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Just three periods into the new school year and all of the bulletin boards were already covered in flyers and notices, the vast majority of which did not possess the official stamp of approval from the office. Not that anybody seemed particularly worried about that. Even as Paul walked by he watched one of the LaPaz triplets - whichever one had shaved her head for charity over the summer - stapling up something to do with a food drive, or possibly saving the whales. Or the dolphins. Or whatever cute creature needed saving this week.

Paul was too busy to worry about saving anything other than his fledging love life, which as usual was perched on the brink of extinction.

"Where've you been?" said Sheldon, slamming his shoulder into Paul's as he caught up with him in the hallway. "I can't believe we don't have homeroom together this year. Maybe you can go get yours changed."

Paul looked back at the enthusiastic line extending out of the office and down the hall and shook his head. "Like I don't see enough of you already," he said, shoving him back. "You could change yours."

"Nah," said Sheldon. "I've got Mr. Kazokowsky. All he did this morning was roll call. No inspirational speeches. No petitions. No after-school clubs that he wants us to join. It was great."

"Mrs. Whelan decided she wanted to start a debate club, and half the class signed up on the spot," said Paul, following him up the stairs. "I don't know how it happened, Sheldon. One minute I was sitting in my seat waiting for roll call and the next I was raising my hand too."

"It's that ambition of yours rearing its ugly head again," said Sheldon. "You didn't sign anything, did you?"

"I don't think so," said Paul, "but it's all a bit of a blur."

"Good," said Sheldon. "It's not binding if you didn't sign anything. You just need to be strong and not show up for the first meeting. Don't worry, I'm sure I can come up with something else for us to be doing."

"Maybe I can say I'm busy with Elaine," said Paul, finally reaching his locker. "Girlfriend trumps debate club, right? That's got to be some kind of unwritten rule of high school."

"Sure, or you could do that," said Sheldon, leaning against the locker next to Paul's. "I thought Elaine dumped you."

"She didn't dump me, she said she wanted to see other people," said Paul. "That's not the same thing, right? Seeing other people means in addition to me. Ergo, I'm not dumped."

"If you say so," said Sheldon, but as someone who not only didn't have a girlfriend, but had never had one, Paul was just going to trust his own limited experience on this one.

The thing with Elaine'd always been a little different from what Paul always imagined having a girlfriend would be anyway. They'd met at Daphne Sylvester's end-of-year party under somewhat unusual circumstances, and as far as Paul was concerned they'd been dating ever since. More or less.

Sometimes less than more.

Part of him sometimes wondered if he asked Elaine out so quickly because they met the day after he discovered Sheldon's little sister Jodi had discovered boys. Boys, that is, meaning him.

"So there's a rally in the gym after school," said Paul, hoping his change of subject went relatively unnoticed as he consulted one of the many pieces of paper that had been shoved in his hands over the course of the day. "Are you going?"

"What's it for?"

"I dunno," said Paul, flipping the paper over and then back again. "It doesn't really say."

"Forget about it," said Sheldon. "I just discovered this Indian place that has chicken curry to die for."

"I'm going to hope you don't mean that literally," said Paul. He wasn't holding his breath. "I've got to get to history, what've you got?"

"English," said Sheldon, "but we've got algebra together last period, right?"

Paul consulted his schedule and nodded. "Meet you after?"

"On the front steps," said Sheldon, beginning to move off in the other direction. "Resist the siren call of the rally, Paul! Down that path lies darkness!"

Just another school year at Don't Care High.

~~~

The rally that Paul almost, but not entirely, managed to avoid turned out to be a food drive. Since he didn't make it a habit of carrying around spare cans of ravioli, he was able to make a quick exit and meet Sheldon for a chicken curry that the food drive would've turned down.

The next day he was hit up twice for starving Africans, three times by the anti-fur lobby - no, that wasn't a fur collar on his sweater, it was from Aunt Nancy's new Persian cat - and once by someone trying to get him to sign a petition to tear down the 22nd Street Ramp, not to rebuild the long-lost athletic field but to reforest. To reforest Manhattan Island.

The day after that he spent his lunch hour inundated by a poetry reading to bring attention to the plight of the piping plover. It took Sheldon almost the entire hour to discover that a piping plover was, in fact, a tiny brown bird.

"Look at all this stuff," he burst out finally as he and Sheldon made their way to algebra, his gesture encompassing almost the entire bulletin board they were passing. "Sheldon, did we do this? Is this our fault?"

"We only planted the seed," said Sheldon. "The hallways of Don't Care High were the manure in which it flourished."

"Is there a single cause that's not represented?" said Paul. "People are starving in Ethiopia. People are starving in Bangladesh. People are starving in Brooklyn. Save the endangered muskrat. Save the historical buildings. Save your soda tabs. Save Ferris. Disabled rights. Domesticated pet rights. Gay and lesbian rights. Do you even know a single student who's gay?"

"Maybe we would if they had more rights," said Sheldon.

"I've lost track of who we're even supposed to be saving," said Paul. "Maybe we just need to save ourselves."

"Life was so much simpler when we were running the school," said Sheldon with a dramatic sigh. "I can't believe we're actually having an election for student body president."

"I can't believe there are already thirteen candidates."

"I can't believe there are only thirteen candidates," said Sheldon. "Oh, and there's a protest tomorrow against having the election at all, to honor the memory of Mike Otis. We should probably make some sort of appearance."

"Has anyone told them he's not actually dead?" said Paul, tearing a piece of paper down from the wall. No one was going to miss it; there were ten more just like it scattered up and down the corridor. "He just... moved on."

"You know what's wrong with this school?"

Paul stared at the wall, then at Sheldon. "Where would you like me to start?" he said. Don Carey High had gone from the depths of apathy to the hotbed of just about every cause that needed espousing. It wasn't exactly a stretch to think that maybe the unprecedented championing of Mike Otis had something to do with it. "Remember last year, when you were able to walk down the halls completely unmolested?"

"That wasn't last year," said Sheldon, "that was the past fifty years."

"Oh, for the good old days," said Paul, and right at that moment he really, really meant it.

~~~

Back in June, right after he finished his sophomore year relatively unscathed, Paul got himself a part-time job working at Donnie's Wonder Burger. The place and its owner were both a little sketchy, but they paid him in cash and at least now he had pocket money he didn't have to ask his parents for. Asking his parents for money usually entailed explaining to them what he needed it for, and when it came to Elaine he wasn't sure the relationship was ready to face his mother yet.

He knew enough to not eat Donnie's wonder burgers, unlike most of the clientele.

"Donnie," he called to the back pre-emptively as he watched the street outside the front door and saw a familiar figure approach. "I'm going to need a wonder burger, only mustard!"

"You tell that guy if he wants to lick his burgers he can do it outside," said Donnie, but it was good-natured grumbling.

Mustard Guy came in every day, as far as Paul could tell, and ordered a wonder burger with only mustard to go. He then proceeded to disassemble the burger, lick the mustard off, reassemble it, and put it back in the bag before carrying on to wherever he went with his daily wonder burger.

Paul didn't, when he made his order, actually pass on the request that he confine his licking to the outdoors, but he wished he had when he saw Elaine crossing the street.

"And you have a wonderful day," he said hastily as he handed over the greasy paper bag, a greeting that always made his fellow New Yorkers look at him suspiciously.

Thankfully, though Elaine passed him in the doorway on her way in, she arrived post-mustard-licking.

"So where are we going tonight?" she said, wrinkling her nose at the counter while he finished up.

"Well, Sheldon suggested--"

"And could we not do something Sheldon suggested this time?" she interrupted him. "In fact, how about we try to go for an entire evening without mentioning Sheldon at all."

"Uh, sure," said Paul, with what he hoped was an indifferent shrug. Elaine, of course, would talk about her friends, but Paul had finally decided that was just a girl thing that he wasn't meant to understand. "It'll be a no-Sheldon night. Do you want to go to a movie?"

A movie meant he wouldn't have to talk at all, and therefore reduced the chance of slipping up significantly.

"Sure," she said, "but not the one with the aliens, okay? That one looks kind of gross. Can we go see Pretty in Pink again? I know it's still playing because Linda and Amy went yesterday." Paul had already seen Pretty in Pink twice - both times with Elaine - but he nodded agreeably and she smiled. "That's what I like about you, Paul," she said. "You don't act all butch like the other guys I know."

From anyone else Paul might've taken offense, but from Elaine it was apparently a compliment so he just smiled weakly and reached for her hand to walk her to the nearest subway station. Maybe things with Elaine weren't exactly like Paul always imagined having a girlfriend would be, but then maybe one of these days he would actually get past first base.

Hey, a guy had to hope.

~~~

Starting the second week of school, Sheldon made a point of sitting down in front of the main floor student bulletin board - a futile attempt by the administration to stem the tide of hallway flyers - at least once a day and doing nothing. Sometimes he cleaned his nails. Sometimes he stared at the clock. Never did he do anything even remotely productive.

It was revolutionary.

By Thursday Paul joined him. He tried to pull out a book to read, but Sheldon stopped him with a frown and a shake of his head, and Paul stuffed it back into his backpack again.

"Hey, what are you guys doing?" Wayne-o asked, bouncing on his heels as he stood in front of them.

"Just hanging out," said Paul.

"Yeah, but what are you doing?"

"Nothing," said Paul. "We're just hanging out doing nothing."

He seemed a little stunned, but Paul couldn't be sure whether that was because he didn't know how someone would dare to do nothing in the halls of Don Carey High, or because he'd already forgotten what it meant entirely.

"Uh, right," he said finally, and gave them a wide smile like he was in on something. "I'll just leave you guys to your nothing, then. I can't wait to see what you're coming up with!"

Paul watched him bounce away, perplexed. "Did he just not get it?" he said.

"Nah, I think he went to Mr. Morrison's positivity seminar at lunch," said Sheldon. "It tends to do that to people."

Paul continued to watch him go until he rounded a distant corner, walking with such spring in his step that he looked as though he might leave the floor entirely at any moment. "I think even his hair is trying to achieve lift-off," he said.

"Yeah, well, that's nothing new," said Sheldon, inspecting his nails. "So how does doing nothing feel?"

Paul thought it should've felt good, compared to the relentless activity in the rest of the school, but the reality just didn't measure up. "Kind of boring," he admitted. "Are you sure we can't play cards or something?"

"People will think we're starting a club," said Sheldon. "Before you know it there'll be a tournament, and qualifying rounds for the city championships."

"There are city card-playing championships?"

"Probably," said Sheldon. "Seems like they have just about everything else, and playing cards is a kind of a sport, right?"

"More of a game," said Paul. "There's probably a poker tournament, but I doubt they'd let high school students enter that."

"Probably for the best," said Sheldon. Paul thought they could probably safely play Go Fish, but then in the halls of the school formerly known as Don't Care High, it was hard to know where the dangers lay.

"We could talk?" suggested Paul. "I went out with Elaine again on Saturday."

"I know," said Sheldon. "I tried to call you and your mother said you were out. Since you obviously weren't out with me, I put two and two together."

"Oh," said Paul. "Uh. Did she think you were out with me?"

"Apparently your mother is under the impression you have other friends too," said Sheldon. Sheldon, on the other hand, was apparently under the impression that Paul didn't. Of course, of the two, Sheldon was the more right. "She was on her way out anyway. Something about your Aunt Nancy?"

"There's always something about my Aunt Nancy," he said. "So anyway, the date went well, I think."

"Yeah?" said Sheldon. "Well. That's great. Good for you."

"Hey, Paul! Hey, Sheldon. What's great?"

Paul didn't even need to look up to know who'd joined them this time. In fact, he tried not to look up, but there was only so long you could stare at someone's sneakers before they started to think you were strange.

"Hey Jodi," he said. "Don't you have class?"

"It's my lunch period," she said, chipper as could be. In as terrifying a way as possible, Don't Care High had gone from the kind of soul-crushing place that would have sucked all the personality right out of Sheldon's littler sister to the sort of school that fostered her extremely outgoing personality, all before she started her freshman year. "Are we allowed to each lunch out here?"

"No," said Sheldon, saving Paul from having to play the villain. "You have to go to the cafeteria."

"Oh," said Jodi without budging. "Well, all I've got's a sandwich anyway, and Gretchen's gone home for the afternoon because her budgie died."

The non-sequitur seemed to make complete sense to Sheldon, who by virtue of having grown up with her seemed to understand teenage girl speak better than Paul. "I thought she had a gerbil."

"The gerbil died too," said Jodi. "Over the summer. I think she's getting a dog next." Paul privately thought that maybe Gretchen's parents should stop buying her pets. "So since I'm not eating I can just sit here with you guys."

"Uh, aren't those your friends over there?" said Paul, nodding towards a nearby gaggle of freshman girls. "They look like they're waiting for you."

"No, they totally understand," said Jodi. "I can catch up with them later."

Paul didn't want to ask just what they understood, and thankfully was saved by Sheldon dragging him to his feet. "We have to finish up a project for geography," he said. "You know how Mrs. Wolfe gets about stuff like that."

Clearly Jodi didn't yet know how Mrs. Wolfe got about late projects, but she nodded like she did and gave Paul a bright smile. "So I'll see you later, then?"

"Sure," said Paul and let Sheldon complete his rescue mission, hiding in an empty classroom until the end of the period.

~~~

In retrospect, it was amazing the nothing lasted more than a week, but by the following Wednesday Paul realized he was going slowly - or not so slowly - insane.

"Do you miss it?" he said.

"Do I miss what?" said Sheldon. "English class? Nah. They'll get tired of protesting the under-representation of minority writers eventually and we'll be back in class by next week."

"No, not English class," said Paul. "Do you miss the whole thing last year? Do you miss Mike Otis?"

"Yeah, sure," said Sheldon. "Best time I ever had at this school. But our glory days are over, Paul, and we just need to face that."

Paul fell silent for a moment, leaning back against the concrete wall, a picture of serenity amid the chaos of the halls of Don Carey High. "Are they really?" she said. "Did we peak as sophomores, Sheldon?"

"Sometimes a person has to face the sad truth that they peaked too early," he said, nodding his head. "All we can do is enjoy our retirement."

Something about the way he said it made Paul think he didn't believe a word he was saying, though. Something about it made him think Sheldon was just waiting for something.

"All of this motivation and still nothing gets done," he said after a few more moments of observation. "It's just... too much of a good thing. Everyone wants a piece and no one's getting anything done."

"Well," said Sheldon, "if there's one thing we're good at, it's getting things done."

Paul knew that look. He knew that look and suddenly he was very afraid. It was one thing to dream about their glory days; it was another to relive them. But then, it would better than what they were doing now, right? Wouldn't it?

"It's like we're the ones who built the trebuchet," Paul said finally, "so now we're the ones who need to aim it."

"Trebuchet?"

"Am I the only person who pays attention in history class?"

"You're comparing school spirit to a medieval war machine?"

"Hey, if the shoe fits," said Paul. "And it's not school spirit. None of what anyone's doing has anything to do with school at all, not even the teachers. It's...."

"Ambition," finished Sheldon. "I'll admit, that's always been your department."

Paul gave him a rueful smile, long ago having resigned himself to the unfortunate nickname. It could've been a lot worse. "Trouble is, I have no idea where to aim it."

"Well, we'll figure that out," said Sheldon with a satisfied smile, leaning back against the cool, concrete wall himself. "Looks like Wayne-o was right about us after all. It's going to be epic."

~~~

Paul resisted for a full three weeks, but then one day - maybe inevitably - he arrived at school early and before he knew it he was at debate club. His will was only so strong, after all, and it turned out that Elaine said she was kind of into it.

Sheldon met him outside the classroom door afterwards, looking both smug and appalled. "Three weeks?" he said. "I had more faith in you. If you just had to join, you could have at least waited for the end of the term and been the very last."

"Elaine likes debate," mumbled Paul, knowing that wasn't exactly a selling point when it came to Sheldon. "It wasn't half bad."

"No, it was probably all bad," said Sheldon, dragging him away by the sleeve of his shirt. The button at the cuff was already loose, and just one tug sent it flying across the hallway and into a locker like a bullet. There was silence for a moment, then Sheldon said, "Sorry," and marched onward.

"Where are we going?"

"Nowhere," said Sheldon, "I'm just putting some distance between you and the den of temptation. Did it at least give you time to think about our little problem?"

"It's a problem now?" said Paul. Problem wasn't the word he would've used for it. Hare-brained scheme, maybe. Desperate attempt to reassert control, almost definitely. Paul never really planned to be responsible for anything, openly or not, but it turned out it was harder to let go of the reins than he thought.

Sheldon chose that very moment to skid on a glossy paper stuck to the floor, desperately clutching Paul with both arms to stay upright. Or maybe the paper chose that moment to wind up under Sheldon's shoe.

"It's a problem," he said firmly.

Paul was then attempting to unwrap Sheldon from around him when they were both plowed into by Wayne-o, who was practicing flagrant disregard for personal safety while surfing on a sheet of glossy paper similar to the one that had just nearly dispatched Sheldon.

"Whoa," he said, coming to a graceless stop. "Hey, Paul. Hey, Sheldon." He regained his balance and stepped away from the now-smudged paper, which turned out to be an anti-fur flyer. "Hey Paul, your girlfriend whatshername goes to Wurster High, right?"

"Uh, yeah," said Paul, impressed that Wayne-o even remembered he had a girlfriend, let alone what high school she went to. Even if he didn't quite have a grasp on her name.

"I saw them on the news last night when I was gluing glitter," he said. Neither Paul nor Sheldon asked just what he was glittering. "They started this, uh, this paper recycling thing. First school in the city. Your girlfriend have anything to do with that?"

"Yeah, probably," said Paul, and tried to remember if she'd mentioned it.

"They're the obvious frontrunner for the All-Borough High Schools Competition," Sheldon blurted out, while Paul and Wayne-o both stared at him. "Don Carey High probably isn't even in the running. I mean, look at this hallway, does it look like we care about recycling?"

"Wait, wait, wait," said Wayne-o, bouncing on his heels again. "The All-Borough High Schools Competition? We can't let some school in Brooklyn win that. Nobody cares more than Don Carey High! What do we have to do?"

"Well, uh," said Sheldon, looking at Paul who just shrugged helplessly at him. "There are four components: pride and upkeep of the school, service to the community, global awareness and, uh... academic excellence! Sorry, Wayne-o, but I'm not sure we can do it."

"What are you talking about?" he said, brushing himself off and making to surf up the rest of the corridor. "Of course we can! We've got to let people know about this!"

Paul watched him go with a combination of dread and anticipation, a feeling he should have been familiar with after the turbulent reign of Mike Otis.

"Sheldon, what did you just do?"

"Behold," said Sheldon, slinging an arm around his shoulders, "the beginnings of greatness."

~~~

Paul never before thought of dating someone in the same city as him as long distance, but it wasn't like Elaine lived just around the corner from him. They had to plan to be together, which was what he told her when he spent more evenings with Sheldon than not. Sheldon did live around the corner. Elaine lived in Brooklyn.

The whole 'dating other people' thing, Paul had to admit, wasn't exactly out of the blue.

"I thought we'd just stay in," Elaine said to him when he picked her up after dinner on Friday night, unsure of whether the evening would consist of shopping or maybe another movie, or maybe, as Shirley LaPaz had suggested to him one day in geography, she would want to go out for dessert, which apparently would signal the next big step in their relationship. "I've gone out for the past three night straight, and my parents aren't home. We could watch some TV."

Paul's brain skipped right over the part where she said she'd gone out for the past three nights - presumably with other people - and fixated on the fact that her parents weren't home. There were supposed to be perks to this whole relationship thing; maybe tonight he was finally going to discover them.

"The A-Team starts in a few minutes," he said, which in retrospect failed as a seductive opening line. Elaine wrinkled her nose, but at least seemed to be considering it.

"Only if we can watch Miami Vice afterwards," she said finally, which Paul figured was a fair enough compromise; he liked Miami Vice anyway, if for slightly different reasons than Elaine. As he struggled out of his coat and followed her into the living room, he wisely refrained from talking about how he and Sheldon were both fans of The A-Team. She hadn't explicitly said the moratorium on Sheldon still stood, but Paul felt it was implied.

He considered telling her instead about the man in half a Santa suit who'd come into Donnie's Wonder Burger yesterday - at least a couple of months too early, though Paul would give him a pass and hope he was on his way to some sort of Santa audition - but the last time he'd done something like that she looked at him as if she couldn't figure out why he was describing something so completely ordinary. Maybe, to a native New Yorker, he was. Instead, he turned his conversation towards her school.

"So I hear Wurster High started some sort of recycling program, huh?" he said with a sort of exaggerated casualness as they sat down on the leather sofa in front of the television.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth she practically beamed at him. "It was all Susie's idea," she said. "Well, not all Susie's idea. She met this guy from Berkeley when they were on summer vacation and he convinced her that it would totally work in New York, too. We were on the news, did you see?"

"Uh, yeah," said Paul. Hearing about it second- or third-hand was almost the same as seeing it himself, right? "So you guys just did it because you thought it was a good idea?"

"It is a good idea," she said, digging the remote control from between the sofa cushions. "Sorry, my brother always puts it there on purpose, like we won't be able to find it to change the channel when he's watching his music videos."

Elaine's brother, Paul had always thought, was not particularly bright.

"So you don't, uh, win any sort of prize for it?" he tried again.

"Prize?" she said, finally switching the channel as the opening credits were just starting. "What kind of prize would we even win? That doesn't make any sense. Recycling's going to be the next big thing, Paul, just wait and see."

"Right," said Paul, and might've pursued the subject further but then Elaine laid her head on his shoulder and suddenly there were more important things to worry about.

He did not, in the end, discover the perks of being in a relationship, but he at least left feeling as though there might still be opportunities to do so in the future.

~~~

Paul had just finished fighting with his recalcitrant lock and picking up the books for his next class when Sheldon slammed his locker door, grabbed his arm and swung him around in the wrong direction.

"What are we doing?" he said as Sheldon then started directing them down the hall.

"We're boycotting biology."

"What? Why?"

"I'm not sure," said Sheldon. "Something to do with animal rights. Cindy tried to explain it to me in the hallway but I wasn't listening. Anyway, that means we have a free period now to work on your plan."

"My plan?" said Paul. "When did it become my plan?"

"It was always your plan," insisted Sheldon. "Notice, if you will, how clean the hallways suddenly are? Did you think that happened by accident?"

"I kind of figured the janitors cleaned up over the weekend," admitted Paul. "That's what they do, right? I mean, that's their job?"

"Have you come in any other Monday morning since he beginning of the year and noticed an appreciable difference?"

"Well, no," Paul had to admit, as Sheldon stopped him in front of one of the school's main bulletin boards. In place of the chaos he'd previously witnessed every time he passed, now there was order, nothing overlapping, a single copy of every notice and everything in its place. And beneath the bulletin board was a cardboard box that was hand lettered with "recycling".

"Okay, but where does the recycling go?" asked Paul. "What do they do with it?"

"I have no idea," said Sheldon, "and I don't particularly care. That's somebody else's problem now. Isn't it beautiful?"

"In... a way," Paul had to admit. Certainly, when compared to the chaos that had not only been permitted by but contributed to by the school administration, it gave Paul a certain feeling of peace and stability. "So if it's someone else's problem, what are we working on?"

"Paul, Paul, Paul," said Sheldon. "Beautification of the school was only one of the four pillars of the competition. We still have three others to tackle."

"You do remember that the competition isn't real, right?" said Paul. "We don't actually have any criteria to fill."

"Yes, but we can," said Sheldon. "That's the beauty of it. Don't you want the whole school to be working towards one goal again? Don't you want to actually have regular classes again, uninterrupted by protests, boycotts, and hot yoga?"

"The hot yoga was in homeroom," Paul reminded him, but Sheldon did make a convincing argument, and Paul considered those remaining three pillars. Three pillars not towards an award, for him, but towards having the kind of high school that he'd want to attend. "The LaPaz triplets did have a good handle on schoolwork last year," he admitted grudgingly. "If we approached them about the academic component...."

"You're definitely the brains of the outfit," said Sheldon, clapping him on the shoulder, "my genius genes aside. In fact, we should get right on that. I'm pretty sure I saw Lucy in the cafeteria on our way by. She's the one with the shaved head, right?"

"She has stubble now," Paul argued on her behalf. "She's not going to be bald forever."

"Whatever," said Sheldon. "She's still the one who shaved her head; it's the only way I can tell them apart. Come on, Ambition, let's get a move on."

~~~

Paul's first foray into actually debating in debate club - he still wasn't quite sure how that happened; he didn't remember raising his hand - was on the topic of nuclear power, which Paul was mercifully granted the con side of. If he had to speak out pro nuclear power, despite the fact that he had no personal position on the subject, in the current atmosphere of Don Carey High he didn't think his credibility could survive it. Poor Dan Wilburforce, at least he didn't have as much to lose.

Paul had to listen to the guy stammer his way through an unrehearsed recitation of the benefits of nuclear power from an energy and air pollution standpoint, probably the least damaging course in what was essentially a social minefield, and then was allowed his rebuttal, which he used for all it was worth.

It was brilliant, he thought afterwards. It was inspired. Too bad Sheldon wasn't around to hear it.

"And furthermore," he said, after offering great, and mostly manufactured, detail on the Chernobyl disaster - gleaned almost entirely from (wholly unsanctioned) notices that had been pinned up since the beginning of the school year, "Wurster High has been organizing a rally against the nuclear industry, which was incredibly informative. I do wonder why I wasn't able to get the same level of support here at Don Carey High? Maybe my fellow students don't feel as strongly on the subject as I do."

Mentally, he was already ticking off the box next to "global awareness" on the imaginary All-Borough High Schools Competition judging form.

"We care!" came a faint call from the back of the room, shushed by Mrs. Whelan but heard throughout the classroom nonetheless.

"Thank you, Mr. Abrams," she said, nodding at him and then at Dan. "Well said."

It might not've been much, jamming his finger on what he knew was one of Don't Care High's buttons, but Paul had the feeling that, like most things at their school since the reign of Mike Otis, it would unfurl and grow. Like a flower, or fungus.

It was like Sheldon said right from the beginning: they were the ones who planted the seeds, and the highly-motivated student body of Don Carey High did the rest.

Riding a self-satisfied high from debate club, it was gratifying to hear the name "Wurster High" uttered no less than sixteen times before Paul had even made it to second period. Thankfully not once was the name associated with potential riot, retribution, or even a good TPing.

"You did something," said Sheldon, knocking shoulders with him in the middle of the corridor. "What did you do?"

"Just a little healthy motivation," said Paul. "Exposés on nuclear power count as global awareness, right?"

"Why yes," said Sheldon, affecting the bearing of a city official. "I believe they do."

"I seized a moment," said Paul, "and you're not allowed to mock me about debate club anymore."

"Debate club?" said Sheldon. "Seriously? Not only will I no longer mock you about it, I fully embrace the concept. What else do you think you can get going in there?"

"What else?" said Paul. "Isn't the fact that I stood up and debated one time enough?"

"Debate club's your baby," said Sheldon. "Just imagine the good you can do when it comes to educational standards, or the school legacy. Those are good topics for debate, right?"

"Why aren't you the one in debate club?" said Paul. "You're the one who likes to talk."

"I'm strictly a behind the scenes kind of guy," said Sheldon. "You're the face of this one, Paul." And just to underline the point, he pinched Paul's cheek and grinned at him. "Now get that cute face to class; we've got to be at the forefront of the school's academic progress."

"You mean I have to be at the forefront of the school's academic progress," said Paul.

"Well, you are the face," said Sheldon. "Oh, but speaking of academics, it's totally in the bag."

"You talked to the LaPazes?"

"Talked to them, convinced them, motivated them, and watched them draw up a comprehensive plan," said Sheldon. "We can wash our hands of that one, my friend, because it's their baby now."

"Should I be worried?"

"Probably," admitted Sheldon. "We might have to actually start doing homework together when we say we're doing homework together. But it's a small price to pay."

It was on the tip of Paul's tongue to suggest that actually would be a large change to their current relationship, but Sheldon had cleverly managed to disappear back into the crowd on his way to his own class before he could.

~~~

After a morning of alarmingly fervent class discussions, and of dodging a relentless Jodi in between, Paul made a point of calling Elaine, who was home sick, during his lunch period. In a show of what he called moral support - and what Paul called eavesdropping - Sheldon leaned against his shoulder the whole time.

"So do you want me to bring something over after school?" he said, as Sheldon whistled tunelessly and distractingly under his breath.

"Like what?" said Elaine, punctuating it with a cough. "Chicken soup?"

"Well, yeah," said Paul. "Sheldon knows this great deli-"

"Thanks," she interrupted, "but my mother's already made me soup."

"Isn't she at work today?"

"She works for the city, Paul, she just took the day off. You don't need to come over." There was the murmur of a second voice in the background, then another cough from Elaine directly in the receiver, loud enough to make Paul pull the phone away from his ear. "I have to go."

"Uh, yeah," he said, trying to hear her around the ringing in his ear. "All right. I'll call you tomorrow?"

"I might be sleeping."

"The next day, then," he said.

There was another pause, then she said, "Yeah, all right. Bye, Paul."

"Bye," he said, and held the pay phone receiver a few moments too long before finally hanging it up.

"So you're free after school after all?" said Sheldon, close enough to Paul's ear to startle him.

"Yeah, it looks like it," said Paul. Unlike the phone, he didn't move Sheldon bodily away from him. In fact, Sheldon slung an arm around his shoulders and pulled him away from the pay phone.

"You know, that deli serves a lot more than chicken soup," he said, in his enthusiasm unwittingly leading them directly into an impromptu meeting of the third floor animal rights group (differentiated from the second floor animal rights group by their focus on creatures larger than a beaver).

They were arguing about... actually, Paul wasn't sure what they were arguing about, only that they were doing it loudly and animatedly, and it wasn't any place Paul and Sheldon wanted to be.

What Sheldon noticed about the scenario, though, was apparently something entirely different. Sheldon, it seemed, noticed that they weren't talking about the school.

"Did you hear?" said Sheldon, a little too loudly considering their proximity to the group, and the general hum of conversation in the hallway. "There's still buzz about Wurster High taking the All-Borough High School Cup this year. They say no one can beat them."

"I wouldn't be surprised," said Paul, following his lead with only a little trepidation. There were some groups he didn't want to get mixed up in, and this was one of them. "They're very motivated."

And with that he hurried Sheldon along, not waiting to hear the response from behind them. There were some battles they didn't need to stick around and fight.

"What?" said Sheldon. "That was a receptive audience."

"So let's just assume they received before we get roped into going to school naked for a day or something," said Paul. "There are occasionally more important things than the All-Borough High Schools Competition."

"Maybe," said Sheldon, and Paul had the feeling that, even with the potential nakedness - a recurring nightmare of Paul's since he turned thirteen - he wasn't quite conceding the point.

~~~

"So explain to me again what happened to the dog?" said Paul, unwrapping the second half of his sandwich but holding it without taking a bite in case further prompting was necessary.

"I'm not entirely clear on exactly what happened," said Sheldon, "except that it involved a three-man chase over more city blocks than I want to calculate. Apparently Gretchen is not exactly a champion dog walker."

"So it went back to the pet rescue," said Paul, glancing across the room at where Jodi was, for once, not focusing her attention on him but on her inconsolable friend. Paul would've thought that Gretchen would be somewhat used to losing pets at this point.

"Pets shouldn't be something that you can return," said Sheldon. "They're not an oddly-sized pair of shoes."

"It's probably better that she could, though," said Paul. "With her track record, it's better than making her keep it."

"Jodi took care of the whole thing," said Sheldon, and couldn't help sounding a little bit proud. After all, Jodi was his little sister and apparently she was more competent than any of her friends. And possibly Gretchen's parents as well. "Apparently she made friends with Mrs. Badri at the pet rescue and smoothed the whole thing over. Word on the street has it Gretchen's thinking about trying a turtle next."

"Well, they can't run," said Paul. "It might be a step in the right direction."

"Ah, here you are!" came an overly enthusiastic voice from behind Paul's shoulder. "Nearly finished, boys?"

Paul still had a half a sandwich in his hand, but he looked back at Mr. Morrison and nodded his head anyway. Saying no would probably only encourage him to spend more time with them; Mr. Morrison, unsurprisingly, was a big fan of most of the recent changes at Don Carey High.

"Good, I wanted to get some more information from the two of you on the competition that we've entered into," he said. Paul glanced in alarm at Sheldon, and could see from his expression the same warning bells were going off in his head. "I called the city education office but they couldn't seem to find the information we needed."

"You probably talked to a temp," said Sheldon boldly. "I'd think that a lot of schools have requested the same information lately. It's quite the competitive... competition."

"So a person would think, given the level of enthusiasm in our halls," said Mr. Morrison. "That's why I gave them another call the next day, with surprisingly similar results."

"Well, that's... odd," said Paul, the first half of his sandwich suddenly sitting like a lump in his stomach.

"Isn't it?" said Mr. Morrison. "The city needs to screen its employees more carefully. Since you two boys have obviously already done all the ground work on this, can I count on you to have a summary on my desk by the end of this week, so that I can answer any questions that the rest of the staff might have?"

"Of course!" said Sheldon. At first Paul just thought he was covering their asses, then he realized with a sudden shock of understanding that it was not Sheldon but Mr. Morrison who was looking out for them. "Absolutely. We can have it for you by tomorrow."

"I'd appreciate that," he said. "Isn't it lucky for us that you boys found such a principled and motivating competition for our fine school to enter?"

"We like to think so," said Sheldon, and all but shared a conspiratorial wink with Mr. Morrison as he left their table again.

"Just so you know," said Paul, "you're writing up that summary yourself." And then he bit into the rest of his sandwich before Sheldon could argue otherwise.

~~~

"So the weirdest thing happened to me the other day when I was uptown with my mom," said Elaine, walking him up from the subway station. "Someone actually spit on the sidewalk by my feet and said 'Don Carey High rules!' My mother was mortified."

So, as it turned out, was Paul.

"Were you, uh, wearing anything to suggest you went to Wurster High?"

Elaine looked at him suspiciously. "I was wearing my Homecoming t-shirt," she said. "How did you know that?"

"Uh, no reason," said Paul. "Maybe just a little school rivalry?"

"Since when are our schools rivals?" said Elaine. "We aren't even in the same school district. We aren't even in neighboring school districts."

"I don't know," mumbled Paul. "You know me, I don't really get involved in all that stuff."

"Weren't you the one who fell off a sign at one of your school's rallies?" Paul winced. "What's going on, Paul? And don't lie to me, you know I know when you're lying to me."

Paul had only tried it once, to beg off a party so he could hang out with Sheldon, so he didn't think that was really a representative sampling. But still, she'd known, and the state of their relationship was too fragile at the moment to test it.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," he started, which in retrospect might not have been the best opening.

"This has something to do with Sheldon, doesn't it?" she said. "Your friends are weird, Paul."

"Just the one," protested Paul, then thought he probably should've protested that Sheldon wasn't weird because she definitely didn't mean it in a complimentary way. "We just wanted people to take some pride in their school again."

"So you invented a rivalry?"

"We invented an award," admitted Paul. "But it's hard to motivate people towards an award if there's no competition, right?"

"So you made Wurster High your competition."

"It was the first thing that popped into mind," admitted Paul. "I can't believe someone spit, though. I think we're going to have to add a sportsmanship component to the award to keep it friendly."

"Your school really does live up to its reputation, doesn't it?"

"Wait, what's that supposed to mean?"

"Oh, come on, Paul," said Elaine. "Everybody knows about what happened last year. You guys are strange. You can't even just tell people not to spit at other schools, you have to make it a part of some fake competition."

"Hey, we're overcoming fifty years of apathy," said Paul. "We've got to take some extraordinary measures."

Elaine just lifted one perfect eyebrow at him, beautifully groomed skepticism. And okay, yeah, Don Carey High was one of the more bizarre examples of educational institutions in Paul's admittedly small sampling, but it was his school, and he did actually take a certain amount of pride in it. If he didn't, the entire All-Borough High Schools Competition would never even have been born.

"Whenever you're getting yourself into some kind of trouble, it always seems like Sheldon is at the root of it," she said finally.

"Hey, that's not fair," said Paul. "Sheldon's my best friend. Of course he's at the root of it. I mean--" It was a wonder they let Paul into debate club in the first place, with his clearly well-honed argument skills. "He's my best friend. We do everything together."

"Yeah, maybe that's the problem," said Elaine, pushing open the door to her favorite sandwich shop. "Come on and buy me a Coke. It's the least you can do to make up for the spitting incident."

Paul didn't think he was really responsible for the spitting incident, but he would've bought her the Coke anyway so he just went with it.

~~~

"It's like the unused energy from the past fifty years has suddenly been unleashed all at once," said Sheldon with unmasked admiration as he stared at the bulletin board.

The thing was, even with Sheldon and Paul directing people's attentions towards one goal, keeping their eyes on the prize, there was still the time, dedication and attention available to keep all of people's other pet causes going. As a side dish now, not as the main course, but the bulletin boards were still filled (neatly!) with petitions, flyers, pamphlets and activities, all of which seemed to be going strong.

"It's amazing people have time to study," said Paul, but they did. They all did. While there was still, of course, the ordinary variation in students' academic achievements, the buzz Paul'd been hearing - second hand through Sheldon, who took time out of his day to hover at the staff room door - was that overall the school average had already raised nearly an entire letter grade.

"Nuclear Power - What You Need To Know," Sheldon read off the board. "Admit it, Ambition, you put that one up yourself, didn't you?"

"When would I have had the time?" said Paul, but he felt a stab of pride nonetheless. "I like to think that I inspired it, though."

"You actually do care about nuclear power?"

"Well, not as such," said Paul. At least, not to the degree that he would go to the trouble of putting up informational flyers. "But it's our global awareness." The wealth of information on famine, overfishing and air pollution would each count for that as well, of course, but they weren't his.

He stared in admiration for a few more moments before Sheldon nudged him in the shoulder. "Don't you have somewhere to be?" he said, prompting Paul to glance up at the hall clock.

"Donnie won't care if I'm late," he said, but he generally tried not to be anyway. The place might've been a dive but Donnie was good to him, and the truth was that it was weird and thankless, but Paul kind of liked his job, and not just because it paid him. "You're not coming today? Donnie doesn't mind if you hang out. I think he's taken a liking to you."

"I... kind of got roped into a study group," said Sheldon with a helpless shrug. "But tell Donnie I say hi."

"Will do," said Paul, and Sheldon totally deserved the laughter that accompanied it, after everything he'd put Paul through over his joining of the debate club. "Have fun!"

Sheldon held his head high as he turned and heading back in towards the library. And Paul, he just headed out of the school for the simpler world of wonder burgers.

~~~

"Your sister joined debate club," said Paul as soon as Sheldon opened the door to him, poking his head inside to scout for her before entering.

"Relax," said Sheldon, moving out of his way. "She's at a Halloween party, and Dad's at O'Reilly's up the street watching game six with some of his buddies.

"Yeah, my dad's watching too," said Paul with a shrug. "Move the guy to New York and before you know it he's a rabid Mets fan. You're sure Jodi's not here?"

"I think I would've noticed her by now," said Sheldon. "In fact, I used the bathroom not ten minutes ago and she wasn't in there."

"A guy can't be too careful," said Paul, finally slipping inside and letting Sheldon shut the door. "I haven't had the best luck this weekend when it comes to women."

"Ah yes, and how was the Halloween dance at Wurster High last night?" said Sheldon, with the tone of someone who was interested only if there were gory bits. "Everything you dreamed it would be?"

"I don't dance," said Paul flatly. That wasn't entirely true. Paul thought he had the potential to dance. He very nearly danced at Mike Otis's farewell bash. He certainly had contemplated dancing, one more than one occasion. But when his sort-of, maybe girlfriend expected him to have moves on the dance floor, Paul just didn't dance. "Apparently this is a shortcoming."

"One of many, I'm sure," said Sheldon. "Well, don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to dance. My sister might, though. All the more reason for your abject terror of her."

Paul punched him in the shoulder. "I just don't want to spend the evening talking about how totally radical everything is. Are you sure the two of you are related?"

"The last time I asked my mother that I went to bed without dinner," said Sheldon. "After that I kept my suspicions to myself. You want a soda or something? There should be something in the fridge, and Mom left money for pizza if we want."

"She working again?"

"Supposed to be, but she had to take my kid brother to some birthday party because my dad wouldn't give up his baseball night," said Sheldon. "We've got the place to ourselves. You want to do some posters to put up tomorrow?"

"Could we just maybe take the night off or something?" said Paul, throwing his jacket over the back of a chair, the same one he used every time he came over to an empty house. "We do still have other things we can talk about, right?"

"As long as it's not Elaine," said Sheldon. "Please."

"I wish you and Elaine got along better," said Paul, rolling his eyes when he thought Sheldon couldn't see. "She's not a bad person, you know. You might like her if you gave her a chance."

"What makes you think I didn't?" muttered Sheldon. "All right, all right, I don't hate her. I just don't think you're right for each other. As your best friend, it's my duty to tell you that."

Paul wasn't sure duty had anything to do with it but he nodded his head. "All right, we won't talk about Elaine either."

The sat side by side on the sofa for several minutes before Sheldon finally turned the television on. When the theme song for The Facts of Life came on, he turned the television off again.

"You aren't having second thoughts, are you?" he said finally. "About the competition."

"There is no competition."

"About creating the competition, then," said Sheldon. "It's amazing what it's already done, right? I almost feel like I go to an actual, normal high school."

"I think some people are taking the competition aspect of it a little too seriously," said Paul, remembering his conversation with Elaine, not to mention a few of the things he'd overheard in the hallways the past couple of weeks. "We don't want anyone going down and sabotaging Wurster High, right?"

Sheldon was a little bit too slow saying "right", but Paul let it go.

"I'll be nice to be remembered for something that doesn't involved being televised swinging from an enormous pin," he admitted. "That's something I wasn't exactly looking forward to having to use on my college applications."

"They stopped replaying that when the got footage of that NYU student in the Spiderman costume anyway," said Sheldon, "so I don't think you can use it as your ticket into Princeton."

"Columbia," muttered Paul, and kind of hoped that Sheldon didn't hear. He didn't know if he could take yet another year of being called 'Ambition'. "Wait, Spiderman costume?"

"You didn't see that?" said Sheldon, launching into a lengthy explanation of just what he was doing in the costume and just how he'd affixed himself to the wall in the first place. Paul didn't actually care that much about either, but it was nice to just hang out with his friend again, without Jodi or Elaine or the All-Borough High Schools Competition getting in the way.

It reminded him just how Sheldon had become his best friend in the first place.

~~~

Paul's subtle campaign to insinuate that sportsmanship was an essential component of the All-Borough High Schools Competition seemed to be something of a success; at least, he didn't hear any more about it from Elaine, and the rumbles in the hallways had turned to something a little bit more friendly. Reminding them that Wurster High was only one of many other schools in the competition probably helped as well. It was good to have a rival; it was bad to make an enemy.

"Come here," said Sheldon, tugging Paul away from his locker, barely giving him time to close it. "You've got to see this."

"See what?" said Paul, but it was immediately evident the moment Sheldon pressed him against the third floor window overlooking the 22nd Street Ramp of the Henry Hudson Parkway. The ramp that now had two crooked trees sticking out of it thanks to the efforts of a group of vaguely familiar students. "Wow, how did they even get through the concrete?"

"Power tools and strength of will," said Sheldon. "It's kind of inspiring, don't you think?"

"Isn't it a few years too late to be protesting the ramp?" said Paul as the police arrived on the scene.

"The students of Don Carey High have never been known for worrying about that sort of thing," said Sheldon.

"The students of Don't Care High have never been known for worrying about anything," said Paul. "Wow, did he just throw a piece of concrete at a police officer?"

"No, I'm pretty sure that was a mitten," said Paul. "I doubt the cops would be that calm after getting hit by concrete. Oh... looks like he's getting arrested anyway."

"Who is that?" said Paul, squinting and leaning his forehead against the window like that would give him a better look. "Is that Peter?"

"Actually, that's a girl," said Sheldon. "I think she's in my biology class. It's hard to say; hardly anybody ever shows up anymore, and we aren't even dissecting things. In fact, I'm pretty sure we're never going to dissect anything ever again at this school."

It was amazing how the LaPaz triplets had managed to organize a complex system of study groups, tutorials and library timeshares without ever having to factor in actual class time.

"Oh, you're right, it is a girl," said Paul, catching a glimpse of breasts when her arms were cuffed behind her back. "Do you think we should tell anybody?"

"I'm pretty sure the administration already knows," said Sheldon. "Come on, we're late."

"Late for what?" said Paul. "Late for lunch?"

"Late for the next step," said Sheldon. "In order to win the New York All-Borough High Schools Competition, the candidate school needs to raise money for a cause."

"What cause?" said Paul.

"That's what we're late to decide," said Sheldon. "But it's got to be just one. Raising five bucks each for a couple dozen different causes isn't going to cut it."

"That's too bad," said Paul. "That's what this school is good at. What about starving kids in Ethiopia?"

"We sort of said it needed to be community-oriented."

"You gonna tell that to the kids?" said Paul.

"There are always starving kids in New York, too," said Sheldon. "We could raise money for them."

"Didn't we already do a food drive earlier this year?" said Paul. Deep in the bowels of his memory there was something about a food drive.

"Someone from the senior class took a couple of boxes of cans to the local homeless shelter," said Sheldon. "That's not the scale of action that we're looking for. The point is that it'd need everyone coming together."

"Maybe we can say Mike Otis needs money," said Paul. "I bet that'd work."

"I don't know about that," said Sheldon. "They all seem really keen on this school spirit thing now, with or without Mike."

"Do we even have a community?" said Paul. "I think my community consists of you, this school, a guy in a rabbit suit, and Donnie's Wonder Burger."

"What we really need to figure out is something that's universally loved," said Sheldon, "so people don't start arguing amongst themselves over it the moment we get started. What do people universally love?"

"Ice cream," said Paul blandly. "Puppies. Michael Jackson."

"That's it!" said Sheldon.

"What, Michael Jackson? I'm pretty sure he doesn't need our money."

"No, puppies!" said Sheldon. "Well, pets in general. People in New York are always getting pets and then realizing that they don't have the space or the time or the energy for them. And do you know what happens to them then?"

"The pet rescue!" said Paul, finally joining him in his eureka moment. His face soon fell, though, as the reality of the situation dawned on him. "That means I'm going to have to actually talk to Jodi, doesn't it?"

"You're going to have to face her eventually, my friend," said Sheldon, with what Paul thought was very little sympathy. "Thanks to Gretchen, she is the resident expert on the local pet rescue. She actually does bite, but I can at least promise that she doesn't carry any diseases. You'll survive the experience."

While Paul was certain he would survive, after a full on encounter with Jodi - between the hairspray, the lip gloss and the enthusiasm - he wasn't entirely sure he would want to.

~~~

"Oh, are you going to do it for Christmas?" said Jodi, pressed right up against Paul's left side and jabbing her finger towards his meager notes. "That would be awesome."

"Yeah, I think we could--"

"No, not Christmas," Sheldon interrupted before he could finish his thought, let alone his sentence. "Everyone donates at Christmastime."

"Yes," said Jodi impatiently, pressing even harder into Paul while Sheldon pressed in from the other side. Paul was beginning to feel a little bit like the patty in a wonder burger. "Because it's Christmas."

"If we want to make an impression," said Sheldon, "we have to donate after Christmas, when no one else is. In January. No one donates anything in January."

"Yes," said Jodi again, "because it's after Christmas."

"Does the pet rescue stop needing help after Christmas or something?" said Sheldon. "Face it, it's brilliant."

Jodi scowled at him. "I guess it's all right," she said. "But you still need me, right? Because I know the people at the pet rescue?"

"Entirely too well," said Sheldon. "I don't care if the next pet Gretchen's parents get her is a boa constrictor, I'm still going in on a rescue mission of my own."

"Do they still sell pet rocks?" said Paul, prompting Jodi to mumble something. "What was that?"

"She lost her pet rock," Jodi admitted. Paul wasn't trying to be mean, but how could a person not laugh at that? Sheldon wasn't even pretending not to. "Come on, you guys, she was really sad. She'd named it and everything."

"I gotta go... make a call," Sheldon gasped out, pressing his hand into Paul's thigh as he levered himself up off the sofa and stumbled into the kitchen, laughing the whole time.

"Brothers," said Jodi, tossing her hair back over her shoulder and suddenly not seeming put out at all. "So now that he's out of the way, do you want to watch some TV?"

"I, uh." Paul quickly looked around for escape routes. "Don't we still have work to do?"

Jodi shrugged. "I think we're done," she said. "If you don't want to watch TV, do you want to see my room? You always come over here, but you only spend time with Sheldon."

"Uh, TV's good," squeaked Paul. "Sure, we could watch some TV. I'm sure Sheldon will be back any minute...." He looked back over his shoulder towards the kitchen, but there was not yet any sign of Sheldon. "Really. Any minute now."

"He's probably off in his room sulking because he doesn't get to have your attention all of the time."

"Jodi!"

"See?" she said, but Sheldon's voice had definitely been annoyed and not sulking, and it was still coming from the kitchen and not Sheldon's bedroom.

"Jodi, I--"

"Sheldon told me you broke up with your girlfriend," she said. "He told the whole family."

"We're back together," Paul blurted out. "It was just a... temporary thing." And if they weren't back together, Paul was sure they would be after he called her tonight. He was a guy with a lot to offer, after all. Surely Elaine would see that again.

"Oh," said Jodi, crossing her arms over her chest, and Paul breathed a sigh of relief.

"Sheldon?" he called. "You coming back?"

"Yeah, in a minute," he said, but he still sounded annoyed. Paul had no idea what about this time, but then there seemed to be a lot of things about Sheldon that - despite being best friends - he didn't quite get.

~~~

"What does it mean that she wants to go see Top Gun this weekend?" said Paul, yanking down on his lock after trying his combination for the third time. He'd think someone had switched his lock when he wasn't looking, but it always seemed to miraculously work on the fourth try. "Do you think it means something?"

"I think it means she knows you got paid and wants you to spend some of it on her," said Sheldon. "What do you think it means?"

"I think it means she's got a crush on Tom Cruise," said Paul.

"Well, at least you know she's not going to start dating him, too," said Sheldon. "It's amazing she has time in her social calendar for you already."

"Hey, she asked me," said Paul. "That has to mean something too, right?"

"Not everything Elaine does means something," said Sheldon. "Especially when it comes to you. No offense."

"I'm pretty sure everything that girls do when they're dating you means something," argued Paul. At least, that's what he'd always heard. Elaine might've been his first girlfriend, but he had plenty of second- and third-hand experience.

"I don't know why you got back together anyway," said Sheldon. "You can do better, Ambition."

"I'm sure we just need a little more time before things really get going," said Paul. "It always takes a while, right?"

"You're asking me?"

"Right," said Paul. "You're not exactly an expert on girls, are you?"

Sheldon just gave him a Look. "No, I'm really not," he said dryly. "But I don't have to be to know that you're better off ending things with Elaine now than dragging them out like this when they aren't going anywhere. Face it, Paul."

"Did it ever occur to you that you could be happy for me, that I've got a girlfriend?" said Paul. "What is it with the two of you anyway?"

Sheldon opened his mouth like he definitely had something to say about that - as he often did - but then he snapped it shut again. "You shouldn't be dating someone from Wurster High anyway," he mumbled.

"You know we're not really rivals with Elaine's school, right?" said Paul. "You remember that it's not real?"

"Of course," said Sheldon, "that's not what... never mind."

"Maybe we should've just left well enough alone from the beginning," said Paul. "Maybe if I wasn't focusing so much attention on school stuff I'd be spending more time with Elaine."

"Because you were spending so much time with her before we started?" said Sheldon. "Besides, you didn't want to do nothing. Isn't that why we started doing all this in the first place?"

That wasn't really how Paul remembered the genesis of the whole thing, but it also wasn't entirely wrong.

"Yeah, but I wasn't thinking quite so big," he said.

"That's what you have me for, Ambition," said Sheldon. "To do the big thinking for you. Come on, you know you have more fun with me than with Elaine anyway."

"But maybe if I work on it a little more--"

"Maybe I've never been in one, but I'm pretty sure relationships aren't supposed to be quite so much work," said Sheldon. "Just have some fun, Paul. I promise, it won't kill you."

"You've said that before," said Paul, but the truth was that it hadn't killed him. Yet.

And the truth was that most of the time, in spite of his expectations, he did have a lot more fun doing things other than spending time with Elaine. What he really needed was to have fun and have a girlfriend at the same time, and wondered for a moment how everyone else in the world somehow managed it.

~~~

Paul smelled faintly of mustard when he met Elaine at Bloomingdale's, but he hadn't had time to shower between working a lunch shift at Donnie's Wonder Burger and heading uptown. He just hoped that Elaine wouldn't notice, or that if she did, she wouldn't think it was working mentioning. While what they had discussed was going to Central Park, the conversation then turned to Elaine needing to finish her Christmas shopping.

Somehow, this equaled a shopping date, two words which Paul felt should never be placed in the same sentence, let alone right next to one another.

"So where's your list?" said Elaine with a great deal of good cheer, rummaging around in Paul's coat pocket before he could answer but coming up with only a used kleenex and half a roll of lifesavers.

"I thought I'd play it by ear," he said lamely.

Elaine looked distinctly disapproving. "Just remember you've only got yourself to blame if you miss anyone," she said, letting go of his coat and leading him into the blessed warmth of the store with only a faint sniff. "Is that mustard?"

"Occupational hazard," said Paul, and braced himself for a full evening of examining every rack in Bloomingdale's.

Elaine was enthusiastic for the first hour, somewhat more subdued for the second, then more and more agitated for the third.

"You're not having a good time, are you?" she said finally, cutting right to the heart of the matter. As much as Paul worried about feminine wiles, the truth was that Elaine never did play games with him.

"What are you talking about? Of course I'm... well...." Paul couldn't quite meet her eyes. "I'm not much of a shopper, really."

"You didn't have a very good time at the dance, either."

Paul scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. "Not much of a dancer?" he offered.

Elaine huffed out a sigh, shopping-bag-filled hands somehow still on her hips. "Why do you even keep asking me out, Paul?"

"Because I like you," he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Why wouldn't he keep asking her out after she first said yes? "Remember the night we met at Daphne's party?"

"Of course I do," she said. "I found you hiding in the kitchen."

"While you were hiding from your ex-boyfriend," said Paul. "We ate ice cream in the laundry cubby and talked for ages. It was great."

It was the memory of that one night, in fact, that kept Paul coming back for more, even when every date with Elaine was somewhat beneath expectations.

"It was great," she agreed, finally smiling at him. "You're a good friend, Paul."

Paul chose to believe he didn't hear that slight stress on the word 'friend', especially since she let him kiss her good night after he got her home.

~~~

"So hey, what are you doing for Christmas?" said Sheldon, kicking dirty snow off his boots and onto the formerly gleaming tiles of the hallway. "There's this place I know uptown that makes an amazing turkey pizza."

"Turkey pizza?"

"Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it," said Sheldon. "It'll leave you filled with the Christmas spirit."

"And about a dozen additives that don't even have names yet."

"Not on Christmas Day, obviously," said Sheldon, "but we have a whole two weeks off. Plenty of time to recover."

"One day, Sheldon, you're going to introduce me to a New York cuisine that doesn't require a recovery time," said Paul. "Maybe a nice salad. There's not a lot you can do to make salad toxic, is there?"

"I'm sure there are at least a dozen students in this hallway alone who can set you straight on that one," said Sheldon. "Do you know what they spray on your lettuce?"

"On second thought, forget I asked," said Paul. "There are some things that man was just not meant to know."

"So you, me, a large turkey pizza with all the trimmings? What do you say?"

"Oh, well, I can't actually," said Paul. "We're going back to Saskatchewan for Christmas. My Aunt Kathy's invited us."

There was a silence so complete for a moment that Paul almost thought that everyone else in the hallway had simultaneously stopped talking as well.

"You're going away for Christmas and you didn't tell me until now?" said Sheldon finally, sounding a lot more hurt than Paul would've predicted. Then again, there was probably a subconscious reason Paul'd put off breaking it to him.

"Well, I didn't know you'd be making plans," said Paul. "I figured all of your plans were limited to the Great Scheme of Eighty-Six."

"For a smart guy you can be so dumb sometimes," said Sheldon, shaking his head at him sadly. And then, in another move that Paul couldn't have predicted, he just turned and walked away.

"What? What did I do?" said Paul, watching his back as he went. He didn't get an answer from Sheldon, just a few pitying looks from eavesdroppers before he turned back to his locker and yanked a couple of books out. "What?" he asked the hallway at large, but no one there had an answer for him either.

Paul wasn't sure what had just happened, and didn't know why he suddenly had the awful feeling that somehow he'd been dumped twice in the same week.

~~~

Christmas in Saskatoon was cold, even colder than New York, and Paul's aunt insisted on dressing him in his cousin's hand-me-down sweaters which were possibly the ugliest things Paul had ever seen. And considering he lived across from an elderly couple who enjoyed bondage gear and beer can slippers - at the same time - that was saying a lot.

Christmas Eve found most of the family making their once-yearly trek to the local church and the rest - namely, Paul and his cousin Gord - watching classic holiday movies in Aunt Kathy's basement rec room.

"I think Elaine likes this movie," said Paul suddenly, when they were about half an hour in. "Either this one or It's a Wonderful Life; I can never keep them straight." Even if the main point of similarity between the two was that they were both made long before Paul was born.

"Who's Elaine?" said Gord, munching on a handful of hot buttered popcorn.

"My girlfriend?" said Paul, staring at him. "I've only been talking about her the whole time I've been here."

"The only person I ever hear you talking about is that Sheldon guy you had a fight with," said Gord. "I didn't even know you had a girlfriend. Is she cute?"

"Sheldon says she looks a little bit like a duck," admitted Paul, "but she's nice, and smart."

"Sheldon thinks so, does he?" said Gord. "What else does Sheldon say about your girlfriend?"

"Nothing I should probably repeat in public," said Paul. It didn't occur to him until much, much later that his cousin's question might not have been entirely sincere. "Which is fine because she doesn't like him much either."

"Oooh, bad sign there, cuz," said Gord, but didn't elaborate, instead tossing another few pieces of popcorn in his mouth.

"What, what? What's that supposed to mean?" said Paul.

Gord looked at him like he'd grown a second - possibly duck-shaped - head. "If your best friend and your girl don't get along, eventually you're going to have to choose," he said. "Down that road lies heartbreak."

"I'm not going to have to choose," said Paul. "I mean, they're two completely different things. Sheldon's my guy friend and Elaine's my girl friend. I mean, girlfriend. You know what I mean."

"Just keep telling yourself that," said Gord. "Just don't try telling them that. Trust me, I'm in Grade Twelve. I know this stuff."

A year wasn't that much difference, but Gord'd had a steady girlfriend since Grade Ten so maybe he did know a few things about a few things.

"So tell me about the big city," said Gord after a few minutes, when they both acknowledged simultaneously that the movie wasn't going to suddenly get more interesting. "I swear, if your dad calls this place the boonies one more time...."

Paul actually was surprised by how small Saskatoon seemed after a year and a half in New York, especially since growing up he'd always thought of it as a perfectly respectable size. But then, he liked that about it, especially right now with all the craziness going on back home.

Life was simpler here, and for the moment Paul was just going to try to enjoy that.

~~~

Paul was astonished, upon his return to New York and thus to a new term at Don Carey High, to discover just what his classmates had been up to while he was gone. The LaPaz triplets had apparently staged a three-woman variety show, Peter Eversleigh had somehow pulled together a no-doubt conceptual silent auction (to be held the following week in the gymnasium), and Dick Oliver had organized the most comprehensive door-to-door campaign the neighborhood had ever known.

The apparent success of their campaign for the local animal rescue was the one bright spot in what had been a rather dismal homecoming.

Elaine wasn't available, Sheldon still wasn't returning his calls, and Donnie's Wonder Burger had been temporarily shut down by the health department.

But now he had something concrete with which to approach Sheldon. After all, they couldn't not talk about their ongoing project, which seemed to have somehow, in the wake of Christmas, begun to reach its crescendo.

When Sheldon wasn't in his homeroom or at his locker, Paul began an all-hours stakeout of the main-floor bulletin board, which Sheldon, at some point during his school day, was guaranteed to pass.

When he finally did so, it was with Phil Gonzalez on one side and Feldstein on the other, but Paul was undeterred. He also decided on the spot that approaching him with the pretext of the competition was just cowardly.

"Sheldon," he said, blocking his way. "Sheldon, come on, this is ridiculous."

It was obviously the wrong thing to say but at least Sheldon didn't walk away. Instead, the three of them formed a triumvirate in front of him and suddenly it didn't seem like it was Sheldon's way that was being blocked.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you I was going," he said, when it became clear that he wasn't going to have any privacy to do this. "I'm sorry I made like it wasn't important enough. And I'm sorry we never got to go for turkey pizza."

"The turkey pizza is excellent," said Feldstein, who took his food seriously.

"I'm sure it is," said Paul, "and I promise we'll go next year. We aren't going to be invited back to Aunt Kathy's anyway, not after the thing with Dad and Uncle Dan and the hundred-gallon fish tank."

Sheldon's lips twitched but he didn't say anything yet. He did, though, look at both Feldstein and Phil in turn, obviously a signal to disperse. Feldstein gave him a nod and melted back into the crowd; Phil needed a little more encouragement, but then he too was gone. If one didn't count the constant flow of students around them, Paul and Sheldon were alone.

"Christmas sucked without you," Paul blurted out. "I didn't even get to give you your present before we left."

And not for lack of trying either. He'd even gone over to Sheldon's townhouse when he wouldn't come to the phone, but all that got him was a fifteen-minute visit with Jodi, only at the end of which did she reveal that Sheldon wasn't even home.

"I got something for you too," admitted Sheldon. "And I didn't give it to charity over Christmas break, even though I thought about it."

"I'm not sure charity would want anything you'd think of giving to me," said Paul. "I could, uh, come over tonight. With your present."

"You could," agreed Sheldon.

"And we could talk about the massive amount of fundraising that happened in our absence."

"Your absence," Sheldon reminded him. "But there was, in fact, a massive amount of fundraising. There might've been animal costumes involved. You missed a lot."

Paul shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. "About Elaine...."

Sheldon groaned. "And we were doing so well."

"Just so you know?" Paul pushed on, because the subject had been weighing heavily on his mind ever since Gord had mentioned it. "If I ever have to choose, it's you."

"I'm not asking you to choose," said Sheldon, but finally, hearing that, he smiled and slung his arm over Paul's shoulders the way he used to, and after that everything seemed to be all right again.

~~~

It turned out - to Paul's mild surprise if no one else's - that Don Carey High's test scores for the first term were the highest they'd ever been. Whatever Shirley, Rose and Lucy LaPaz had started, it certainly was reaping results. Paul's own scores were middling-to-high, as always, but at least he fit into the general curve.

Paul had bigger things to worry about anyway.

"So Elaine says she's washing her hair tonight," he said, leaning against Sheldon's locker. "And drying it tomorrow. What does that mean?"

"It means you, my friend, are officially dumped," said Sheldon, patting him on the shoulder. "But not to worry, I know the perfect place to commiserate over a giant plate of nachos."

"Because I'll be too busy thinking about the hole they're burning in my gastrointestinal tract?"

Sheldon just patted him on the stomach this time. "You complain," he said, "but you know in your heart Mitzi's Famous Nachos will cure what ails you."

"Either that, or they'll put me out of my misery," said Paul.

"You don't look all that miserable," said Sheldon. "Are you sure washing her hair was your first clue."

"She might have said she thought of me as a friend back in December," admitted Paul, and wondered in retrospect if they'd actually officially broken up right there at Bloomingdale's, good-night kiss notwithstanding. "I'm pretty sure we're still talking, as long as I don't try to ask her out."

"You sure that's a good idea, staying friends with the ex-girlfriend?" said Sheldon. "Every time someone does that in the movies it ends badly."

"I'm pretty sure Elaine's not going to start stalking me," said Paul. "The apocalypse isn't going to come and I'm not going to be murdered in my sleep."

"This is New York," said Sheldon. "Those are both entirely possible, but they have nothing to do with Elaine."

"And if you could possibly not mention this to your sister...?"

"You have a lot more faith in me than I realized if you think I can keep anything from my little sister for more than about twenty-four hours these days, especially when it comes to you."

That, Paul had to concede, was a fair point. "Could you at least make the effort?"

"In order to spare you an extra day of my baby sister's cherry-lipgloss-fueled attentions, I'll do my best," said Sheldon, "but I make no promises."

"It's all I can ask," said Paul with a sigh.

"Just forget about Elaine and Jodi," said Sheldon as he snapped his lock closed and spun the combination dial. "We've got bigger things to worry about right now."

For once, Paul was going to listen to Sheldon's advice about his love life, because they did have bigger things to worry about, and it might be nice to not be worrying about Elaine for once. Even though he'd finally begun to realize he hadn't really been worrying about Elaine in a long time now.

~~~

The presentation to the 22nd Street Animal Rescue - something that really only required the presence of Paul, Sheldon and,because Paul was in a magnanimous mood after seeing the final tally, Jodi - seemed to grow as the morning wore on. Paul and Sheldon were the only two students officially excused from class, but by the time they reached the doors of the animal rescue there were at least fifty students joining them, including all three LaPazes, Dick Oliver, and both the second and the third floor animal rights groups. It was nothing compared to the entire student body showing up in support of Mike Otis, but it still resembled an invasion a little too closely for comfort.

Mrs. Badri looked over the assembled group warily, and immediately said that out of concern for the animals, only five representatives would be allowed inside. Paul didn't want to be the one to have to face fifty hopeful faces and make a decision, but fortunately Mrs. Badri just pointed and said, "You and you," in addition to Paul, Sheldon and Jodi, and that was that.

There was no novelty check, no photographer from the Times - not even the school paper, though Paul hoped he was getting an exterior shot of the building at least - and no real ceremony. Just five students in an office handing over the largest single donation the animal rescue had seen since its founding.

"God bless you all," said Mrs. Badri when she saw just what they were giving her, leaping up from her seat and giving Paul an impromptu hug. "I didn't do anything," he said, for one moment channeling Mike Otis. And for that one moment, he sort of thought he understood a bit of how Mike might have felt all last year.

~~~

In all great schemes - and the All-Borough High Schools Competition was among the greatest - there was always that tiny detail that was overlooked in favor of the big picture.

"So Paul," said one of the LaPaz sisters who surrounded him on his way from history to English. The other two had, over the holiday, cropped their hair short in solidarity with Lucy, so once again it was nearly impossible to tell them apart without careful observation. "You're the one in charge of the this whole competition campaign, right?"

"Well, it was Sheldon who really... yes," he said warily, feeling alarmingly like an animal being herded into a trap.

"When do you think we'll be hearing an announcement on the winner?" said another. "Is there a deadline?"

"Well, uh," said Paul cleverly. There were moments when he found himself able to think on his feet, and then there were moments like this one. "Yes?"

"Well?" said the third. "What is it? They aren't going to wait for finals, are they? Then they'd have to award it in the summer, and nobody will be here."

"No, no," said Paul, "they'll be... any day now. They make the decision when the board reconvenes after Christmas."

In retrospect, it was possibly not the best answer he could have given, but it was the best he had under the circumstances.

"We have a report for you," said the first again.

"In triplicate," said another.

"Which you haven't asked for yet."

"We, uh, like to think the results speak for themselves," said Paul. "But the report would be a fine addition should they ask to meet with us before making a decision."

"Do you think they're going to do that?"

Paul thought that time was Shirley, but he wasn't confident enough to voice that guess.

"The, uh, selection process isn't public," he said. "We don't know for certain what they're going to do."

That answer seemed to satisfy them, and with a nod that was more at each other than at him, they released him and dispersed.

For a few moments after they were gone he wondered if they were on to him, but then he realized that it didn't matter. They'd done their part anyway, and maybe they'd done it for the exact same reasons as him: they wanted their school to be a better place.

~~~

Paul returned to work on a dreary Friday after school, to a hole-in-the-wall burger joint that didn't look appreciably different from the last time he'd been in it. It didn't give him much faith in anything but Donnie's ability to pay in cash for more than just Paul's wages.

"They're expecting an actual award, Paul," said Sheldon, hopping up on the greasy counter with no regard for personal safety, or hygiene.

"This," said Paul, "is an eventuality we should have foreseen."

"Well, we can't think of everything," said Sheldon, tapping his fingers on the counter. Thankfully - and unsurprisingly - the restaurant was deserted. "Hey, get me one of those burgers, would you? I think better when I'm eating."

Paul stared at him, aghast. "Sheldon, no," he said. "There are limits. Even you do not want to be subjected to one of Donnie's wonder burgers."

Sheldon just waved his concerns off. "You're exaggerating," he said. "You just haven't fully developed your New York stomach yet. It's a thing to be nurtured, not avoided."

Paul knew better, but he ordered him up a burger anyway, fully loaded, and was rewarded by the look on Sheldon's face when he bit into it.

"Wow," he said, pulling it away from his mouth and staring at it in awe. "I think you might have found the only actually inedible food in Manhattan. That's something to take pride in."

Paul didn't say I told you so, especially when, in spite of his proclamation, Sheldon took another bite.

"So what are we going to do about this?" he said. "There is no actual award. How much does it cost to get a trophy made up, anyway?"

"It can't be that much," said Sheldon, thoughtfully. "We'll want someone to present it, too - we can't just show up one day with a trophy - so that'll probably cost us."

"Yeah, how much does impersonating a city official go for these days?"

"We don't have to identify them as a city official," said Sheldon. "People will see them awarding us a trophy or a plaque or whatever and they'll come to their own conclusions."

"There are so very many ways this could go wrong," said Paul, shaking his head. "What if we just say we didn't win? The work is already done, right? We don't have to actually win the thing."

"Are you kidding me?" said Sheldon. "All this work just to not even win in the end?"

"It's not a real competition!"

"Yes, but they don't know that," said Sheldon. "Remember last year? Remember losing Mike Otis? This school is capable of depths of despair that you and I can only begin to imagine. No, we can't let them lose now, Paul. We'd never forgive ourselves. Could you look Wayne-o in the eye now and tell him that all his work - Wayne-o's work - was for nothing?"

"It wouldn't be for nothing," said Paul, but the answer was still no. No, he couldn't look any of them in the eye now and tell them that they lost the award. And even though the award was entirely fictional, he didn't want to lose either.

"How much does Donnie pay you, anyway?" said Sheldon, actually managing to finish an entire half a burger before tossing the rest in the trash.

"Not enough to stage an entire faked awards ceremony," said Paul. Half the time it wasn't even enough to pay for dinner and a movie for two. "You think any of your dad's friends would be willing to do it?"

"Only if you came up with a boarding pass rare enough to make it worth their while," said Sheldon, "and believe me when I say that's just not worth the trouble. You have no idea what I go through finding Christmas presents for him."

Suddenly Paul's own shopping woes seemed to pale in comparison.

"Well, I think I bought us some time," said Paul. "According to me, nobody knows what the specific selection process is for the award. If we throw them a bone, we should be all right for a while."

"What kind of a bone?" said Sheldon, but before Paul could answer him the bell on the door chimed for the first time since he arrived and he had to shoo Sheldon off the counter so he could do his actual job for a while.

Sheldon would wait, though, and sooner or later they were going to have to come up with something to bring this whole charade to its inevitable conclusion.

~~~

They had to get to the school very early Monday morning to avoid being seen, but it was worth it when they saw how the gigantic banner dominated the hallway.

"Congratulations, Don Carey High"

The real genius of it was that it didn't specify just what the congratulations were for, just in case something went terribly awry they got called on it later.

"We're going to need to talk to the administration now," said Sheldon. "Do you think you could fake being a city official on the phone?"

"Me?" said Paul. "Why do I have to do it? Why can't it be you?"

"Because your voice is deeper," said Sheldon, like that even mattered. "And you sound more mature."

"I do not," said Paul, proving it with that very plaintive sentence. "This is definitely not my forté, Sheldon."

"Well, somebody has to do it," said Sheldon. "And soon. The natives are restless."

"We have to figure out what we're going to say first," said Paul. "How are we even going to do this? I overheard someone the other day talking about alerting the press."

"Hey, that's our job!" said Sheldon, but he too was looking a little alarmed at the prospect. "How much longer do you think we can stall?"

"Probably no more than another week or two at the outside," admitted Paul. "We can say that as the point people for the project, the committee would be contacting us personally, but I sort of already said the decision would be coming soon."

"A week or two's all we need," Sheldon said. "I promise."

Not for the first time, Paul was a little dubious about that. They'd always pulled things off in the past, but this time it might just be too big for them.

If they were going to go down, though, they were going to go down fighting. And even though Paul could feel a knot in his stomach, a knot that grew tighter every time he looked at Sheldon, it was as much anticipation as nerves these days.

~~~

Planning a completely falsified city-sponsored event, though, was trickier than one might imagine. Or perhaps as tricky as a normal person would imagine, and trickier than Sheldon and Paul could possibly have planned for. There was faked paperwork and faked phone calls and faked press and a faked award and the two of them, despite their experience in pulling one over on the whole student body, couldn't even really figure out where to start.

The job was now officially bigger than the both of them, and this was the one piece of it where they couldn't rely on an entire 2600-person-strong student body to help carry the load.

What was worse were the rumblings in the hallways, students who expected more to come of their campaign for the All-Borough High Schools Award, who wanted to see something tangible for all their work.

Paul thought there was tangible reward everywhere, from the clean hallways, the flowerbeds (currently empty, but well-kept nonetheless) by the front steps, the re-invigorated academic program, the reasonable level of involvement in extra-curricular activities and, maybe more than any of that, a newly-clean reputation in their community, in their school district and maybe even in the whole city.

But that was something that he suspected everyone else was only going to be able to see after the competition had been awarded to them.

Rather than admiration, as he traveled the hall from one class to the next, Paul began to get dark looks, hear his name muttered in less than complimentary terms under people's breath. He even - he hoped by accident - ended up shoved into a locker when he strayed to close to an unruly group.

All in all, it added up to a very dark time for him.

"When do we get the award?

"What's going on anyway? What's the hold up?

"I thought we were supposed to hear last week?"

"I thought we were supposed to hear last month?"

While he didn't know it at the time, Paul would later think of the speech as "Wayne-o's big moment".

"Wait!" Wayne-o cried out, a voice of hope from the midst of the crowd, leaping up onto the janitor's ladder as if carried forth on wings of flowing blond hair. He whirled around and held both arms out and the roar softened to a hum almost at once. Wayne-o looked as surprised as anyone at the turn of events; it obviously took him a couple of moments to figure out what he was going to say next.

"We, the students of Don Carey High, have come a long way from our humble beginnings. Once we were meek, and now we are mighty. And all of it rests on the shoulders of Mike Otis and his right hand men. We trusted them through an unjust impeachment. We trusted them through the attention of a cruel and uncaring city. We trusted them when we were a people lost in the wilderness of, uh, something that wasn't school spirit. Will we not trust them now?"

There was silence while people looked at one another. Wayne-o might've been new to the whole rabble-rousing business, but he'd seen plenty of movies and clearly knew just what to do.

"Will we not trust them now?" he said again, to a few cries of "yes!" and "we will!" and, of course, "why not?"

"Will we not trust them now?"

"Yes!" people said in unison this time. "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Paul half expected to be launched onto someone's shoulders at any moment, and gave everyone a pre-emptive wave, wishing he were the behind the scenes guy. Sheldon had to be around here somewhere, but the focus of the entire hallway's attention was on him.

"When I know anything," he said, after clearing his throat, his voice carrying to the furthest reaches of the hallway, "you'll all be the first to know. We've all done everything we can, and now we're just waiting on bureaucracy. But, uh, keep up the good work everyone! Keep it up!"

"Did you hear that?" Wayne-o echoed him. "'Keep it up!' he says. So keep it up everyone!"

And with that he leapt down off the ladder again, gave Paul a clap on the shoulder, and disappeared into the crowd.

~~~

As he trudged through the muddy snow of his Manhattan street on his way to Sheldon's townhouse, Paul had plenty of time to contemplate their dilemma. It was in the space between kicking a chunk of ice into a storm drain and catching sight of the headline of the Times - the ordinarily uninspiring "Museum Unearths Long-Forgotten Treasure in Basement" - that he had his eureka moment. Without even stopping to think about it he turned right around and headed for the nearest subway station.

He couldn't even be sure if Elaine was home. And even if she was home, he couldn't be sure that she would open the door for him. But once he got past those two obstacles, he figured it would be smooth sailing.

"No," said Elaine.

"What?" said Paul. "I haven't even said anything yet."

"You're about to ask me to go to the movies or to go for pizza or to go bowling," said Elaine. "You're going to say you were just in the neighborhood and figured you might as well drop by. So the answer is no, Paul. I thought we were clear on this."

"Actually, I wasn't in the neighborhood," said Paul. "I came halfway across the city with just the faintest hope that you would be around. And I wasn't going to ask you out, all right? I get it. But I need your help with something, and you might be the only person who can help me."

She looked skeptical, but she did finally open the door for him and that was the important part. "You finally figure out why we'd never work out?" she asked.

"Well, no...." admitted Paul, but it hadn't even occurred to him to try asking her out again on the way over here, so some part of him understood anyway, even if it wasn't the conscious part.

She rolled her eyes and closed the door behind him, snapping her gum. "So what do you need my help with?"

"Okay," said Paul, wiping his boots on the mat to buy himself some time. "You remember the fake competition the Sheldon and I came up with?"

"Kind of hard to forget that, Paul," she said.

"I need it to be real."

She obviously thought he was joking at first, but her laughter tapered off when she noticed he wasn't laughing along with her.

"Are you nuts?" she said. "I can't just make it real for you. What do you think I am, anyway?"

"Okay, I know," Paul backpedaled. "I don't need it to be real, not exactly. But there's got to be some sort of real competition, right? A city this size, there's got to be something we can actually win. And if anyone would know...."

Elaine's expression changed from incredulous to thoughtful. Or possibly incredulous and thoughtful.

"We need to talk to my mother," she said finally, and Paul breathed his first, tiny sigh of relief.

~~~

Paul banged on Sheldon's door until someone answered, and just prayed it wasn't going to be Jodi.

"You were supposed to be here this morning," said Sheldon, standing in the middle of the doorway so Paul couldn't slip by him. "It's practically dinnertime."

"It's three," Paul pointed out.

"I called your place, you know," he went on. "Your mother thought you were here. I lied to her so she wouldn't worry."

"I'm sorry," said Paul. "I had to go to Elaine's. But I'm here now."

"I didn't know you and Elaine were back together," said Sheldon. "Again."

"We're not," said Paul. He might never have gotten Sheldon's animosity towards Elaine, but he knew it was there and he never pretended it didn't matter. "You were totally right about us. But her mother works as a city clerk, remember? She was helping me out with something."

"Well, that's great," said Sheldon. "That's great that Elaine can help you out now."

"Didn't you hear me?" said Paul. "Her mother is a city clerk. I asked if she could look into a few things for me."

"What, like the legal marriage age in New York State."

"Like certain awards that might possibly be given out to city high schools," said Paul, waiting for Sheldon to catch up. "I think we might be saved after all."

"Wait, you mean there really is an All-Borough High Schools Competition?" said Sheldon.

"Not exactly," said Paul. "It's called the New York City Award for Civic-Minded High Schools. No one's been put forward for it for about ten years, but apparently it's still on the books."

"We need to enter Don't Care High," said Sheldon. "Right now, before it's too late!"

"I already did," said Paul, grinning at him. "This morning."

It all happened very suddenly. One moment Paul was just standing in the doorway, then the next Sheldon had his hands on Paul's shoulders and was pushing him against the doorframe and kissing him right there for all the street to see.

"Oh my God!" came Jodi's shriek before they could part. "I hate you, Sheldon, you're always taking what I want!"

Sheldon first looked annoyed, then terrified, then all but slammed the door in Paul's face as he fled back into the house.

That was when Paul finally figured it all out.

~~~

Kissing - or even being kissed by - your best friend was not something a person could get a handle on all in one go. Paul spend the rest of his Saturday afternoon wandering the streets of Manhattan, then that night he slept on it, then the next morning he processed it while tidying his entire bedroom top to bottom, which brought him to an afternoon shift at Donnie's Wonder Burger where he mechanically served his regulars and stared into space in between.

It was apparently obvious enough that Donnie himself, usually only found in the bowels of the restaurant, came up front to join him.

"You, my young friend, look like you have things on your mind."

Paul did, indeed, have things on his mind. Things which, unfortunately, he didn't feel like he could talk about with anybody. Not his family, not his friends, not even his easygoing boss.

"It's nothing," he said. "It's not interfering with my work, I promise."

Donnie nodded, looked over at the empty doorway and then at Paul again. "If I was worried about your work, you'd know it," he said, leaning against the counter and looking like he was settling in for the long haul. "School problems? I remember school problems."

"Actually, no," said Paul. Any other day it would've been school problems. Today it was anything but.

"Girl problems? I haven't seen that girl of yours around here in a while."

Paul almost laughed; he did let out something that was in between a snicker and a snort. "No, not girl problems," he said. "Elaine and I split up a while back. It was never really...." Of course, now he had an inkling why things with Elaine never really seemed to click. They never had a chance.

"Not school, not girls... not work," said Donnie. "What else is there in a guy your age's life? Family trouble?"

"No, my family's great," said Paul. He wrinkled his nose, stared out the dirty windows, then finally looked up at Donnie again. "Can I ask you something?"

"Any time, my young friend," said Donnie. "Consider me your Yoda."

Paul's Yoda was a middle-aged ex-biker with a dodgy little burger place, but somehow that just fit. "You ever been in love?"

"Of course I've been in love," said Donnie, a wistful smile looking somewhat out of place on his leathery face. "I fall in love all the time. Haven't you?"

"I don't know," said Paul, feeling the knot in his stomach tighten once more. "How do you know?"

"You just know, Paul," said Donnie, clapping hand on his shoulder much the way Sheldon would have, if Sheldon were there and not hiding at home. "You just know. Are you sure you're not having girl trouble?"

"Believe me, I'm sure," said Paul. He was supposed to just know, but how did you know if you didn't even know what it was supposed to feel like? Was love supposed to feel like confusion and terror and hope all at the same time? If it was, then maybe Paul had a handle on what was going on after all. "Thanks, Donnie."

"Huh," said Donnie, looking him over like he was trying to figure him out, then nodded his head. "All right then. I'll be in back if you need anything."

Paul didn't think he was going to need anything that Donnie could give him, other than wonder burgers. What he needed was Sheldon, but he had a feeling that was something that, for the time being, was going to prove hard to get.

~~~

Not surprisingly, when Paul returned to school on Monday there were two main things he noticed. The first was that the administration had apparently already received word that Don Carey High had qualified for a long-forgotten city citation for civic contributions. The second was that Sheldon was definitely avoiding him.

And now that, thanks to Donnie of Wonder Burger, late night television and two days of deep thought, he finally had his priorities straightened out, the second was the one he knew he needed to do something about.

When all else failed - and all else was, in fact, failing; Jodi wasn't talking to either of them, and she was Paul's next-to-last resort - they had math class together last period. He didn't like the idea of having to ambush him, but in class, at least, Sheldon had nowhere to hide.

"Sheldon," he said as soon as an unsuspecting Sheldon rounded the corner, grabbing hold of his sleeve and not letting him run away this time. "Sheldon!"

Sheldon finally had to look him in the face; Paul didn't give him any choice in the matter. "What?"

"Where are you going?"

"Math," said Sheldon, looking awkwardly over his shoulder. "I'm going to be late. We're going to be late. What is it?"

Paul had practiced his speech at least a dozen times over the last day or two, but now that he was called upon to give it he looked Sheldon in the eye and promptly abandoned the entire thing.

"Do you think you could possibly be my best friend again?" he said inelegantly. "I miss you."

"Are you sure about that?" said Sheldon, looking distinctly awkward and uncomfortable. It was something Paul hadn't seen on him before, and didn't think he wanted to see again. "Even with the...?"

It hung in the air for a few moments before Paul took a deep breath and put him out of his misery.

"Especially with the," he said, finally admitting it out loud to both Sheldon and himself. "Which you'd know already if you hadn't been avoiding me for the past two days."

"Wait, what?" said Sheldon. "What about the... Elaine?"

Paul shrugged. "You know she dumped me ages ago," he said. "And you know I wasn't exactly broken up about it. You were right, Sheldon: we never worked. I guess there was good reason for that."

"Oh," said Sheldon, for once at a loss for words. "I. Uh."

"We should probably, uh, talk about this somewhere else," said Paul nervously, looking from side to side up the halls. Nobody was looking at them, but suddenly he was more worried than ever that they might be. There was a reason this ambush was his last last resort. "Meet me after class?"

"Yeah," said Sheldon. "Yeah, definitely. So we're good?"

"We're more than good," said Paul. "I'll even let you pick where we go to eat."

"You always let me pick," said Sheldon, but he was smiling again when he backed away and then finally headed into the classroom, and that was all that Paul needed.

~~~

They were both so very careful, stolen moments in deserted classrooms, secret touches that were innocuous if they were spotted, waiting impatiently for the privacy of one home or the other. Just because Don Carey High was now the hot spot for the cause du jour that didn't mean people were just going to pat them on the back and wish them well. But either Paul was misreading the looks he was getting - always a possibility in the halls of Don't Care High - or a few people had figured them out anyway.

Paul blamed the academic upsurge for sharpening people's observational skills, and just hoped that their silence was a good sign.

When the time finally came for the official presentation of the New York City Award for Civic-Minded High Schools, though, Paul and Sheldon could be found unabashedly glued to one another's sides. Amid the entire student body packed into - and spilling out of - the gymnasium, they hardly even registered.

It promised to be a dull affair, but after everything they'd accomplished so far this year there was not one student - nor, for that matter, member of the staff - who wanted to miss it.

"You know, we really did a good thing here," said Paul, as the deputy somethingorother - the guy with the award, anyway - launched into his speech. "The school wins, the pet rescue wins, the student body wins...."

"And we win a little too," said Sheldon, shooting him a secret grin. "Depending on how you look at it."

Paul kind of felt like he won no matter how you looked at it.

"No idea how we're going to top this next year," said Sheldon, shaking his head sadly. "This was pretty radical."

"It's February, Sheldon," said Paul. "We still have to finish this year."

"True," said Sheldon, and looked pensive about it for a moment before a wicked smile crossed his face. Paul knew that smile, though previously it had only made an appearance when they were alone. But just when Paul thought Sheldon was about to do something that might get them kicked out of the assembly, if not the school, he turned his attention back to the endless speech.

As with all things both good and bad it did eventually have to end, and Paul very nearly held his breath when the trophy - okay plaque, but a nice one - was finally handed over to the student body president.

When the rest of the room leapt to their feet in an enormous cheer, that was when Sheldon made his move, pushing Paul up against the gymnasium wall and kissing him like nobody was watching.

Which for the most part was the case but when Sheldon stepped back, breathless, Paul could see Wayne-o paused halfway through a clap, staring at them. Paul cleared his throat and tried to say something, tried to explain, but Sheldon just looked at them both, shrugged, and took Paul's hand in his.

It took him a minute, but Wayne-o started clapping again, hooting and hollering and Paul wasn't sure whether it was for the award or for them but either way it meant that he and Sheldon were in the clear.

"So what now?" said Sheldon, moving his lips closer to Paul's ear rather than trying to shout over the din.

"I don't know," said Paul. Just about everything he'd done for the past few months had been towards this goal. Now that it was over, he had no idea what they were going to do with themselves. But knowing them, something would surely come up.

"Hey, you guys should start a Gay-Straight Alliance," said Wayne-o. "I would totally join a Gay-Straight Alliance with you guys. As the straight part, of course. That's what this school needs now to take it to the next level."

"I think we've had more than enough causes to last a lifetime," said Sheldon, and before Paul could even laugh he tugged him closer and kissed him once again.

If this was what came next, Paul figured he was pretty okay with that.