This isn't a fight," Brick seethed through his clenched jaw. "You're on a witch hunt."

"Well, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, guess what? I call it a duck," Blossom said loftily.

"What about a confused swan?" Boomer said a little anxiously. "I hear that happens, sometimes. Maybe once."

"That was a fairy tale," Bubbles pointed out.

"That was a joke," Boomer explained, a little offended. "I do know how to make those, you know."

"Butch, aren't you getting in on this?" Mitch asked as Butch floated above the heads of the crowd, observing the commotion from their end of the hall.

Butch snickered, not looking at him. "I'm getting in on something."

"Is this about Buttercup again? Dude, I think it'd be better if you just let her be, 'cause sooner or later she's gonna—"

Butch suddenly shot off like a bat out of hell, aimed directly at Buttercup.

"Listen," Brick threatened, eyes narrowed and dark as he glared at Blossom and Buttercup, "the two of you better back off before—"

"Before what?" Buttercup interrupted, the muscles in her arms visibly tensing. "Go ahead and finish that—"

Suddenly there was a burst of green light, and as they all reached up to shield their eyes Butch snaked in amongst them, hooking a hand under the back hem of Buttercup's shirt to strip it from her as he zoomed by.

He soared to one end of the hall and stopped, whipping around to survey the damage with an anticipatory smile creeping onto his face.

"Oh, shit," Mitch whispered, eyes stricken and jaw agape.

Floyd and Lloyd were stammering beside him. "What… what the fuck… did he just—"

"What?" Harry's voice was somewhere behind them, trying to catch up. "What just happened?"

Mitch instantly turned and started to muscle his way through the crowd, running in the opposite direction.

"We need to get out of here, guys! We need to get the fuck out of here right now!"

Brick blinked and furrowed his brow as his eyes re-focused on a… a…

His jaw dropped and his eyes went wide as he took in Buttercup's top half, now covered by only a black bra.

Buttercup, who had been staring at Brick, followed his line of vision and seemed to choke.

There was no laughter. There was nothing. Only the silence that pierces the air when everyone knows that death is near.

"Oh my God," Boomer whispered.

"Oh no," Bubbles squeaked.

A bright red Buttercup let out a piercing shriek and dropped to the floor, covering her chest with her knees.

Brick heard a low cackle starting up from behind him, and he twisted to see a triumphant Butch on his back in the air, laughing as he clutched Buttercup's shirt in one hand.

Brick's eyes flashed red as they narrowed at his brother, rage bubbling up inside him—

"You…" Buttercup snarled, and the hatred in it, the threat, the mere sound of her voice sent the bevy of dumbfounded students running and screaming.

A stricken Blossom seemed to suddenly come to, and she hastily reached for Buttercup, a second too late.

Buttercup whipped around, snatching Bubbles' jacket from her arms, and jerked it on as she took off after Butch, the force of her flight stripping the entire hallway's locker doors off their hinges.

With a maniacal chortle, Butch bulleted off down the next passageway.

Without warning, Brick shot off after both of them.

"Oh, fuck," Boomer whimpered, and followed suit.

"Bubbles, come on!" Blossom cried, grabbing her sister by the arm. "We have to stop her!"

Buttercup fumbled blindly with the buttons of her sister's jacket, straining to keep Butch in her line of vision as they sped through hallway after hallway of screaming students. She felt compelled to add her voice to the mix.

"I'm going to fucking kill you, Butch!" she screamed, so loudly her vocal cords felt like they were being ripped to shreds.

The only response was an echo of a laugh in her direction. That bright green streak of his spiraled down another hall so abruptly she lost the slightest bit of momentum as she rounded the corner. Cursing under her breath, she zigzagged through the crowds, dodging student after student and sending up a storm of loose papers trailing after her.

Where the hell did he

She stopped suddenly, feeling the burst of wind from her flight finally catch up to her. Her hair whipped into her face, and she shook it clear, eyes trained on Butch standing outside of the glass double doors at the school's entrance.

He sneered, holding up her shirt between two hands, then ignited it in a burst of green flame, his grin spreading as its ashes dropped to the floor.

She gritted her teeth and shot towards him. He took off as she exploded through the doors, sending glass flying in a flurry of tinkling shards.

Now the space opened up before them, and Butch zoomed off into the sky, Buttercup hot on his heels. She could see him more clearly, and the unmistakable glee that lit his face—well, to be frank, it really pissed her off.

She shot a blast of energy at him and he spun away from it easily, shooting her a devilish grin as he did so.

God damn it, he really pissed her off.

The wind whipped the collar of her jacket open wide, and she hastily did up another button.

"Come on, sugar!" Butch crowed at her, sending another current of rage surging through her. "This is pathetic! Why don't you give me a taste of what you can really do?"

Rage, rage, rage, that was all she felt, felt it multiplying in her, fueling her clenched jaw and curled fists. She shuddered under the weight of it, lost herself in it for a second, and then it piled up behind her eyes, more and more until it spilled into two sharp, stinging beams, a physical manifestation of her heated glare. Her smile was building the very moment she did it; she knew instinctively that they wouldn't miss—

Suddenly they bounced back on her, and she gasped, flinging herself out of the way. Impossible. She had the sharpest eyes of her sisters, was the quickest draw—

She halted and had to reassess. Butch was stopped, floating in the air, one arm extended out as he sized her up from behind a flickering sheet of green.

Damn. She'd forgotten he could do that.

He instantly hunched his shoulders and flicked his wrist, sending his shield in her direction, and it smacked into her—she could feel her teeth practically knocking themselves into her brain, it'd hit her so hard. The wind picked up, flattening her against the barrier, and she could see him on the other side, following her as he aimed her down, rushing past buildings now. He would crush her against the concrete any second—

With a heavy grunt, she bent her knees against the wind, kicked off, and hit the roughened asphalt a few feet away from where his shield collided with the ground, its impact forcing a shallow pit into the street. The air exploded into frantic car horns and screeching tires as car after car drove into the giant pothole, still crackling with faint green sparks. Buttercup scrambled to her feet amidst the mess of traffic, eyes grim as she scanned the area for Butch, and several cars swerved up onto the sidewalk to avoid hitting her. One was going too fast to swerve in time, and without sparing it a look she jammed her foot into its bumper, stopping it cold. An echo traveled down the street—first the tinkling crash of the bumper collisions, then the soft poof of airbags bursting out of the steering wheels of the several cars behind it.

She yanked her foot out of the stunned man's car and twisted, searching, searching. She gritted her teeth and swore.

"Where the fuck are you, you stupid son of a—"

There was a new, much more sudden crash to her immediate left, and she turned to see a giant hole in the side of a parking structure, concrete crumbling to the ground. She instantly shot off towards it.

A car came flying out of the cavity, and she jerked to a stop, instinct directing her to extend her arms for it, catch it, save whoever was in it; the metal crumpled in her hands, dug hard into her skin but didn't break it, and a quick glance confirmed there wasn't a single body in the car. A new set of screams and more blaring horns snapped her to attention, and she saw two more empty cars careening out of the parking garage. She zipped to first one side and then the other, catching the two cars on top of the first, her groan less of a reaction to the weight of the stacked vehicles than a generally pissed off Buttercup noise at his attempts to stall her. She flung the stack of cars down crashing into an empty metered parking spot below her, and suddenly a whole string of two, three, four, five cars soared out of the garage—

"Oh, fuck you!" she shouted, and blasted through the lot of them as she flew into the gaping hole. She spotted Butch snatching another car, his sneer lighting up his face as he swung it around and struck it against the side of her head.

She bit back a cry and hit the concrete shoulder first, rolling to a stop against the tires of a parked car. Her vision was blurry, just a bit; she pushed herself up, trying to blink her eyes into focus. There was a really annoying sound echoing in the garage…

She shook her head and blinked, then glared. It was his laughter. She shot to her feet and grabbed a car in either hand, their parking brakes screaming in protest as she dragged them along the concrete, stalking up to his form, doubled over in laughter.

"Oh, man! You should've seen the way you went rolling across the ground, it was fuckin' hilarious!" he choked out through teary eyes.

"Must've missed that part," she muttered, and raised one of the cars over her head, snapping it in half against the floor above them.

His laughter came to an abrupt stop and he charged her, knocking the cars out of her hands as he sent them crashing through the concrete to one floor below. An SUV was speeding up through the garage as they landed, and Buttercup cried out in shock as it rolled over her body and smacked Butch in the head, rolling him off her. She kicked the vehicle away and stood as the driver ran off screaming, grabbing Butch and throwing him against the far wall.

"You think you know funny, asswipe?" she snapped, marching up to him as he straightened. The muscles in her arm tensed, curled into a fist. "I'll show you fucking funny."

"I bet you could show me a lot of things," he snickered, rolling his head from side to side and relaxing against the concrete. He started to laugh again.

Her lip curled and she backhanded him, relishing the cessation of laughter and the way his head snapped first off her hand and then off the wall.

"See that, fucker?" she hissed at him. He took a deep breath and rolled his head back. He knit his brow, pursed his lips in thought.

"Hm. Maybe you oughtta show me that one again."

She gritted her teeth and punched him, and again his head snapped once, twice. Again he rolled it back. This time he put a hand in his mouth, brought it out to examine it, then spit on the ground at her feet. He smirked at her.

"Again," he purred.

One of her fists connected hard with his ribs and the other backhanded him again against the wall. A fine line of red flicked along the concrete, and he stared at it, mystified.

She snatched him by the collar and slammed him for good measure.

"See it now?" she jeered, not feeling the least bit of guilt or sympathy, and glad that Blossom wasn't around to berate her for it.

He blinked, eyes still trained on the line of his blood on the wall, and tongued the cut on his lip that had birthed it. Suddenly he smiled, a wild, crazed smile, and directed his attention to Buttercup, his dark green eyes glittering brightly.

"Yes," he whispered, and for some inexplicable reason Buttercup felt a sudden chill creep down her spine. "I do."

He kicked her in the chest, simultaneously knocking the wind out of her and sending her flying to the other end of the garage. She hit the wall of concrete, hard, and fissures crackled out from the point of impact, spilling dust onto her. She coughed, flinching as she rose to her feet, then stiffened as she heard—

Butch rammed into her, busting her clear through the wall and into the glass windows of the building on the other side of the street. Screams sounded all around them; they'd crashed into an office building, sending documents and computers scattering after the retreating cubicle workers.

Buttercup swung him around and slammed him against the floor, kneed him in the gut. He headbutted her, hard enough to send her backwards, and then he grabbed the collar of her jacket and yanked her down, jamming his own knee into her sternum.

She bit her tongue to keep from crying out and tasted blood in her mouth. Wincing, she brought one of her fists back and then decked him solidly in the head. It distracted him long enough to loosen his grip on her, and she grabbed him by the hair and took off, taking care to drag him along the floor as she flew back through the shattered windows into the open air.

A hand of his suddenly reached around and crudely groped at her front, and she gasped and flung him with unprecedented force into the street below them.

"I'm gonna fucking kill 'im," she growled, her jaw clenched as she landed amidst the clouds of dust that had mushroomed up when he connected with the ground. "I swear to God, I'm gonna—"

A blast of green shot out from the smoke and singed into her shoulder. She stifled a cry and buckled to the ground, instantly bringing a hand up to assess the damage—her injury screamed as she gingerly touched it, and she snapped her hand back, hissing a breath.

"That's more like it," Butch's voice rumbled as he emerged from the smoke, his eyes dazzling green despite the fact that he looked worse for the wear.

Buttercup's own eyes were bright and alert as he slowly approached, and she straightened, doggedly refusing to acknowledge the excruciating protest of her wound.

"What's more like it?" she seethed.

"Fighting back." He cocked his head, curiously, as if he was examining an insect. "I gotta tell you, I was getting sick of this whole, 'Too Good to Fight' bullshit." He stopped a few steps away from her and nodded at the tatters of fabric across her shoulder that exposed the bleeding flesh underneath. "Does it hurt?"

She glared at him.

"I barely feel it."

Suddenly he flew forward, his fist connecting with the raw, bleeding skin, and she shrieked as he shoved her down onto the uneven asphalt, grinding his fist into the red. Her legs thrashed and scraped against the ground; somehow the pain was overwhelming, she was going blind and crazy with the strength of it, what the fuck was laced in his energy beams—

Tears were spilling out of her eyes and yet against all plausibility she managed to bite back another scream, sucking in desperate, whimpering breaths between her teeth as she tried to focus on the sky, on anything other than the pain or those infuriating green eyes of his, those stupid, glittering green eyes—

"Feel that?" he sneered, and ground his fist so hard her vision actually tunneled. A tiny cry slipped from her throat. His smirk twisted, a sick little smile lighting up his face.


Buttercup hated the way he spoke, the way he looked, the way he and his brothers had taken her life and her friends away and left her with nothing, not even her dignity. She hated him. He absolutely could not take more, no, she was not going to let him have any more, and definitely not this. She wasn't going to give him this satisfaction.

Steam started to issue from the corners of her eyes where her tears were beginning to evaporate, and he blinked, momentarily distracted before her eyebeams hit him square in the face.

"Fuck!" The sound of his exclamation of pain, of him hitting the ground yards away felt better than any trophy or game she'd ever won, even better than the sudden release of pressure on her now near-numb injury.

She dragged herself to her feet, tested the side of her that was wounded—ugh, that arm definitely didn't want to move. Fuck. Well, thank God she had two of them.

His laughter cut through the air, and she fumed, sucking in a breath and blowing all the smoke that surrounded them away. He was crouched on the ground, holding a hand to one of his eyes.

"I knew it," he breathed, and looked up at her. Horror suddenly displaced her anger, and she stared, speechless.

He stood and faced her, one eye shimmering green and the other seared white.

Oh my God, she thought to herself, cold panic wrenching in her gut. I've blinded him, oh my God, oh my God

And then the bastard laughed again, and whatever sympathy she might've begun to entertain for him dissolved. What the hell was wrong with him?

"I knew it," he said again, a wild grin illuminating his face.

"Knew what?" she demanded, voice retaining the panic that had overtaken her as she stared at his blind eye.

"When I watched you fight," he sneered. "I knew you—I knew."

"What?" she screeched. She couldn't stand the way he was looking at her, like he could see right through her when nobody could, nobody did

He rushed her again, and she reflexively spun out of the way. He adjusted his angle mid-flight, but his depth perception seemed a little off now that he was only operating on one good eye, and in the split second he lost sight of her she had wheeled around behind him. She swung her leg up and kicked him away, sending him flying towards a street lamp.

She expected him to dent the metal, but he rolled to the side and missed it, just barely. He regained his bearings and shot back towards her, and without hesitating she blasted a manhole cover at her feet open, diving into it as he sailed overhead.

He halted, twisting around to see where she'd disappeared, when the ground rumbled and Buttercup burst out of the asphalt, uppercutting him into the air.

She landed as tons of water began spraying out of the cavity, five stories high, soaking her and the abandoned street and Butch too, when he finally fell back to the ground.

He coughed and spit, steadying himself on his hands and knees. Buttercup felt a need to end this.

"Give up," she called out. "You might as well; I could do this all day."

"Glad to hear it," he said in a chipper voice, and stood up, spreading his arms wide. "Show me. Come on and put my other eye out, even."

She took a deep, furious breath, then shot forward. She'd show him, she'd show this fucker, all right—

A sudden burst of red rocketed across her flight path, and she abruptly stopped, watching as Brick grabbed his brother by the throat and slammed him into the side of a building, his eyes glowing red.

The sight stunned her, and she hung back.

Brick had one hand at Butch's throat and was holding him a good foot off the ground, his expression twisted in disgust. His eyes were completely red, still glowing, still hadn't reverted back to normal. Butch had grabbed his brother's arm and was scraping his feet against the wall he was pinned to, gasping for breath.


Buttercup snapped to attention as her sisters landed on either side of her, and she was suddenly aware of how terrible she must look.

"Oh my God, Buttercup," Bubbles whispered, tentatively peering at her damaged shoulder.

"It's nothing," Buttercup said, distracted. Blossom had caught sight of Brick and Butch, and Buttercup followed her gaze.

The sound of Butch's strained voice echoed in the area.

"Brick," he wheezed, "could you… ease up on the windpipe, maybe—"

Brick's grip tightened, and Butch threw his head back, gasping for air. "Oh yeah," he choked out, "that's much better—"

"Shut the fuck up," Brick snarled, and the sound of his voice sent a chill down the girls' collective spines. "What the fuck—what the fuck were you thinking?" He suddenly crooked his arm and slammed Butch back against the wall again, fracturing the concrete. Butch made a strangled grunt, wincing.

"Do you listen to me when I talk to you?" Brick snapped, and slammed Butch again. "What the fuck did I tell you? What the fuck did I say, you dumbfuck?"

Buttercup winced as Brick punctuated each question with a whack, winced each time he brought Butch forward and struck him back against the concrete. Butch's grip on his brother's immovable wrist began to slacken, and shit—Buttercup could see it now, the dark red dripping down the wall, coating Butch's blind eye as it flowed. This wasn't right; someone should do something—

"Brick!" Blossom was suddenly running to the boys, voice desperate. "Stop!"

Those demonic eyes blinked, and he turned them on Blossom. The intensity of his glare stopped her cold ten feet away, and she swallowed, pulling back.

"Stay out of this," Brick warned, and turned his attention back to Butch, the red glow in his eyes subsiding just enough to distinguish the irises, the pupils. Butch pawed weakly at Brick's wrist, his breathing wet and strained.

There was a resigned sigh behind the girls, and the three of them turned to see Boomer hovering, an unreadable expression on his face. Without making eye contact with any of them, he floated towards his brothers, coming to within arm's length of his leader.

"Brick," he said quietly, and those red eyes flicked briefly in his direction. "Come on. There's an audience and everything."

The fury in Brick's eyes faded, slowly, but his grip didn't waver. He looked at Butch, who wasn't even making much of an effort to struggle now, and then threw him harshly to the ground.

The sudden, shuddering gasp for air twisted like a knife in the girls' guts. Butch's limbs quavered as he tried to sit up, Brick looming over him looking like he'd rather kick his brother while he was down.

"I hope that was worth the shit that's coming your way," Brick said darkly, and Blossom tensed.

Butch spat a dark, sticky stream of red on the ground, looked up at his brother, and…


"It's always worth it," Butch rasped, his voice like a scratch on a record. Brick narrowed his eyes and turned, stalking past Boomer.

"Grab him and bring him home," he ordered, not looking at the girls as he started to float. "I doubt that fucker can fly with all that energy his body's wasting on healing his injuries, not to mention his fucking eye."

Buttercup felt a tiny twinge of guilt.

"Brick!" Blossom found her voice again, and now it was devoid of fear. "What is the matter with you?"

Brick whirled on her and jabbed a glowing fist in her direction.

"And you."

Alarm flickered across Blossom's face as she glanced at his mitt, glowing red. His face was twisted into a humorless snarl.

"You. Fuck off."

He took flight, and all three girls let out a collective breath.

The debris under Boomer's feet crackled as he threw one of Butch's arms across his shoulders, drawing the girls' attention again. His brother's blood was dripping onto his shirt, into his pretty blonde hair. Buttercup felt Bubbles stifle a shudder.

Butch came to gradually and swiped at the blood on his face. He caught sight of Buttercup's gaze drifting to him, and he sneered at her. She went rigid.

"See you guys tomorrow," Boomer muttered, and took off, Butch in tow.

Brick practically stripped the hinges off their front door when he barged in, livid. He made a beeline for the training room, shucking his sweater in the process and muttering obscenities under his breath.

Boomer and Butch showed up not long after, awkwardly maneuvering through the door. Boomer kicked it closed behind them and let Butch pull away and stumble towards the kitchen.

"Pretty fucking smart of you," he reprimanded.

"Aw, fuck you," Butch grumbled, blinking at him with his good eye. Boomer nodded at the not-so-good one.

"How'd that happen?"

"She got me with her eyebeams." Butch brought a hand up to the eye in question.

His brother's eyes widened in shock as he joined Butch in the kitchen and began rummaging through a cabinet for some Tylenol.

"Shit. In the eye? Seriously? That's brutal." He lifted up a bottle to examine it and paused. "Though, to her credit, you probably deserved it. Here."

"Tylenol?" Butch winced as he took the bottle from him. "Are you fucking kidding me? Tell you what, I got some Vicodin in my room—"

Boomer's eyes narrowed. "I thought you weren't supposed to—" At his brother's exasperated look Boomer rolled his eyes and zipped over to Butch's room. "Whatever. Where the fuck do you keep it?"

"In my drawers next to the weed, you moron," Butch called after him.

At that moment Brick stormed out of the training room and stabbed a hand in Butch's direction.

"You. Get the fuck over here."

"Wait, wait, wait, bro," Butch said casually, popping open the bottle of Tylenol and inhaling five tablets. "Let me fix myself up first—"

Brick was suddenly in the kitchen with his fists in Butch's collar, scattering the bottle of Tylenol across the counter.


"Holy shit, Butch!" Boomer's voice rang out from his room. "How many drugs have you got in here?"

Butch made a face. "Boomer, I swear to God, where is your fucking knack for subtlety?"

"What did I tell you when we got here, Butch?" Brick snarled, and Butch groaned.

"About the drugs, man, I'm sorry—"

"I don't give a FUCK about your pills!" Brick roared. "It's your actual addiction I'm talking about!"

Boomer reappeared at their side, for the most part unfazed by the angry yelling. "Here's your Vicodin, man—"

"Flush it," Brick snapped. "Flush everything."

Butch looked a little panicked. "Wait, dude, chill out, no need to get all upset, you know I'm not addicted to that stuff—"

"I said I wasn't talking about your fucking drugs! I'm talking about your fucking INABILITY TO LISTEN! To obey orders! Your insistence on FIGHTING when I specifically tell you NOT TO! That's the fucking addiction I'm talking about!"

"Don't they have a medication for that?" Boomer wondered aloud.

"I am not in the mood, Boomer," Brick growled. "Why don't you tell him what I said at the beginning of the year? Before we even got here?"

Boomer leaned against the counter and sighed.

"Not to draw unwanted attention," he said in a bored tone.

"And specifically whose attention?"

"The girls'," Butch said flatly, and sighed. "I know. I remember."

Brick narrowed his eyes. "Good." He roughly shoved Butch in the direction of the training room. Butch took a sharp breath and winced.

"Easy, man, I'm kinda sore—"

"Damn right you're sore," Brick said with a scowl. "And you're gonna get sorer. Get your fucking ass in there. You wanted a fight. Man up, motherfucker. I'm going to give you your fucking fight."

Butch went tense and made an effort not to swallow. "Oh, come on," he protested. "I can't even see out of this eye—"

"Too fucking bad. Guess you shoulda thought about that before, huh?" Brick spat, and grabbed his brother by the collar again, ignoring his grunt of pain and dragging him into the training room. Boomer remained at the counter, arms crossed as he stared at the tiles.

Then he thought about the plethora of marijuana he'd discovered in Butch's room and brightened considerably.

"That wasn't right."

Buttercup and Bubbles watched their leader pace to and fro in the lab, her hands at her temples. The Professor was busy rummaging for bandage dressings; Buttercup hadn't suffered any serious injuries, and since she'd stopped channeling so much energy into fighting, the X in her body had had a chance to work on boosting the healing process. The injury at her shoulder now had the rough skin of a week-old scab, and within a couple of hours even that would be gone completely.

"I'm not pleased you were fighting, Buttercup," the Professor sighed, ignoring Blossom. She'd been pacing ever since the girls had burst into the lab. "No matter how much he deserved it."

Bubbles spoke up. "Professor, he… humiliated her." Buttercup gave her a sharp look.

"How so?"

"It was just some stupid thing that bugged me," Buttercup interrupted before Bubbles could answer. "I… lost my temper." She felt both her sisters' eyes on her, and she directed her gaze at Blossom, darting a significant glance at the Professor in the process. She knew Blossom would see it—the bags under his eyes, the lines in his brow. He was exhausted lately, spending nearly all his waking hours in the lab downtown as he tried to help the city stabilize the defense system. She couldn't let him lose more sleep fretting about her stupid fight—and it was stupid, even if she'd felt completely justified in attacking Butch.

Blossom's shoulders slumped, a visual cue to Buttercup that as unhappy as she was about not saying anything to their father, she agreed. Buttercup turned her attention back to the Professor.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly, and meant it.

He sighed again, reaching a hand to push her hair out of her eyes. She made a sour face, but refrained from swatting him away.

"I know, honey. But…" He took a deep breath and brought his fingers to his eyelids. "How bad did you say the damage was?"

Buttercup shrank back a bit as Blossom stiffly replied, "Fifteen city blocks torn up, damage to the largest public parking structure in the area, all the windows of one office building floor shattered to bits—plus whatever data they lost in the process—"

"What kind of business was it?" the Professor interrupted.

"Investment banking," Blossom said, cringing.

"Oh my God, not the giant JS, Inc. building," he moaned.

Blossom bit her lip and nodded, watching as her father's face went gray.

"I hope they have that backed up properly," he finally sighed.

"And a water main burst. Flooded a major road and disrupted water service to a number of apartment buildings, some restaurants, and a hospital. They don't expect to have that restored until early tomorrow morning. It's affected thousands of people, probably more if you count the investment bank's clients…"

Buttercup kept her eyes trained on her knees and her peripheral vision on the Professor's slacks.

"Oh, Buttercup," he exhaled, voice tired and defeated. "And you girls had gotten so good at containing city damage. You realize that's more than the past two years' worth of monster attacks?"

"Yes," she mumbled, hating Butch. She hoped he'd be blind in one eye forever.

"I guess I'll be meeting with Principal Keane next week," he said under his breath.

"Oh, and the school. You forgot the damage to the school," Bubbles added, and Buttercup winced, dreading what was to come on Monday.

-end Ch. 2-