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It's way past curfew, there's snow on the ground, and Piper stands staring at an empty hole in the dirt next to Leo, who's next to her RA, who's next to his RA.  She finds it absolutely pitiful that this isn’t the weirdest thing that's happened to her today.

 

Across from her, Charles Beckendorf leans against the handle of a shovel, the low whistle he gives curling in the air.  "You must have really pissed off those Tech kids, man."

 

Piper has to agree.  Mere hours ago, before the snow and chilling cold, she definitely remembers a tree having been in that exact spot.  Now it's just a gaping hole of snow, interrupting the neat row of frosted trees planted on either side. She slowly pries her gaze from the hole to watch Leo rub the back of his neck; in his hurry, he must have forgotten his scarf in the dorm.

 

"Look, to be fair, I didn't think they'd try anything.  Especially not this. I mean, this is Tech we’re talking about ; they're strictly numbers! C'mon!"

 

He looks around a little frantically at their faces, trying to rally some support on his side, but Piper doesn't bite.  She looks at Silena instead, who's pointedly looking up at the sky. Beckendorf just frowns, shaking his head sadly.

 

"I'm surprised they even found out which tree was yours," he says gruffly, nudging more dirt and snow with the lip of the shovel into the tiny little hole in the ground.  "And they came before snowfall. Smart. Doesn't take a math whiz to figure that one out."

 

Leo scowls and opens his mouth like he wants to say something, but Piper puts a gloved hand on his shoulder and he pauses, then deflates.  He looks away when Silena casts a sad little smile at them, her sleeping mask looking odd over her hastily constructed hijab. "Well, while this is unprecedented, it's not so bad.  We could tell the Provost and plant another one. Maybe a little older, so it doesn't look out of place."

 

Piper feels a little flare of indignation within her, one she wouldn't dare voice in front of these people and this hole at 2 a.m., but she's both glad and horrifically exasperated when Leo opens his mouth and does it for her.  "But that seems fake.   What happened to all that stuff about 'growing with the tree'?  It represents our college career, right? It's symbolic, or something."

 

Maybe it's the cold, the early hour, or the fact that she forgot her coat and is probably going into shock, but for five full seconds Leo looks very heroic standing there in his Spongebob Squarepants pajama pants, disheveled black curls, and army jacket in the snow.  If anyone asks, she didn't move a little closer and hook her arm through his after he spoke. And whatever Silena and Beckendorf might say, it was too dark to see and too late after curfew for them to be outside, anyway.

 

Beckendorf sighs.  "Look, I get it. And I understand why we should inform the Provost.  But we can't just leave this empty space in the middle of the Commons, and I doubt you'd wanna be fined.  So I'll get you a tree—" Silena and Piper look surprised, Leo wary, and Beckendorf annoyed and tired "—and it'll cost you guys both fifty bucks for both our time and the post-curfew fee.  There's nothing about tree theft in the handbook, but this'll save you from stuff like property theft with administration. I'll cover the hole," he digs into the hard packed earth and comes up with a shovel full of soft snow and crumbling rock, suspending it in the air, "and I'll cover for you.  But a hundred, fifty-fifty, by Friday. That's the deal. Take it or leave it, or deal with this yourself."

 

There is a split second where Piper makes eye contact with Leo and she is without a doubt sure that their answer is unanimous.  "Deal."

 

"Good."  Beckendorf drops the dirt in the hole, Silena starts humming Amazing Grace beneath her breath, and Piper tries her best not to laugh at the absurdity of it all, clinging to a frowning Leo's arm.

 


 

"I need to borrow a fifty."

 

Jason does not look very pleased on Piper's right, the cup of hot chocolate they'd ordered for him still largely untouched and the scar on his lip stretching with his scowl.

 

"Leo.  When you said this was an emergency I thought you were being serious."

 

"This is an emergency!"  Leo throws his hands up across from them and nearly clips the low hanging ceiling lamp.  Piper ducks a little and keeps chewing on her veggie bacon, hoping they’re not making a scene in the tiny, just-opened diner with its checkered floors and yawning patrons.  Jason narrows his eyes, but doesn't flinch.

 

"A missing tree is not an emergency."

 

"Yes it is."   Piper feels more than sees Leo switch his gaze over to her, and pretends to be interested in the menu under her plate when Leo pokes her with the end of a straw.  "Psst. Pipes. Tell the nice man that this is an emergency."

 

She picks up her menu and tries not to laugh as she surveys a very nice-looking dish of toast and eggs.  "A missing tree is not an emergency."

 

When she glances up, Leo seems like he's seconds from launching into a complaint, and Jason wears a smirk like he just won the lottery.  Piper looks back down at her menu and continues on. "But a missing tree is still a concern. And it does cost fifty bucks.  So, as long as Leo pays you back, I don't really see the problem—"

 

"A clear and evident bias!" Jason cries out to her left, and Piper nearly chokes on the last bits of her bacon as Leo gives a Cheshire-cat grin across from them.  "Admit it! You're only agreeing with him because he's your tree buddy!"

 

She feels her face heat up, training her eyes onto a vintage poster on the far wall, on any spot that’s not Jason or Leo.  “I’m just trying not to get caught, okay? If Beckendorf doesn’t get the money then we’re both screwed.  It’s not like I support Leo pissing off some rival nerds and dragging my ass into things—”

 

“You like it when I drag your ass into things, don’t you dare lie to me.”  Leo points an accusing finger at her from across the table, and Piper feels her cheeks heat up even more, because four months ago when she’d first started college she really didn’t think she’d be friends with this boy, damnit, and that he would find out all her tells and ticks in the four months it had taken then to get their tree stolen.

She tries to meet his glare with one of her own, staring him down across the table.  Piper almost forgets that Jason is there until he puts his head in his hands and lets out a long groan.

 

“Oh my God, you two are ridiculous.  I’m going to get a coffee.”

 

They’re left blinking at each other when Jason stands to leave, sliding out of the booth to head to the counter at the front of the dimly-lit diner.  It takes Piper a full minute to process that he’d left the perfectly good hot chocolate they’d bought with pocket change sitting on the table to cool.  She picks up the red mug before Leo can and scowls.

 

Leo sinks back into the red leather booth with a sigh as Piper takes a sip of the drink.  “I can’t believe Tech is teaching street smarts now.”

 

Piper gives a little half-smile, and swallows the lukewarm drink past her lips.  “Maybe you just picked with the wrong set of nerds?”

 

He looks weary, hands fidgeting with a napkin on the polished wooden tabletop, skin washed gold with the early morning light pouring in and over them from outside the glass window.  “I guess.” Piper lets her gaze slide off of Leo’s wiry frame to the scene outside the window, where she can see the whole campus wake up beneath the fresh, thin blanket of snow. Smoke begins to climb out of the chimneys of the library down the path.  Cars crawl into the parking lot at a languid pace, bleary eyed students peeking out from their doors, rubbing their eyes against the light of the sun.

 

Rows upon rows of oak trees of different heights and stature stand tall against the sky, each lightly dusted with sparkling flakes of snow.  The scene outside is shimmering, with the promise of something new and a break from the cold, sluggish and monotonous days that have been plaguing them all since December began.

 

Piper looks at the mug between her hands, the steam dissipating as it rapidly cools and the last lingering remnants of warmth seeping into her fingers.  She fights to keep her flush that tries to overtake her face under control; she can feel Leo’s gaze, steady and unwavering on her.

She glances up and catches the slightest glimpse of a crooked smile paired with regretful eyes.

 

The apology follows shortly after.  “Sorry I got you into this mess.”

 

Piper feels herself shaking her head before he’s even done speaking.  “No, you’re right. I think I do kind of enjoy it. Except for the part where I have to pay fifty bucks, but the rest of this whole thing is kind of fun.”

 

Leo snorts, propping his chin up with one hand.  “Well, I’m glad someone’s having a good time.  Usually I wouldn’t care so much, but if it weren’t for that dumb tree—”

 

“We wouldn’t have met.” she finds herself finishing, lips almost involuntarily pulled into a soft smile that she directs at him.  It makes her weirdly glad and warm inside that he gets it. She was worried he wouldn’t after that first week, when they’d both complained and griped about the task with shovels in their hands, and reluctant introductions on their tongues.  “And it’s not dumb. I think it’s kind of nice, a tree that’s supposed to grow with you for all four years.”

 

He hums.  “Maybe. Makes the campus look ugly as fuck, though,” he snickers, directing his gaze out the window to where the Commons spread out beyond the row of restaurants.  The grounds are littered with all manner of trees; she snorts and gives him a kick under the table.

 

“Maybe our new tree will be nice.  We could decorate it for the holidays, that’s what some people do.”

 

“Or we could get a different kind of tree,” he says with a spark in his eye, motioning for the mug in Piper’s hands. She raises an eyebrow and doesn't hesitate to hand the cold and half empty cup over to him.  “Think about it. It’s Christmas time, pines must be super cheap now anyway. Or we could get a maple. Or a bonsai. It’ll ruin the picture perfect campus on the brochure.”

 

“We should get a palm tree,” she jokes, a little for fun and a little because it reminds her of home.  “Or an apple tree. Imagine how cool we’d look with a bunch of fruit every year.”

 

“They’ll probably be better than what the caf serves, anyway.” he says, smirking, and Piper feels better about the whole thing already.  Leo takes a few sips of the hot chocolate, passes it back to her, and she takes another sip before eventually exchanging it again. In the booth, with the smell of bacon and eggs and coffee wafting through the air, they come up with all kinds of trees, ranging from weeping willows and sycamores, to cherry blossoms and sequoias.  They’ve been talking for a while and have just about come to an agreement on a mango tree when Jason reappears, looking much more abated with a cup of Juno’s coffee in his hand and an expression on his face that looks a lot less like an “I just woke up” scowl and more like a content and pleased smile.

He slowly looks between the two of them as he raises his cup to his lips, one hand tucked in the pocket of his red and white high school Letterman jacket.  “So, I’m back. With coffee. And I’ve finally come to a decision.”

Piper raises her brows while Leo gives Jason his best set of puppy eyes across from her.

Jason sighs.  “I’m going to give you the fifty—”

 

“Yes!”

 

“—But you have to lend me your bus pass for the next week.  Consider that penance.”

 

Piper thinks that sounds fair—she knows that Jason has his last round of shifts at the grocery store before break, and that the commute to the shopping center downtown can be a little more than brutal.  She turns to Leo to gauge his reaction, but doesn’t know why she’s so disappointed when she’s met with the sight of a pout. She starts to glare at him the same time that Jason does.

 

“Ugh, fine!  Take the damn pass.  It’s unlimited anyway.” Leo mutters under his breath. He holds out his hand with a sour expression and Jason pulls his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans.  He takes out a crisp fifty and presses it to Leo’s palm.

 

“You don’t have to pay me back, just make sure you give me the bus pass—”

 

“I’m going to.” Leo says firmly, giving Jason a stern and pointed look that the blonde boy seems to understand, but still confuses Piper a little, somehow.  Something goes unsaid between the two of them and Piper doesn’t question it much—it’s probably some weird, roommate thing—but she’s a little relieved when Jason is the one to break the staring contest with a sigh and Leo sits up a little straighter in his seat, looking satisfied.  She takes the last sip of the hot chocolate as Jason rolls his eyes, trying to school her expression into something uninterested and bored.

 

“We’ll talk about that later.  Anyways, I’m heading to my 8am.  In the future, please don’t wake me up early on the one day I don’t have to get up at four.”

 

“Sorry.” they say in tandem with matching, sheepish smiles.

 

Jason grunts.  “Whatever.” He reaches to the lone saucer on the table and plucks Piper’s last untouched piece of veggie bacon from the dish, popping it whole into his mouth.  “And don’t go to bed at 2am, that’s unhealthy.”

 

“Alright, Jason.” Piper groans, and stands to her feet to lightly shove him away from the table and towards the front doors.  “We should all be heading out now, anyway. Leo, could you grab my plate for me?”

 

“One step ahead of you,” Leo mumbles around the last remnants of a muffin in his mouth, the saucer already in hand as he slides out from the other side of the booth.  His boots squeak when they make contact with the patterned floors. He starts for the conveyor belt that rolls listlessly against a wall in the back, where patrons put their empty dishes before they’re sent on to the kitchens.  “I’ll walk you to the dorms?”

 

“Sure.”  And then, giving Jason a sideways hug: “See you at Psych.”

 

“See you then.” he smiles back.

 

After they zip up their jackets and Piper tugs Leo’s hat on his head, the three of them exit out of the glass doors together and encounter a blast of cold air as soon as they do.  Piper immediately starts shivering and moves closer to Leo until they’re almost shoulder to shoulder, her gloved hands grasping at her arms. This was bad, but not nearly as horrible as it had been at 2 in the morning.

 

Piper and Leo start down the path that leads through the lot and to the edge of the Commons in front of them, and Jason starts in the opposite direction, rubbing his bare hands together as his nose flushes red from the cold.  Right before he turns the corner, she sees more than hears his next words, each syllable turning to mist and curling in the air: “Wait—what the hell happened to my hot chocolate?”

 

She snorts when Leo smirks and gives her a wink.

 


 

“You got the tree, bro?”

 

“Fuck yeah I got the tree.  The fuck am I supposed to do with this?”

 

“Shit, I don’t know.  Plant it? It’s a tree, dumbass.  The fuck else are you supposed to do?”

 

“...We deadass bout to plant this tree in front of the dorm?”

 

“...Yup.”

 

[Silence.]

 

“...Valdez, man.  The shit we do to get back at that guy.”

 


 

“So I think I noticed something weird a couple nights ago,” Lacy starts while they’re sitting in the library.

 

Piper tries not to be too annoyed by the outburst as she balances two textbooks on her lap and prays to any supernatural force that would listen that neither one of them falls and dooms her cup of coffee on the floor directly below to a premature death.

 

The library is quiet this time of day; the clock is half past noon and the entire fourth floor is largely devoid of people as most of the campus flocks to and from the cafeteria.  The student librarian is sitting across the room reading a magazine, and one other student is at a computer by the opposite wall, playing some weird game she’s never seen. Piper looks around the room and spares Lacy the slightest of glances before focusing back on her work.  “Weird how?”

 

Lacy adjusts her glasses on her face and leans in conspiratorially, her blue eyes big behind the dark brown frames and her braces flashing as she talks.  “Out-of-place weird...I think I saw some Tech students by the caf.”

 

Piper freezes; now this is interesting.  She closes her English textbook and dog ears a page in her Philosophy notes.  “How’d you know they were from Tech? Were they wearing their colors or something?”

 

“A couple of them were wearing school hats,” Lacy said offhandedly, going back to her own stack of notes sprawled across her lap, tapping a thick yellow highlighter against a book’s edge.  “It probably doesn’t matter, though. They didn’t take the school mascot again, so they must have just been visiting.”

 

Just visiting.  “Right. None of them looked, uh...socially challenged, did they?”

 

Lacy snaps her head up with a glare.  “Piper! Stop being mean. My boyfriend goes there, and he’s not a nerd.”

 

Right.  Clovis, the Psych major who was always sleeping and scratching at something.  He wasn’t quite a nerd.  But then again, he wasn’t exactly the model Vulcan Tech student, either.

 

Piper sighs.  “Sorry. But you don’t remember anything else?  Like if they had anything with them, or what they looked like?”

 

Lacy looks a little puzzled for a moment, button nose wrinkling as she frowns, deep in thought.  But then she shakes her head, pink lips screwed to one side in apology as her pigtails bounce in their scrunchies.  “I can’t remember, sorry.”

 

Piper deflates when Lacy immediately goes back to the thick textbook in her lap and starts mumbling words aloud again, popping her earbuds back in.  Piper takes one last glance at the terms and definitions swimming around on the pages of her book and slams it shut, knowing that she’s reached her quota of studying for the day.

 

She pulls out her phone.

 

Piper: so…..guess whose roommate might’ve seen the guys who stole our tree last night

 

She leaves the messaging app and gets through all of two rounds of Wordscapes on her phone before it vibrates in her palm with a reply.

 

Leo: if i wasn’t in the middle of this lab i’d be interrogating her rn

 

Piper: why are u texting in a lab???

 

Leo: why are u forcing me to text in a lab???

 

Piper rolls her eyes with a scoff.  She goes back to Wordscapes for another round before Leo texts her again.

 

Leo: ok ok wait what did u find out about the guys?

 

Piper: nothing much.  lacy said they were hanging by the caf last night so i’m assuming they were here before curfew. they were wearing tech hats

 

Leo: u think i should throw a bunch of random chemicals together and bring it to tech

 

Piper: please shut up and think critically for 30 seconds

 

Leo: fine.  but we gotta get them back somehow.  stealing my only son does not go unpunished

 

Piper: ???are u literally forgetting that the only things between us and probation are beckendorf and silena???

 

Leo: but revenge…..it’s so good…..

 

Piper: ???_what_???.jpg

 

Piper:  did this entire thing not stem from you getting revenge on tech

 

Leo: i don’t recall.

 

Leo: I_can’t_read_suddenly.jpg

 

Piper McLean has blocked this number.

 


 

 

Jason Grace is calling…

 

“Hello?”

 

“Pipes, babe, c’mon—”

 

“Tell Jason that this is your fault.”

 

Piper McLean has blocked this number.

 


 

“What did you do?”

 

“What do you mean, what did I do?”

 

It’s twenty minutes to curfew, Piper’s in her room, and Lacy is puttering around somewhere down the hall, her bathroom bag with her as she sings on her way to the shower and some girl yells a muted “Shut up!” to which Piper just hears her sing louder.  She has finally worked up the nerve to unblock both Jason and Leo’s numbers, and she’s not surprised in the slightest that Leo forewent the chance to call her as soon as he could and instead let her call first, trying not to look too eager. Piper skips the niceties with a roll of her eyes, and goes straight to the question that had been rolling around in her mind since that day at 2am.

 

“What did you do for those guys to steal our tree?”

 

“Oh.” It seems to have occurred to Leo for the first time that he hadn’t yet divulged that information to her.  “Well, um. It’s complicated.”

 

“Okay.”  she rolls over on her bed, careful not to let her toes touch the light blue quilt lest she ruin the pedicure Lacy just gifted her with.  “So what did they do to you then, to make you do something back?  Who started it, anyway?” She chews her bottom lip.  Leo involves her in most of his shenanigans—she wonders now, why things seem different.

 

Leo is silent for a while on the other line before he speaks.  “...This has to do with that summer class I took at Tech, before I committed to New Rome.  I started this; it was supposed to be just fun, or whatever. Pranks and stuff. And then I started going here, and things kind of got a little out of hand.”

 

“They started taking things.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Like trees.”

 

“Like—like things that are important to me.”

 

They sit in silence.

 

There’s a sudden knock at the door.

 

Piper sits up, startled.  Her heart is beating fast and she has a feeling that she just heard something that she wasn’t supposed to hear.

 

“I have to go—”

 

“Wait, I—”

 

Silena swings the door open with a big smile, brandishing her RA key in one hand.

 

“Hey, Piper!  Nightly check-up.  Is Lacy out or in the showers?”

 

“Showers,” she says absently, not quite registering the sound of the dial tone as she continues to hold her phone to her ear.

 

Silena chews her bottom lip and peeks into the hallway once more, and then steps into the room and closes the door behind her.  Piper’s on edge at an instant, the hand holding her phone dropping to her lap as she opens her mouth to ask what’s going on, but Silena just smiles and holds a finger to her lips, creeping over to Lacy’s bed with quiet footsteps.

 

The bed creaks when Silena sits down and crosses her legs on the flowery pink covers, her smile even wider once she does.  “So, I just wanted to update you about the T-R-double-E situation. Charlie says our usual supplier downtown is out of saplings, but they’ll order more to come in next week!  Isn’t that great? Only one more week to keep this under the radar and then we’re home free for the rest of the year!”

 

“Great.” Piper says, mind completely stuck on the first tree.  It looked completely identical to the ones the other freshman were being made to plant around them that day, but she could see now why it would mean so much to him, why it’d be different from the others—whenever she pictures the tree, she still thinks of his crooked grin beneath its leaves, after all.

 

“You should tell Leo,” Silena suggests, still smiling, always smiling.  “And you know, it’s funny. Not a lot of people who were tree buddies during Orientation week end up being such close friends.  You guys are just special, I guess.”

 

Oh God.  Piper looks at her phone, at the call logs and the names.  

 

Leo Valdez

➚ mobile, 5 minutes ago

 

Leo Valdez

➘➘➘➘➘➘➘ mobile, 3 hours ago

 

Oh God, thinks Piper.

 

She doesn’t want to pry, but her mouth says what she’s thinking before she can stop it.  “Who...who was your tree buddy?”

 

“Charlie.” Silena blushes, tone knowing but almost shy.

 

Piper thinks she’s going to scream.

 

It takes two minutes for her to give out a hasty string of THANKS SILENA’s before she shoves the apologetic-looking senior girl out of her room and catches a glimpse of a very confused Lacy with her blond pigtails dripping onto the floor, gaping as she strolls down the hall.

 

Lacy stops to frown when Silena gives her a cheery goodnight, and then trains her baffled look on Piper as she steps into the room and closes the door behind her.  Piper can hear Silena continuing the nightly check-up down the hall, voice muffled as she goes. Lacy spins to face her, opens her mouth, closes it again, and puts her hands on her hips.  Piper has to fight the insane urge to laugh; she looks so silly in her towel and bunny slippers.

 

“What was that about?”

 

“It’s time for bed!”  Piper croaks, and when she moves to throw back her covers and bury herself beneath her blankets, Lacy starts asking a million questions as she starts to get dressed, all of which Piper ignores.  She feels a little guilty, but vows to tell her roommate in the morning, once this is all sorted out. If this is all sorted out.

 

She sends a rushed text to Leo before she closes her eyes, and hopes to whatever force is listening that it will be.

 


 

“What do mean, you don’t know where he is?”

 

Jason looks a little scared as he hovers in front of their usual booth at Juno’s, still blinking the sleep out of his eyes beneath his glasses as he cradles his morning coffee in one hand.

 

“I mean, I woke up and he wasn’t in our room, so I thought he was here with you.”

 

“He’s supposed to be,” Piper hisses, unable to stop her leg from bouncing beneath the table as the heel of her shoe tap, tap, taps against the checkered floors.  “He never wakes up before you. He said nothing to you at all?”

 

“No?” Jason starts scratching at his neck.  He starts to yawn but then freezes mid-gesture, blue eyes widening a fraction.  “Shit, wait. I couldn’t find the bus pass this morning. Maybe he left campus...?  Is something wrong? Do you think he’s okay?”

 

Piper is about to climb on top of the table and start a scene when she catches a glimpse of something brown pass by the window out of the corner of her eyes, and then the bell atop the diner doors rings, signaling someone new.  They both crane their necks to one side; standing in the doorway is Leo.

 

The first thing Piper registers is the nervous smile he has on his face.  The second is that his hands and pants are covered in dirt. Before she knows it, both her and Jason are rushing from the booth as people give them odd stares, questions barely held back on their tongues.

 

When they reach him, Piper is seconds from giving him a piece of her mind, but he takes a deep breath and it halts her.  Beneath the nerves is something earnest, she can see it in his eyes. “Come with me and I can explain.”

 

“What do you mean, come with you—” she starts, but then he’s grabbing her hand in one of his soil-covered own and the fingers on her other hand are fumbling to zip up her coat before they exit the diner, so she mustn’t be that mad.  Jason slowly follows at a distance as his ceremonial coffee visibly kicks in, his expression looking more and more equal parts disturbed and curious all at the same time.  

 

Piper lets Leo tug her past the cars in the lot, past the menu boards in front of the other restaurants, other students ambling by, and the mounds of blackened snow gathered at the corners of the asphalt.  He pulls her down the winding path that leads towards the Commons and she lets him, hand twitching in his, barely taking note of the dirt now on her palm.

 

They step onto the grass where the snow has already begun to melt away, revealing tree roots and small branches thrown down by the wind during the storm.  Around them, the campus is just starting to wake up again, smoke rising from chimneys like the ghosts of breath that curl from their mouths, and students walking down the intersecting paths with sleep on their faces but light in their eyes.  They pass under the shadow of a full grown oak when Piper’s just about to ask where they’re going, why this path feels so familiar, and why he’s smiling so big, excitement almost completely replacing the apprehensive look he had given her just moments before—and then she sees it.

 

An apple tree.  With actual apples.

 

Untouched by snow in the middle of the white-and-green grounds.

 

She stops in her tracks and is vaguely aware of Jason saying “I have to record this.” softly behind her.

 

Leo beams, and turns his smile on her.

 

“Surprise!” He spreads his arms out wide with that crazy grin of his, and Piper feels her jaw go slack, just now noticing the small clusters of students near the tree taking pictures and hovering around a sign that sits a little ways away that reads: DO NOT PICK THE APPLES - THE PROVOST, XOXO.  It looks like it’s just a piece of laminated paper stapled to a wooden stake, but it does the job anyway. They mostly keep away.

 

Her gaze flits back to Leo.  There’s a light blush dusting his cheeks as he rubs the back of his neck, suddenly shy.  “This is an apology. For getting you involved. And also for not coming to breakfast.” He lets out a nervous laugh.  “I know it’s not a mango tree, but —”

 

“You’re getting in so much trouble for this,” she breathes, laughing a little.  She reaches up and cups his face in her hands, getting dirt on his cheek. “God, you’re so stupid.  I can’t wait to get suspended with you.”

 

Leo eyes are impossibly wide.  “Wait, what?”

 

She kisses him.  Hard.

 

They both flip Jason off without breaking away when he tries to start clapping in the background.

 


 

 

“Y’all really outdid yourselves with the Provost, huh—”

 

“Charlie, leave them alone!  Don’t you remember when we were freshman too—”

 

“Shut up, shut up, everybody shut the fuck up, I’m concentrating.   How am I supposed to hold this fucking knife in the dark if—Silena, can you please stop trying to kiss your boyfriend and come back with the flashli—ok, that’s much better.  Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome,” Piper says with a cheeky grin, coming up on Leo’s other side with Silena’s phone in hand as he keeps his gaze focused on the work in front of him, the knife in his left hand whittling away at the wood.

 

Piper surveys his handiwork, which he should be seconds away from finishing but at his pace, it might be minutes.   P + L with a big crooked heart around it.  She snorts just glancing at it again.

 

“This is so stupid.”

 

“Shut up!  You said you thought it’d be a cute idea an hour ago and I did not pay Charlie here twenty dollars of hush money so I could sneak out in the middle of our suspension for nothing, thank you very much.”

 

“But it is!  And it’s not like I didn’t pay Silena thirty,” she says with a glare towards the pitch black space.

 

“Sorry!” Silena titters from somewhere nearby in the dark, and then she and Beckendorf are strangely silent again save for the sound of clothes rustling.  Piper doesn’t want to know.

 

“Okay, I think I’m almost done.”  He starts to move a little faster, and Piper shifts closer with the light as he carves away the end of the heart, breath coming out in puffs.  Then he breaks into a grin, sitting back on his hind legs with a flourish to their little apple tree, the knife still in his hand. “Ta-da! Worth it or what?”

 

Maybe it’s the fact that it’s way past curfew.  Maybe it’s the fact that it’s freezing cold, and Leo had draped his army coat around her shoulders, and it was still a little too thin, because he insisted that he “ran hot” anyway.  Maybe it was less about the tree, and more about the big goofy smile he was giving her, crouched beneath its branches, genuinely proud of something so silly and nonsensical that she couldn’t help but be filled with pride along with him.  Or maybe it’s because she’s just crazy. Which is fine, because Leo’s just as crazy as her.

 

“Worth it.” she grins, eyes on him, his on her.

 

It’s exciting, that she knows that this isn’t going to be the strangest thing that happens to them today.