"You can't be serious" A stocky boy with over-gelled blonde hair objected, slamming his hand down on the button controlling his clock.

Dylan barely considered his opponent's move before adjusting his bishop. "Why not?" he asked, tapping the timer.

"Because they're losers," a red-headed girl two tables down called out.

"Pay attention to your own game Jodi," the junior retorted, not looking up as he slid the black rook forward. "Check."

"She's not wrong though," he added gently, hazel eyes probing as his freshman opponent placed a white knight in between the king and his friend's rook before pressing the button. "I mean," he moved his own knight over and hit the clock. "I know you don't want to be at home—"

"Tim!" Dylan hissed, dark brown eyes flitting toward the others. He sighed, sliding a hand through his dark shaggy mane and pushing his bishop diagonally, calmly stating, "Checkmate."

Tim stared incredulously at the board for a moment before sighing and tipping his king to its side. "Man, you're good."

The two watched some of the other games finishing, then joined everyone in cleaning up the room that served as headquarters for William McKinley High School's Chess Club .

"Seriously, though Dyl," Tim repeated. "The permanent loser label isn't worth avoiding your house another couple hours after school."

Dylan shrugged but said nothing, and his leg gave a dull throb as he absent-mindedly rubbed the bruise. He hadn't told anyone about the extent of the problems at home, but Tim had met his father once (sober, thank god), and so he at least knew the guy was a mess, and could sympathize with his friend's desire to be anywhere else.

"You need a ride?" the thickset boy asked, pulling his backpack over his shoulders and holding up a jingling set of keys. "Dad loaned me the Camry."

"Nah," the taller boy answered. His father was gone until Saturday again, so his brothers would be fine by themselves for a while, and Dylan just wanted to have some time to himself. "I think I'm going to hole up here for a little longer: maybe find some music."

Tim groaned, but didn't push: experience had taught him that his friend wasn't often swayed.

As Dylan watched his friend drive off, he sighed and contemplated his life.

Last Sunday Night:

"Dylan, where are you?" a gruff voice asked from the other room, and Dylan sighed as his heart wrenched at his father's tear-soaked slurring.

"I'm in here, Dad," he told the man, and listened as the voice sniffled. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah—yeah," Mark Jamieson choked out, voice wavering. "I mean, I don't know…I just…I hate this Dyl."

Dylan sighed quietly. Though his father was easier to deal with when he was a sad drunk, he never stayed that way long, so the boy was always hesitant to try to comfort him. "I know Dad," he said finally. "I miss her too."

"I can't do this Dyl," his father continued, progressing into full-fledged sobs. "I don't know how. Damn it Penny!"

The freshman watched as the table lamp crashed against the wall, and a string of curses started echoing through the house. Unfortunately, the noise drew the attention of Mitchell, who, judging by the duffel in his hand, had just gotten home from a friend's house.

"What are you staring at?" the drunken man screamed, lunging at the terrified 10-year old.

"Hey! Back off!" Dylan shouted, grabbing the older man's arm and twisting it so they faced each other. "It's not his fault that you're a loud pathetic mess! No wonder she died!"

He hated shouting things like that, but he knew they'd get quick results: his father's fury was immediately redirected, his brother snuck up the stairs, and the shaggy brunette fended off the man as best he could, managing to limit his injuries to a black eye and some bruises along his leg.

It was hard: Dylan had promised himself on his mother's grave that he'd take care of his family when she'd died. When he was twelve, after Aunt Laney had to move to Boston for her job and the Social Services people threatened to take he and his brothers away from his father, he'd realized his dad wasn't going to get better, that it was going to come down to him. So he kept his brother's active and friendly, securing their popularity enough with kids and parents that when his father came home from his routes along the Corn Belt on the weekends that they'd have somewhere else to be. He kept everyone clean and polite, and managed to get a debit card to his dad's account so he could have the money to take care of everything.

But it wasn't the way it should have been, and he couldn't help but feel like he'd let his mother down sometimes. His father needed help; hell, his family needed help, but who could he tell without losing everything?

He made his way to the auditorium—still open, and perfect access to a piano. Dylan really preferred the keyboard, but the notes were the same.

Trying to be perfect
Trying not to let you down
Honesty is honestly
The hardest thing for me right now
While the floors underneath our feet
Are crumbling, the walls we built together tumbling
I still stand here holding up the roof
Cause it's easier than telling the truth

I still keep your photographs
I remember how we used to laugh
I can keep on losing sleep
If you're okay with being torn in half

It's the elephant in the room
And we pretend that we don't see it
It's the avalanche that looms above our heads
And we don't believe it

Dylan felt his voice break a little as he thought about his brother's eyes as his dad lunged toward him; thought about Mark Jamieson's heaving sobs as he knew he was failing as a father, and yet couldn't seem to bring himself to change. He thought about how the hell he was ever going to get out of here without feeling like he was abandoning everything he'd promised his mother he'd take care of and keep safe.

Trying to be perfect
Trying not to let you down
Honesty is honestly
The hardest thing for me right now
While the floors underneath our feet
Are crumbling, the walls we built together tumbling
I still stand here holding up the roof
Cause it's easier than telling the truth

Stop ignoring that our hearts are mourning
And let the rain come in
Stop pretending that it's not ending
And let the end begin, oh yeah...

Trying to be perfect
Trying not to let you down
Honesty is honestly
The hardest thing for me right now, yeah
While the floors underneath our feet
Are crumbling, the walls we built together tumbling
I still stand here holding up the roof
Cause it's easier than telling the truth
It's easier than telling the truth

The freshman scoffed as his fingers finished their phrase. He sniffled, brushing back his shaggy bangs and pushing the bench out, grabbing his bag and walking away.

Whatever he sang Friday, he wasn't going to let himself choke up like that.

Liam sighed in frustration. It wasn't even close to Friday and he was ready to throw his textbook at the teacher. Why did he need to take English anyways? He spoke and read it just fine—wasn't that enough?

"So, someone explain the major underlying theme of The Pearl," the teacher asked, looking on in vexation at the gangly boy trying to discretely fiddle with his camera underneath his desk. "Mr. Stewart?"

Liam's head snapped up, his face like a deer in the headlight. Crap. "Uh, the theme?" he repeated.

"Yes, of Steinbeck's story," the teacher repeated, arms crossed.

"Jaws?" he threw out, grinning as the class burst out laughing.

He could almost feel Emma Malley's eyes rolling a few desks over. "The main theme is greed acting as a destructive force," she answered, raising her hand as she spoke. "As Kino continues to try to increase his wealth and status, he perverts the pearl's natural beauty and good luck." The teacher nodded happily and Liam tried not to groan as Malley's boyfriend Ashwin reached over and gave her hand a congratulatory squeeze.

The bell finally rang, and Liam bolted for the door as Ms. Stevens shouted out the assignment. He weaved through the stream of students, parking himself at Andrew's locker so they could talk shop on their way to class.

He pulled his camera out again, opening the screen and reviewing the footage he'd taken at a seminar earlier. A partially-suppressed scream caused him to turn to look down the hall, where the Johnson twins were having a spat not three lockers away.

This was why real life was so much better than fiction, the sophomore thought to himself as he zoomed in and pressed record.

"This party is important Dalt," Jennifer told him, shoving a perfectly manicured index finger into his chest. "You will be there and you will be pleasant."

"If you think I'm such a hindrance, why would you even want me there?" he shot back, swatting her hand away.

"Don't flatter yourself—I don't," she replied. "Nikki does. For some unknown reason she thinks your presence is worthwhile."

"Nikki Hardy? Screw that," the blonde told her, slamming his locker and turning away from her. "You couldn't pay me to be there."

"Dalton, you embarrass me and I swear I will destroy you," she hissed, causing her brother to halt in his tracks. Turning back to her, they stared each other down, partaking in some crazy twin ESP, before the baseball jock conceded, picking up his guitar case and walking away in a huff.

Liam gawked at his footage. What a catch! He closed his camera and looked behind him to see Andrew walking toward the lockers.

Suddenly a hand grabbed his shoulder, spinning him around. The boy wasn't just a little intimidated to find himself face-to-face with Jennifer Johnson.

She held out her hand. "Hand it over," she demanded.

His expression turned puzzled. "What?" he asked. "Hey!" he objected as she shoved her hand into his book bag, pulling out his camera. "That's mine!"

She ignored him, pressing the eject button and pulling out the disc. "Not anymore," she replied acidly, shoving the camera back in his hands as Andrew caught up to them. "Next time I catch either of you in my personal business, all you'll get is shards of plastic up every orifice."

Liam shook his head, reaching out toward her. "No way; that's my private property—"he started, and then hissed in pain as the extended arm was grabbed and twisted tightly behind his back.

"Hey gaytards," the random jock greeted, and Liam was pretty sure he was one of Carter's lackies. "You two need to learn some manners."

"She stole my disc," the sophomore grunted, noting with slight embarrassment that the jock was holding him with one hand, and had Andrew pinned against the locker with the other.

"Yeah? Well you should be grateful anyone at this school is taking an interest in your fag-films," the boy replied, twisting the brunette's arm a little farther up his back. "What should I do with them Jenn?" he asked the girl, now examining her nails.

"Hey Vargus!" a voice shouted down the hall, and Liam could hear a smattering of jock greetings toward the bully.

"It's okay Matt," the junior reassured the jock, grinning wickedly at Liam's scrunched face. "We'll take care of them next time."

The football jock shrugged, whispering "You guys are getting off easy for now," before shoving both boys against the lockers and laughing as he and Jennifer each took off in separate directions.

"One day," Andrew grumbled as he straightened his outfit. "Just one day, could you go without antagonizing them?"

"It was my disc—my film," the taller boy insisted. "They don't have the right—"

"But they do it anyways!" Andrew shouted. "Li, face it—we're just the gum on the bottom of the social ladder."

Liam shook his head, but said nothing. He was more than that, and so was Andrew, and he was going to somehow show his friend that.

Suddenly he chuckled.

"What?" asked Andrew, straightened up and watching his friend's expression curiously.

"Nothing," Liam told him, smiling. "I just figured out my song for Friday."

Anna Marie Hudson sat in study hall staring out the window. She had been in a very important discussion about who dumped whom in her and Austin's relationship (she maintained she'd broken it off, while he still argued that he'd been the one to sever ties—lying jerk), but now Stassi and Megan was talking to Jennifer Johnson about her party this weekend and the leggy sophomore had kind of zoned out.

She silently wondered which song she'd sing for Glee tomorrow. She would ask her friends, but she'd spent the last three days making sure they didn't find out, since the girls surrounding her despised Glee just like everyone else at school—so the idea was pointless.

Not to mention if anyone did find out, she'd probably quit before the try-outs anyway. Despite what she'd promised her brothers, she'd witnessed them get no end of grief for their choice, and she couldn't help but cringe every time she thought of the red stain on their face that lingered after cleaning off a slushie facial.

Annie tuned back in to hear the juniors and Jennifer now babbling about outfits. Not that Annie didn't love discussing parties and clothes, but they'd gone over all of this yesterday and at lunch today, and she knew from experience they would keep debating the options until Saturday, and by the party they'd be back to the original plan. At the moment, however, there was no interrupting the girls, and the brunette fiddled with her high pony and continued considering the benefits of Katy Perry over The Beatles as she waited for them to finish.

As the Cheerios segued into some other random topic, Annie found herself considering One Republic. She loved singing "Good Life" in her car, in the shower—pretty much anywhere. She couldn't help it: she liked to whistle, and the drum part was pretty awesome. Maybe she could play a set for her audition…

"Annie?" The sophomore snapped back to the conversation, and realized that everyone was staring at her.

"Ann, are you okay?" Megan asked, eyebrow raised quizzically.

"Huh?" the brunette replied, recognizing she was missing vital information as they all continued to stare at her.

"Seriously Hudson—you were twitching your hands like a spaz, and whistling like one of the seven dwarfs," Stassi scoffed. "Should we send for a 'Hug Me' jacket and a padded room?"

"Shut up Stassi," Cymbal chided, smiling at Annie. She grinned in return, causing the left hand of Medusa to groan in disgust.

"Seriously guys? Put out or get out already—you're both making me sick," she retorted, causing Annie to blush slightly—while the running back wasn't her type, he was really sweet, and fun to flirt with.

Crash, however, broke out into his trademark laugh—big and booming as he slammed his hands on the table, earning him a glare from the teacher up front. "Whatev, Stas," he replied, winking at Annie and making his way back to his desk.

As the others turned back to their conversation, Annie watched the boys ahead of them grinning as they discussed boy things, and kept sneaking glances back at her and the other cheerleaders.

What would happen if she really went for it—if she tried out for Glee? Would Crash and Carter and Austin and Mayhew ever talk to her again? What about her Cheerio friends? Would they turn on her, slushying her into oblivion like the Jocks of Finn's time?

"Hudson!" Stassi barked, snapping her fingers in the sophomore's face. "For pete's sake, take some Ritalin and pay attention."

Annie turned her focus back to the conversation at hand, which had thankfully segued into practice and Nikki's death regime, but her parting thought was how unfair it was that the rules of friends and popularity seemed to change so viciously for such stupid reasons.

Her eyes widened in a sudden epiphany: Annamarie had just found her song.

Teddy sat in his chair, tuning his guitar in the empty music room as he looked over various pieces of music in his jazz folder.

"Hey Ted," a friendly voice called from the door, and the blonde boy glanced up to see Mr. Schuester walking in with a wave.

"What's up, Mr. Schue?" the junior asked, brushing his blonde bangs from his eyes.

"I just came to talk to you for a minute," the teacher answered, peeking at the papers on the boy's music stand. "You find something for your audition Friday?" he asked.

Teddy shook his head. "Not yet; this is all for jazz band," he replied.

The curly-haired man smiled. "That was actually why I came here," he said, pulling up a chair. "I was wondering if anyone from the band was still game for sitting in with Glee when we start rehearsals next week?"

The lanky boy nodded enthusiastically. "Absolutely: I've already talked to a bunch of people, and I think we've got a good turnout for this year," he told Will, chuckling. "So at least the music will sound good."

"Hey, with you on the team, Ted, we're going to sound awesome," Mr. Schue reassured him, patting the junior on the shoulder. "Do you want some help picking an audition song?"

Teddy shook his head—the last thing he wanted was to see Mr. Schuester cringe as the guy tried to measure up to his brother. He would figure it out on his own.

"Okay, I'll see you Friday then—you'll do great."

Teddy waited until he was alone again, then pulled out a piece of Clapton and strummed a few chords. As he opened his mouth to sing, however, his fingers started trembling and his throat felt dry.

Teddy paused, breathing deeply. He had no idea what he was going to do—how would he audition if he couldn't get the notes out?

He closed his eyes briefly, trying to find the most calming thought he could hold onto. Strangely enough, it was of the chaos that was the school. Artie had gotten past it, and Teddy himself was over halfway done. Soon, he'd be past all of this insanity, and he'd be able to show everyone what he was really capable of.

His fingers twitched against the guitar strings, plucking a familiar song. He grinned to himself and made his way to the library for some sheet music—he was going to need to practice.