Actions

Work Header

Shield Academy

Work Text:

Shield Academy admits approximately 500 students per year, and is continuously ranked as one of the finest schools in the country. Comprising grades 6-12, the school is primarily a girls’ boarding school, with a small number of boys admitted as day pupils from grades 9-12.

Whilst the school charges fees for admission, our diversity programs provide scholarships and other financial aid. Approximately 15% of students are in receipt of such programs.

sixth grade

Beth Banner sat on the narrow bed and looked down at her shoes. They’d arrived early, and the room was still empty, save for herself, her mother, and the beds. Her suitcase was beside her on the bed, her name in large block letters on the tag just like it was sewn carefully into all the clothing inside.

Five new white shirts; two navy cardigans; one navy blazer and one navy-and-violet kilt (both a little long in case she grows). Assorted tights and undergarments and sports and weekend clothes, all similarly marked. The only thing in there that didn’t have her name attached was her second pair of glasses tucked neatly inside the lining.

Her mother finally looked up from where she’d been fussing with the bedclothes.

“It looks nice, doesn’t it?”

“I guess.”

There was a tiny look on her mother’s face that Beth couldn’t quite place, but she did her best to smile anyway. “It’s great, mom.”

Mrs. Banner ran a hand through her daughter’s hair before standing up. “I’d better leave before the rest of the girls get here. You don’t want me embarrassing you on your first day.”

“It’s fine, Mom.”

Her mother did one final check of all her things and turned to face her. “I’ll tell your father you’re settled in.”

Beth stood up to wrap her arms around her mother’s waist. “I love you.”

“I love you too, darling.”

She pressed a kiss to her hair and gave her a final squeeze before leaving Beth alone in the dormitory.

She wasn’t alone for very long. It was less than fifteen minutes before a small blonde girl accompanied by an elderly woman arrived. The girl had thick glasses and clean but well-worn clothes, and she smiled shyly at Beth when she saw her.

“Hi. My name’s Steffi - Stephanie - Rogers.”

Beth waved back. “I’m Beth Banner.”

Stephanie smiled again and started methodically unpacking her suitcase, blushing affectionately as the woman fussed and helped her fold her clothes and lay out her few personal items. When she finally went to leave, Stephanie wrapped her arms around her and buried her face in her shoulder, and Beth turned away to give them some privacy.

When she’d left, Beth glanced back out of the corner of her eye to see Stephanie curled up on her bed with a book, her eyes a little red, and figured she probably wanted to be left alone for a little while.

Beth started to unpack her bags. She carefully folded her uniform and less-carefully folded the rest of her clothes, lined her shoes up haphazardly under the the bedside locker. Finally, she stacked a couple of paperbacks on the locker and set out a photo of her parents and one of her and her best friend.

When she looked up from her packing, she realised that two more girls had arrived. They looked about the same height, one with long red hair caught up in a messy ponytail, the other with dark blonde hair cut short. They clearly knew each other, taking beds next to each other and swapping things back and forth between them as they both unpacked from a single bag, murmuring softly to each other.

It didn’t take long for the calm to be broken, as another girl clattered loudly up the stairs, trailed by a tall blond man in a suit who was carrying several cases. The girl had long black hair and ripped skinny jeans tucked into scuffed biker books, and she flopped down onto the bed next to Beth’s.

“Just leave the bags here, Jarvis, I’ll sort them out eventually.”

“Of course, Miss Stark.”

She rolled her eyes at that, and Jarvis carefully set the cases at the end of the bed before standing in front of her. They had what seemed to be a silent conversation before the girl darted forward and gave him a blink-and-you’d-miss-it hug before slouching back on the bed.

“Very good, Miss. I’ll tell your parents you’ve arrived safely.”

The girl scowled. “Whatever.”

Jarvis smiled and left.

The second he disappeared, she yanked one of her boots off and shook it over the bed. Beth could only stare as an iPhone, three bottles of nail polish, and a giant packet of juicy fruit gum fell out. She looked over at Beth and narrowed her eyes.

“You’re cool, right?”

“Um, yes? I think so? Yes.”

“Good. What about them?”

Beth looked over at the other three, who didn’t seem to be paying attention. “I think they’re cool too.”

She gestured at her little pile of contraband. “And if anyone asks, you didn’t see any of this.”

“Okay.”

The girl smiled then, the expression completely changing her face. “Awesome. I didn’t want to get stuck in the loser room.”

She stuck her hand across the space between their beds, offering Beth a piece of gum. “I’m Toni.”

“Beth.”

- - - - -

Beth settled in quicker than she thought she would. Some of the classes were boring (okay, most of the classes were boring, but at least she’s not quite so obvious about it as Toni was), but that just means it didn't take her long to get the work done. She's absolutely terrible at field hockey, but so were Toni (though Beth thought she'd be better if she actually tried at all) and Stef (though she put in way more effort than Toni and Beth ever did.)

Natasha and Cliona are good at anything they do together, but sometimes Cliona doesn't seem to pay that much attention in the classes they have separately, and Beth has more than once seen Natasha quietly berating Cliona for not paying enough attention in history.

One day in November, Toni dropped down next to Beth in the library. She glanced down at the page of poetry Beth was memorising and rolled her eyes.

"Poetry sucks."

Beth closed the book over. "Yeah. Like, what's even the point? If I even want to read "The Cremation of Sam McGee" in the future, I'll just read it. I don't need to "understand it" or whatever."

Toni grinned and flipped her hair over her shoulder. "Cmon."

She grabbed Beth's wrist and walked out of the library, leading her down a corridor until they arrived in one of the school's bathrooms. She hopped up on the windowsill and gestured for Beth to join her.

Toni offered her some chewing gum and they sat in silence for a minute, drumming their heels against the tiled wall.

"Do you want anything from Manhattan?"

"Sorry?"

"My friend Pepper, she goes to Spence - she was supposed to come here, but her parents don't like me, think I'm a bad influence who's going to lead her down the path to wickedness or something stupid like that, but it means she can send me stuff. She's going to Sephora next week to get me some eyeliners and she can pick up some stuff for you if you know what you want."

"We're not allowed to wear make-up."

Toni rolled her eyes and snapped her gum, "Girls in sixth and seventh grade are not permitted to wear make-up during school activities. From eight-grade onwards, girls are permitted to wear simple make-up, provided it does not prove to be a distraction, and individual teachers are at liberty to make such a call."

It was a perfect imitation of their head-of-floor Abi Brand - even adopting the bored tone she'd delivered it in - that Beth had to giggle.

"So we won't wear it during class."

"Um, I've never worn make-up." Beth blushed.

Toni gave her face a critical once-over. "Then we'll start you on dark brown. Can't go wrong with that."

"Um, I don't have any money."

Toni waved her hand and hopped off the windowsill. "You can pay me back whenever, it's cool."

She wrapped her hand back around Beth's wrist and pulled her gently off the ledge.

"C'mon."

Beth followed Toni through the hallways again, back towards the dorms until her phone rang.

It wasn't her iPhone - junior school girls weren't allowed smart phones - just the tiny black flip phone she kept so she'd never be out-of-contact with the outside world. She dropped Beth's wrist as she flipped it open and grinned.

"Pepper! I was just talking about you... Don't be silly, just Beth." She covered the mouthpiece for a second, "Pepper says hi.”

"Um, hi?"

"Beth says hi... Ugh, don't be ridiculous, they're making me come home for Thanksgiving, which is just the worst thing in the entire world, right?"

She started walking again, glancing back at Beth and gesturing for her to keep following. Beth walked beside her as Toni kept up a steady line of chatter with Pepper, finally signing off when they made it back to their room.

"Gotta go Pepper. I have to listen to some music now so I can talk about my feelings or whatever tomorrow... I know, right? It's not even good music. Maybe I will have some emotions about music when they give me music I feel emotional about, yeah?... Totally. Bye!"

Toni tossed her phone carelessly onto her bedside locker and flopped down on her bed, her legs kicked up against the wall. She dug her iPod out from under her pillow and shifted over to make room for Beth.

"C'mon."

"Yeah, just let me grab my -"

"It's fine, I've got a splitter."

Toni held up a second pair of headphones connected to her iPod, and patted the bed next to her. Beth paused for a moment before carefully sliding off her shoes and lying down next to her.

- - - - -

Beth’s best friend from home is Betty Ross, who she sat next to every day in elementary school, because ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Elizabeth’ are obviously right next to each other in the alphabet. Betty’s parents are much happier than Beth’s, so she goes to a day school back in Connecticut. Shield pupils only get half-an-hour a night of free time on the internet, and Beth tries to remember to send her an email as often as she can, but it's harder now that Toni's always sending her links to youtube and hulu videos and websites with cool pictures or awesome math problems.

Stef's best friend from home is a boy called Bucky Barnes. She's got a picture of him on her locker next to the ones of her grandmother and her parents, and in it they're both dressed up like superheroes, their arms stretched into the sky. They went to elementary school in Brooklyn, but Shield doesn't admit boys until 9th grade, so they had to split up for middle school. Stef still writes letters in long-hand, and she sends him one once a week and gets one back as well. There are other kids from her elementary school she talks about as well, like Peggy Carter, but Bucky's the only one who gets letters.

Natasha's best friend is Cliona and Cliona's best friend is Natasha. They've lived together since they were seven years old, and sometimes Beth thinks the world doesn't properly exist for them if the other one isn't there. She's heard Clio mention a brother before, but she knows better than to ask those kinds of questions. Clio has one eye on Natasha all the time and Natasha has to drag her to some of her classes to make sure she goes and she glares at Toni every time she suggests that school doesn't have to be that big a deal.

Toni's best friend from home is Pepper Potts. Pepper goes to Spence School and she's got long red hair and is unfairly beautiful and she and Toni and are always always always texting each other. Pepper was sent to Spence instead of Shield because Pepper's parents think Toni is a bad influence, which Toni thinks is ridiculous. But then, some mornings Toni thinks brushing her teeth and combing her hair are ridiculous so she's maybe not a trustworthy source on these things.

seventh grade

When they arrived back in school for seventh grade, there was a dull hum of gossip spreading through the students. Nat rolled her eyes at all the conjecture, disappeared for fifteen minutes, and came back with all the answers.

“There's a new seventh grader. Which is apparently strange? I don't know, but she's sitting downstairs in the hallway with her younger sister.”

That kind of broke the dam, and they all rushed down to the main hall to see for themselves. Standing in the middle of the hallway as their parents went through a few final details in the office were two girls. One was tall and blonde and smiling, the other shorter, with black hair and a scowl on her face.

“Well. Guess someone doesn't want to be here at all.” said Toni.

Natasha popped up again. “Their father's the Norwegian ambassador. The older one's taking the empty bed in our dorm. Her sister's in the sixth grade.

Just at that moment, Ms. Fury spotted them across the room.

“Excellent. Miss Rogers, if you could join me over here, please? The rest of you are excused.”

Stef is absolutely the nicest girl Beth has ever met, so it's not surprising she's the one Fury wants to show the new girl around. If she asked Toni, the girl wouldn't learn anything more than which floorboards to avoid stepping on at night if you were trying to sneak around.

- - - - -

“Hey everyone. This is Thora.”

Stef and Thora looked kind of hilarious standing next to each other, because Thora was probably taller than most of the eighth grade, let alone the seventh, and Stef was still nearly the shortest girl in the entire school.

Stef pointed all of them out and showed Thora where her bed was, and where she could put all her stuff. Thora seemed nice, though her voice was a little loud, even when she was just talking to Stef. When she finally had all her stuff packed away, she followed Stef over to where Toni and Beth were sitting on Toni's bed. They sat down across from them.

“So, Thora.” Toni started. “Is this your first time living away from home?”

“No. We were in France for a while, and Singapore. We almost went to Australia, but my mother absolutely refused to be so far away, and we went to Italy for a while instead. We were in Washington last year, but my father has to do a lot more travelling this year and he decided to send us here instead of leaving us in the house all alone.”

“Oh yeah? Do you get into a lot of trouble then?”

Thora blushed a little. “I used to, but not any more. My sister Loki though, would probably have been deported by now if it weren't for diplomatic immunity.”

Toni grinned. “Sounds fascinating.”

“I suppose. It's more trouble than it's worth though, most days. My father is very strict when rules have been broken. Otherwise, I might still get into as much trouble as her.”

“Good to know.” Toni smiled. “Good to know.”

eighth grade

The first week in January, Toni slid into the chair beside Beth's and pointed over at Stef.

"What's up with her?"

Beth glanced over. Stef didn't seem particularly different that day, maybe just a bit jumpier than usual.

"I don't know. Maybe she's sick?"

Across the table, Nat scoffed. Toni and Beth turned to look at her.

"What?"

"Do you people pay attention to anything?"

Toni rolled her eyes, "Can you just tell us what it is? I'll back-pay you like, fifteen minutes of feeling smug and superior."

Nat rolled her eyes. "It's the senior school admission exam for boys."

"And?"

Nat stared at them for a second before leaning in and speaking slowly like she couldn't believe how stupid they were. "And Bucky is sitting it."

That made sense then. No wonder Stef was so nervous. Toni balled a sheet of paper up and tossed it at her. It hit her gently on the side of the head and she looked around.

"Want to go down to the gym?"

"What? We're not allowed down there."

"It'll be fine. C'mon, it won't even be a distraction, they'll be done by now. But this way you can say hey to your boy before they whisk them all away so the sixth graders don't find out that boys under fifteen exist."

Stef got to her feet slowly. "Um, he's not really my boy-"

"Yeah, fine, whatever. Coming?"

Toni stood up and walked out the door, not checking to see if anyone was following her. Beth and Stef did so her quickly, and so did Nat, rolling her eyes again. Clio fell into step at the end of the line.

Downstairs, the boys sitting the entrance exam were just filing out of the gym.

"Bucky!"

Beth barely had a chance to take in the boy coming through the door before he disappeared under Stef's arms.

Next to her, she could feel Nat and Clio shift closer together. Toni shoved her hands into her pockets and sighed as Stef linked her arm though Bucky's and dragged him over.

She smiled widely. "Hey, this is Bucky. Bucky, this is Toni, and Beth, and Nat and Clio."

Bucky smiled and waved hello. They all waved back with varying levels of enthusiasm.

Toni crossed her arms. "So, do you think you got in?"

"Um, I hope so? I mean, it was a hard, but..."

"Well, it's a difficult test. Lots of people fail it."

Beth elbowed her in the side. "Toni!"

"Sorry." She rolled her eyes. "I'm sure you did fine."

"Um, thanks?" Bucky looked a little confused, but that was a lot of people's reactions to Toni.

Stef slid her hand back into Bucky's elbow and pulled slightly. "I'm going to walk Bucky out. I'll see you guys upstairs?"

Bucky's smile when he turned back to face Stef was nearly blinding, and Beth felt a sharp little sting in her ribs.

They walked away, their shoulders brushing and their faces bent together to talk.

"It's kind of a adorable. I mean, it's a little pathetic, but kind of adorable." said Toni.

Beth glanced over at her. "What do you mean?"

Toni waved after them. "He's kind of obvious."

Beth shifted her eyes away from Toni and down to the ground. "I guess.”

ninth grade

The beginning of ninth grade was different to every other year, because there are suddenly boys everywhere. Beth didn't see what all the fuss was about (well you wouldn't, would you a tiny voice inside her says), but some of the other girls were getting way too excited.

Toni stood next to her in the doorway to homeroom. "I hope these guys don't think that just because we're girls, we aren't smarter than them in every conceivable way."

Beth laughed. "Well, I'm sure you'll be able to make them see reason."

"I just hope none of them are sitting next to me. Half these classes are only fun because of the scandalised looks Stef gives me when she thinks I'm not paying attention."

"I'll try and keep judging you then."

Stef had come up behind them, so Beth turned to say hello and found herself looking at Stef's chin instead of the top of her head.

"Um." Toni stared at her. "Were you in some sort of radiation accident over the summer?"

Stef blushed and slouched a little more. "Um, just a growth-spurt, I guess?"

Toni looked her up and down again and shrugged. "Well, I'd say the field hockey team will probably let you off the bench this year. Unless you like, kill someone by hitting the ball too hard."

Stef smiled a little and straightened up a tiny bit. "Maybe, yeah!"

They watched as she walked to her desk, and every single guy's eyes followed her the whole way there.

Next to Beth, Tony grinned. "This is going to be hilarious."

- - - - -

Toni pulled Beth out of study hall. Literally pulled her out, grabbing a hold of her cardigan as she was about to step through the door. She linked their arms together to stop Beth escaping as she pulled her determinedly towards the 3rd floor bathrooms.

“You know, on tv whenever someone is brought to the most remote location possible, it’s because they’re about to be horribly murdered.”

Toni laughed. “Babe, you know if I wanted to kill you I would have a much, much better place to dump your body.”

“Maybe that’s part of your plan. Maybe you’re deliberately doing this stupidly to throw people off the scent.”

“You should probably stop talking, before I start to think you want me to murder you.”

Beth stuck her hands in her pockets and leaned against the sink. She didn’t really need to be in study hall anyway, not if the homework assignments were going to be as easy as they always were. And they weren’t far enough into the year for Toni to have cooked up anything truly outrageous yet.

“What are we doing here then, if not to slowly drain all my blood?”

“You watch too much Criminal Minds. We’re giving me bangs.”

Beth stared at her. Toni pulled out a pair of scissors.

“I would have shown you these before, but I thought they might give out the wrong impression while we were still talking about how I’d murder you. Which for the record, I wouldn’t.”

Beth took the scissors and kept staring. “Toni, you know that if you wanted to, you could walk into the most expensive hair salon in the country and get a perfect haircut immediately, right?”

Toni hopped up onto the windowsill and beckoned Beth closer. “But we don’t get a free-out day until the end of the month and I want bangs now!”

She hooked her ankle around Beth’s knee and pulled her closer until Beth was standing between her knees.

“I’ve never cut hair before.”

Toni rolled her eyes. “I swear on whatever you want that even if you screw it up, I won’t care.”

Beth took a small step forward to get a better angle and Toni had to shift her hands out of her lap and rest one on the windowsill, the other gently against Beth’s hip.

“So long as like, I still have all my eyes and stuff when you’re done.”

Beth took a second to think back to the disastrous time she’d gotten bangs when she was nine. She finger-combed a section of Toni’s long straight hair directly over her face, and pushed the rest behind her ears.

“Don’t move at all.”

Toni held her breath as Beth sliced off a chunk of her hair.

“So, do you want like, Zooey Deschenel bangs or like Bettie Page bangs?”

Toni paused for a moment to think. “Just start them long. You can keep cutting until I decide I’ve had enough.”

Beth carefully trimmed the ends of Toni’s hair until her bangs lay in an (almost straight) line ending just below her eyebrows. Toni slid off the windowsill and they both dusted themselves mostly free of hair.

Toni looked at herself in the mirror. “I think I like them. What do you think?”

Beth tried not to look too intensely. “You look nice.”

Toni grinned and leaned in to press a quick peck against her cheek. “You say the sweetest things. C’mon, I want to show Pepper.”

Toni grabbed Beth’s hand and pulled her behind her back to their dorm, and Beth fought hard to keep the flush out of her cheeks as she followed.

- - - - -

Thanksgiving that year was kind of bleak.

Beth's dad was working, so she and her mother had dinner with her mother's family. Which meant that Beth and her cousin Jennifer were stuck at the kids' table while the younger cousins screamed about their vegetables.

They drove home late, a plate of leftovers balanced on Beth's lap. The lights were out when they got back, and they both tiptoed carefully through the dark house. Beth waited fifteen minutes until the house was silent again before pulling her laptop under the covers and opening up GChat.

beth.banner is online
tonistark is away doing something much cooler then talk to you

beth.banner: Toni?
beth.banner: Are you there?

elizabethross is online

elizabethross: Beth!
elizabethross: hope tnxgiving wasn't too terrible
elizabethross: you're still coming over to mine on saturday right? mom says we can bring you to the train on sunday.
elizabethross: beth?

beth.banner is offline

- - - - -

Friday wasn't any better. Beth's dad was still working (because I'm a busy man, Elizabeth. I wouldn't expect you to understand.)

Beth's mother went into town for Black Friday. She stayed behind and studied a bit, reading the end of The Great Gatsby and muddling through the German subjunctive.

to: Toni
Are you around?
to: Toni
You can't still be asleep.
to: Toni
Are you back at school on Sunday or Monday?

Beth rolled her eyes and went back to German. It was nearly midnight by the time she got a reply.

from: Toni
BETH IM SO SORRY i left my phone at peppers house and now im going out again but i hope it wasnt an emergency and ill see you back at school

- - - - -

Betty and her mom picked Beth up right after breakfast on Saturday morning. They stopped off in town to pick up some food for later, and Beth and Betty went for a wander around the shops. Beth was flicking through the CD racks when Betty came up beside her and bumped their shoulders together.

"Since when do you listen to Black Sabbath?"

"I like Black Sabbath!"

"This from the girl who once wrote Justin Timberlake a letter asking him to make more songs?"

"Nearly! And you were the one who lent me all the stickers. Anyway, I listen to lots of music."

"You go away to that school and it's like I don't even know you anymore. They're obviously changing you."

Betty wrapped her arm around Beth's shoulders and grinned. Beth slipped out from under the arm and stuck the CD back in the rack, a little embarrassed.

"Let's go."

- - - - -

Betty's parents went out that night, so the two girls ordered Chinese takeout and sneaked a bottle of wine from the back of the cupboard.

"Won't we get in trouble?"

Betty laughed. "They'll buy more for Christmas before they get far enough back to notice any's missing. Grab some Sprite as well though."

Back in her bedroom, Betty sloshed some wine and Sprite into each of the glasses and handed one to Beth. She took a sip and wrinkled her nose slightly.

"I hate Chardonnay."

Betty laughed and elbowed her in the side. "Since when do you know anything about wine? Or is that another thing they're teaching you at school?"

"Yeah," agreed Beth. "Wednesday 4th period, classic rock and wine appreciation."

"Public school is obviously leaving massive gaps in my education."

Beth added some more Sprite to her wine and sipped it again. Betty turned the tv on and flicked through the channels until she landed on a Friends re-run.

They chatted back and forth as they drank through the wine until the Friends Thanksgiving-episode marathon finished and they started flicking through the channels again.

They landed on a late-night soap with two girls in school uniforms sitting side-by-side on a bench. There were soaring violins and a low pulsating bass beat as the two girls' hands inched closer together.

Beside Beth, Betty giggled.

"Do you have classes in that as well?"

Beth pulled her knees to her chest. "Shut up."

"I mean, it would make sense," Betty continued. "If you're always around girls, watching them change, sleeping really close to them..."

"Um, can we talk about something else?"

Betty laughed. "Fine. We'll forget about all the rampant lesbianism. Change the channel."

"Fine," Beth snapped, sloshing more wine into her glass and swallowing it quickly.

"Jeez, calm down. I was just joking."

They switched to VH1 counting down the best of some decade while they finished the wine, until Beth was tipsy and slouching low against the floor.

Betty leaned over to flick the tv off and pull Beth's glass out of her hand.

"C'mon, time for bed."

Betty stacked the glasses and plates they'd used and shoved them into the corner. She climbed into bed and pulled back the duvet.

"Hurry up. I'm freezing."

Beth hovered by the edge of the bed.

"Come on. I was just teasing. I know you're not a lesbian. Just get in."

Beth crawled in carefully and laid her head on the pillow. Betty gave her a curious look before shrugging and turning the light off.

"Night."

"Night."

Beth couldn't sleep. She shifted back and forth under the covers for about fifteen minutes, before she finally took a deep breath and spoke.

"What if I was?"

Betty cracked an eye open. "Hmm?"

"What if I was a lesbian?" Beth repeated.

Betty propped herself up on her elbow and rubbed her hand across her face for a second.

"Like, a proper lesbian? Or like, Katy Perry lesbian?"

"A real lesbian, obviously."

Betty didn't reply, and Beth held her breath for what felt like forever before she finally spoke.

"Betty?" Beth whispered.

"I'm here. I'm just trying to figure out what you think I'm going to say that has you all worried."

"Okay."

"Oh god, come here." Betty snaked an arm around Beth's waist and pulled her in for a hug. "Did you think I was going to scream and kick you out? You need to stop watching all those depressing documentaries."

Beth could feel tears pricking at her eyes. "I'm sorry."

"I'm going to pinch you if you say that again."

"Sor-Ow."

Beth lay still for a moment until she stopped feeling the need to cry.

After a few more seconds, Betty poked her in the ribs.

"So. Tell me about her?"

Beth froze. "I don't know what you mean."

"I know you. You'd need definite proof before you'd say anything. So tell me about her."

Beth pushed herself up to a seated position and pulled her knees against her chest. "It doesn't matter."

Betty squeezed her ankle. "Of course it matters."

"No, it doesn't. Because she's not... and she won't. I can't tell her, because she'll just look at me like she feels sorry for me, and she'll tell me it won't make a difference and we're still be friends but it won't be the same and she'll stop dragging me places with her and lending me her CDs and telling me things and I can't tell any of them anything because she'll figure it out and then -and then-"

Beth was crying now, gasping out sobs and hugging her knees. Betty sat up to wrap her arms around her shoulders.

"Shhh." Betty brushed some of Beth's hair back from her face. "She can't be that great."

"She is." Beth tried to scrub away the tears with the cuff of her pajamas. "She's beautiful and smart and everyone's terrified of her, but she's lovely really and she's just... she's perfect."

"Well," said Betty. "You're beautiful and smart as well. And even though people haven't been terrified of you since second grade because it was only Kimmie's baby tooth, I'm not sure being terrifying is really a good thing. And even if it is, it doesn't matter, because she's not perfect if she doesn't think you're perfect."

Beth sniffed and wiped away the last few tears. "Well, you're wrong, she is. But thanks."

Betty pulled her down against the pillows and pulled the duvet up to their chins. "I'm not, but that's fine. Go to sleep."

- - - - -

Betty’s mom drove her to the train on Sunday morning, and Betty gave her an extra-tight hug before she boarded.

“Remember what I said, right? And call me.”

“I will.”

Beth was the first back to the dorm room, so she flopped down on her bed and pulled out a copy of Wired from under Toni's mattress. The rest of her roommates drifted in throughout the day, starting with Clio and Nat, who seemed to appear between one page turn and the next.

Thora shuffled in about half an hour later, her sister trailing behind her. She sat down next to Beth and tried her best to ignore Loki as she stood at the end of the bed and gently kicked the bedpost. It took less than fifteen minutes before Thora scowled and shoved a few crumpled banknotes into Loki's hand. She smirked, turned sharply on her heel, and left.

"Did you just pay your sister to leave you alone?"

Thora shrugged. "Sometimes, it's just easier."

A few minutes later, Thora elbowed Beth in the side and tilted her head towards the doorway, where Bucky was dropping Stef off. He had to tilt his head back to meet her eyes, and when she turned to enter the room he caught Beth's eye and blushed deeply.

"Toni bet Clio $32 that Bucky would make a move before Christmas," said Thora.

"That was stupid. Toni's going to lose $32."

"That's what I said. But it's not like Toni doesn't have $32 to throw away on random bets. I think she's planning on using it as an excuse to guilt Bucky into doing something about it next term."

Thora paused. "Speaking of..."

Toni had entered the room. She was wearing sunglasses even in the overcast November afternoon, and clutching a giant Starbucks cup. Behind her, as always, Jarvis was carrying her suitcase.

She dropped the cup in her garbage and threw herself face-down on her bed. Jarvis looked down at her for a moment, before setting her bag down, nodding at Beth and Thora and leaving.

"Toni?"

A low moan came from the pile of clothes and hair on the bed.

"Toni? Are you alright?"

"Eurgh."

Thora grinned. "I'll leave this in your hands."

Beth got up and sat on the edge of Toni's bed. "Do you need me to get you some water?"

Toni flopped over on her back and brushed some of the hair out of her face. "I'm fine. I just went to this thing with Pepper and Char last night, and getting a cab from the middle of an industrial park at 4am is kind of difficult, so I barely got any sleep."

"Are you hungover?" Beth hissed.

"Jeez Beth. Calm down. I'm just tired."

"Well, you tell me you're out in a warehouse until 4am, and what do you expect me to think?"

Toni kicked her feet up against the wall and brushed all of her hair out of the way. "It's fine, but you really must have more faith in me. How was your Thanksgiving?"

Beth tried her best to answer Toni's questions without staring at the giant hickey just underneath her jaw.

tenth grade

"You still have a city day pass, right?"

Beth peered out from under her pillow. "Toni, it's 9am. On Saturday."

"But you do, yeah?"

"Yes. The one I got for my dentist appointment last month hasn't expired yet."

"Awesome. C'mon, get up. We're going out."

Beth groaned and burrowed deeper into her pillows before yelping when Toni grabbed her ankle and pulled. She grabbed hold of the frame.

"Five more minutes!"

"C'mon!"

"Even if I take the longest shower in the world and it takes us an hour to get there, it won't even be 11am. I don't believe there is anything in the city you'd want to do that can't be done after 11am."

"Fine."

Toni threw herself back on her bed and started drumming her heels against the wall. It took less than five minutes before a notebook thrown from Clio's bed hit Beth square in the shoulder.

"Alright, alright. I'm getting up."

"Great!" Toni threw her towel at her. "Wear something nice."

Beth looked at her. "Toni, I'm pretty sure you slept in those jeans last night."

"Yeah, but they all know me.

After her shower, Beth pulled on a pair of grey chinos and a purple t-shirt. She turned to face Toni.

“Do I pass muster?”

Toni gave a quick once-over and grinned. “You'll do. C'mon. I ordered a taxi.”

“Do I need to bring anything else?”

“Just your fabulous self.”

They signed out with reception and waited on the front steps for their taxi to the train station. A couple of junior school girls stopped to stare at them, but Toni just raised an eyebrow and pointedly ignored them until they moved on.

Beth nearly laughed at Toni on the LIRR.

“God. How do people do this every day?”

“How do you normally get into the city?”

Normally I get a towncar. But I'm already paying for lunch and you get weird if I pay for everything, so here we are. On the train..”

“I don't get 'weird'.” Beth objected.

“You do, but don't worry, I don't mind. It's cute.”

Toni seemed to have some plan for the afternoon, but Beth couldn't quite figure out what it was. She dragged them into the first Starbucks she saw after getting off the train so they could get the biggest lattes they could carry before heading down into the subway (apparently, Toni didn't find the subway quite as objectionable as the commuter train). and emerging somewhere in the village.They went to three thrift stores because Toni thought that's where you find the best t-shirts, and she bought three, all in slightly different shades of black with band names Beth had never heard of. Beth bought a pair of hoop earrings that looked like tiny double helixes before Toni dragged them into another Starbucks to replenish her latte. Then she dragged Beth into a comic books shop so she could glare at the DC reboots, and Beth had to drag her out before she got in a fight with one of the other customers.

Toni checked her watch just before two and loudly hailed a cab. The address she gave the driver made Beth's eyes widen.

“Where are we going?”

“I told you, we're getting lunch.”

“We can get lunch at a deli, we don't need to go somewhere that's going to be all gold cutlery and tiny expensive food.”

“Gold cutlery would be really impractical. And anyway, this place isn't that bad. It's pretty downmarket for the location, but it's Charlotte's favourite and we're meeting her for lunch, so.”

Beth had learned when to stop objecting, so she just huffed slightly and sat back in the seat.

The girl who waved at them when they got out of the car made Beth double-take. She'd met Pepper briefly over Skype and seen plenty of photos of her, and she mostly seemed to dress how Toni would if Toni bought clothes new and understood how to do laundry properly. But whoever this was was wearing pressed khakis and a perfectly-cut white shirt, and even seemed to be wearing pearls.

Toni lead her to the patio table and collapsed into one of the chairs, her bags falling around her. Beth carefully took the seat beside her, across from the other girl.

“Charlotte, this is Beth Banner. Beth, this is Charlotte Xavier.”

“It's lovely to meet you.” Charlotte shook Beth's hand. “Toni talks about you all the time.”

“She's probably just complaining I stop her from getting into even more trouble.”

“There has been a decided undercurrent of 'Beth stopped me hacking the school bell to take ten minutes away from art history and give it to maths', yes.”

“Well, Stef would have been really disappointed.”

“Stef can look at pictures of paintings whenever she wants to.” said Toni. “I don't know why we have to do it as well.”

Charlotte rolled her eyes and patted Toni’s hand. “It's not your fault you have no soul. Now, what are you getting? I've been craving the duck and asparagus salad for weeks.”

Beth quickly scanned the menu.

“Toni, you said this place was downmarket.”

“I said it was downmarket for the location.”

“This is too expen-”

“Give me your menu. I'll order for you.”

“Toni...”

“Next time, you can pick where we eat, okay?”

Beth gripped her menu a moment longer before releasing it. “Don't go crazy though.”

When the waiter arrived, Toni ordered herself some kind of complicated frittata and Beth something with fish. Charlotte ordered the duck and asparagus salad and three glasses of Sancerre, which involved a face-off with the waiter that seemed to last for ever before he finally nodded and left the table.

Toni laughed. “This is why you're the only person in the world people think is a bad influence on me instead of the other way around.”

When the food arrived, Beth ate her fish (which really was delicious) and listened to Charlotte and Toni gossip about various mutual friends. Apparently Charlotte's sister Raven was being a particularly annoyingly twelve-years-old at the moment and Charlotte hadn't spoken to someone called Emma in simply ages because “she's back on with Sebastian at the moment and you know how Ericka feels about Sebastian, so I'll have to wait until she comes to her senses yet again.”

When they'd finished eating, Toni excused herself and Charlotte settled her gaze on Beth.

“So, Beth. Tell me about yourself.”

“Um, I'm from Connecticut. I like physics. My dad's a scientist. I don't think there's much very interesting.”

Charlotte smiled. “And of course, you're completely head-over-heels for Ms. Stark over there.”

Beth blushed a deep red. “What? No, I don't -”

“Relax.” Charlotte leaned across the table to squeeze her hand. “She hasn't noticed.”

Beth calmed down a little. “You're not going to tell her, are you?”

“Of course not,” Charlotte assured her. “I'd never do that.”

“You two better be talking about me.” Toni flopped down in her chair.

“Obviously,” said Charlotte. “I was just telling Beth to facebook me. I have plenty of blackmail material in case she ever needs to talk you out of doing anything else stupid.”

Beth smiled weakly as Toni looked back and forth between them. “Hmm. Introducing the two of you was probably a mistake.”

“Too late now.”

After a complicated negotiation over the cheque, which ended with Charlotte slapping her credit card into the folder and holding it out of Toni's reach until the waiter took it, they said goodbye outside.

Charlotte gave Beth a warm hug. “I meant it, about facebook. If you want to talk.”

“Thanks.”

Charlotte smacked Toni playfully on the ass, kissed her cheek, and climbed into her town car. Toni looked after it wistfully for a second before turning back to Beth.

“So, back to the train!”

She linked their arms together and lead Beth to the nearest subway.

- - - - -

Beth ended the phone call with her mother and slumped back into her pillows.

"What's wrong?"

Beth started and looked over at where Toni was digging around in her backpack.

"I didn't know you'd come in."

"Well yeah. I was being quiet. You were on the phone. What's up?"

Beth sighed. "It's nothing. It's just... My Mom said my Dad's been a bit weird lately, and she doesn't think I should come home for Thanksgiving this year."

Toni twisted around so quickly she nearly fell off the bed. "So what? You're just staying here by yourself?"

"I guess? I have to tell Ms. Fury, but there's not much else I can do."

"Fuck that noise." Toni grabbed her iPhone out of her boot. "You'll come to my house. I'll let Jarvis know not to pick me up in the two-seater."

Beth shifted to face Toni. "You can't just invite me over for Thanksgiving. What would your parents say?"

"Please. They barely notice I'm there most of the time."

Toni finished fiddling with her phone and dropped it on the bed. "Sorted! Pack something nice, I've no idea who's going to be at dinner. I mean, I don't care what you wear. I might not even get out of my pyjamas. But Senator Fitzgerald was there last year, and you barely approve of how I dress at the best of times, so you might want like, a dress or something."

Beth looked at her. "You're going to have dinner with a Senator in your pyjamas?"

"I've no idea if he'll be there this year. Last year I wore jeans."

- - - - -

Toni’s house was huge.

Beth was expecting that, obviously. You couldn’t know Toni for more than ten minutes before you’d be able to tell how rich she was, but Beth hadn’t quite been expecting how big. By the time the car pulled to a stop in front of the building, Beth couldn't hear the traffic on the road at all.

Toni lead her inside, leaving a trail of boots and other bits of clothing through the house as she showed her upstairs. Toni's room was enourmous, with bright red walls and hardly any decoration. There were piles of clothes strewn across the floor, and about three scarfs hung over the giant iMac monitor on the desk. Toni glanced around the room and shrugged.

"This is my room. Just leave your stuff wherever. I'm hungry."

She shrugged her last extra layer off into a puddle on the floor and wandered back out the door. Beth carefully laid her coat on the back of the desk chair and followed her out.

It took her a few minutes to track Toni down, eventually heading towards the rear of the ground floor. Toni was sitting on the counter, picking at an un-sliced loaf of bread.

"Don't you have plates?"

Toni shrugged. Beth rolled her eyes and moved around the kitchen until she'd located a plate and knife, and pulled some more stuff out of the fridge.

"I'm going to make a sandwich. Do you want one, are are you good with your scraps of bread?"

Toni shrugged again. Beth made her a sandwich anyway.

Toni smiled. "Thanks."

- - - - -

Beth looked through her bag to figure out what she was going to wear to dinner. Tony was fiddling with a remote-control car.

"So, I checked with Marie, and she said Senator Fitzgerald isn't on the guest list for tonight, so you don't have to worry about me causing some kind of federal incident."

"Are you actually planning on changing into pyjamas just for dinner?"

"No. That's too much effort. I'm not even planning on brushing my hair."

Beth pulled a clean grey shirt out of her bag. "Is this okay? Is everyone else going to be wearing like, suits and dresses?"

Toni waved her hand. "You'll be fine."

"Fine by your standards, or fine by the rest of the guests'?"

"Everyone will be so busy despairing of me that you'll come across as a paragon of propriety, don't worry."

Beth wasn't convinced.

- - - - -

Beth ran after Toni as she stormed through the house.

Toni crashed to her knees in front of the cabinet in the smaller dining room and started digging through the contents.

She stopped for a second, screamed in frustration, and went back to the cupboard. It took her about two minutes before she unearthed a bottle of Jack Daniels. She yanked the cork out with her teeth, spat it away, and took a deep swallow.

Beth dropped to her knees and shuffled closer. She tried to gently take the bottle from Toni's hand, but she was holding firm.

"I hate him so much."

Beth didn't say anything. She slid the bottle out of Toni's fingers and helped her to her feet.

"Let's get you upstairs, okay?"

Toni let herself be lead up to her bedroom, but snatched the bottle back as soon as they were inside. She took another large mouthful and offered it to Beth. Beth glanced at it for a second before taking a small sip and handing it back.

Toni wiped furiously at her mouth with the back of his hand.

"You didn't say no."

"I'm sorry?"

"Most people tell me I don't. If I say I hate him. But you didn't."

"Yeah, well." Beth snatched the bottle back for a bigger sip. "How am I supposed to know if you hate him or not? It doesn't seem completely outside the realm of possibilities."

Toni gave Beth a careful look before slouching down against the wall and patting the ground next to her. She arranged the bottle between her bent knees as Beth sat down next to her.

"I probably don't really hate him. Not like, hate him hate him. Not all the time, anyway. Just when he's being a dick. But he's a dick a lot of the time."

Beth was silent, but she took another mouthful of Jack when Toni handed her the bottle.

"He doesn't think I'll get into MIT though. Doesn't think I'm "applied" enough, whatever the fuck that means."

Toni leaned her head against Beth's shoulder and looked up at her. "You believe in me, right?"

"Of course I do. Don't be stupid." Beth sighed. "At least your Dad just thinks you don't work hard enough. My dad told me not to even bother applying to Harvard because it'd be a waste of application fees."

"What?" Toni's flailing arm nearly knocked the bottle over. "Fuck that noise, alright? You're awesome."

Beth laughed. "Thanks."

Toni rested her head back on Beth's shoulder. "We'll both be awesome. You'll be in Harvard and I'll be in MIT and we'll have an awesome apartment together in Cambridge during the holidays so we don't have to go home unless we want to."

"Yeah? You want to stick with the dorms during the year?"

"Of course. That's where all the parties are."

Beth smiled. "Of course. C'mon, let's get you into bed."

Toni buried her face deeper into Beth's neck. "Are you coming too?"

Beth ignored the tiny hitch in her chest and rolled her eyes, brushing a chunk of Toni's hair out of her face. "Someone has to make sure you don't suffocate on all this."

- - - - -

Officially, the school winter holiday party ended at 10pm, when the boys were shown out, the girls ushered up to their dormitories, and the majority of the faculty remained downstairs to stretch the night into the early hours.

This year though, due to a temporary truce between Nat and Toni, things went a little differently.

Instead of leaving the grounds entirely, the tenth grade boys carefully pulled away from the group as it rounded the driveway, and disappeared into the trees that lined the lawn on that side of the building. Natasha had managed to obtain the faculty schedule for the night, and she and Toni had figured out a complicated way to divert attention from their dorm without making it obvious that that's what they were doing. Beth wasn't sure, but it seemed to involve rotating alarms and setting off minor incidents across the rest of the building, and she probably didn't want to think about it in any more detail in case she got nervous about exactly how many rules they were all breaking.

Once the first (and hopefully only) sweep of their corridor had been made, Clio climbed out the window to find the boys, whilst Thora and Beth waited for the rest of the girls from their grade to sneak in before fixing Toni's makeshift soundproofing stuff over the door.

All in all, it took less than fifteen minutes before the entire room was locked down, with the teachers hopefully kept out and all the tenth graders – plus Pepper, who'd managed to sneak into both the official party and the dorms – kept in.

Pepper wriggled for a second, dislodging a few hip flasks from places Beth didn't really want to imagine, and held them aloft.

“Right. Lets get this started then.”

They'd managed to borrow a large mixing bowl from the kitchen a few days earlier, and it didn't take long before it was full to the brim with a mixture of orange juice, Seven-Up, and whatever Pepper had snuck in under her clothing.

In between Clio’s and her beds, Nat was dealing poker with four other people, all of whom should really have known better. Clio and Thora were involved in some kind of game of horse with the trash-can basketball hoop, which was quickly progressing past 'stand at the absolute end of the room' and into 'blindfolded with your back turned'. Clio seemed to be winning, and she definitely won once Thora realised that Loki had managed to sneak into the party and was just finishing off what may or may not have been her first glass of Pepper's punch. Unfortunately, Thora couldn't send Loki back to the ninth-grade dorms without risking her bringing the entire faculty down on them, so she just grabbed one of her sweaters and tied their wrists together to make sure Loki didn't leave her sight.

Beth joined in Nat's poker game when Rhodey got cleaned out, and even though she didn't manage to win more than a couple of hands, she did manage to get away without losing more than a couple of dollars. Especially once Nat decided that even though they weren't technically playing strip poker, the boys could still bet items of clothing if they wanted to.

None of the girls were foolish enough to get deep enough into the game that their clothes were all they had left to bet. By the time Beth left the game, Hank Pym was down to his boxers (but knowing him, that was entirely voluntary) and she'd just about managed to break even.

Reed and Sue were having a quietly-escalating fight in the corner, and Beth carefully avoided them as she crossed over the room, because she'd had to break up one their fights before and she couldn't tell whether this was a 'not going to speak to you for a week' fight or a 'clear the nearest horizontal surface' fight, and either way, she didn't particularly fancy being in the middle of it.

Toni and Pepper was sprawled out on Toni's bed, clearly more than a couple of glasses of punch into the evening. As Beth passed, Tony grabbed her wrist and she was pulled into the pile of limbs.

“HAPPY CHRISTMAS BETH.” Toni yelled in her ear.

Beth only just managed to twist her head away before Pepper yelled the same greeting in her other ear. Before she could respond, someone on the other side of the room clapped loudly.

Beth couldn't hear who was talking, but when she caught the words “Spin the Bottle” and hit the ground when Pepper and Toni jumped to their feet, she decided to blame Johnny Storm.

They didn't have a big enough liquor bottle, so instead Johnny (because of course it had been Johnny) placed one of Toni's expensive and barely-used shampoo bottles and announced the rules.

Apparently, Johnny's rules for Spin the Bottle were just “No wimping out. Except for siblings.” (Which was a good thing, because there were few things in the world Beth would be more horrified by then having to see Johnny and Sue make out. Except perhaps Reed's possibly-positive reaction to Sue and Johnny making out.)

About fifteen kids formed a circle where he directed them, and Johnny (of course) claimed first spin.

Johnny's spin hit Thora, who rolled her eyes as he leapt towards her and pressed a brief peck to his lips.

Thora's spin hit Loki (who'd escaped and been re-captured, scowling all the time) so she spun again and hit Rhodey.

Rhodey's spin hit Stef, who blushed down to her roots, but he only kissed her cheek gently.

Stef's spin hit Reed, who looked far too enthusiastic until he remembered Sue was still sitting next to him, and only brushed his lips briefly over hers before spinning himself.

Reed's spin hit Hank, who groaned audibly, but still went through with it, letting Reed kiss the corner of his mouth before pulling back quickly.

Hank was clearly trying to do his spin to hit a specific person, but it hit a bump in the carpet and slid to the side, landing on Beth instead.

Beth tried to be a little more subtle than Hank had been, only wrinkling her nose slightly when he pulled away after absolutely not getting his tongue in her mouth.

Beth's spin hit Johnny, which wasn't brilliant, but wasn't the worst thing either, even if he smelled too strongly of punch and leaned against her a little too heavily.

Johnny's spin hit Pepper, and he punched the air dramatically before leaning in. The kiss didn't last much longer than any of the others had, but when he pulled back, he was fanning himself dramatically.

Pepper's spin landed on Toni.

Toni laughed out loud and pulled herself onto her knees. “C'mere darling.”

Pepper pulled herself up to her knees as well and moved the few inches across the floor until she was pressed against Toni. Toni raised a hand to fist into Pepper's long hair and pulled her in, pressing their lips tightly together.

The silence stretched for a moment. Beth's eyes skidded around the room, desperate to look anywhere else, and saw almost all the boys in the room with their eyes glued to the circle – except for Bucky, which just proved how gone he was because two of the most beautiful girls in New York were all over each other and he still barely took his eyes off Stef – and she started counting in her mind, desperate to get rid of the sharp pain between her ribs.

Finally, after what felt like forever had passed, Toni and Pepper broke apart and immediately dissolved into a fit of giggles. Toni glanced around the room and raised an eyebrow.

“Mouths shut boys, there's nothing to see here.”

Beth climbed carefully to her feet and left the circle. “I need some air.”

- - - - -

Pretty much everybody was gone by 2am, and most of the trash cleared away. Beth was just about to fall asleep when Toni slid in beside her.

“You have your own bed. It’s like, four feet away.”

“My bed is cold.”

Beth didn’t argue, just shifted to give them both more room. She could sense something was up with Toni.

“Um, that didn’t freak you out earlier, did it?”

Beth held her breath. “What?”

“The thing with me and Pepper.”

“No, of course not.” Beth said evasively . “I was just feeling a little dizzy.”

“Because it was just a joke, yeah? I’m not like, a lesbian or anything. Not really.”

“Oh.” said Beth.

I am. She wanted to say. A lesbian, I mean. Really

But she didn’t.

eleventh grade

Two months into eleventh grade, Toni and Beth were leaving 4th period Chemistry when they were stopped by a small group of twelfth grade boys.

"Hey Toni."

Toni rolled her eyes. "Can I help you with something?"

"I'm Justin, and I was wondering if I could walk you to your next class?"

Toni looked him over and shrugged. "I'm walking with Beth, but if you wanted to walk that way as well, I suppose there's nothing I can do to stop you."

Justin grinned. "Awesome."

Toni linked her arm through Beth's and they started walking towards French. Justin and his group of friends fell into step behind them and walked the whole way to the other side of the school behind them. When they got to the class, Toni let Beth walk in ahead of her.

"Bye Toni!" called Justin as he turned back towards whatever class he was heading too.

Toni barely looked back. "Whatever."

- - - - -

He was there the next week as well. This time Beth rolled her eyes and kept walking without even pausing to let him ask Toni the same question. Toni just smiled gently and let herself be lead.

"Ugh. Doesn't he have anything better to do with his time than follow you around?"

Toni grinned. "I guess not."

Beth laughed. "But then, you don't think anybody has anything better to do with their time then follow you around."

"That's only mostly true. I mean, I'm sure you have one or two things to get done that don't require my presence."

Beth fought back a blush. "One or two, yeah."

Toni risked a tiny glance backwards as they entered the classroom.

"I think he's kind of cute."

Thora dropped down into the seat next to them. "Who's cute?"

"Justin Hammer has started following Toni from Chemistry." Beth said.

Thora tilted her head to the side for a second, considering. "I guess? In kind of a scrawny way, anyway."

"He's a dickhead," said Nat.

Clio nodded in agreement. Toni rolled her eyes.

"He's fine. And it's nothing, anyway. He just has nothing better to do with his study period."

Their teacher arrived, and they all shuffled into their assigned seats. Bucky rushed in at the last minute and dropped into his seat next to Beth. He glanced at her for a second and furrowed his brow.

"What's up?"

"Nothing." Beth whispered, shrugging. "Just, y'know"

Bucky glanced to the front of the classroom, where Stef and Tony were sitting sandwiched between Reed and the two Storms, and smiled back at her. "Yeah."

- - - - -

Toni flopped down on Beth's bed, knocking some of her papers to the ground.

Beth raised an eyebrow. "Can I help you with something?"

"Justin asked me out."

"Um, am I supposed to be surprised? He's been following you from Chem to French for the last month."

Toni sat up and shifted until she was sitting next to Beth. "Do you think I should go?"

"Where's he asked you to go?"

"Don't know. He said I could pick, but maybe like a concert or something."

"He probably just wants you to pay."

Beth bit her lip as soon as she'd said it, and didn't meet Toni's eyes.

Toni dug her thumb into a hole in her tights, stretching it until nearly her entire knee was poking out. "I guess, yeah."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. If you want to go out with him, you should. I don't know what I'm talking about, so..."

Toni glanced up from the hole in her tights. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. I mean, he obviously likes you if he's going to spend that much time following you around the school, right?"

Toni smiled. "Yeah."

She jumped to her feet. "I'll go tell him yes then. Thanks!"

Beth watched her leave and turned back to her history homework. She'd barely read a sentence before an eraser hit the back of her hand. She looked up. Clio was sitting on her bed staring at her with an eyebrow raised. She tilted her head towards the door in a silent question.

Beth blushed. "Shut up."

- - - - -

It was nearly one a.m., and Beth was waiting up for Toni to get back. Every time she heard a creak in the corridor or out on the window ledge she froze and had to count to ten to calm herself down before she started panicking about Toni falling to her death in the courtyard.

Except that it was December, and there was no way Toni was going to try and climb back into their fourth-floor room like she had when they still lived on the second floor.

Finally, at one seventeen, the door creaked open and Beth could hear the sounds of Toni trying her best to make it to her bed without waking anyone up. Which was a lost cause, frankly, because Thora and Stef both slept like the dead, but Nat and Clio woke up for anything and Toni was just stupid if she thought that Beth wasn't going to still be awake.

Sure enough, the second Toni came to a stop between her and Beth's beds, she got smacked in the back by a succession of balled-up papers and whatever other detritus Clio had scattered around her bedside locker. Beth could just about hear Nat grumbling under her breath about how Toni was so freaking lucky that tomorrow was Sunday before Toni poked her in the side.

"Beeeeeth. My bed is cold."

"Well maybe you should have been in it earlier."

She couldn't see it, but she knew Toni was rolling her eyes. "Shove over."

Beth gave up and let Toni crawl in next to her, trying not to yelp when her icy hands hit her skin. Toni burrowed in close to her, and Beth took a moment to silently thank Toni for chopping all her hair off so she wouldn't be choking on it.

"Sorry I'm late." Toni whispered against her neck.

"Hey, I'm not the one who's going to get in trouble if you get caught."

"I know, I know. But still. I really was planning on being back before curfew, but then Justin said a friend of his was having a party in Williamsburg, and I figured we could just go for a little bit and I'd still make it back before it was too late, but then he wasn't able to drive me because he had a few drinks and I couldn't find a cab so I had to call a car and wait until it made it to Brooklyn and then for it to drive all the way out here."

"It's fine. Don't worry."

Toni poked her gently in the ribs. "You're not mad at me?"

"No. But I think it's kind of a dick move for your boyfriend not to make sure you can get home safely, so I'm kind of mad at him."

"Ugh, Beth." Toni wriggled herself into a more comfortable position. "He's not my boyfriend, don't be ridiculous."

- - - - -

The first week in February, Toni walked into history wearing Justin's football jacket over her blazer. The entire room stared at her. She rolled her eyes.

"What? I was cold."

Beth buried her face in her textbook and ignored everything but the teacher for the rest of class.

- - - - -

Beth looked up towards the knock on the door. Bucky waved at her from the doorway.

"Hey Bucky. Stef's not here, she's got an extra drawing class."

Bucky blushed slightly. "Actually, I was looking for you. Unless you're busy right now?"

Beth glanced over at Toni's empty bed. "No, it's fine. Toni and I were supposed to be doing some problem sets, but she's busy with Justin, so..."

Beth stuffed a few things into her bag and followed Bucky out of the room.

"So, what did you want to talk about?"

Bucky glanced down the corridor to make sure no-one was listening.

"Um, I was thinking of asking Stef if she wanted to go maybe go out with me sometime. Like out out."

Beth stared at him for a second. Bucky looked worried.

"What? Do you think she'll say no? Is there someone else?"

"No, Bucky," Beth looked down at her feet and took a deep breath before looking back up. "I think it's a great idea. And I would be ridiculously surprised if she said no."

"Oh, okay." Bucky looked relieved. "Thanks. And sorry. I know you probably don't want to be thinking about stuff like this right now, but I didn't know who else to could ask."

Beth froze. "What do you mean?"

"I mean like, with Toni... And Justin..."

He trailed off. Beth fixed her eyes back on her shoes.

"I don't have a problem with Toni and Justin."

"Beth..."

"I don't." Beth fiddled with her hair. "I mean. Toni's my best friend. It's not her fault I'm... It's not her fault. And Justin's fine -"

"Justin's a dickhead."

Beth smiled. "Justin's a dickhead, yeah. But that's nothing to do with me. Mainly, I'm just surprised she's not bored yet."

Bucky nudged her foot with the tip of his shoe. "You should tell her."

She sighed. "If I wanted to make things hideously awkward forever, maybe."

"It won't be forever."

"Maybe not, but it'll never be the same. And it's not like I'm just waiting around for her to finally realise that I'm the only one that will make her happy. It's never going to happen, so I just need to get over it."

She looked up at Bucky, who had a look of extremely knowing understanding on his face. Beth rolled her eyes.

"I'm fine, really. You just go off and being disgustingly happy enough for both of us, yeah?"

Bucky blushed. "Okay."

- - - - -

Beth looked up from her book to see Justin standing at the end of her bed.

"What do you want? You know you're not supposed to be in here."

Justin rolled his eyes and sat down on the end of her bed. "It's a stupid rule. I'm not going to do anything."

Beth wrinkled her nose and pulled her legs away from where he was sitting. "And you wanted?"

"I'm planning on taking Toni out next week, and I wanted to ask your advice."

Beth looked down at her book, her eyes skimming over the text. "I don't see what that has to do with me."

Justin put his hand out to cover the page she was reading. "You're her best friend. And I want it to be special."

Beth snapped the book closed and glared at him. "Toni always brings me places. I have no idea what she'd want to do. Ask her yourself."

Justin leaned in closer and Beth did her best not to shrink back. "No. I want it to be special, yeah?"

Beth fought back the flush creeping up her neck. "I have to go. You should leave."

She shoved whatever books and notes were lying about into her bag and rushed out of the room.

- - - - -

Beth was flicking through an old yearbook with Stef, and doing her best not to stare at Toni as she got ready.

"So where are you going tonight?"

Toni adjusted the hem of her skirt by a centimeter or two, and shrugged. "I don't know. Justin won't tell me. Some shit about "special" or whatever. I tried to remember if there was something I'd forgotten that was a big deal, but I think he's just made up a reason."

Beth's hand faltered on the page for a second, before she recovered. Stef shot her a concerned look before looking up at Toni.

"It'll be fun though, whatever you do, right? I mean, he usually takes you cool places, right?"

Toni was still staring in the mirror. She blotted her lipstick and added another layer, darkening the red slash across her face.

"Yeah, mostly. He never seems like he's having fun, but I think he tends to pay more attention to whatever other people are there."

She sat down and pulled her boots on, rubbing half-heartedly at a scuff on the ankle.

"Right. See you bitches later."

She kissed them both loudly, leaving a massive lipstick smear on each of their cheeks, and ran out the door.

Beth fell back against her pillows and silently congratulated herself for not reaching up to touch her cheek. Stef squeezed her ankle gently and gave her a sympathetic look.

- - - - -

Beth stayed up as late as she could, but she eventually fell asleep just before five am. She woke up a little after nine, and Toni's bed was still empty.

She rolled out of bed and cast her eyes around the room. Stef was sitting up in bed reading, Thora was buried under her covers and Nat and Clio were discussing something quietly on the floor between their beds.

Beth grabbed her phone and thumbed through to her text messages. Nothing since last night. She typed out a quick 'where are you' before collapsing back into her bed.

Stef and Thora left for field hockey a little before ten, and Nat dragged Clio out a little while later. Beth stayed in bed, flicking through some homework, and jumping every time someone walked through the corridor outside.

Finally, about ten past eleven, Toni icame home. Beth watched as she shuffled through the room. Toni's lipstick was smudged onto her chin, her mascara was darkening the shadows under her eyes, and there was a wide run in her tights. She sat down heavily on her bed and sighed, dragging her hand across her face.

Beth's feet hit the floor with a thud.

"Where have you been?"

Toni scrubbed at her face again, wiping off some dry mascara.

"I just..." she yawned. "Sorry, I'm kind of tired."

"Did you sleep with him?"

"Beth..."

"Did you have sex with Justin Hammer?"

"What does it matter?"

Beth stared at her. "You did, didn't you? I can't believe you."

Toni didn't say anything.

"I can't believe you'd sleep with him! You're supposed to be better then that. He doesn't love you! He doesn't even like you that much. It's only because he wants to make a good impression on your dad so that he can apply for stupid internships and shit like that. I mean, I know you'll make out with anyone who'll smile at you but I thought you had some fucking standards. Or is this just some stupid little play for attention? Are you really that pathetic?"

Beth stood up and shoved her feet into her sneakers. "How could you do this?"

She stared at Toni for another moment, but Toni didn't reply. Beth grabbed her cellphone off the bedside locker and stormed out of the room.

- - - - -

Toni got an overnight pass and went home for the rest of the weekend. Beth barely slept that night, distracted by Toni's empty bed.

Toni still wasn't there on Monday morning, and the first time Beth saw her after their fight was in homeroom, sitting at her desk with her books and pencil case laid out carefully on her desk.

Stef shot Beth a confused look before taking her seat next to Toni. Beth kept her head down as she shuffled into her seat in the back row.

Bucky leaned across the gap between their desks and squeezed her elbow.

"What's wrong?" he mouthed.

"I'm a horrible person," Beth replied, taking her own books out of her bag.

Bucky tried to squeeze her elbow again, but she pulled away and kept her eyes on the front of the class.

- - - - -

Beth was studying in the library when Stef and Thora suddenly sat down on either side of her and started packing her books away.

"Um, what are you doing?"

Stef looked serious. "We're need to talk."

Beth looked between them, but neither of their faces gave anything away. She sighed and let herself be packed up and walked out the door.

Once they got outside, she hugged her binder against her chest and kept her eyes down low.

"What?"

Stef did her best attempt at a glare. "Okay, you and Toni haven't exchanged more than four painfully utilitarian words in nearly a week. What the hell?"

"Why don't you ask her?"

Thora rolled her eyes. "Yeah, no. She won't say anything either. And it's not like we don't know what yo-"

Stef cut her off with a poke in the ribs. "Look, we understand that whatever happened with Justin might have upset you, but it really can't be that bad, can it?"

Beth could feel tears starting to prick at the back of her eyes. She blinked. "She didn't say anything?"

"Nothing," said Thora. "I think she might have said something to Nat, but you know she'll never say anything."

"Beth, we know it's not all your fau-"

"It is my fault," Beth cut Stef off. "It's absolutely my fault. She didn't do anything wrong and I was really horrible to her, and it is all my fault, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she never wants to talk to me again."

"I'm sure that's not true," said Thora.

"Look, thanks for worrying about me and everything, but I'm the horrible one in this. You should both go off and by sympathetic to Toni, because she's the one that deserves it."

Beth turned sharply and walked quickly down the corridor, wiping a few stray tears away from her eyes.

- - - - -

Beth could hear bustling movement from inside the dorm as she walked down the corridor, but it died away quickly as soon as she entered. She brushed her hair behind her ear and kept her eyes on the floor, but she managed to catch a few glimpses of the other girls out of the corner of her eye.

Toni was sitting on Thora's bed between Stef and Thora, and Nat and Clio were facing them on Nat's bed. All five looked pretty serious, and Beth didn't have to be as smart as she was to figure out they were talking about her. She changed into her pajamas quickly and got into bed, calling out a quick and quiet 'goodnight' before slipping her headphones in and closing her eyes.

- - - - -

Three days later, Beth was sitting in the school garden, trying to sketch something for an art project, when she heard a cough behind her and turned to look.

Toni was standing a few feet away, her fingers twisting in her hair. Beth froze.

"Can I sit down?"

Beth just nodded silently, shifting on the bench to give Toni some room. Toni sat down, leaving a few inches between them. She folded her hands between her knees and looked down at her shoes. Beth couldn't help but look at her.

"Um, I didn't sleep with Justin Hammer."

Beth felt sick. "I shouldn't have said that. I mean, it doesn't matter. You can sleep with whoever you want. I shouldn't have said anything."

"No, I know that. But even if I had, I'd still think we need to talk."

Beth tightened her fingers on her sketchpad. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't ha-"

"Yeah, can you just let me talk for a second? Then you can have your turn."

Beth snapped her mouth shut. Toni smiled gently.

"I was going to. Probably, anyway. I mean, who knows what might have happened, but I think I was. We were making out in his car, but then he stopped to ask me if I was ever going to introduce him to my Dad, and I kind of laughed slightly. Because like, why would I ever introduce him to my Dad? I would only introduce any boy to my dad if I wanted to piss him off, and I don't think that's what Justin wanted. I thought it was just a joke, but he looked really angry for a moment. But then he calmed down and tried to kiss me again, and he put his hand on my leg, but I was still a bit weirded out so I pulled away, and he looked kind of annoyed and said something like 'don't you love me' and tried to slide his hand further up my skirt, but it was kind of ridiculous then because he looked like such a loser after he'd said that so I twisted away and elbowed him in the crotch."

Beth bit back a laugh. Toni smiled again.

"So I just wanted to say... You were kind of right? I mean, even if you were shitty about it - and you were, really shitty - I don't think you meant to be horrible, and you were technically just concerned about me. Unless you did mean to be horrible. In which case, you should probably let me know that, so I don't have to talk to you ever again."

Toni twisted her head to look at Beth, and smiled hopefully. Beth bit her lip.

"That wasn't what it was about."

Toni's eyes widened. "What?"

"It wasn't about Justin. Well, it was about Justin, but not really. I just..." Beth closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I think I'm in love with you. I didn't want to tell you, because I figured that it would ruin our friendship, but I guess I've done that anyway, so I may as well tell you now, right? So I didn't just dislike Justin for being Justin - though I'm pretty sure otherwise that would be enough - I was just mad at him, and at you, for just reminding me that I was being stupid. I just really, really wanted you. And even though I knew - know - I can't have you, I just couldn't stop thinking he doesn't deserve her. It's not your fault you're not gay, it's not Justin's fault he's a guy, it's all my fault for being too stupid and immature to deal with my feelings without hurting you."

Beth took a deep breath and slid her sketchpad into her bag. "So, yeah. I was really horrible to you for no reason, and I'm really, really sorry, and it won't happen again. But I totally understand if you don't want to be my friend ever again. I can ask Maria to transfer me into a different dorm, if you want."

Beth trailed off. They sat in silence for a second, before she stood up and left Toni on the bench.

- - - - -

Toni went to visit Charlotte for the weekend. Beth wasn't expecting her to text, but she still checked her phone every twenty minutes.

She was searching her locker for a missing notebook when she found herself flanked by Nat and Clio.

"This is kind of excessive, guys. We talked, okay?"

Nat elbowed her sharply in the ribs. Beth knocked against Clio when she jumped back, and ended up pressed against the lockers.

Nat stared her down. "You, Beth Banner, are not as nice a person as you pretend to be."

Beth flushed and dug her hands into her pockets. "I know, okay? I told her everything, I said sorry, I offered to move into a different dorm if she wants. I don't know what else I can do."

"This wouldn't have turned into this big of a clusterfuck if you'd just been honest with her from the start," said Clio.

Beth rolled her eyes. "Yeah, that would have gone down really well. 'Hey Toni, I know you're straight but I'm desperately in love with you and that doesn't have to make things like sleepovers and changing for gym awkward at all'."

Nat patted her on the shoulder. "She'll be your friend again, don't worry. I mean, maybe not..."

"Maybe not as close," said Beth.

"Maybe not, no. But she'll come around. If nothing else, it'll appeal to her sense of vanity."

Beth bit back a small laugh and wiped at her nose with her sleeve. "I guess I can hope."

"Sure you can." said Clio. "And until then, the rest of us still like you well enough."

Beth smiled. "You really make a girl feel appreciated, Clio."

Clio grinned. "Damn straight."

- - - - -

Beth was sitting at a picnic table in the courtyard when Tony dropped down beside her. She couldn't help smiling when Toni tried to blow her bangs out of her eyes. Toni grinned back.

"I've thought about it, and I've decided that you can ask me out. If you still want to."

Beth just stared.

"If you don't, like if you've changed your mind or something, you don't have to. But you can. If you want."

Beth tried her best to stay calm. "You don't have to do this, Toni. You don't have to try and make me feel better-"

"I'm not."

"Because I promise you I can keep myself under control."

"That's not what this is about."

Beth sighed. "Toni, I know you're not a lesbian."

"Well, obviously. But that's a really limiting worldview you've got there, Beth."

"You've never mentioned anything about being into girls before."

"Beth, I'm seventeen. It just hasn't come up. It's not like I've never thought about it before-"

"What?"

"And it's not like it would matter if I had, anyway. Look."

Toni turned towards Beth and grabbed a hold of her hands. "Beth, I can't promise you I'm going to fall in love with you, or feel the same way about you that you feel about me. But I do care about you, and I think you're one of the most beautiful and amazing people I know. And I get that you might not want to take that risk, if you think we couldn't come back from that if it didn't work out. But so long as we're honest with each other - and you never talk to me like that again-"

"I wouldn't."

"I know you wouldn't. But I think we could be something amazing, if you're willing to take a chance."

Beth had to bite her lip to fight back the tears. She stared down at her hands for a moment.

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely not." Toni grinned. "But sure is for people who don't think big enough."

Beth laughed. She pulled her hands away from Toni's grasp to wipe her face dry.

"In that case." Beth cleared her throat. "Toni Stark. Would you like to go on a date with me?"

Toni's smile was blinding, and she pressed a perfect bright-red kiss to the corner of Beth's mouth.

"I would love to."

- - - - -

from: Charlotte Xavier
:)

twelfth grade

“You know, I don’t know why they even bother voting on this bullshit this year. Everyone knows who's going to win."

Beth laughed and adjusted Toni's zipper. "Because prom is a democracy, Toni. Regardless of how certain the outcome is, the question still needs to be asked."

"The only reason this thing is even remotely tolerable is that for some reason, Reed actually thinks he might win."

"See, so it's not a 100% forgone conclusion."

"No." Toni rolled her eyes. "It's going to be 1 vote for Reed Richards and Sue Storm, and every single other vote will be for Stef and Bucky."

"You don't think Johnny will vote for his sister?"

"I don't think Sue will vote for herself."

Beth pulled away to look at herself in the mirror. She wanted to make sure she hadn't spilled anything on herself at dinner. The rest of her friends were milling around the restrooms, doing last minute make-up checks before heading inside.

Stef was wearing a royal blue strapless A-line dress with a simple silver pendant, and all of her long blonde down her back. Beth knew the pendant was a circle with a star inside it, because she had spent four hours the previous weekend with Bucky as he searched for it.

Thora was wearing a shimmering silver dress that flowed around her like a cloak. Her heels weren't that high, but she still towered over her date, the son of another diplomat. Beth had seen him outside, holding her massive handbag while she had given Loki a very stern talking-to on not ruining everyone's night.

Beth was wearing a deep purple silk dress with a pair of emerald earrings Toni had given her for Christmas. Toni was wearing red (which wasn't surprising, because Toni barely wore more than two colours, and she'd declared Nat and Clio showcased as much black as prom needed). Her dress was tight and perfectly fitted and she was wearing a solid-gold collar-necklace around her neck.

Nat and Clio were both in black, Nat in a dress and Clio in a fitted tuxedo. Their dates were waiting nervously outside the door - a friend of Stef and Bucky's from home, and a guy who'd graduated the year before after being head boy with Maria Hill.

They left the bathroom as a group, picking up various boys as they walked towards the ballroom. The second Stef saw Bucky in the crowd she ran up to throw her arms around him.

Beth didn't even have to look at Toni. "Stop being so cynical."

"She saw him five minutes ago."

"I think it's cute."

Toni wrinkled her nose and nudged Beth with her hip. "Promise me we'll never be one of those couples."

Behind them, Clio laughed. Toni twisted her head to look at her. "What?"

"Please. You already are that couple."

Beth laughed and dragged Toni onto the dancefloor before she could look too outraged.

The music was just starting, so Beth rested her hands on Toni's waist and tried to force her to sway.

Toni nodded over to where Stef and Bucky were busy staring into each other's eyes.

"We're not that bad, are we?"

Beth glanced over and shrugged. "Does it really matter."

Toni looked into her eyes and pulled her closer. "I guess not."

Beth smiled and leaned in to kiss her. "Good."