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Hurricane and Fire Survival Guide

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Victoria didn't really see the point of Calculus, so she felt pretty justified in skipping it to go and smoke behind the garbage cans at the back of the school. It wasn't exactly the most hygienic way to spend her time, but the only other place in the school you could get away with smoking was where the cooler people hung out, and Victoria had a feeling she'd be eaten alive if she stepped in there. Instead she wedged her feet against the metal of the cans, slumped all the way down the wall until her head was level with her knees, and tried to ignore Bert McCracken bumming cigarettes off her.

"Victoria," he said, breathing all over her ear and attempting to look down her shirt, despite the fact that she was wearing a hoodie zipped all the way up. "Come on, why are you doing this to me? You love me. You know you want to hook me up."

"Yeah, no," she said, without looking at him. Bert McCracken had this reputation around school as being a scary, fucked up druggie, but several months of skipping class and sitting behind the trash with him had taught her that really he was more like one of those puppies who thought the best way to make friends was by humping someone's leg.

Victoria and Bert weren't really the kind of people who'd talk normally, and they didn't acknowledge each other in the halls, but that was okay. She wouldn't expect him to, and she didn't mind hanging out with him like this.

"What have you got next?" she asked after a while, and Bert shrugged, then started in on a long monologue about what he and Jepha did last Saturday. The story bumped around and got pretty incoherent pretty fast, so Victoria tuned out after a while, leaning her head back against the wall and tapping her feet against the trash. Eventually the bell rang for lunch and Victoria stood up, mumbled a half-hearted "see you later".

"Victorrrrria," Bert sang. She turned around and he offered her a wide, hopeful grin. She sighed, fished out a cigarette and chucked it at him.

"Thank you, cuddlepie," he said, and Victoria turned around and headed for the cafeteria.

---

She didn't know why she went to lunch, really. She should bring a packed one from home and just stay wherever she was – although eating lunch behind the trash was kind of gross, and she didn't really want to see more of Bert chewing with his mouth open than she already did – because the cafeteria sucked. And the cafeteria food sucked. And all the people sitting in the cafeteria and eating cafeteria food sucked. It was like a big, smelly room of… suckage, although Victoria was starting to get why her English grades were slipping.

Normally she sat with Brendon, who was even lower on the social spectrum than she was. Victoria didn't really mind not having any friends at school most days, but sometimes she got tired and lonely and even people who she knew well enough to sit next to in classes didn't fix anything. The cafeteria was generally a physical reminder of how happy everyone was, sitting in their groups with their friends and talking and laughing while Victoria and Brendon picked at their food and chatted half-heartedly about homework. Some days – most days – Victoria just got sick of it all.

She got her tray and her food and turned around, and Brendon was already at their table, watching her and smiling a little. Brendon was a sweet kid; fidgety and easily distracted and he checked his watch like every three seconds, and Victoria was pretty sure he had a mild case of ADD, but nice enough. She sat down across from him and he smiled wider, and then quietened when she didn't say anything. His leg was bouncing on the floor, shaking the table just slightly.

"What's up?" Brendon asked.

Victoria shrugged. "Not much," she said. "Skipped calculus. You?"

"Not much," Brendon echoed. He looked up at her and then huffed a laugh out of the corner of his mouth, pushing his perpetually slipping glasses higher up his nose. "We have English next."

"Yup," Victoria said, and sipped her soda. Brendon subsided into silence and Victoria spent the rest of lunch wondering absently what the song he was humming was.

---

English got off to a bad start. Victoria went to the bathroom at the end of lunch, miscalculated how much time she had and ended up walking in late. That meant everyone turned and stared at her, and she promptly went red, tripped over Travis McCoy's insanely long legs and almost landed flat on her face. Greta Salpeter, the fucking debater and cheerleader and pretty much most popular girl in the school, giggled up at her and Victoria scowled and went to her seat as quickly as she could.

It didn't get any better, either. Their teacher was sick and the substitute just slept at the desk, so Victoria spent the whole time staring blankly at her notebook while the rest of the class sank into a gradual uproar. Brendon said things to her now and again but eventually even he got distracted and spent most of the time texting under the desk. Victoria felt small and tired and sad in the stupid, helpless way she got, and eventually she went to the bathroom and rang Gabe.

"Victoria," he answered. "Light of my life, flower of my soul. What can I do you for?"

"Watch your mouth," she said automatically, and he laughed down the phone at her. Something unclenched in her gut and she slumped against the door, relaxing. "Hey, you busy?"

"Not really," he said. "Hanging out with Bilvy. We've got an exam day after tomorrow but Bill seemed to think the best form of studying is to dance to Prince."

"Think you could come pick me up after school?" she asked, and kept her voice steady. Gabe's voice softened anyway, and she thought something idle about him knowing her too well.

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, you get out in like, half an hour, right?"

"Uh-huh."

"I'll be there," he told her, and then shouted something to William about putting some decent clothes on, fucker. Victoria grinned and hung up, and she was already feeling better by the time she got back to English.

The last half hour went by horribly slowly, though Brendon noticed a badge on Victoria's bag for some band he liked. Victoria hadn't put the badge there – her decorated bag was pretty much against all her Tried and True Methods To Avoid Even More Hell In High School, but Ryland and Alex had commandeered it one day and it wasn't like she had had a choice. She didn't know the band very well, either, but Brendon launched into this huge discussion about the merits of their first EP versus the debut album, and his face was bright and engaged for the first time in forever, so she let him go on and nodded occasionally in the right places.

The bell rang, finally, and she slipped out of the class as fast as she could, didn't bother going back to her locker. She had all the stuff she needed for homework, she was pretty sure, and anyway, Gabe was waiting and she wanted to get out of there.

Gabe was, as promised, leaning against his car when she got out the school gate. He was chatting with this other dude with flip-flops and a scruffy face and a nice smile, but when he saw Victoria he waved his hand and walked towards her, slung an arm around her shoulders and pulled her comfortably into his armpit.

"Blargh, Gabe, blargh," Victoria said, and tried not to flail too much. "Seriously, man, come on, lemme out. It's smelly in here."

Gabe released her with a grin and then shoved her into the car. "We miss you all the time, Victoria," he said solemnly. "Every day, every hour, nay, every moment. Why must you be a squeaky high schooler while we're all struggling at college?"

"I'm not squeaky," she said, kicking her feet up onto the dashboard as Gabe pulled out onto the main road. "Who were you talking to?"

"Some dude," Gabe said, shrugging. "I've seen him around at shows and stuff. He was picking up a friend, too. There's millions of us out there. Helpless chauffeurs, ready to jump at our companion's beck and call—"

"Gabriel," Victoria said sternly, and Gabe looked at her.

"Bad day?" he asked, almost gently, and Victoria huffed out a breath and slumped backward in her seat, didn't say anything. Gabe reached over and pushed her hair out of her face. "One more year," he said.

"I know." She did.

---

The awesome thing about Victoria's life was that as much as school sucked, she could call up Gabe and then he didn't even bother taking her home, just went straight to his and Bill's apartment. Also her friends had this sixth sense about when she had had a shitty day, so that afternoon they all rolled up and by the time she was going up the stairs she could already hear Nate and Sisky killing themselves laughing over something and Alex playing guitar and she relaxed immediately.

Ryland emerged from the doorway and swept her up in a hug and Victoria tried not to cling very obviously. Ryland was her first ever friend at school, and unlike Gabe he hadn't exploited that to take a twisted and vaguely fatherly delight in interrogating her sometimes, and Victoria missed him more than anyone else, sometimes.

The trouble was, Victoria had come to Lakeview High as a freshman and had no idea how to talk to anyone. She wasn't exactly shy, she just thought that she wasn't very good at making friends. Then she joined the drama club on a whim, and spent an hour the first day talking with Ryland, who was a junior but awesome and liked her anyway, and then he took her to sit with him at lunch and Gabe and William adopted her and the rest was history. Victoria had never doubted that she had the best friends in Chicago, if not the world, but they were all two years older than her, and since they'd graduated she had been on her own.

Luckily, her first day of school without them had also been Brendon's first day at the school, after moving from his old school. He'd asked, twisting his fingers in the strap of his bag, if she minded him sitting with her, and so Victoria wasn't completely alone. Brendon wasn't a friend, though, and she spent most of the school days calculating how long there was before she could go and hang out with the guys. She managed to drift through school mostly unnoticed, though for a while people used to approach her, ask her if she could introduce them to Gabe or William, who had always been the popular ones. Victoria was selfish, though, didn't like sharing, and after a while people had stopped paying attention. Once, she'd been late to a class, had heard the teacher call her name and then someone ask, "Who's that?"

Inside, Bill was indeed dancing around the room to Prince, dragging a hapless Chiz with him. Victoria wasn't entirely sure where Chiz had come from. Gabe had picked her up from school one day last year and they'd gone back to the apartment and there had been a new guy kicking Siska's ass at Halo. Victoria had stared until the Butcher finally flapped a dismissive hand at him and said, "Oh, yeah, that's Chiz. He's from Australia but we're gonna keep him now."

Chiz had just looked up at her and grinned apologetically. "Hey," he said. "Victoria, right? There's lamingtons on the counter, if you want some. My brother sent them." Needless to say, Victoria had liked him immediately.

Victoria flopped on the couch. Nate came and sat next to her and Victoria scrubbed a hand absently through his hair. Nate was actually the same age as her, but he went to a different school and, from what she could gather, was insanely popular. She would have been jealous if it wasn't for the fact that Nate was the most lovable dude in the whole world. He sighed and said, "You got homework?"

"Yeah," she said. "Or else the chemistry test tomorrow is gonna kill me."

"You're not going to be able to study here," he pointed out wryly, and Victoria nodded, making a face.

"I won't stay long," she said.

"What!" Bill cried, graciously allowing Chiz to go free and sprawling out across her lap. "But we're having a movie night, Victoria! We can't do it without you."

Victoria narrowed her eyes. "And by movie night you mean Labyrinth, and—"

"David Bowie's crotch," William agreed. "Don't even think about leaving."

Victoria glared at him and then pulled out her phone to tell her mom she wouldn't be home tonight.

---

She woke up with Ryland and Gabe sandwiching her and William curled at her feet. For a moment, she lay warm and comfortable, if a little squished, and considered getting up to make pancakes, before she caught sight of the clock radio and promptly shoved herself to her feet, accidentally kicking William in the head as she did so. The guys on the mattress made various grumpy, asleep noises and Victoria rushed into the bathroom to brush her teeth and got changed into some of William's clothes, rolling up the hems on his jeans and sniffing the underarms of a t-shirt cautiously.

She left while everyone was still asleep, pausing at the doorway to cast a wistful glance at them. Her head hurt – there had been a couple of bottles of beer passed around, and not much sleep, and she resigned herself to yet another failed chemistry test as she ran for the bus.

By lunchtime, her head felt ready to explode and swallowing aspirins in between subjects didn't really seem to be helping. Brendon was at their table again and when she got there he looked up and greeted her with an especially big grin. "Hi," he said. "So, I have an idea."

Victoria blinked at him. "Yeah?" she said.

Brendon's smile widened. He looked happy today, which was weird, because Victoria would say Brendon was usually a happy guy – he was always smiling, at any rate – but today his eyes were bright and he seemed excited, rather than full of restless energy. He said, "Dude, drama. I was thinking about it last night and that could be, like, that could be awesome, right, joining the club? Everyone said you were really good at it until you quit junior year but come on, it could be a comeback."

"Uh," Victoria said, rubbing her nose with the heel of her hand. "I don't know, Brendon."

"Come on," he said. "It'll be good – the other people in it are kind of cool, I think? I mean, like… loud and stuff but nice enough."

Victoria knew who was in the drama club. Of course she did; she still went to the productions, even though she inevitably ended up jealous and sad that she couldn't do them with her boys anymore. Drama used to be the best thing about school, the intensity of it, the way they all knew each other so well, the way they could have whole conversations made up of quotes from the play they were rehearsing at the time. When the boys had graduated, Victoria had quit, hadn't wanted to do it without them, knowing it wouldn't be the same.

Now, the drama club was made up of people like Greta Salpeter and Pete Wentz and Katie Kay – people who were popular without even trying, people who were in everything with big smiles and photos in the yearbooks, the people everyone admired. You were considered a freak if you don't want to be best friends with them. Victoria would rather be a freak.

"I don't think so," Victoria told him. "I kind of got over drama."

Brendon's smile dimmed. He rested his cheek on his hand and said, softly, "But people say you were so good."

"Not anymore," she said, looking at her plate.

Brendon sighed and pushed up out of his chair. "Okay, then," he said. "Just, like… think about it? I don't want to join on my own."

"Okay," Victoria said. She felt kind of bad because Brendon was obviously disappointed, but whatever, it wasn't like she owed him anything. When she looked up Brendon was just standing there, watching her, and so she added, "I'll think about it."

"Good," Brendon said. Eleanor Rigby started playing in his pocket and he fished his phone out, glancing at the screen, and when he answered this incredible smile spread over his face, bright and soft at the same time. Victoria blinked at him and he waggled his fingers in a wave at her over his shoulder as he walked away, clutching the phone to his face like a lifeline.

---

When she got home, her mom was already back from work and making spaghetti sauce for dinner in the kitchen. Victoria put her hands on her hips, immediately on guard. She said, cautiously, "You're home early."

"Hi, hon," her mom said, looking up at her and smiling. "Did you have a nice day?"

"It was okay," Victoria said, shrugging. She went and dumped her bag in her room, and was about to log on and harass Alex over AIM about helping her with an essay when her mom called for her. She headed back into the kitchen and sighed, leaning against the door. "What?"

"Do you have a lot of homework tonight?" her mom asked. Victoria raised an eyebrow.

"Not much," she said warily. "Why?"

"I wanted to talk to you," her mom said. "Are you hungry? Do you want a snack?"

"I kind of outgrew the need for cookies and juice at thirteen," Victoria said, but she took the apple her mom handed her anyway, sitting on the table and swinging her legs. "What's up?"

"Oh, I just wanted to see how things are," her mom told her airily. "School and friends and things. What's going on?"

"Nothing," Victoria said, narrowing her eyes. Nothing good could come of this. "Everything's normal. And fine."

"I've been thinking," her mom said. "About you hanging out with those older boys all the time."

"They're only two years older," Victoria said immediately.

"They're in college," her mom said.

"They were in high school when we met," Victoria said. She tried not to glare, knowing it would only piss her mom off. "So what?"

"I just worry," her mom said. "Don't get angry with me, Victoria. I just think it's strange how your only friends are those boys, and that they're not your age."

"Mom," she said. "Seriously, I thought we were past the 'oh my God, how dare you be friends with boys' stage."

"Yes," her mom said. "Don't be difficult, Victoria, come on. You know I think Ryland and Gabe are very funny, and that William boy is a sweetheart. I just think it would be good for you to spend some time with friends your own age, going through the same experiences as you. You never talk about anyone from school. Honey, if things are difficult I understand. I went to high school, too—" Victoria scoffed, but her mom continued undeterred, "—so I know how tricky things can be. But if you're not making an effort to be friends with people then nothing's going to happen, and you're going to have a very lonely life."

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Victoria said, ignoring the annoyed face her mom made. "Do you think you could stop lecturing me for once? I have really good friends, and high school's just a waste of time—"

"Just because you have close friends didn't mean you should shut yourself off to the rest of the world," her mom bit out. "It's like you can't be bothered even trying!"

"For your information," Victoria snapped, "I joined the drama club today. So there." Then she stalked out of the room.

---

By the next morning, Victoria was beginning to realise what a colossal mistake she was made. Her mom was delighted, but now she had to go and tell Brendon and then actually do it and Victoria really, really didn't want to join the drama club.

She left early so that she had time to walk to school and call Ryland on the way. He picked up and immediately launched into this huge story about the minor panic attack William and Gabe had had about their exam last night, and the all nighter of studying and trying to inject caffeine directly into their bloodstreams that had followed, complete with Gabe going a little bit crazy at around four and insisting that he could remember quotes better while balancing on his head.

Victoria laughed and said, "So are you too exhausted to talk, then?"

"Nah, I'll crash in an hour or two," Ryland told her. "They'll wake me when they get back so they can rehash the whole thing and have celebratory pizza. You gonna come round?"

"Maybe," she said. "Mom's on my back about stuff again."

"We're being bad influences?" Ryland inquired sympathetically. "You need one of us to come round and help her with the groceries again?"

"It wasn't you, it was me," she informed him. "I'm an anti-social, selfish brat wrapped up in my own misadventures. Only she said it more condescending."

"Well, I've always thought so," he said, voice thick with laughter. "What's she going to make you do?"

"Nothing," Victoria said miserably. "I've told her I'm signed up for the drama club."

Ryland hesitated before asking, "And are you?"

"I will be," she said.

Ryland was quiet for a moment again, and Victoria tensed, not sure what to expect. "Okay," he said, "Okay, Victoria, don't hate me, but this could actually be kind of awesome?"

Victoria gaped at the phone, forgetting Ryland couldn't see her. "What?" she hissed. Ryland laughed softly down the line at her.

"Don't be pissed," he told her. "Just… you loved drama. Do love it—"

"Yeah, with you!"

"—and I think this could be good for you. It'll be something new, at least, something different to stop you from being so bored all the time."

"What kind of friend are you?" Victoria mumbled, scuffing her toe along the crack in the pavement.

Ryland laughed again, told her, "The kind who knows you pretty well."

---

At this point, Victoria had decided that a couple of weeks of the school year was more than enough to decide that Calculus was a waste of time, so she skipped it again, heading out to find Bert leaning against the wall, as if he was waiting for her. He smiled at her, waggling his fingers in a funny little wave, and it was so startlingly similar to the sweet way Sisky would say hi that another wave of loneliness rolled over her. She wished Bert was the kind of guy she could sidle up to and get a hug from.

She barely knew him, though, and he was smellier than Mike on Mike's bad days. Instead, she said, "Hey."

"I'm worried about your education," Bert told her, grinning behind his hand. "Are you attending class, young lady?"

"I don't think I've ever seen you in a lesson," Victoria retorted, and Bert snorted and reached out to ruffle her hair. She closed her eyes, leaned into it almost by mistake, and then turned pink, but Bert blinked at her, looking strangely pleased and almost shy.

They didn't talk much, but Bert shared his last cigarette with her when she realised she had left her pack at home, passing it back and forth between them, and when the bell rang and she went to leave for English, he caught her elbow.

"Victoria," he said, drawling out her name. Victoria cocked her head to the side, raised an eyebrow, impatient.

When it became clear that Bert wasn't going to respond to that, she eventually snapped, "What?"

Bert pouted, eyes big and dark staring up at her. "You shouldn't be so mean, Victoria," he said, releasing her arm. "People don't like it when you're mean to them."

"Yeah, yeah," Victoria said, walking away. Bert started to giggle, again.

"You should smile!" he shouted, just before she headed around the corner. Victoria stopped, turned back and stared at him, and Bert just sat there giggling, kicking his feet against the ground in weird, demented glee.

---

Brendon was late to English, clattering through the doorway and apologising in a low, fast voice before coming to sit next to Victoria. He whispered, "Hi."

"Hey," Victoria murmured back. "You're late."

"I had a study period this morning, slept in longer than I should have," he answered, and ran his hands through his hair, looking flustered. When he pushed it back she caught sight of a red mark just under his ear; she blinked, leaning forward almost by accident. Brendon dropped his head so that his hair was in the way again and smiled warily at her, cheeks pink.

"So," she said quietly, a little embarrassed at being caught out looking. "I was thinking – about the drama thing—"

"Oh," Brendon said, and started to grin. He looked delighted, and Victoria couldn't help but smile back. "Really? Oh, awesome, this could be so much fun!"

"Yeah," Victoria said, "Really."

"Oh, man," Brendon said, beaming at her. "This is so cool, I heard they haven't chosen the production yet or anything, so we'll totally fit in—"

"I'm sorry, Brendon," Mr Haines snapped, glaring at them. "I didn't realise that you were going to have the nerve to be late and then keep talking. Please let us know when you're ready for the lesson to continue."

"Sorry, sir," Brendon said, and snuck a mischievous glance at Victoria that, surprisingly, had her clamping her lips tight together to keep from laughing. They didn't speak for the rest of the lesson, but at lunchtime Brendon led the way to the sign up sheet for Drama, chattering fast and excited about how awesome this was going to be, how his friend wrote these amazing plays and poems and stuff and got Brendon to read them aloud, so he had some practice with monologues, but this was different, doing it in a group, this was going to be fun.

Victoria followed in his wake, a little bemused. Brendon hadn't been this animated in all the time she had known him, but she wasn't sure she minded, and she gave him a high five when he stretched out his hand.

---

She caught the bus home that afternoon, walking slowly and feeling sorry for herself in an absentminded kind of way. Her mom wasn't back from work, and she thought a few bitter thoughts about her mom only pretending to be a family when she was annoyed at Victoria for whatever reason, but that made her feel guilty after a while and she got on with her homework without procrastinating too much.

By eight o'clock, her mom still wasn't back and was clearly going to be spending another late night at the office. Victoria ate dinner in front of the TV and was just, in a fit of bored desperation, considering getting a really early night when Gabe emailed her through the new demos and she stayed up way too late playing around with them, figuring out some arrangements.

A little past one her mom's car finally swung into the driveway, and Victoria scrambled to turn her light off and climb into bed, feigned sleep when her mom peeped in. Victoria opened one eye warily; her mom looked exhausted, leaning in the doorway for a moment and rubbing her eyes, and Victoria almost wanted to get up and give her a hug, tell her she was doing good, had been doing good for the past four years.

Then she remembered that because of her mom's obsession with having a perfect, well-rounded daughter she had to go to a Drama Club meeting during her free period tomorrow morning, and the urge dissipated pretty quickly.

---

She was running a bit late for school, and she turned the corner just as a car pulled up in front of it. For a moment she thought it was a parent dropping off a kid, but then the blur of a person in the passenger seat leaned over and they and the driver were kissing for a moment, unmistakeable, before the door opened and the person jumped out.

Victoria blinked; it was unmistakeably Brendon, wearing his pink hoodie and his red glasses. She squinted after the car, but it was already turned around and headed off in the opposite direction, and Brendon was hurrying through the gate, running his hands through his hair.

"Hey!" Victoria called, and caught up with him. He turned to look at her, mouth obviously swollen, and started to flush, slowly, but Victoria decided against asking him who it was. They weren't really close enough for that, she didn't think. Instead, she smiled and knocked him lightly on the arm, said, "Drama. You happy?"

"Yeah!" Brendon said, eyes lighting up. "I really think – I mean, school is kind of boring, this could be fun."

"Or unnecessarily stressful in our final year," she said dryly, and tried not to feel bad when he darted that worried glance at her.

They weren't the last ones into the room, but there were already a fair few people dragging chairs into a circle – Greta Salpeter and Katie Kay, of course, that girl who did the scary piano recital a year ago, Joe Trohman with the constant pot-smell, and some other people she vaguely recognised. They were all, undeniably, part of the cool group, whatever the fuck that meant, and she and Brendon hung back instinctively, shoulders bumping.

Piano Recital Girl looked up though, and noticed them. "Oh, hey," she said, and her voice was low and rough like Victoria wouldn't have expected it to be. She blinked, and tried not to notice the way the girl was sprawling on her chair, legs spread slightly, skirt riding up. "You guys just signed up, right?"

"Right," Brendon said, and the girl leaned forward.

"I'm Amanda," she said. She pointed around the circle. "Greta, Katie, Patrick, Singer, Cash, Hayley. Pull up a coupla chairs. We're just waiting for, uh—" she looked around for confirmation, "Pete and Ashlee now, right?"

"Yup," Singer said. He smiled at them, friendly, and Victoria blinked at him. "Pete likes to make an entrance." Patrick leaned over and punched his shoulder lightly, like it was automatic, and Victoria exchanged a glance with Brendon and then grabbed a chair, dragging it nervously up next to Brendon's. She ended up with Amanda on her other side, who nodded at her lazily, and she tried not to play with the hem of her shirt, make it too obvious that she didn't belong.

Pete Wentz appeared in the doorway, shouting over his shoulder. "Oh my God, I knew you were fucked up," he yelled, with a huge, stupid grin. "Carebears, what the actual fuck, do you have to be a typical fucking cheerleader—"

"You're the one trying to read symbolism into Teletubbies," Ashlee Simpson said, appearing behind him. She was actually carrying a pompom. Victoria didn't think people did that outside of bad teen movies.

"Impromptu survey," Pete announced to the group. "Teletubbies or Carebears?"

Ashlee made a gesture over his shoulder, and everyone except Brendon and Victoria promptly said, "Carebears."

"Fuck you all," Pete said cheerfully, and sank into the empty seat next to Brendon. He looked at him and frowned. "Do I know you?"

Brendon looked slightly panicked; he shook his head wildly. "No," he said. "I'm new. I just—"

Victoria had a horrible feeling that Brendon was going to go mad and say something like moved to the country, and these guys were obsessed with themselves, she knew, but she was also pretty sure that that might make them suspicious. She cut in, said, "Joined." Then she turned red.

Pete looked at her, and grinned. "I know you," he said. "You hung out with that senior. Gabe." He paused and turned his head to the side, considering. "I thought you'd moved schools."

"Jesus, Pete," Ashlee said, and cuffed him lightly behind the head. She rolled her eyes at Victoria, who kind of wanted to sink into the floor and die. "Ignore him. He spends an average of six months doing his hair."

"Sure," Victoria said awkwardly.

"Anyway," Amanda said. "Shall we move on?"

They all got into this deep involved conversation about what they wanted to do for the final production. ("Musical!" Singer said, before he got shot down and spent the rest of the two periods thumb wrestling with Cash.) There was debate mostly about what play they should do – "Pete wanted to write ours," Amanda explained in a low voice, "but generally we feel like enough people are doing amateur self-written high school plays, you know, we want to be something more," – and Victoria sat silent through it, tried not to jump up and say oh, fuck, yeah! when Brecht was briefly discussed.

Brendon contributed, hesitantly at first, and then smiling and looking satisfied when nobody shot him down, and when the bell rang for third period, nobody looked at all annoyed that they'd gotten approximately nowhere. They had a term and a half to get a play together, Victoria thought, a little bitchily. Were they so fucking arrogant that they thought they could pull it together like this?

On her way out, Greta knocked their elbows together and Victoria ducked her head, waiting for the snide comment. Greta was quiet for a moment, though, and mostly she just looked confused when she said, "Hey."

"What?" Victoria said, looking up. Greta turned slightly pink.

"I'll see you in English," was all she said, and Victoria gave her a blank stare for a moment before she moved past, too eager to escape to wait for Brendon.

---

She wasn't very hungry, so at lunch she went and sat at the trash cans with Bert. He started prattling about something he and Jepha did last night – it involved a lot of puppies and farts, as far as she could tell; she was only half-listening – and then Brendon appeared, rounding the corner and smiling at them.

"What's up," he said, a little breathlessly, sinking into place on the other side of Bert. Bert put him in a headlock and petted his hair a little absently, ignoring Brendon's struggle to get free.

"Hey," Victoria said, because nothing was up, and she had nothing else to say.

Brendon didn't seem to need anything; he finally got free and smiled at her. "Did you like drama?" he asked. She shrugged, and his face fell. "I thought they seemed nice."

Victoria blinked at him. "Sure," she said.

Brendon twisted his mouth into a weird shape. "Anyway," he said awkwardly, and scratched his elbow. Victoria felt bad for shutting down the conversation so fast, and wished Bert hadn't picked now to go quiet, humming idly to himself and peering up at the sky.

"What've you got next?" she asked.

"Umn, Music," Brendon said, turning red. "But I think I'm going to ditch."

"Oh, rebel," she said. "Is that why you came out here?"

"I came here to talk to you," Brendon said, and shrugged. "But I'll tell my friend to pick me up from here." He pulled out his phone and typed something in, and then he sat down and started up a conversation with Bert about Bert's band. Victoria hadn't even known Bert had a band.

About five minutes before the end of lunch, Brendon's phone vibrated and he looked up, across the asphalt to where a car had pulled into the car park a way off. He stood up and waved. "Seeya."

"Bye," Victoria said, and Bert warbled something that sounded like it was from The Sound of Music. Brendon set off across the pavement as someone got out of the car, leaned against the passenger side, and Victoria squinted, wondering. She saw a lot of scarves, and then when Brendon got close, they put an arm around his neck and kissed him.

Ah, the elusive girlfriend, she thought wryly, and checked her phone again to see how long before she could go home.

It was a pretty boring day, really, despite the introduction of drama. She went back to the apartment, afterwards, but the guys were all in a really bad mood – Alex and Ryland were arguing again, Ryland at his most stubborn and annoying, where he tried to get her on his side without making it look like that was what he was doing.

Around the time Ryland said, snidely, "Anyway, good luck trying to pass drama theory on your own, asshole," and Alex said, "I'm sorry, were you talking to me, or did you just want to listen to the sound of your own voice for a while?" Victoria decided she'd had enough, and headed out without bothering to say goodbye.

She caught the bus home, and was weirdly relieved to find her mom back early. "How was drama?" her mom asked, and Victoria made some mindless comment, avoiding the question, but she gave her mom a hug anyway, and rubbed her feet while they watched a movie.

"Your boys fighting again?" her mom asked, smiling crookedly.

"What, I can totally be nice to you even if they aren't," Victoria said, and her mom started laughing, and she started laughing too, and fell forward to hug her mom and watch the rest of the movie sprawled over her, while her mom stroked her hair.

---

Drama club became, like everything else in Victoria's life, something to sit through, quiet and unnoticeable. Brendon got really into it in a way that Victoria half-expected, and the rest of the group seemed okay around him, bewildered but friendly, and by the end of the fourth meeting he and Greta were doing duets to Aqua together. Victoria wondered if she should tell him that she wouldn't mind if he sat with them at lunch and in class and stuff, but she couldn't be bothered interfering in things like that anymore.

The group had moved from the potential of doing Oscar Wilde to Shakespeare, and were now arguing about how much of a cliché it would be to do Romeo and Juliet, and whether it would be more or less of one if they modernised it (more, it was decided eventually, despite Pete's protests that he was way hotter than Leonardo DiCaprio). Victoria sat quietly in her chair and didn't say anything, daydreamed about when the boys were still at school and how by now they'd already be well into rehearsing the play, and hosting impromptu crew parties at Gabe's place in celebration of how awesome they were.

Ryland had long since given up on asking her if she was enjoying it, driven too easily from amusement to annoyance by her consistent answer of a shrug. Victoria felt a little bad about that, but she didn't really want to talk about it. When her mom asked, she said that it was good and that they hadn't picked a play yet. When Brendon tried to draw her into the discussion, she added a word or two response, and then sat silently again.

It wasn't quite as easy to pass unnoticed in the group as it was in other classes. She suspected that – despite a continued lack of supervision – they have been given a pep talk on being nice to the new kids. It seemed to be working well for Brendon, anyway; he looked cheerier, didn't check his phone as much, and though he still sat with Victoria in the classes they have together, he'd talk across the room to someone else in the group for a while before he turned back to her. It was good that he was happy, Victoria thought. All the stuff about high school being a hellhole wasn't exactly untrue, but she thought there was generally at least one year to get out of it that was alright. For her, it was the first two. Brendon was just lucky that he got to go out on a high note.

Victoria wasn't unhappy, anyway. Not really. Not all the time. It was easier to just drift through the days, though, unconnected, unconcerned. It was always weird when someone called her out of it, and so she jumped a little when Greta caught up with her and Brendon one day as they were leaving.

"Hey!" she said brightly, and touched Victoria's elbow.

Victoria turned slowly and Greta smiled at her blithely, unintimidated. Brendon was fidgeting beside her and Victoria said, "You have free periods next, right? Go, you don't want to miss your ride."

"Seeya," Brendon said, and he was gone, hunching his shoulders against the cold but still practically bouncing as he jogged down the steps. No matter how much he was enjoying drama, the highlight of Brendon's day still seemed to be leaving. Victoria watched him go a little wistfully before she turned back to Greta.

"What's up?"

Greta blinked at her, eyes wide and shocked. "Oh," she said. "Oh, wow, I didn't – wow. Do you, uh, like him?"

Victoria surprised herself – and, clearly, Greta – by staring back for a moment before she started, helplessly, to laugh. "Oh, no," she said, giggling. "Brendon? No, I – I like my guys taller than me, you know?" If I like guys at all, she thought, and then shut that line of thought down, because she wasn't particularly interested in pursuing it, especially not now. "Anyway," she added. "I think he has a girlfriend."

"No kidding?" Greta peered after his pink-clad form. "I guess that's who he's always talking to on his cell. Huh. I always kinda figured he was, um."

"Well," Victoria said, trying not to bristle. She fucking hated this – the petty-minded stereotypes, the stupid way these kids thought that just because they owned the school they could make judgments on everyone. "Appearances can be deceiving."

Greta turned pink. "No," she said. "I mean – because I thought I saw him kissing a guy one time."

"Okay, sure," Victoria said coolly. "Anyway. What do you want?"

Greta flushed harder. She still looked pretty, though, not like Victoria, who just looked red and stupid when she blushed. "I just wanted to know," Greta began, "what you thought of the Romeo and Juliet idea. You're kind of quiet."

"I think it's good," Victoria said immediately.

Greta made a face. "Yeah, but that's what you always say," she pointed out. "What do you really think?"

Victoria blinked at her, unprepared. "Umn, I don't know," she said. Greta folded her arms, though, and looked determined, and after a moment Victoria shrugged. "Okay, so it's pretty overdone," she told her. "And modernizing it is, too. So do it, if you want, but find something really new, something you want to bring out. If – make them different, or something, something interesting. You're – we're kind of missing a director, to be honest. They're important, even if the teacher you had last year wasn't."

"Oh," Greta said. She looked surprised, but pleased. "Okay, that made sense. Thanks, Vicky."

"I hate that nickname," Victoria informed her, and, turning on her heel, walked away.

---

Gabe picked her up again that afternoon. she wasn't expecting it and it was only by chance that she spotted him; he was sitting in the car, not bothering to get out, and drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. Victoria looked at him and felt something low and wary stir in her, because his face looked blank and there was no music playing. Then she opened the door and got in.

"Hey," she said, and Gabe nodded tersely, pulled away from the curb. That meant he was in the silent pissed off mood, not the ranty one. This mood was generally worse, and Victoria kicked off her shoes, propped her feet up on the dashboard, and got comfortable. They were probably going to be driving for a while.

"D'you have food?" he asked abruptly.

Victoria shook her head. "I have cash, though," she told him. "Want to go through Burger King or something?"

"Yeah, thanks," Gabe said. He looked over at her, momentarily sheepish. "I forgot my wallet."

"That was smart," Victoria commented. She didn't ask him what was up. She already knew, just not the details. There was only one person who got under Gabe's skin like this.

When they'd gotten fries and Pepsi and some truly disgusting cheeseburgers, Gabe turned onto a highway, shovelling food into his mouth as he went, and Victoria searched through her schoolbag for some homework Gabe could help her with. English wouldn't work today, obviously – Gabe got remarkably sulky and stubborn at times, and Victoria wasn't a moron – but there was some music notation that wasn't due until next week which she thought might do. Gabe ignored her at first, but it didn't take long before he was sneaking glances at it propped up against her knees.

Eventually he leaned over and stabbed his finger into the middle of the page. "Move that up a fifth," he said.

"Eyes on the road," Victoria replied calmly, but she made the change and Gabe relaxed a bit. After a while, he started talking and Victoria put her finished work away and stretched, eating her – now congealed and even grosser – hamburger, slipping easily into conversation.

"So," she said eventually. "Where are we going?"

"Uh, I dunno," Gabe said. "New Jersey?"

Victoria rolled her eyes. "Okay, sure." She looked at the clock on the dash. "If we don't head back now, you're gonna miss Iron Chef."

"My life is so much cooler than that," Gabe grumped, and kept driving. Victoria shrugged.

"Just saying."

Gabe looked at her a little guiltily. "Hey," he said. "Suarez got us another show."

That made her sit up, and grin. "Really? Where?"

"That little all ages club, near campus," Gabe told her. "Two Fridays from now."

"Awesome," Victoria said, feeling that familiar little jump of nerves and excitement in her stomach. They didn't get to play as often as any one of them would like, still trying to break into the scene, but the shows had been more frequent recently, and – half-drunk, bare minimum, bored crowds or not – Victoria couldn't help but feel like they were getting somewhere.

Something vibrated against her ass and she jumped, digging underneath the seat, between the gap. It was Gabe's phone, chucked aside haphazardly, and Victoria glanced at the screen and then looked at Gabe, bit her lip. "It's William," she said.

Gabe sat a little straighter, shoulders tightening. "Put it on speaker," he said.

"Don't be an asshole," she warned him, with a slight feeling of dread, and did so, setting the phone between them.

"Hey, bro!" Gabe said cheerfully, and Victoria sighed, slumping back in her seat. "What's up?"

"Oh," William said, voice tinny and resigned through the speaker. "You're still pissed, then?"

"What are you talking about, dude?" Gabe was staring grimly ahead of him and it was kind of creepy, Victoria thought, the juxtaposition between his face and his bright, slightly manic voice. "S'all good!"

"Listen," William said wretchedly. "I just—"

"It's all good," Gabe practically carolled, and overtook a mini, glaring through the window at its driver and flipping them off for no reason that Victoria could see.

William sighed, the sound of it strange and distorted through Gabe's phone. "Alright," he said. "Just. Where are you."

"Taking my girl for a ride," Gabe sing-songed.

"Hi, Bill," Victoria said.

"Make sure he doesn't drive off the road?" William asked, and Gabe clenched his jaw but didn't say anything.

"Doing my best," Victoria told him.

"Okay," William said. "Okay, just. I'll see you later, I guess."

"Bye," Victoria said, when it became clear that Gabe wasn't going to say anything. There was a too long pause and then William hung up. Victoria glared at Gabe. "I told you not to be an asshole!"

"What?" Gabe protested, and Victoria snapped,

"Turn the car around."

Gabe slanted a wary glance at her and then sighed and took the next exit, spinning around too fast as soon as he could and heading back to the highway from the opposite direction. She rubbed her face and said, "Jesus, Gabe."

"Sorry." He sounded sheepish again.

"I mean, I get enough of it when I'm actually in high school, you know?"

"Yeah."

Victoria looked at him. "You wanna crash at my place tonight?"

Gabe smiled at her, and pressed his foot to the accelerator.

Her mom must have had a good day at work – in the morning, she didn't say anything about finding them passed out half-dressed on the couch, feet in each other's faces, with an abandoned tub of ice cream melted on the floor and the menu credits of Donnie Darko playing over and over on the screen.

Gabe gave her a lift to school, and licked her ear before she got out of the car. Then he followed her out and hugged her tighter than usual, and when he drove away, it was with the window down and Justin Timberlake blaring, so she figured she did something good.

---

In drama that morning, Greta turned the discussion to how they could adapt Romeo and Juliet. "Victoria had some ideas, maybe?" she said, not looking at her, and Victoria ignored the narrow eyes Amanda and Katie had directed at her in order to scowl.

"Not really," she said. When Greta looked at her meaningfully, she sighed and protested, "Romeo and Juliet isn't even my favourite Shakespeare."

"What is?" Brendon asked curiously, the traitor, and that was how the hour and a half of rehearsal devolved into an enthusiastic discussion, led by Amanda and Ashlee in bloodthirsty fits of glee, about how best they could do Titus Andronicus.

---

She was greeted again that afternoon by Gabe's car, though this time Gabe was outside and leaning over the top, smiling at her as she approached, while William perched on the bonnet, talking to a guy with birds painted on his face. There was something faintly familiar about him, but Victoria couldn't place it as she drew closer.

"I'm going to get spoiled," she said when she reached them, and William made one of his strange faces at her, hopping off the car and saying goodbye to his friend.

"Shotgun," she said.

"Shit," he answered, and then looked hopeful. "You want to share?"

"Illegal," she reminded him, but they ended up squeezing into the front seat together anyway, Gabe laughing at their awkward flail of limbs. "Who was that guy?" she asked when they were comfortably settled.

"Dude from campus," William told her. "We have the same professor for poetry, but he's only a freshman." He paused, looking puzzled. "I wonder what he was doing here."

Victoria blinked at him. "You didn't ask him?" she said, and Gabe started laughing all over again at William's faintly embarrassed expression.

In a strange turn of events, there was no one else at the apartment. Victoria was kind of disappointed; she'd been hoping to talk to Ryland for a while about Titus Andronicus, or Romeo and Juliet, just in case she, or they – just in case. She ended up staying the night anyway, stealing a side of William's bed because she didn't feel up to another night on the couch.

A little after two, she woke up to find Gabe in there with them, sitting cross-legged and facing William, their heads bent together, talking in low voices. It didn't feel weird to her, waking up like this; more like an extension of a dream. Okay, so, maybe it was a little bit weird. It was right though, too.

"Hey," she said, groggily. "If you have first time sex while I'm in the room, I'll be really pissed."

William turned faintly pink, the way he always did, but Gabe just reached out, hand big and a little rough but comforting all the same, and stroked her hair until she fell easily back into sleep.

---

On Monday, she got to school and Brendon was there early, sitting on the steps by the gym. Brendon was never early – Victoria crossed to him uncertainly, unsure what was expected of her. When she got close enough, she could see the shadows under his eyes. They were also faintly red-rimmed. Victoria had no idea what to do in this situation. She didn't think Brendon was the type of person who needed to run lines from Taming of the Shrew when he was sad. On the other hand, maybe he'd like to listen to Justin Timberlake, but if he didn't, that could be potentially embarrassing, and Victoria didn't know. She didn't know anything, so she just sat down next to him, and awkwardly bumped her shoulder against his.

"Hey," she said, and Brendon nodded at her, pressed his sleeve to his nose and sniffled in a way that was clearly meant to indicate he had a bad cold. Brendon was a phenomenally bad actor, which was slightly worrying when coupled with his enthusiasm for drama. Victoria hesitated for a moment and then asked, "You okay?"

"Yeah," Brendon said, eyes downcast. "I just. Had a fight, you know."

"Parents?" Victoria asked sympathetically. Brendon looked suddenly startled, looking at her with no small measure of surprise and maybe a little hurt, old and tired.

"Oh, no," he said. "Umn, no, just a friend."

He bit his lip, though, and Victoria thought of the girl with the scarves waiting for him in the distance and chewed on the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. "I'm sure you'll make it up," she said.

"Maybe," Brendon allowed, and after a moment he stood up, said, "Come on, you have Calculus, I'll walk you," and it wasn't until she was in class that she realised Brendon had a free period when she had Calculus, that he hadn't needed to come to school at all until later today.

---

"Hey," Greta hissed on Thursday before lunch, catching her arm and pulling her aside. "What's up with Brendon?"

Victoria made an awkward face. She had always thought, on some level, that Brendon must be a pretty sad kid, what with the whole constantly being quiet and unassuming and nervous thing, but now she was realising that that was a serious miscalculation on her part. The days since Monday had shown her exactly what a sad Brendon actually was, and it was kind of miserable to watch, even though Victoria wouldn't have thought she really cared a huge amount for Brendon's wellbeing in the first place.

It was horribly depressing, though, to see Brendon slump through the days, looking continually upset and exhausted. He had stopped talking in the drama group meetings, sinking into his chair and leaving Victoria to pick up the slack – she had started contributing to conversation just so that Brendon's sudden silence wasn't so painfully obvious.

Not that that had worked that well, though, judging by Greta's worried face. Victoria wondered at it, at how easily Greta had decided to care about Brendon, to worry when he was unhappy. She thought, suddenly, that Greta was maybe one of the kindest people Victoria knew. Victoria didn't know whether she was annoyed by it, or whether she just pitied Greta. Probably it was the former; it was unfair, that that kind of silly Pollyanna technique could win someone prestige in high school. Victoria was tired of it.

Greta also hadn't let go of her arm. Victoria didn't look, but she could feel it, warm through her long-sleeved shirt.

"I don't know," she said.

Greta made a puzzled face at her. "Didn't you ask?"

"No," Victoria said, and shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. "I mean. We don't really know each other that well."

"You hang out together all the time," Greta pointed out. She looked puzzled, and maybe a little bit annoyed. Victoria shrugged.

"I," Greta began, and then stopped. She let go of Victoria's arm, but slowly, curling her fingers away so that her – reasonably short – nails caught, for a moment, on the threads in the cheap shirt. Victoria tucked her hands in her pockets, rocked back and forth on her heels. Greta regarded her silently for a moment longer and then shook her head, said, "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Bye," Victoria said, relieved, and headed off in the opposite direction.

That afternoon in English, Brendon looked quiet and sad as ever, but now Victoria was conscious of Greta sneaking looks at him from the front of the class, and of her surprise when Victoria had admitted that she hadn't asked him what was up. Victoria didn't think she was a bad friend, at all – she just didn't think she and Brendon were friends, really.

She was maybe a bit of a bad person.

After a while, she nudged Brendon. "Hey," she whispered, and Brendon looked over at her with eyes that were terribly resigned and unhappy, and Victoria swallowed the question in her throat, asked instead, "You want to share my iPod?"

Brendon nodded, looking relieved, and Victoria fished it out of her bag, hung her head low just in case the teacher decided to care. The time slipped away easily, but she hesitated before scurrying out to go home – she had to walk today, no hope of a lift, and her bag felt too heavy already, and she wasn't sure if skipping out on Brendon so fast would be rude – until Brendon looked at her again and smiled.

"I gotta talk to Mrs Thompson about something," he said. "You go on."

She didn't get very far, though, barely outside the door before a cautious looking guy tapped her arm and said, "Um, sorry, are you Victoria Asher?" Victoria swung around and stared at him, wrinkling her brow – he was undoubtedly about her age, but she didn't think she had seen him around the school before, and she knew nearly everyone by now, at least by sight.

"Uh, yeah," she said. "Do I—"

"No, I'm Brendon's friend," the guy said, smiling tentatively at her. "Spencer Smith, hi. I – he's pointed you out before, once or twice. Is he here?"

"Yeah, he's just inside," Victoria said, blinking and bewildered. "Are you – did you just start here, or…?"

"No, I got the afternoon off, thought I'd come pick him up," Spencer told her, and before she could say wow, that was nice of you, Brendon came barrelling through the door and launched himself at Spencer, seemingly uncaring about the rest of the students still milling around. Spencer laughed, looking delighted, and they hugged each other tight, Brendon pressing his face for a moment against Spencer's shoulder. Victoria felt out of place but couldn't help but linger, staring; she had always thought she knew what a happy Brendon was: on the rare afternoons in drama, on the occasions when he seemed cheerful and talked to her about music and bands and even, sometimes, plans for the future.

Now, she thought that she was stupidly, utterly wrong, because Brendon's whole face had lit up, and he was clutching at Spencer a little desperately, fingers digging into Spencer's shoulders. After a moment, Spencer stopped smiling, just ducked his head and held Brendon so carefully that Victoria thought instead of Gabe and William and Ryland, and felt her gaze wandering away, her eyelids heavy.

After a moment, Brendon took a breath and stepped away. "Wow," he said, "Wow," and Victoria was about to leave but Brendon turned to her, waggling his eyebrows, including her apparently automatically, and Victoria couldn't help but laugh with him, share in the joke she didn't understand.

"I – this is Victoria," Brendon said, touching her easily on the arm.

Spencer grinned and nodded, and he really couldn't be older than seventeen, baby-faced and still with a little puppy fat on him, but there was a certain shrewdness in his eyes, a care in the way that he was looking at Brendon that belied the easy smile. "I know, we've met," he said.

"You have a cool friend," she told Brendon, "Picking you up and all," and Brendon's smile widened impossibly.

"How—" he began.

"Stole the car," Spencer said easily, "and skipped class this afternoon," and Brendon bit his lip, eyes very bright.

"You gonna carry my books, too?" he asked, and Spencer laughed but, as Victoria watched, took Brendon's bag easily off him and put it on the shoulder away from Brendon, holding it out of his reach when Brendon made a face and grabbed for it back.

Feeling suddenly unwelcome, she tapped Brendon on the shoulder lightly and said, "Seeya," but he turned and grabbed her wrist, stopping her.

"Hey, you walking today?" he asked, and then, when she nodded, "We could give you a lift, if you like?" He shot a glance at Spencer, who nodded, still smiling, and Victoria didn't really hesitate that long.

"Okay, thanks," she said, partly because she really didn't feel up to the walk, and partly because she was kind of insanely curious about these two, about the warm dynamic they had. "If you're sure, that would be great."

"Course," Spencer said, easily, and she followed them a little cautiously to the car. She was almost sure she had seen it before, and now she thought about it she remembered that guy that William had been talking to, the one with birds on his cheek – but no, she must be getting mixed up. Brendon hadn't mentioned Spencer or his mysterious girlfriend – how many secret friends could a guy have?

She hopped into the back and pointed them in the direction of her house, and Spencer swung out easily onto the road, laughing when Brendon made a point of telling her to put her seatbelt on. "It's okay," he said, "I know how to drive, unlike the owner of this piece of shit," and then he looked suddenly repentant, sneaking a glance at Brendon. Victoria watched, fascinated, as Brendon's knuckles went white around the seatbelt.

"Umn," Brendon said, quietly. "Is he—"

"Ryan's a fuck," Spencer said. He sounded kind of pissed. "But he's pulled his head out of his ass, if that's what you mean."

"You shouldn't," Brendon protested weakly. "I mean, I was – it was my fault, I just—"

"Fuck's sake," Spencer snapped. "It wasn't your fault, if he can't explain something properly then you shouldn't have to – he's a fuck. But he's spent the past three days moping around and making my bedroom smell, so I think he's a sorry fuck, if that's any help."

Brendon had a small smile; Victoria watched them silently in the rear-view mirror. "Do you know if he's—"

"He's waiting at the apartment now," Spencer said, quietly, and Brendon let out a breath, sank back into the seat. "He may or may not still be sulking, though, depending upon how bitchy Jon's feeling."

"Oh," Brendon said, but he looked relieved, smiling all over again. "Oh."

Spencer looked in the mirror and met Victoria's eyes, laughing when she jolted, caught out spying. "Don't make friends who think of themselves as artists," he advised her. "It's a horrible, horrible situation, and me and Brendon are sadly stuck in it."

"Bit late for me, I think," she said, and then, when Spencer raised an enquiring brow and Brendon turned around, looked curious, she cautiously started telling a story about William's attempt to start a poetry night at his and Gabe's apartment once a week, and his ongoing temper tantrums as the rest of them competed to come up with the best dirty limerick. By the time she got to Suarez's coup d'état of There once was a woman called Tildo Brendon was almost crying with laughter, and Victoria was becoming increasingly convinced that Spencer had the best grin in the world. She only just pointed out her house in time.

"Thanks for the lift," she said, getting out of the car, and Spencer leaned easily over Brendon to wave out Brendon's window with him at her.

"It was nice meeting you," he said, and Brendon just beamed at her, huge and delighted.

"See you tomorrow," he said, and Victoria went inside and had a feeling that tomorrow, when it came, would bring Brendon in a better mood with it.

---

The following week seemed to fly by in a blur of band practice and stressing over the upcoming show; by the time Friday arrived, with Victoria shoving for room with Gabe in the mirror to fix her make-up before they headed off to the venue, she felt like she hadn't even had a chance to catch her breath.

Gabe just grinned at her, though. "You're going to be awesome," he said, and Victoria breathed out, because the thing was, she believed him. It was hard not to believe Gabe when he was like this, psyched up and ready to go out and own the stage, no matter how, and also, objectively, she knew that this was what she was good at, this was what she could do – be that enigmatic, flirtatious presence on stage, sing the back up and play the fuck out of her keytar and rock out. This was what made school worth it: because every now and then, she got to stop pretending and being so quiet all the time and ignoring the things that made her sad and be the person she wanted to be, under the lights.

It was a blur, all of them piling in the venue, and William and Sisky and Mike helping them set up, and then big hugs and those three heading off to find good spots to watch (even though Victoria knew they'd probably end up pushing up to the front, to grin up at them and dance, like they always did), and finally just Victoria and her boys backstage, tuning up, getting ready, breathing deep. It was the same frame of mind they used to have before plays during the school productions, the same way she imagined she would be when she went and studied film at college next year, and it was maybe her favourite headspace in the world, crawling with nerves but so delighted and so alive.

Then they were onstage, and people were clapping both politely and enthusiastically, depending upon how drunk they were, and Gabe was saying something delighted to them, grin dark and dirty, and they launched into the opening of The City Is At War. She could feel it already, how on they were, every beat from Nate seeming to sink into her bones, sidling up to share Alex's microphone for her bits to sing, laughing down at the crowd when William and Sisky started up the stupid little dance they made up to go along with it. She managed to do a snippet of the dance herself in the brief seconds she had between chords.

It was a long set, for them, nearly an hour, and Victoria didn't ever settle into it, didn't ever let herself forget what this was: a privilege, the best luck in the world. The lights were making her sweat and she was out of breath and twisting, dancing, tangoing with Gabe across the stage, swinging up to Ryland, dancing and dancing and dancing, because this she could do, this she could do.

It almost froze her when she looked down into the crowd and saw some all too familiar faces.

There was Brendon and the scruffy guy with the beard that she had seen waiting outside the school one day, standing a little way out of the crowd and positively beaming, nodding their heads along. That wouldn't be so bad, maybe, except that right in the centre of the crowd that had gathered in front of the stage was Greta and Pete, staring up at her. Victoria stayed completely still for a moment, feeling like a deer caught in the headlights, and then Gabe sang, I came here to make you dance tonight and Victoria had to play, but she felt awful, caught up in their terrible, unmoveable gazes, unable to look at them and unable to look anywhere else.

Greta was wearing some sort of technicolour strapless top, Victoria noticed, glancing at her compulsively, made of a material that shimmered and changed under the lights. Her breasts swelled underneath it and she was close enough that Victoria could see the gleam of sweat in the shadow of her cleavage.

Fuck, Victoria thought, fuck, and somehow, magically, she played the rest of the show.

They stumbled off stage and William, Sisky and Mike were already there, gathering around her with her band. "What's up?" Nate said, eyes big. "What's wrong?" and Victoria shivered and was, for a moment, intensely grateful that they knew her so well.

"I – there's people I know out there," she said. "From school."

"Oh," Mike said, face tightening into something like a snarl. "Assholes? We can take them outside, we totally will—"

"No," Victoria said. "No, you can't – don't be a moron, Mike, I just." She shivered, fell back a little against William, who caught her, hugging his arms around her.

"I get it," he said in her ear, quietly. "This was yours." Victoria nodded, swallowing, and the boys looked back at her for a moment, solemn.

"Go out there," Gabe said, finally. "They've put a mix on. Go out there and dance with us and ignore them, let them see how much they don't matter, how much more you are," and Victoria could kiss him, for indulging her stupid insecurities and arrogance, and because he was right, no matter how scary it was.

"Right," she said, "Right," and they got changed into fresh clothes, sharing around deodorant, wishing aloud for a venue one day where they were big enough to warrant showers after the show. Victoria lost herself in the post-show chatter, and by the time they headed back out to the floor of the club, she was feeling confident again, high, high above.

She waved at Brendon, but he and the scruffy looking guy (Ryan? she wondered) were already leaving, and he just nodded and grinned at her, giving her a big thumbs up. Greta and Pete looked meaningfully at her from where they were leaning against the bar and Greta waved her over, looking kind of hopeful, but Victoria pretended she didn't see, and took Sisky's hand when he offered it, headed out into the crowd with him.

The music was good. Victoria got into it, shaking her hips, moving with it, letting the beat catch her the same way it did onstage but without a keytar to reign her in, without the possibility of tripping over cords. The boys were all around her, dancing with each other, with strangers, with friends from the scene, and Victoria felt safe and happy despite the intrusion of Greta and Pete into her world, shook her hips and danced slow and dirty with Gabe, who was good at it, and knew that they were attracting glances, knew that she looked good. Her hair was up onstage but now she had taken it down, and it fell loose down her back, shaking out behind her when she swung her hips, making up ridiculous dance steps with Ryland, taking over the floor.

This is my night, she thought, mine, and she didn't stop moving, feeling her nerves thrum almost in time with the song, the lights above her dazzling her, flashing bright in front of her eyes. Tomorrow she would be exhausted. She would feel vaguely sick even though she was yet to drink tonight; it was enough to just come from a high that didn't need drugs. She didn't care though, not about tomorrow – even that would have some measure of triumph to it. Her friends' faces came at her like a blur in the blaze of lights, and Victoria bared her teeth in a smile, and didn't even think about not taking the beer when someone pressed it into her hand.

It was an unrecognised someone, though, and when Victoria turned around belatedly, she stopped still in the middle of the dance floor for a moment, her heart startled into double time. Greta looked back at her, wide-eyed, mouth red and open a little, and Victoria looked stupidly at the beer in her hand and then up at Greta.

"I," she said, and then stopped, shook her head.

"It looks like you'd be thirsty, onstage," Greta shouted over the music, and Victoria couldn't stop staring at her, didn't know what to say. "I didn't know you were in a band," Greta continued, and Victoria shrugged helplessly. Greta's eyes narrowed, but her voice was casually complimentary when she said, "It was good. You're good."

"Thank you," Victoria said, automatically, but Greta leaned forward, indicating she didn't hear, and Victoria repeated it, close to Greta's ear. Greta must have been really warm; Victoria could feel the heat emanating from her.

Greta grinned. "You're welcome," she said, and in the break between songs, Victoria could just hear her, clear and loud when she asked, "You wanna dance?"

"I," Victoria began, protesting, but the music started up again, a heavy, grungy beat, and Greta looked steadily at her. After a moment, Victoria swallowed and shrugged and Greta put her hands on Victoria's hips, stepped easily forward and into time with her. Victoria moved awkwardly for a moment, and then eventually she rested her forearms on Greta's shoulders, the beer tilted carefully away from Greta's hair, and they danced.

Greta was a good dancer. She was good at dancing with someone, too, guiding Victoria just enough so that Victoria knew where they're going, knew that they both looked good, and fuck, she thought, fuck, but this was a sexy song. She thought maybe she shouldn't be dancing with Greta like this, Greta who, technically, she didn't even like, and she especially shouldn't be dancing in a place like this, in a crowd thick enough that they were pressed up together, Victoria's beer really becoming a hazard, and when someone shoved at her enough to make her stumble a little, they were pressed together, Greta's breasts firm against Victoria's. Greta was shorter than her, but she was wearing heels – Victoria could meet Greta's eyes exactly on level. She just didn't want to.

In the break between songs, Victoria stepped away enough to drink from her beer, grateful for how cold it was going down her throat. She smiled awkwardly at Greta and went to move away but the next song was on already and Greta was pressed up behind her, hands so firm on Victoria's hips, tugging her in, and Victoria really, really hoped that Greta couldn't tell how ragged Victoria's breathing was, or at least that she thought it was just from the general physical exertion. Warmth was pooling in her stomach; Greta's hips were pressed right up to her ass, too close, too close.

"I get it now," Greta said in her ear, loud enough that she could be heard over the music, but it still sounded like a murmur. "I get why you hate being called Vicky."

"I – why?" Victoria asked, twisting her head enough to be heard, and that was too close, God. Victoria had known, technically, for a long time that this was what she wanted, that girls were what she liked, but her best friends were all guys and it was kind of hard in a normal American high school to really understand that properly, to get what it meant to have a girl pressed all up against her back, the warmth of her breasts, her hands, her hips, pressing into Victoria's skin.

"Because it's too normal," Greta answered, and she was smiling in this weird way, her eyes all lit up. "Because it's like – you're a rockstar."

"I'm not," Victoria countered, almost laughing, and they exchanged an amused glance, a sudden, unexpected moment of camaraderie between the awkwardness and the – the other stuff.

"Yeah, you are," Greta told her. She tilted her head and said, half into Victoria's neck, "You should see yourself," and Victoria closed her eyes for a moment, couldn't help it.

"Victoria isn't really a rockstar name," she said, when she remembered that this was some sort of conversation, and Greta shrugged.

"I think it kind of is," she said. "But like – I don't know. You need something else. A rhyme, or, or part of a song, or like. Some sort of rhythm." Then she twisted Victoria around, eyes lighting up in the flash of colours, and said, "Hey, hey, I know, I got it."

"Yeah?" Victoria asked, and Greta was nodding, smiling, looking at Victoria like maybe she was the only person in the world.

"Yeah," she said, "Yeah, I do, Vicky-T, that's what you've gotta be," and she was leaning closer, her mouth red and slightly open still and Victoria wanted for one startling, aching moment, and then she had to go, right then, immediately.

She twisted away, shouted, "Thanks for the beer!" and grabbed Ryland's wrist on her way through the crowd, pulling him away and aside. "Hey," she said, when he bent to her, "Hey, could you drive me home—" and he nodded, looking confused, glancing backwards. Victoria couldn't bear to look back at where Greta might be – might be looking at her, so she didn't, she just kept moving, out into the cold night.

"I'll just call the other guys, I think we're all leaving soon anyway," Ryland told her, still looking kind of worried, and Victoria nodded. She went and waited in the car, where it was warmer, with her knees pulled up to her chest, and when the rest of the guys got there she leaned back against Ryland and pretended to fall asleep.

---

The weekend went by too quickly. Victoria had been hoping for a bit of respite, time to formulate plans, ideas, strategies of attack. All she knew, really, was that the guys were waiting for the right moment to interrogate her – which put her constantly on guard – and that she had no idea how to face Greta Salpeter on Monday morning.

On Sunday night, she stayed up late and told the whole stupid story to Ryland. "And it's like," she finished, helplessly. "We don't even talk, really. I mean, she says stuff every now and – but I don't respond, or – I don't like her, she's one of the stupid shitty popular kids—"

"We were the stupid shitty popular kids," Ryland reminded her, and Victoria shook her head, miserable.

"No," she said. "We were different. And I'm not now, anyway, and I hate that she's – that she's condescending to me all the fucking time."

"She might not be," Ryland told her, quietly. "Victoria, she might genuinely—"

"No." Victoria shook her head. "She doesn't – girls like her just don't, okay. I don't think she's even – I mean, she might make out with some chick at a party to look hot for other guys. But that's it."

"That's a bit unfair," Ryland said. "Do you even know what you are? Does it have to have a label? You said yourself you don't talk to her."

"I." Victoria felt stupidly close to tears. She rubbed her face angrily with her hands, said, "I just know, Ryland, please don't, I just know," and Ryland whispered something soft and soothing, gathered her close and hugged her tight. She stayed the night with him and Alex, illegally camping out in the college dorm, and borrowed one of his Bowie shirts for school the next morning.

She wasn't sure what she was expecting when she walked into drama that day. It was definitely not Brendon looking up at her from where he was seated at the piano and playing, with great relish, the opening chords to Baby One More Time. Victoria approached cautiously, not sure whether it was a coincidence, but the others were grinning at her, and Pete made an awkward gesture that she suspected was intended as a salute.

"Oh, baby, baby," he carolled. "How were we supposed to know?"

"Um," Victoria said. "What?"

"Apparently," Amanda told her, while Brendon puzzled his way through the first verse on piano, humming to himself, "you've kept a secret band undercover."

"A secret good band," Pete interjected. He was still grinning, a huge, horsey smile with too many teeth. "And you're the best."

"Gabe's the best," she said, automatically.

"Doesn't matter," Pete said, waving a hand dismissively. "You're the best here. How come you never told us?"

Victoria swallowed, drops her bag. "It's not a big deal," she said. "We're not even doing a musical, so—"

"It's worth knowing," Greta said. Victoria resisted the urge to bite her lip, close her eyes, and instead turned slightly and looked straight at Greta. Greta was sitting cross-legged on a chair, blonde curls pulled up into a loose bun, and she was wearing shorts and a pair of black and white striped socks that look like they belong to Amanda. Victoria didn't look at her legs.

"Why?" she asked instead.

"Because I've worked it out," Greta told her, resting her chin in her palm, gazing straight at Victoria with dark eyes. "The play. It's gotta be like you said – Romeo and Juliet, but we've got to do it differently. So Romeo's got to be a jerk, got to be completely fucking over Juliet, has to flirt with everybody on stage, be leading along Mercutio and – anyway. Make it really, really obvious. Bring out all the bawdiness we can in it and just turn it into – something like a farce, and really just about one selfish jerk who doesn't think about his actions, but gets sucked into this weird thing, anyway. Something really messed up, and all he ever thinks about is himself, how he looks, how he can play out something he thinks is worthy of him, not Juliet, so even the end is all about him and—"

"I like it," Victoria said, slowly, because she did. It wasn't entirely free of clichés, and she was pretty sure it had been done before, but it was better than anything they'd been talking about – it was something she thought they could have fun with.

"Good," Greta said. She didn't take her eyes off of Victoria. "Because you're playing Romeo."

"I got it!" Brendon shouted triumphantly, as Victoria's mouth dropped open, and he launched into the bridge properly, turned his face up to the ceiling and sang, "Oh, baby, baby, how was I supposed to know?"

Amanda grinned. It was just a little bit predatory. "And he's Juliet," she said. "Though we haven't told him yet."

Victoria turned to her, blinking. "You're giving the new kids the leads?"

"We're giving the leads the leads," Greta said, from behind her. She laughed easily, gentle and sweet like she always was, and got up, touched Victoria's elbow briefly as she passed. "So let's get rehearsing, Vicky-T."

---

It was interesting: once they got into rehearsing, it was like all of them changed completely. Victoria knew a fair chunk of her lines already – Ryland had played Mercutio for a college production, once, and she had been enlisted to run lines with him; and William and Gabe had a habit of re-enacting the balcony scene when they were drunk – but she was astonished at how quickly the rest of them learned their lines, until Brendon looked a little wide-eyed, stumbling behind them all with frequent glances at his script.

Amanda proved herself to be almost terrifyingly bossy, and Victoria would hate her if it wasn't for the fact that she was bossy in the good way, in the way that made Victoria see things, understand the way the play was being shaped with a sudden flash of insight. She thought back to telling Greta you need a director, and bit back a smile; clearly they had had one all along, and just hadn't known what it was.

Ashlee combed her hair up into something majestic on the top of her head and, like magic, became the first Lady Capulet Victoria had ever cared about. Pete decided to be cliché and campaigned ferociously until they gave him Lord Capulet, whereupon he declared that getting thee to 'church o' Thursday' was much cooler than a nunnery, while Hayley took up Benvolio with great spirit.

Victoria wasn't quite sure when it had started being so much fun. Maybe on the day they started talking about costumes and Pete wanted everything in period costume, except for Romeo's leather jacket; maybe the first time she and Brendon got through the balcony scene without stumbling over lines, and everyone laughed and cheered and she felt like she was part of something in the school for the first time since her boys had left. It was a strange, giddy feeling in the pit of her stomach, and while it wasn't like she enjoyed school, it suddenly seemed so much more bearable.

Surreal, too; everyone from drama would smile and wave at her as they passed in the corridors, or stop to chat about how the production was going and their classes that day in the hall, and every now and then they'd ask if she wanted to go out with them somewhere. She always said no to that, though; there was a wary sort of truce here, she knew, but in the end they were the popular gang and she was not and she didn't want to remind them of that by upsetting the general hierarchy. She said no, repeatedly, until Brendon stopped bothering to give her disappointed looks and they stopped asking.

The play continued, though, moving along steadily with short burst of speed and then long afternoons running through one scene over and over, painstakingly, until they'd finally got the blocking started out and were ready to actually start saying some lines. Amanda gave them all lists of tongue twisters to practice when they stumbled one too many times over the soliloquies and Victoria left battered copies of the play at Gabe and William's place and Ryland and Alex's dormitory, made them run over lines with her hundreds of times, paced and sneered and learned how to swagger without a keytar strapped to her front.

It was exhausting in her favourite way – sitting with her head bent together with Amanda's, drawing endless haphazard diagrams of the stage and the lights in biro and trying to work out the best way to operate it, listening to the music Patrick wanted to have playing in the scenes. They stayed after school until the janitor finally kicked them out, and sometimes they just went to the Starbucks nearby, got coffee and run through lines in the parking lot. It was nice to have a sort of friendship, no matter how flimsy, that wasn't just them being nice to the weird kids. There was a lot of work to do, the play set to open in only six weeks, the week after prom, but it was good, it was good being challenged and motivated and feeling almost alive with it all.

It was a little like how Victoria had always hoped college would be, having given up on finding it in high school once her boys had left – everyone focused and determined and enthusiastic, everyone playing a role, nobody bothering with stupid playground politics once they were working. Victoria spoke to everyone in the cast, felt comfortable enough with them, was suddenly privy to a bunch of a stupid in-jokes that they used to make each other laugh and nobody else, and once she and Pete managed to have a whole conversation in line at the cafeteria made up of quotes from the play. She felt pretty lame, but pretty cool at the same time.

And, okay, if she did her best to avoid one person, she still thought it was a pretty good attempt overall on her behalf. She just – Greta had a way of looking at her that made her nervous, this warm, steady regard, at moments when Victoria wasn't expecting it. It didn't help that the rest of the cast – even Brendon, on occasion – called her Vicky-T all the time, and Victoria couldn't hear that name without remembering Greta pressed up to her back, breath hot in her ear.

She just really wished she knew what Greta wanted from her. She didn't have the courage to ask, though, so instead she put up with the easy way Greta touched everyone, a brush of fingers as she walked past, like, hi, I'm here and you're here, too that made Victoria jump every time, put up with Greta smiling on the periphery of her vision all the time, Greta coming up to adjust her stance on stage by kicking a foot easily between Victoria's legs (and, God, Victoria hoped she didn't blush too noticeably). You could get used to anything, she thought, so she put up with it and ignored it when she could and pretended she didn't see the glares people gave her sometimes when she came off as too cold, or whatever.

It was harder to stay away when Greta approached her directly, though. "Hey," she said, one day after rehearsal, when Victoria was leaning against the wall outside the school. "You alright getting home?"

"Yeah," Victoria said, shortly.

"My mom's coming to pick me up," Greta told her. Her smile was too fucking sweet. Victoria always wanted to bite at it, stop it from curving that way, like it knew all of everyone's secrets. Stupid fucking Barbie doll, she thought viciously. "We're fine to give you a lift if you want."

"No, thank you," she answered. "My friends are coming."

"The guys from your band?" Greta asked, and Victoria thought, yes, yes, and you can't have them. She nodded. Greta went quiet for a moment, and then she said, "Are you going to prom?"

"No," Victoria said.

Greta looked startled; she laughed, small and shocked. "Why not?"

"It's a teenage cliché," Victoria said. "I'm not that bad, yet."

"It could be fun," Greta said. "It's our last year – a whole bunch of us are going, why don't—"

"That's even worse," Victoria said flatly. "Then you're the jerks doing the stupid dancing in the middle of the floor."

Greta turned slightly, looked straight at her. "Maybe," she said, "maybe instead, we could—"

"There's Gabe," Victoria said, quickly pushing off the wall. Greta sighed behind her, and Victoria sped up so she didn't have to listen.

At the gate, Brendon appeared unexpectedly, biting his lip. "Can't you – Greta's really nice," he said.

"Okay," Victoria said. "So?"

Brendon sighed and shook his head. "Nothing," he said, and jogged across the road to get into the car there. Victoria was distracted for a moment from his comment by the way he leaned over, quickly, and kissed the driver; as they drove away, she saw a scarf flutter out of the driver's open window. She turned slightly, half-wondering where Greta had gone.

Gabe leaned out of his window, called, "Come on, chica," and Victoria hopped in, didn't turn, didn't look for where she was sure Greta was still watching her.

---

Chiz was, apparently, homesick, and they decided the best way to fix this was to go out for Chicago pizza and remind him why this place was a billion times better than Sydney. They went to their favourite place and settled into the big booth at the back where they could be as loud as they wanted without annoying too many people.

It was a normal night, would have been entirely unmemorable except that Victoria looked up at one stage and saw Brendon. She almost stood up and called for his attention, but then she noticed abruptly who he was with – Scruffy Dude again, from the shows, Scruffy Dude who also had a habit of picking Brendon up along with Brendon's mysterious girlfriend. Victoria watched, feeling suddenly angry and tired and ill at the way Brendon was looking at him, at the way he was leaning close, his eyes bright and happy. It couldn't be anything but a date, and as she stared, Brendon stole a bite off of the other guy's plate, and grinned cheerfully and unrepentantly when his companion glared.

Victoria slumped back in her chair. She wished just one thing in her life could stay completely good, and she liked Brendon, she really did. She hated the idea that he was cheating on anyone, felt kind of sick about it, inevitably remembered the time that William found out about his girlfriend and the guy from her work and how miserable he'd been. The pizza suddenly didn't taste as good.

She turned down offers from the guys to stay at their place and went back to her empty house, instead. She heard her mom clatter in the door at eleven and turned her light off, went to bed and pretended to be asleep when her mom peeked in. After half an hour, though, she crawled out of bed and went out to the lounge, where her mom was watching the news.

"Hi," she said, and something must have shown in her face, because her mom looked up and made a soft sound, opened her arms and waited for Victoria to come and crawl into them, sitting next to her on the couch and slumping over her mom's lap.

"What's wrong?" her mom asked, and Victoria shook her head.

"Nothing," she said. "Just. This guy I liked, he cheated on his girlfriend—"

"With you?" her mom said, and Victoria laughed, shocked and small, at the way it accidentally came out.

"No, not, like, liked-liked, he's my friend," she explained. "It just made me sick. When people do that. I just don't like it."

"I know," her mom said, smoothing back her hair in a comforting way. "I know, boys can be awful. Maybe you should raise it with him."

"Yeah," Victoria said, feeling a little more confident. "Yeah, maybe I will." She paused. "Can we watch Friends or something?"

"You pick the episode," her mom said, and she fell asleep on the couch three episodes later, her mom still stroking her hair.

---

She maybe didn't deal with it in the most mature manner possible the next day; mostly she just ignored Brendon, ignored him right through him laughing "what's wrong?" in her face and his raised eyebrows and his eventual hurt faces. She ignored him and waited, because she knew that drama had taught Brendon a few things, and sure enough, after rehearsal that afternoon, he grabbed her arm before she had left and dragged her aside.

"Okay," he said, folding his arms and glaring at her. "What the fuck did I do?"

"What didn't you do?" she asked snidely, and Brendon just looked at her, visibly caught between confusion and anger. Victoria breathed in sharply and said, "I saw you. Last night, at the pizza place. With that guy."

Brendon looked blankly at her, and then he started, looked incredulous. "Are you serious?" he hissed. "I would have though that you of all people wouldn't – but hey, maybe the whole Greta thing is just a big homophobic freak-out—"

"There is no Greta thing!" Victoria snapped, stricken, glancing around immediately to check that everyone else had gone. "And I don't have a problem with it, I just – you're a fucking asshole, okay? If you're going to have a boyfriend, have a boyfriend, but don't cheat on your girlfriend to do it!"

"What?" Brendon looked completely confused, now, blinking at her. "I don't have a girlfriend."

"Don't lie," Victoria said. "I've seen you kiss her – I saw you kiss her the other day, for fuck's sake."

"I." Brendon pushed a hand through his hair helplessly, laughed weirdly. "I honestly don't know what you're talking about. I'm gay."

"I've seen her," Victoria insisted. "She's taller than you and like – she has all those scarves!"

Brendon looked at her for a second, and then he started smiling, grin growing steadily broader until he burst out laughing, had to actually stagger away to lean against the wall and support himself. Victoria stared at him and Brendon wheezed, "Oh my God, Vicky-T, I love you."

"I – what?" Victoria had the feeling she had just made a horrible fool of herself. She didn't like that feeling, so she folded her arms and scowled.

"Oh, man," Brendon said, fondly. "Ryan's going to be so pissed, this is awesome."

"I – wait, Ryan? Ryan is the girl with the scarves?"

"Yeah," Brendon told her, still grinning all over his face. "Yeah, Ryan Ross. His first name's George, actually. He's very much a guy."

"I – well, fine," Victoria said, folding her arms. "Okay, whatever, I only ever saw her – him from a distance, so, fuck you. And you still kissed him, so you're still cheating, so you're still an asshole."

Brendon cocked his head, grin fading, and considered her for a moment. Then he shrugged. "Yeah, I guess," he said.

"You guess—"

"Does it count as cheating if they're cheating on you, too?" he wondered aloud, and Victoria opened her mouth to say yes, haven't you seen Closer, it just means you're more fucked up, but Brendon continued blithely, "What about if it's with the same person?"

"Wait," Victoria said. "I – you're both cheating on each other with the same guy? That scruffy dude?"

"Jon," Brendon agreed, nodding. "I don't really think it is cheating, if we all know."

"Um," Victoria said. She was used to unconventional relationships – she was best friends with Gabe – but right now she felt kind of stupidly immature in the face of Brendon's smiling mischief and honesty. "I – all three of you?"

"And Spencer," Brendon said. "He and Ryan would have been there last night, too, except Spence had an English exam today, and Ryan was helping him study."

"I – wow," Victoria said. "Wow."

Brendon laughed at the look on her face and grabbed his vibrating phone quickly, glanced at the message on the screen. "Hey," he said. "You want to come over for a while? To my place?"

Victoria was walking home today. She considered for a moment and then, curiousity winning out, said, "Yeah."

"Awesome," Brendon said. "Come on, Spencer's at the gate."

Victoria followed, still feeling a little off-balance, and touched Brendon's arm just quickly. "Hey," she said. "I'm sorry for yelling at you. And ignoring you, and stuff. I should have known you wouldn't."

"It's cool," Brendon told her, cheerfully. "I guess it's a bit confusing if you don't know what's going on." He flashed her a quick grin. "I do plan to make fun of you forever, though, just so you know."

Victoria got into the backseat and Spencer said, "Hey! How's it going?"

"Um," she said, but Brendon cut over the top of her with a gleeful expression.

"Vicky-T's coming to hang for a while," he told Spencer. "I think she also wants me to apologise for cheating on you—"

"Oh my God, shut up," Victoria mumbled, blushing crimson.

"—it was very, very wrong of me, and I won't ever do it again," Brendon said, and then he added, as an afterthought, "I don't love anyone but you, baby."

"That's nice of you," Spencer said, turning onto the main road. "Who were you cheating on me with?"

"Ryan and Jon," Brendon said, gravely. "My girlfriend, Ryan. The prettiest girl you've ever seen."

"I hate you," Victoria said, and Brendon laughed.

---

My place was apparently an apartment, more crappy looking even than Gabe and William's, that Brendon trooped up the stairs to and opened while Spencer chatted easily to Victoria. Victoria only half paid attention, looking around her surroundings with confusion, and Spencer smiled crookedly at her.

"Yeah, he moved out of home about a year ago," Spencer said in a low voice. "It's just lucky we had Jon, or he and Ryan would be fuck knows where—"

"Don't think I can't hear you talking about me, Smith," Brendon said, and the door swung open to a scowling, pointy looking boy, who would probably give William a run for his money in terms of general prettiness. There were no scarves, but Victoria knew who it was anyway. She kind of thought her gender mistake was fair enough.

"Brendon," Ryan said, "Do you think you could please refrain from putting my shit in weird places—"

"What did I do?" Brendon asked, and then said, "This is Vicky-T, by the way; Victoria, Ryan, etc."

"Hi," Ryan said briefly, and then turned back to Brendon, scowling. "My essay, dickface, I finished it last night and it's due tomorrow and I left it on the table, and then you moved it."

"Oh, yeah," Brendon said, shouldering past Ryan. Victoria followed a little awkwardly, copying Spencer and dropping her schoolbag in the hall. They all four of them went down the little passageway and into a bright, cluttered kitchen/living room space. It was small and dirty, but it looked like a home, albeit one belonging to teenage guys. "You mean the essay you left under a pile of notes and some of Jon's cat drawings, with your breakfast dishes on top," Brendon continued. "I put it in your folder, and I put your folder on your desk in your room."

Ryan opened his mouth, still looking cross, but then he snapped it shut and stalked out of the room. He came back a minute later with a sheepish expression, holding a black folder loosely in one hand. "Thanks," he said.

"You're welcome," Brendon answered, and turned his face up so Ryan could kiss him, light and easy. Victoria had to keep herself from staring – not from the weirdness but the normality, from the easy way these boys touched each other, Spencer slipping his hand over Ryan's hip as he sidled past to the cupboard, Brendon humming and sitting up on the counter while Ryan got cans of soda out of the fridge for all of them. She understood, now, why Brendon was always in such a hurry to get home.

The door opened and closed again and someone else called, "Hello?" Spencer grinned and walked out of the room, and when he came back in, he had his hand tucked easily into Scruffy Dude's – Jon's – back pocket. "Hey," Jon said to Victoria, looking taken aback for a moment but then grinning. "Vicky-T, right? How's it going?"

"Good, thanks," she said, "You?"

"Awesome," he said. He had a lisp. Victoria was trying very hard not to find it adorable – that and the fact that she thought he was a little shorter than Brendon. "I liked your band, dude, you guys rocked."

"Oh, right," she said, and blushed. "I keep meaning to ask," she added, turning to Brendon, "how did you even manage to turn up to that one? Like, Pete stalks out all the local shows, I guess I had that one coming, but—"

"I hope you're not implying that I'm uncool," Brendon said. "I'm very cool."

"Yeah, totally," Ryan said, dryly. "The compulsory Disney nights once a week especially."

"Fuck you, you love them," Brendon said, and he and Ryan engaged in a minor scuffle, both of them pink-cheeked and laughing.

Jon rolled his eyes, turned back to Victoria. "I sort of know William," he told her.

"Oh, no kidding?" She looked at him in surprise. "I don't think I've ever seen you around."

Jon grimaced. "I got Tom in the divorce settlement," he said. "Me and Bill still get on, but like. Different crowds, you know."

"I get it," she said, softly. There didn't really need to be any elaboration on that. She had never seen William so miserable. Jon looked a bit uncomfortable, though, so she changed the subject, asked, "What school are you at?"

"Oh, me and Ryan are in college," Jon said.

"Jon's the pervert of the group," Spencer chimed in, grinning.

"I'm only two years older than you," Jon said. He sounded weary and annoyed enough that Victoria guessed this was an old insult. "If anything, you're a – a slut for older men."

Spencer got a slightly dangerous look in his eyes and then lunged forward with a wild war cry, and Brendon curled his hand around Victoria's arm gently, said, "Come on, they're going to be ridiculous for a while, let's go run lines or something," and pulled her away.

Brendon's room was tidier than she would have thought; there were a heap of clothes on the bed, but he shoved them off to make room for them to sit, and apart from that there was only a pile of papers in the corner with a laptop and a bunch of posters plastered up everywhere, a guitar resting in the corner. "Nice," she said, and Brendon nodded, shrugging.

"So," he said, settling on the cover, and Victoria didn't even feel weird, sitting down next to him. She really liked Brendon, she thought, and it was a bit of a surprise. She'd never thought that she would want to be friends with him. It was, she thought ruefully, perhaps a little late to start trying now, over halfway through the year.

Brendon looked at her with a crooked grin, as if reading her thoughts. "You're pretty cool, you know," he said, and then, quieter, "Thanks."

"You don't have to thank me," she said.

"But I want to," he said. "It's like. People can be assholes when they just think you're gay – if they know you're in some kind of—"

"I get it," she said, nodding. She hesitated for a moment and then asked, "Isn't it hard, though? You guys all seem to fit so well."

Brendon turned a bit red. "It works," he said simply, and shrugged. "We spent like… the first half of last year freaking out and being complete shits to each other but then I – I moved out of home, and in with Jon, and it took Ryan, like, a week to follow. Spencer still lives with his parents – they're the best, I don't know what they've said to him about the whole thing but they're always really, really awesome to us – but he's probably going to move in next year. We just. It just works for us."

"It looks like it," she said, and smiled at Brendon's pleased flush. She added, "You lucky asshole. Most of us have hard enough trouble finding one boyfriend."

"I don't think you want any boyfriends at all," Brendon said quietly, and Victoria turned away.

"Don't," she said, tightly, and Brendon sighed.

"Is it a gay thing?" he asked gently. "Because I mean – I was Mormon, if you need to talk—"

"No," Victoria said. She lay backward on the bed, legs dangling off the edge, staring up at the ceiling. "No, Brendon, I just. I really don't want to talk about it."

"Greta's really nice," Brendon murmured. When she didn't respond, he sighed and lay down next to her. "Are you going to prom?"

"No," Victoria said. It was maybe a little too firm, too harsh; she softened, turned her head and asked, "Are you?"

"Yeah," Brendon said, and grinned crookedly. "It's my last year, and I've finally got someone to go with. Fuck the rest, you know?"

Victoria smiled back at him. "You're taking all three of them?"

Brendon said, "Oh, no," and laughed. "I'm not suicidal. Ryan and Jon are fighting over who gets to go," he told her, and rolled his eyes. "Spencer's got his own coming up, so he doesn't even get a chance, and whoever doesn't take me takes him. But they can't decide."

"You guys don't play favourites?" She giggled a little, couldn't help it, and Brendon grinned back at her, delighted.

"Nope," he said, but then confided softly, "I'll go with Ross, though. He loves dressing up the most, and he knows I won't mind if he wears the rose vest he likes. Spencer would ban it."

"So you're the sucker?"

Brendon bit his lip, a small, secret smile. "Yeah," he said. "I'm the sucker. Come on, let's run lines."

They were getting good at it, if Victoria said so herself. Brendon was really good at getting this look in his eyes, this huge, awed expression, like he couldn't quite believe his luck in getting Victoria – Romeo – to talk to him, and Victoria found it interesting to play off that, act as cruel and uncaring as she could in the face of it, see how rude she could be before she reeled Brendon back in. They did the balcony scene and she always ended up hurting for Brendon's Juliet, for the sweet way she answered, oblivious in the face of Romeo's mocking, and after a while she broke character to apologise, making a face when Brendon laughed at her.

Spencer came to tell them that they'd ordered pizza for dinner and Brendon and Victoria went back out to join them, sit in a circle around the box. Afterward they did a dramatic reading, and the guys applauded politely. ("I think they're kind of sick of it," Brendon had told her in the bedroom. "I make them do lines with me all the time. Spencer's the best at it – Jon forgets to be mean, he thinks it's too romantic, and Ryan does the whole thing in a monotone.")

After dinner, they watched some soap opera, flicking idly through the channels. Brendon fell asleep unobtrusively in Jon's lap, and Ryan tapped Victoria on the shoulder. "I'll give you a lift home, if you like," he said, quietly, and Victoria nodded, stood up. She wasn't as uncomfortable as she would have thought – she liked these boys, liked the way they talked, the way they looked after each other.

Jon and Spencer said soft goodbyes and she followed Ryan down the stairs, slinging her bag over one shoulder. Ryan opened her door for her before slipping around to the driver's seat, seemingly automatically, which she found weirdly charming.

He was cool to talk to, as well, kind of quiet but opening up when she asked about his major and talking about the English Major he was doing, rolling his eyes briefly and saying how mad his dad had been, but it was alright now, because he and Brendon and Jon had the apartment, and "Spencer'll be here soon, too."

"How long have you all known each other?" she asked, and Ryan slanted a glance at her and then shrugged.

"Umn, me and Spencer met Brendon about three years ago, and Jon like, a year after Brendon. But Spencer and I have known each other since I was five."

Victoria blinked. "Wow," she said, and Ryan laughed.

"We were dumb," he said, and shook his head. "We were so, so dumb, until Jon and Brendon came along."

Victoria shrugged. "At least you're not being dumb now."

"Most of the time," Ryan agreed, and then turned the conversation to her band. The drive went quickly, and she was almost disappointed when he pulled up in front of her house – she liked talking to him.

"Thanks for the ride," she said. "I'll see you later, I guess. Say a proper goodbye to Brendon for me?"

Ryan smiled, weirdly similar to Brendon: like he had a secret. She wondered if all four of them had a smile like that.

"I will," he promised.

---

"Victoria," Bert said, gazing at her with huge, dark eyes. "I have to ask you something."

"If this is about prom," she said, "you can shut the fuck up."

"No," he said, sounding wounded. "I just wanted to know if you want to make sweet, sweet love or something with me."

"Oh," Victoria said. She was weirdly relieved. She plucked a cigarette out of the packet sitting between them on the asphalt and lit it, taking a drag. "No, thanks," she told him.

"Alright," he said, peaceably enough, and they passed back and forth the cigarette for a while.

"Prom's stupid," she said eventually, and Bert didn't say anything.

---

Prom was stupid. It was stupid how it was a week and a half away and it was all that anyone could talk about – how even though that meant their show was only two and a half weeks away everyone was getting completely distracted over it, how all the talk was about dresses and suits and potential DJs and who was going with who, and Brendon slanting Victoria annoying, meaningful looks all the time, and Victoria saying again and again, no. I'm not going. No.

The whole drama group was going, like Greta said, all together, and they seemed continually surprised and even hurt when Victoria repeatedly turned down their offer to go with them. It was starting to get really annoying – when Gabe asked if she wanted to go with him, she had to storm off and not talk to anybody for three days.

Her mom wasn't helping – she bought a ticket for Victoria and left it stuck conspicuously on the fridge, even when Victoria told her bluntly that it was a waste of money. That didn't stop her, either, and instead Victoria started feeling steadily more guilty with every time she turned down her mother's invitation to go dress shopping.

The drama group, though, they didn't even act like it was a rite of passage or a social obligation or any of the other stuff that gave her room to scoff at it. They were just excited. When added with Brendon's automatic beam every time it was even vaguely brought up – Ryan had won after all, he told her one afternoon, and was taking control of Brendon's outfit along with his own – prom made her feel a little bit sick, too, like when she had nerves before going on stage, or like jealousy.

---

"Where's my goddamn sword?" Hayley yelled, and she was sweating, hair falling out of her ponytail, arms folded. Hayley was generally really sweet-tempered and Victoria thought it was an indication of how tired they all were, and the stress of prom tomorrow on top of that, that she had lost her temper so badly.

"I'll get it," Victoria said quickly, and headed off backstage and to the little prop room. She stared around in dismay, putting her hands on her hips – it was a mess. She was almost sure that when they'd started things had been in neat, orderly places on the shelves, but now…

"Fuck," she said. "We really need to clean this up."

"That'll take years," Greta said behind her, and Victoria jumped, spun around. Greta was smiling at her, leaning against the doorway. She was wearing another one of her summer dresses, even though it was really still too cold for them, and her hair fell down over her bare arms in a gentle wave. Victoria's mouth went dry. Greta looked especially pretty silhouetted in the doorway by the faint lights of the stage.

"Um," she said. Greta stepped forward lightly, and she was barefoot, her skirt stopping just above her knees. Victoria said, "Did you want something?"

Greta half-smiled. "I could say something so cheesy, you don't even know," she said, and she kept walking, didn't stop. They were very close. Victoria felt frozen in place. Greta said, "You should stop me, if I'm wrong. But I don't think…"

"What?" Victoria said, a little breathlessly, and Greta leaned up on her tiptoes and pressed her mouth against Victoria's, sweet and soft. She tasted like Diet Coke, and Victoria stayed frozen for a moment before she leaned forward and kissed back, resting her hand timidly on Greta's shoulder. Greta made a small noise, and opened her mouth, and Victoria closed her eyes and sank closer and did the same. Greta was warm, pressed up close against her.

One of the first things anybody ever asked her upon learning that she was friends with a group of guys – something that her mom continued to ask her – was how many of them she had hooked up with, at least in games of Spin the Bottle if not for real, and Victoria usually laughed it off, deflected it with humour or anger or an ambiguous response. Now, she let herself think, small and frightened, this is a nice place for a first kiss. It was, the dim light of the room, with Greta's curls golden in the faint sunshine that came through the window. Greta kissed nicely, too, and if Victoria felt clumsy and frozen next to her, well, Greta didn't appear to mind, or even notice.

Greta pulled away, just a little, and Victoria said, wide-eyed, "Oh." Greta laughed up at her and after a moment she leaned back in and they kissed again, only this time Greta slipped her tongue into Victoria's mouth, and Victoria started and then made a low sound in her throat that was kind of embarrassing, except for how Greta matched it, rocking up closer towards her. Greta put her arms around Victoria's neck and Victoria held onto her hips, kept her steady. The height difference was more noticeable now than when they were dancing.

"Victoria," Greta said, and Victoria was slightly glad to hear how breathless Greta sounded, how affected. Greta smiled up at her, bright-eyed, and said, "You should come to prom with us."

Victoria jumped back as if burned, twisting out of Greta's grasp. Greta looked confused, and Victoria said, "What did you say?"

"Prom," Greta repeated, half-smiling, looking hopeful and sweet. Her mouth was red. Victoria wanted to kiss her again. "You should come with us, really. It'll be fun. I – I want you to."

"I told you I don't want to go to prom," Victoria said, and Greta shrugged, laughed a little. Something cold and angry sparked in Victoria's stomach, straightened her spine. She said, "You're so fucking typical."

Greta hesitated. "I'm sorry, what?" she said.

"You're just – could you be more of a cliché?" Victoria asked. "I – we can go to prom, sure, yeah, we'll dance and just be – on show, you want that? Or we can pretend like nothing's happening, because good little popular girls, they don't, they don't." She stopped, shaking with anger, and Greta looked annoyed all of a sudden, folding her arms.

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said. "Jesus, Vicky-T, you're kind of—"

"Don't call me that!" Victoria shouted, and Greta jumped. Victoria took a breath and said, forcing her voice down to a natural level, "I can't fucking stand you, all of you. You're so – you're the reason I hate high school, fucking bitches like you."

Greta covered her mouth with her hand, like some melodramatic actor, and Victoria pushed past her and out the door. Outside, the rest of the group were staring at her, caught between horror and disbelief, and Brendon just looked angry. Victoria walked past all of them, picked up her bag, and left without looking back.

---

She called Gabe on her way home. "Can you come pick me up?" she asked, and there must have been something in her voice, hard and unflinching, because he said "on my way" and nothing else. Victoria hung up and kept walking, knowing Gabe knew the route she took. She refused to hang around the school gates.

He arrived twenty minutes later, which was a record, even for his reckless driving. On any other day, Victoria would be impressed. As it was, she opened the door and climbed in without saying a word.

"You want to go home?" he asked.

"No," she said. "Let's go back to your place. I'll call my mom."

"Okay," Gabe said, and drove without asking her anything else. She was glad. She clenched her hands into fists and dug her nails into the soft skin of her palms, hating it, hating every bit of herself, hating Greta more.

When they were a block away, Gabe said, "Ryland and Siska and Mike are there, too. Do you need me to tell them to fuck off for a while?"

"No," Victoria said. She stared calmly out the window and Gabe glanced at her nervously, and nodded.

Victoria was vaguely proud of herself, of the straight way she held herself, the easy way she got out of the car and shrugged off Gabe's offer to carry her school bag. She headed up the stairs to the apartment beside him, and smiled neatly at William when he opened the door and looked worried.

Ryland turned around from the couch when she came in. "Hey," he said, gently, "what's wrong?" and Victoria burst into angry, hurting sobs.

---

Her boys gathered around her, like they always did, always would, and she got spoiled ridiculously, Mike running out to get ice cream and a bunch of her favourite movies from the store. They all collected around her and got the blankets from William's room and curled up on the couch, Ryland on one side and Gabe on her other, and nobody asked what was wrong until they'd sat through A Streetcar Named Desire and Apocalypse Now, because Victoria might not like guys very much at all, but there was a pretty giant exception there called Marlon Brando.

In the break between Apocalypse Now and the next movie, Victoria wiped her nose against her sleeve and said, "I think I'm gay. I mean, for sure."

"Okay," William said, seated at her feet. He squeezed her ankle, just gently. "Do you need to talk about it?"

Victoria shook her head. She said, "Greta kissed me today. Greta, from my—"

"We know Greta," Ryland said. "You kind of talk about her a lot."

Victoria ducked her head, hot tears welling in her eyes. "I hate her," she said. "I hate – everything they stand for, they're just. These stupid popular kids, it's all the hierarchies of high school that I hate, and it's like, this false idea of friendship that's come from the play, and afterwards it's going to end, and I'm gonna be on my own again."

The boys looked at her, stricken, and she shook her head, laughed a little hysterically. "I'm not blaming you," she said. "You're my best friends. I'm not – I'm just, these stupid fucking popular kids, and I had no idea Greta was even – that she even liked girls, and it'll be this big dumb secret, and I don't want secrets, I can't fucking deal with – and she kissed me, and I really, really like her."

"Victoria," Ryland said, "maybe you should try talking to her—"

"No," Victoria said, shaking her head rapidly. "No, I – it wasn't. She said that she knew, that she didn't think she was wrong or – I must have been so obvious." She breathed in sharply and whispered, "I'm so embarrassed."

For a moment they just looked at her, solemn and wide-eyed. Victoria felt abruptly older than all of them. Then Gabe hooked an arm around her neck and drew her in close, pressed her against his side.

"Then fuck her," he said. "Fuck them all."

Victoria sniffed and nodded, pressed her face into his shoulder for a moment. She drew in a shuddering breath, and said, "Put the next movie on."

---

The next day, Gabe woke her up at seven. "You can stay here, if you like," he told her, and for a moment nothing in the world sounded more appealing than that, than staying in bed for another couple of hours and not having to face the decorations for prom and the drama group and Greta. Only Victoria knew that if she stayed home, everyone would know exactly why. She sat up and shook her head and Gabe kissed her forehead, hardly flamboyantly at all, and handed her some clothes she had left there before.

"Thanks," she said, and stumbled into the shower. She turned her face up to the spray and closed her eyes, didn't let herself cry even though her eyes were sore with it. When she got out, William's hairdryer was lying on the counter but Victoria couldn't be bothered. She tied her wet hair up with an elastic band instead, and emerged from the bathroom abut ten minutes earlier than usual.

That was, she guessed, why Gabe and William were still curled together, kissing slow and soft in the centre of the living room, William slipping two fingers under the waistband of Gabe's jeans. Victoria froze in the doorway, but they must have seen her movement, because they spun apart and stared at her, breathing hectic, two spots of colour high on William's cheeks.

"Um," William said, and Victoria folded her arms.

"Goddamn it," she said. "When did this happen? Couldn't you have waited a little longer? I had June in the pool!"

Gabe moved away and perched on the arm of the sofa. He started to laugh. "Who had April?" he asked, smiling, while William looked faintly horrified.

"Suarez," Victoria said. "Damn it. Okay, are there any Fruit Loops left?"

---

She had drama rehearsal first thing that morning, during the two free periods. Her stomach was churning with nerves and she very nearly turned back three times on her way there from the bus stop, but in the end she made it, and pushed open the heavy doors with her head ducked down, drawing in a deep breath.

When she looked up, though, the only person there was Brendon, sitting on the edge of the stage in his pink hoodie. He was swinging his legs, face blank, but he looked up at the sound of the door crashing closed, and he looked furious.

"Where is everyone?" she asked.

"They're not coming today," Brendon told her, voice unreadable.

Victoria hesitated. "Why?"

"Officially, because it's prom, and hardly anyone is at school today," Brendon said. "Unofficially, you're a bitch and no one really wants to talk to you right now."

Victoria drew in a harsh breath. "I – what the fuck?" she said. "What did I do?"

Brendon laughed incredulously. "Are you seriously asking me that?"

"Yes," Victoria snapped. "Yeah, as a matter of fact, I am."

"Well, as a matter of fact," Brendon echoed mockingly, and hopped off the stage, "everyone really likes Greta. Everyone likes you, too, but not as much, because it's kind of hard to be friends with you when you're so busy hating everyone for no reason. That makes it so that when you make Greta cry, nobody feels very friendly towards you at all."

Victoria stared. "Greta cried?"

"Jesus fucking Christ." Brendon ran his hands through his hair and paced back and forth angrily for a moment. "Yes, Victoria. It's kind of expected after – everyone heard what you said. If you hated us all so much, you really didn't have to stick around."

"I – I don't hate you!" Victoria cried. "And why are you – you're not part of them, why can't you see that? They hate us! We're the outsiders! They're the fucking popular group, who are so goddamn cool that they can even find time to be condescending to the newbies! It's drama, Brendon, it's putting together the play, and I know it feels like we're all friends, but it's just because of the play, they don't want anything to do with us outside of—"

"Bullshit," Brendon said, so dismissively that Victoria stopped short. "I've been hanging out with them for weeks. They've been trying to get you to spend some time with them, too, but. I don't even know, Victoria. You think you're so much better than everyone else."

"I – what?" Victoria stared at him. "I don't, what the fuck! I know that they think that, that's all, and it's nice that they've mucked your head up or whatever, but I know where we stand!"

"For God's sake," Brendon said. "You live in some fucked up little world where, I don't even know, you're like – some kind of tragic outcast in a play? It's really fucking offensive after a while, you know. This constant, 'oh, I don't have any friends except the college guys', it's just boring and hurtful and mean."

Victoria shook her head, feeling small and confused and miserable. "They are my only friends," she said. "Since they left, I've been, I've been all on my own and—"

"Shut up!" Brendon yelled. "It's so pathetic listening to you! You made this, this is all your doing. I've been trying to be your friend for two years and it's like you're a motherfucking brick wall! And then finally this year it's like you start talking properly, and I take you home with me and tell you everything, and I'm still, what, just the dude you hang out with at school because there's no one else?"

Victoria swallowed, throat dry. The thing was, that had been how she'd thought about Brendon, even though she wanted it to be different. She thought, sorry, Brendon, I'm sorry, but didn't quite manage saying it out loud. "I – okay, so you," she said instead, blinking hard. "But that's—"

"No, that's not all," Brendon snarled. "Bert McCracken's been trying to be your friend for as long as I've known you, and you treat him like a demented little kid that you don't know how to get rid of. Charlotte in French asks you for help all the time and tries to start a conversation and you ignore her every time. And the drama group! They've all of them been trying, since the very beginning, to be friends with you, they haven't even tried to hide how awesome they think you are, and you're caught up in this stupid little selfish world all of your own!"

Victoria stared at him. Brendon drew in a breath and said quietly, "And what about Greta?"

Victoria closed her eyes for a moment. "Greta Salpeter," she said, "is a perfect example of the popular girl syndrome I'm talking about."

"No," Brendon said. "She's not. Greta likes you. She's always liked you, she smiles at you all the fucking time, and then we joined the drama group and she tried so hard, she didn't give up even when you were a gigantic fucking bitch, and you act like she doesn't even exist." He shook his head, all of the anger suddenly gone, and slumped back against the stage. "I don't know, Victoria. Drama's cancelled today because there's only so much of your bullshit everyone's going to put up with before it's just too goddamn sad trying to be your friend."

Victoria said, "Brendon," and it came out as a croak. Brendon shook his head and walked past her, up the walkway between the rows of chairs and out the door. The sound of the heavy metal clanging shut resounded in the room for a moment, and then there was silence and Victoria was alone.

---

She left the school grounds, rang Ryland and told him that she needed him and "as many of the other guys as possible" to meet her back at William and Gabe's place. She arrived at the same time as them, and opened the door, shouting, "Hey, hey!"

William and Gabe appeared approximately thirty seconds later, which was just a little bit too late. William's mouth was swollen and Gabe's hair was sticking up in every direction, and for a moment everyone stared.

Then: "Fuck yeah," Suarez said, grinning, and everyone started grumbling and pulled out their wallets, while William retreated to sit on the sofa with his head in his hands. Gabe started negotiating for a share in the profits.

"Hey," Siska said, eyes suspiciously bright, "hey, congratulations, dudes—"

"Can we do that in a moment?" Victoria said impatiently, and walked forward into the room. She turned around and drew in a breath, said in a small voice, "I made a huge fucking mistake."

The boys just looked at her, waiting, and Victoria said, "I don't know quite how to fix it. Properly, I mean. But I – I think I need a prom dress."

William shot up so fast that there was a slight blur, and when Victoria looked over he was beaming. "Oh my God," she said, feeling better enough to smile slightly. "Could you be more of a cliché?"

"Prom dress shopping," he said, and then he and Gabe each took one of her arms firmly and guided her out the door.

---

"So, wait," Sisky said. "This girl was at the show?"

"Yeah," Victoria said, pausing to shake her head and make a face at the pink frilly monstrosity that Gabe had unearthed. "Yeah, and she – I danced with her that night, and that was like, I thought – anyway. I've been an idiot."

"But she's been a bitch?" Sisky was still frowning. "I mean, that's what you said when you talked about the drama crowd before this, you said they were all popular and cool and bitchy and stuff, like, the cliché kind of thing?"

"That's what I thought," Victoria admitted, folding her arms uncomfortably. "And I mean, they are the popular group, and they're loud and – stupidly cheerful, all the time. But maybe – I mean, not maybe, I was the bitch. That's what happened."

"No, you're not," about five of the guys said at once, because they were loyal and awesome, and Victoria grinned up at them and said,

"So, hey, what about green?"

"Bit overdone this year," Mike said knowledgeably, and Victoria didn't even want to ask. Instead she fell back from the group a little and stuck close to William, as Nate started to wander suspiciously close to the lingerie section of the store ("For research!" he protested. "There are no fitting rooms around here anyway. Right?").

"Hey," she said. "So how long?"

William blinked owlishly at her. "How long what?" he asked, too innocently, and Victoria made a face at him. He laughed and said, "Maybe three days."

"Oh, hey," she said softly. "That's not very long at all. Have we been spoiling the glow?"

William bit his lip, but he couldn’t quite hide the smile, not properly. "That," he said, "would be kind of hard to do."

Victoria laughed again, delighted. "You sap," she said.

William put his douchey mirrored sunglasses on and refused to say anything else, a mock offended expression on his face, but he didn't move away, warm at Victoria's side. After a little while he reached forward and unhooked a velvet black dress, sleeveless and short, and said, "Go with what you know looks awesome."

Victoria hesitated. "That's not kind of skanky for a school dance?"

"Hey," he said. "Aren't you trying to win this girl's heart or something?"

Victoria raised her eyebrows. "A really short dress is gonna do that?"

William gave her a shark grin. Victoria bought the dress.

---

The gym was crowded when Victoria came in, smoothing the folds of her dress uncomfortably and looking around already for Greta. The lights were flashing and there were streamers and balloons up everywhere, and the space felt too crowded, with people and colour. Victoria wished that she had let one of her guys come with her after all, but that would probably ruin the statement.

She spotted most of the drama group, but Greta wasn't with them and Victoria felt a little too intimidated to approach them. Instead she rocked up on her toes, and eventually saw Ryan and Brendon walking over to the punch table. Ryan was wearing a rose vest, as promised, and Brendon had a matching flower tucked into his buttonhole. Brendon's face was all lit up, and Ryan wasn't quite smiling, but his whole focus was on Brendon, as if there was no one else in the room. Victoria hesitated for a moment, but then she drew in a deep breath and headed towards them.

Brendon's smile fell away when he saw her, and he looked pissed off again. "What do you want?" he said when she was close enough to hear, and Victoria bit her lip, pushed a lock of hair behind her ear.

"I – is Greta here?" she asked, and Brendon looked even more pissed.

"No, she didn't come," he said, and turned away from her dismissively, pulling Ryan by the hand. Ryan looked over his shoulder at Victoria apologetically but Victoria was already turning away, breathing in quickly to keep in the tears.

She left the gym, pushed her way through the people and out into the cool night. She went down to the curb of the road and took her heels off, smoothed the material of her dress down over her ass so she could sit on the ground without creasing it too badly. She thought that maybe she could try and take it back. She didn't want it in her closet, a constant reminder of another failure.

After a little while she fumbled in her purse for a packet of cigarettes and took one out and lit it up, tip glowing orange in the dark. She stared out blankly over the street, wondered where Greta was, what she was doing. She knew what the next week was going to be like: rehearsals with no conversation in between, and then the production, and then nothing. Life could go back to how it had always been, only Victoria supposed that Brendon would probably go and sit with the drama group.

"Hey," a quiet voice said, and Victoria looked up to see Ryan. He sat down next to her awkwardly and asked, "Mind if I sit here?"

"Knock yourself out," Victoria said, looking back at the ground. She offered her cigarette to him, and he took it and breathed out a cloud of smoke before handing it back. For a little while, they passed it back and forth, and Ryan didn't say anything, sitting close enough that she was aware of his presence without touching her.

"Aren't you, like, consorting with the enemy?" she asked after a little while. She tried to speak lightly, but the words got stuck in her throat on the way out, sounded hoarse and too close to tears.

"Brendon's pretty mad," Ryan said, nodding. Victoria looked down and Ryan nudged her hesitantly, looking at her properly for the first time. "But – I kind of get it. Where you're coming from."

"You do?" Victoria stared at him, caught off-guard.

Ryan stole the last drag of the cigarette, stubbing it out beneath his pointy shoe. "When we first met Jon," he said after a moment, "everything was really weird. It was like – there had always been this kind of tension between me and Brendon and Spencer. Especially, for me, with Brendon, but it had like – infected me and Spencer, too, and I couldn't be comfortable around them anymore. It felt like we were always on the edge of something. And when we met Jon, he was so laidback and comforting and he took everything really easily, and I was so glad, I thought we could hang out with him and it would fix it, make things go back to normal. Only instead it kind of intensified."

He shrugged slightly and said, "We were all really – jumpy, I guess, all of us. But I think the others were – Brendon was pretty messed up because of his family, and Jon and Spencer were because the whole thing was generally really weird, but they were better about things. More accepting. Braver. I don't know." He smiled crookedly. "I was so fucking frightened. And I hated them a little bit for that, because they were my best friends, too, before anything else, and I didn't want them to be terrifying."

"Why?" Victoria asked. It came out as a whisper, and she cleared her throat and tried again. "Why were you frightened?"

"I'm a coward," Ryan said simply. "I've never been good at dealing with things. And then one day, Brendon kissed me, and I – I was an asshole. I told him I didn't want him, didn't like him like that. I said – really awful things. Because I thought it was easier to be someone who didn't want them, or someone who did but could say no to them. I didn't want it to be my fault when everything blew up, and I was sure it would be." He looked at Victoria and said, "And it is easier. It is. But it's not real, and you know you're living a lie, and it really sucks. I – this is kind of presumptuous of me. I just thought you might want to know that you're not the only one who's let yourself believe something because it's easier."

Victoria stared at him, wordless for a moment. Then she asked, "You mean, like," and stopped.

Ryan didn't seem to need her to finish, though. "I think – Brendon told me some stuff," he said. "I think it was easier for you to believe that nobody wanted to be your friend, or your girlfriend, than it was to know that you had shut yourself off from people, that if you wanted friends you were going to have to be brave. I can understand that." He ducked his head and said, "If it helps, Brendon's not going to be mad at you for long."

"He's not?"

Ryan smiled. "About two and a half weeks after I said all that shit," he said, "Jon came over and pretty much kidnapped me, and the three of them kind of – yelled at me for a while, and then told me that they – anyway. Brendon's with me now, isn't he?"

"Brendon's kind of in love with you," Victoria told him, and then blanched. "Sorry. I shouldn't have said that, I don't know you guys that well."

"It's okay," Ryan said. "I know." He stood up and said, "Brendon gave me this to give to you," and held out a napkin.

Victoria took it, and blinked at the scribbled directions. "Where's this to?" she asked.

"Greta's house," Ryan said. "That's a really pretty dress, Vicky-T. You shouldn't waste it."

Then he turned and walked back to the gym, hands in his pockets.

---

Victoria walked, which turned out to be a pretty stupid idea, because it was dark and a long way, and after about five minutes she had to take off her heels again, and walk with them dangling from her grip. She walked, though, because she knew that if she called one of the guys to take her she would just chicken out, and because there wasn't a bus route that she knew of, anyway.

It was half past ten when she finally arrived at the Salpeter house, her hair falling out all over her face, and she felt terrified and ridiculous, but knocked anyway. Maybe that was a way to be brave, she thought, and tried not to blush completely when a man with salt and pepper grey hair opened the door and blinked at her.

"Um," she said. "Is Greta home?"

"I'll just get her," the man said, smiling. "Want to come in?"

"Oh, no, it's okay," she said. She thought there was a pretty big chance Greta wouldn't want her to come in. "I'll just wait here."

"One sec," the man said, and disappeared. Victoria looked down and forced herself to take deep, calming breaths, and then the door opened again and Greta was staring at her.

"Hi," Victoria said weakly. Greta was wearing Harry Potter pyjamas, and her hair was falling all the way down her back. Fuck, Victoria loved Greta's hair.

Greta said, blankly, "What are you doing here?"

"I – I came to apologise," Victoria said, and Greta frowned, seemingly ignoring that.

"What are you wearing?" she asked, instead.

Victoria waved a helpless hand down at her outfit. "I – I went to prom," she said, and Greta flushed and ducked her head, looking horribly hurt and upset, and, Jesus, Victoria was a motherfucking moron. She drew in a breath and repeated, "I went to prom. But you weren't there."

Greta looked up, face confused. "I – what?" she said. "You said you didn't want to go to prom. You said it's a teenage cliché."

"I didn't mean – well, okay, it is," Victoria said. "But I wanted, I wanted to go to prom with you." Greta's expression didn't change and Victoria forced herself to keep looking at Greta, said, "Only I went about that really, really stupidly. I didn't realise, that, that – I'm so sorry." The words came spilling out of her suddenly. "I'm so, so sorry, Greta, I didn't realise – and Brendon yelled at me – but I've been, for two years, I didn't understand, I was really fucking lonely, and that's not an excuse but it's, it's maybe why I've been such an idiot, and, and such a bitch. I didn't realise it. It was wrong, but I didn't realise it, and I'm sorry."

Greta said, "You wanted to go to prom with me?"

"You weren't wrong," Victoria said desperately, staring at Greta. "You weren't wrong, please. I'm sorry."

After a moment, Greta stepped forward, and shut the door carefully behind her. "Come on," she said, and they went and sat on the edge of Greta's porch, next to a pot plant of climbing vine. Victoria was shivering, though she wasn't cold.

"I like you," she said, ducking her head. "I'm sorry I wasn't brave enough to tell you earlier, but I do, I really, I like you a lot."

"Why did you say all those things?" Greta asked.

"You scare me," Victoria said. "Everything scares me. Things were easier when I hated school and liked being outside of school, when that was all it was." She took a breath and said, "And you're so clever and pretty and funny, and you guys are all so popular, and that's just, alien, and—" Then she stopped, because Greta was laughing quietly. "What?"

"We're popular?" Greta repeated, smiling. "Jeez, Vicky-T, are you blind? Everyone thinks we're freaks."

"I – what?" Victoria shook her head. "No, you're—"

"Did you maybe," Greta asked, "get popular mixed up with happy?"

Victoria blinked at her. "You and Ashlee," she said. "You're cheerleaders."

Greta shrugged. "We like the dancing," she said. "Ashlee's big sister was head cheerleader when we started. The other girls don't really like us, but they put up with us because Ashlee's amazing at the splits. Mostly everyone just thinks we're weird, or nerds, or whatever. Pete used to get beaten up every day, and some girls tried to stop Amanda from using the girls' bathrooms because she wore a t-shirt one day that said 'Dyke' on it."

Victoria stared. "I never," she said, and tried to think how she could have gotten things so wrong. She had an awful feeling it maybe had something to do with keeping her head ducked down, not even noticing Brendon being kicked out of home like Spencer had said, fighting his way into a relationship with three guys like Ryan had told her about. Brendon had been sitting right next to her all along; now, Victoria looked at Greta and thought, I got you so wrong, I don't know how to tell you how sorry I am.

Greta touched her hand, very, very briefly. "Keep talking," she said.

"I don't really have anything to say," Victoria said, ducking her head. "I was wrong. I – you know my band? They're my best friends. I was so happy when they were at school with me, my band and these other guys, and we've always looked after each other, and I've missed them so much. But I think I've kind of been really stupid because – because missing them made me a bitch, and that shouldn't have happened. I'm not sure how I would have stopped it, but I should have."

"It's hard," Greta said, and Victoria risked another look at her, surprised. Greta half-smiled and said, "I should introduce you to my friends someday. Not the ones at this school. My best friends, they're at college. Darren and Chris and Bob. I think you'd like them."

Victoria's breath caught in her throat; first because she'd been really, really stupid, and secondly because: "You'd introduce me?" she asked.

"I don't know," Greta said. "Are you going to be nice?" Victoria managed a shaky smile and Greta said, "I really like you, too. Even though you mess me up."

"I don't know how," Victoria admitted, and Greta smiled at her. "You're so – I don't know how."

"I'm getting that," Greta said. "I tried to show you. I even made you a mean Romeo, to try and show you." She bit her lip and said, "I thought you'd quit or something if I tried out for Juliet. And besides, Brendon's better. But it's there. You just weren't looking."

"Greta," Victoria said, and Greta twisted to the side, tilted their foreheads together. She had her eyes closed, her face soft and beautiful, but Victoria couldn't bring herself to shut hers, kept them wide open and staring.

"I really," Greta murmured, and Victoria pressed forward, clumsily, knocked their mouths together off-balance, until Greta curled a hand around the back of her neck and steadied her, resting a hand on Victoria's thigh, warm through the velvet material of her dress. Victoria's heart was beating far too fast, and Greta's mouth was hot and demanding on hers, nothing like the sweet kiss in the prop room: asking for things, and Victoria promised herself she would give every one, everything she had, wouldn't hold back for as long as Greta kept wanting.

Greta broke away, breathing raggedly. "I like your dress," she said, and Victoria made a small, embarrassing sound, and Greta caught it with her mouth.

---

On Monday, Victoria's stomach was full of butterflies, even though Greta had assured her yesterday that she'd talk to the others, make sure that no one was angry at her.

("We don't have to tell them yet," she'd added, lying on the green hill with her head pillowed on Victoria's stomach. Victoria was winding her fingers through Greta's hair, ridiculously pleased that not only did Greta let her do that, she actually liked it, purring and pushing back against Victoria's hand.

"I don't mind," Victoria said, lazily. "I've told the guys – I mean, my friends. And I'm going to tell Brendon. But they're your friends."

"They're your friends, too," Greta said firmly, but paused for a moment. "Would you mind if we kept it to ourselves, for a little while?" she asked hesitantly. "Not because I'm – just, I've been waiting, for a long time, and they're going to be ridiculous about it, and I'd kind of like to, to keep you to myself for a little while."

Her cheeks were pink when she finished, and Victoria pulled her up, wriggling down for a kiss. "I don't mind," she breathed.)

There weren't any rude comments, at least, when she came in, though there were a few wary looks, and Brendon still looked a little angry. Victoria resolved to tell him as soon as possible. She came and sat in the empty chair between him and Greta, forced herself not to look at Greta, knowing she'd probably give everything away.

"Okay," Amanda said. "So let's just go through the directions again, make sure of what we're doing, seeing as opening night's next Monday. Does anyone have anything to discuss?"

"Um," Victoria said, and everyone turned to stare at her. She flushed but said, "I'm feeling a little bit weird about Romeo. Like, I really like what we're doing with him, but I also really like Brendon's Juliet, and I think Romeo is – he's still human, he's still vulnerable. Can he, can he maybe fall for Juliet, a little bit? We could do it so it was reluctant, or even that he didn't realise it, but you know, make it so it's there. Like he can't help it."

For a moment, there was silence. Then Brendon looked down, grinning, and Greta hooked her ankle around Victoria's.

"Very good job keeping it secret," she told Victoria, and Victoria could feel herself turning bright red. Greta was smiling, and everyone else around the circle was either staring in disbelief or beginning to smile themselves. Greta said, "You're not the best with subtlety, huh?"

"I didn't," Victoria began.

"I think we should keep Romeo as is," Greta said, to the rest of the circle, and then she bent her head and said, low in Victoria's ear, like a secret, "That was a nice thought, though."

Victoria ducked her head, but Greta bumped her fingers against Victoria's, where her hand was dangling off the chair, and Victoria turned her palm up, curled their fingers together. After a moment, everyone began talking at once, and Victoria turned her face to the stage, and didn't let go of Greta's hand.