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the costume fits just a little too tight

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The day that Big Cheddar made her debut on the crime-fighting scene was the day that Jeffrey Winger’s life (that is, his highschool career) was ruined.

It went like this – there’s an alley on the side of town that his mother would warn him away from, but Quendra’s uncle just opened a new clothing store, there’s a jacket there that Jeff would look great in, god knows he deserves it after the surgery.

Joey wouldn’t stop asking about it; was he awake for the whole thing, what kind of tools did they use, can they see the scar?  Jeff just laughs it off, because of course he wasn’t awake for the whole thing, and he’s pretty sure there were scalpels involved, not today because the scar is still really gross.  Joey considered protesting, but backs down when Jeff winces and puts a hand to his side. 

They were all partway through the tenth grade and scrawny and defenseless, so when a man with bloodshot eyes and a knife emerged from the alley, Quendra clung to Jeff’s arm and Eric swore and Jeff couldn’t think.

The story ended up in the newspaper, how a girl in a hoodie emerged to throw the students out of the way and send the mugger flying with a single punch.  The town murmured, wondering what she planned to do now, would she be another looking to end Lord Diablo’s spouts of tyrannical activity, was she planning on finding a real costume at any point?

Greendale High immersed itself in different gossip when Jeff didn’t appear in school the next day.  “I saw his shirt ride up during the whole thing,” Quendra told everyone.  “And guess what?  There wasn’t a scar!  Can you believe him?”

 

“He did it again.”

Annie Edison slammed her books onto the lunch table and seated herself, crinkling the paper in her hand.  Britta snatched her water bottle before it toppled over.  “Winger, I’m guessing?”

Annie jerked her head in the affirmative and grinned, teeth clenched.  She snatched a fry off of Britta’s lunch tray and bit into it viciously.  “We tied.  Top mark on that Chemistry test?  Yeah, 96%.  Tied.”

“Yeah, that’s great,” Britta said, frowning at Annie’s fry-pilfering but not stopping her.  “Listen, Shirley—”

“How does he do it?  This didn’t happen last year!  He sits on the opposite side of the room from me, how is he cheating?”

“Speaking of cheating—”

“Do you think he’s been studying?  I mean, it would be unprecedented, but unless he became some sort of genius over the summer…”

“No, he’s definitely cheating, but that’s not the issue at the mo—”

“You don’t think he bribed the teacher, has—!”

“Andre cheated on Shirley.”

Annie paused, hands half-thrown up in the air.  A fry sagged in her grip.  “…no.”

With a grim nod, Britta took the fry from Annie’s hand and popped it into her mouth.  “Garrett and Vicki saw him and Misty yesterday when they were leaving their tag-team hide-and-seek tournament – by that one restaurant, y’know, the one that gets its steak from abusive farm-factory thingies?  And Vicki told Mike, and Mike…”

“Told everyone,” Annie finished, bringing her hands to her chest in dismay.  “Oh my god, how is she?”

Britta offered a helpless shrug.  “Well, she refused to talk about it when I was driving us to school – wouldn’t even take my shoulder to cry on, and she wouldn’t say anything when I tried to trash talk him, if you can believe it – and she left really quickly to go to her first class.  I even tried to text her about Neil’s new dinosaur-print shirt in second block and she wouldn’t answer, so…”

Before Britta could deliver a definitive diagnosis on Shirley’s state, the cafeteria doors burst and a girl flew through.

Annie and Britta barely had time to stand up before Misty slammed into an unfortunately placed Starburns; the doors barely had the time to swing closed before they were flung open again to reveal her attacker.

“You man-stealing, glitter-gulping, tacky shoe-wearing bitch!” Shirley howled.  (Later, both Annie and Britta would wonder if the ground really was shaking with every step their friend took towards her target.  Neither would bring it up, except when required for hyperbolic contexts.)  Misty regained her bearings quickly enough and shoved a startled Starburns in between Shirley and herself.

“What’s wrong with my shoes?” Starburns asked – despite being repeatedly told all week that mismatched bowling shoes were never going to be considered a bold fashion statement – before Shirley grabbed the lapels of his vest and threw him to the side.  He landed two tables away with a crack, ignored by the people who were standing and cheering her on.

Annie gasped and Britta shouted, “Shirley, oh my god!” as the two of them lunged forward to grab an arm before Shirley could do anything else.  It did no good – both girls were swung on her arms as Shirley charged towards Misty, who stumbled back, helpless to stop Shirley from coiling back her arm for a punch.

“Somebody go get security!” one voice cried out from the entrance just as Vicki was hollering, “You show her who’s boss, Edwards!”  Neither registered to Shirley when her fist went flying over Misty’s head.  What the fist missed, however, Annie didn’t.  Still clinging to Shirley’s elbow, the punch sent her toppling into Misty.

Before the two girls could untangle themselves Shirley reached down, grabbing the collar of Misty’s shirt and hauling her to her feet.  Quendra started up a mantra of, “SHIR-LEY, SHIR-LEY, SHIR-LEY…” in the crowd, Magnitude chiming in with a, “Pop POP!”

Misty squirmed in Shirley’s grasp as she was dragged closer, struggling to pry away each resilient finger.  “You crazy bitch!”

“This isn’t crazy,” Shirley hissed.  Flecks of spittle hit Misty’s cheeks.  “This is what you get when you steal a man.”

Security Guard Nunez burst in at that moment, too focused on how exactly he was supposed to resolve this situation to apologize to Winger for bumping into his shoulder.  Thank god he had a taser.

 

“Now.”  Principal Pelton shuffled the papers on his desk.  And then he fiddled with his pens, ensuring they were assembled in neat rows, then he adjusted the stapler that he had been using (and singing a song about for whatever reason) when Shirley had been marched into the room, and then he gave the stuffed Dalmatian kept by his keyboard a quick pat on the head, before finally bringing himself to meet his student’s surly expression.  “Are we sure this isn’t a race issue?  Because I would completely understand—”

“Unless you mean ‘race’ as in ‘that girl’s race is that of a two-faced bag of sleaze’…”  Shirley paused her interruption to take a breath and fix a tight-lipped smile onto her face.  “Then yes.  It is a race issue.”

Pelton’s jaw clicked shut.  He nodded slowly.  It was never more apparent that he had no clue how to go about the matter.  “Mhmmm.  I see that, of course, and while I would certainly never try to subdue your right to be angry at those who have wronged you…howeveeeeer, Mr. Starburns did end up cracking one of our new lunch tables, except he’s claiming that the crack was already there, and in fact looks suspiciously like the crack on the table he used to ‘hang out’ with people at, so now I’m expected to launch an investigation as to whether or not our new lunch tables are in fact our old lunch tables polished and repainted, and that whole matter is just a mess that could have been easily avoided if you hadn’t chosen to cause a disturbance.  All of that aside, we try to frown upon the use of violence to express disapproval towards our peers here at Greendale High, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to give you a week’s detention…”

(In the classroom situated behind the principal’s office, Mr. Briggs warned Jeff once more that if he refused to watch the very informative food reviews found on YouTube for this project, because damn if they are not thorough and thoughtful, then he will up detention to the span of one week.  Jeff just laughed.)

 

Shirley Edwards is a darling, and had been since she started sharing her homemade brownies in the sixth grade and established herself as a center for all the best gossip in the seventh, and she got numerous high-fives for her performance in the lunchroom on her way to detention.

She also got several warnings about Jeff, because they would be sharing the detention room for the whole week and everyone was concerned.  Jeffrey Winger is the kind of kid who could have been in the same cliques as the Shirleys of the school, almost was when he first showed up with crisp hair and the most confident strut any tenth-grade boy could manage. 

“Too bad he’s such a lying creep,” Annie had sighed as Britta grilled Quendra for all the details about Winger’s deception.  “He was cute.  What do you think, Shirley?”

“Since when the hell did a superhero have to have a ‘real’ costume to be taken seriously?” Shirley had replied, shaking the newspaper in her fist.  The only other relevant opinion they could get out of her that day was a confirmation that lying was indeed a sin but there was definitely something racist about the way nobody would talk about how Jeff managed to live another day to face his shame in the first place.

Shirley balked as soon as she opened the door, because Ms. Bauer stood right there with her arms crossed and her jaw set.  “Edwards,” Bauer said, threatening despite the creak in her voice, “are you really here because you tried to beat up one of your peers for canoodling with your boyfriend?”

“…yes.  Yes I did.”

Bauer stared at her solemnly for a moment.  And then she clapped Shirley on the shoulder, guiding her into the room.  “Make sure you go after your punk of an ex next time.  I’ll cover for you if you need it.”

On the far side of the room, Ben Chang curved around Jeff’s shoulder with an eager grin until Jeff shoved him back.  “Yo, Edwards!” Chang called, now leaning back in his chair and waving frantically for her attention.  “Heard what you did to Misty, nice work!  There’s a seat over here if you wanted – oh, yeah, okay, you can also sit.  Right next to the door.  That’s fine too.  Whatever.”

Placing her bag on top of her desk, Shirley pursed her lips and stares straight ahead, because there is nothing she dislikes more than Chang’s exaggerated pouts.  She did regret not witnessing the audible smack Jeff delivered to make him back off again, and glanced over to see Chang scowl and rub his shoulder.

“So,” Bauer says as she eased herself into her chair (with much crackling of the knees, to the repulsion of the three students), “what are you two apes in here for?”

“Jeff had a showdown with Briggs!” Chang announced, raising his hand for a high five wasn’t returned.  He kept his hand up anyways.  “It was a sass-match for the ages.”

Bauer scoffed and reached for her cup of suspiciously yellow liquid.  Despite her ability to sniff out secrets and her network of typically reliable sources, Shirley still had no clue how Bauer managed to evade security and their rules against Bauer’s ‘homemade’ drinks.  “I don’t believe it.  No one has gotten under Leonard’s skin since the sixties, after that freak factory accident—”

“He trash talked the food reviews.”

That makes more sense.”  Sucking at the twisty straw, Bauer narrowed her eyes at a still silent Jeff.  “Well, Winger?  Anything to say for yourself?”

Jeff shrugged.  His fingers tapped against the desk, betraying the irritation beneath the affected apathy of his slouch.  “I’m pretty sure those reviews are actually just Communist propaganda – and what kind of American citizen would I be if I watched those willingly?

“Text it to your non-existent social group, McCarthy.”

The hour passed quickly enough, with Chang detailing his own thrilling detention sentencing following a debate with Mr. Duncan regarding how much of Duncan’s failed psychology career was due to his alcoholism and a broken wine bottle.  Bauer hijacked the story after musing about how much Duncan reminded her of a rabid beaver she had to fight off and execute last year.  Shirley thought about snicker doodle recipes, and Andre, and how much praying she would have to do tonight before she goes to bed, and Jeff looked at her.

At half past four, officers watched in dismay as Diablo put the finishing touches on his latest act of vandalism (a carefully detailed graffiti sketch of frozen pizza and chips, taking up the side of a downtown office building).  By the time Big Cheddar jogged onto the scene, the villain had taken flight, cackling into the distance.

“Your new yellow jumpsuit may be spunky,” Officer Cackowski told Big Cheddar gravely as she hunched over, panting, “but what good is it if you aren’t here for the city.”

Cackowski considered regretting his words when Big Cheddar punched the ground and stalked away, leaving a small crater in her wake.  Thankfully for him, regret is not in the job description.

 

She almost crossed paths with Andre on her way to detention – Britta was telling her about how she won’t have to put up with Chang today after Duncan accused him of making up a girlfriend and Chang responded by climbing out the window and hadn’t been seen since when they both stop, because he’s at the other end of the hallway.  Her throat closed up.  The only thing that stopped Shirley from charging forward immediately was Britta’s hand on her elbow.

Misty was with him, of course, and maybe that’s a good thing because Andre was frozen but Misty was still bruised and terrified.  She grabbed him (by the hand, of all things) and retreated with a curse.

“If you want,” Britta said, “I could slice his tires for you.  Least I can do after what you did to Blade.”

Shirley giggled, because there is nothing like knowing that your friend has been in a legitimate relationship with someone named Blade, and she remembered how to breathe.  “That would be nice, Brit-ta.”

Britta gave her a small smile and a pat on the back before turning back down the hallway.  “Good luck!”

Bauer was once again behind the door when Shirley opened it, and she nodded approvingly when Shirley stifled her squeak of shock.  Jeff, still seated on the opposite side of the room, glanced up briefly before turning back towards the window, where students stood around their cars and argued about whether or not lunch was a concoction of last week’s leftovers or if the Principal was having the food bought from the ‘discount grocery store’ store again (typically a Monday discussion, but Shirley vs. Misty had dominated all the gossip yesterday).

The first five minutes passed in silence.  Bauer had attempted to initiate a conversation about the dire social situation the Math department was facing (“See, the problem is that they’re all weak, with their overdependence on technology.  And the weak?  Don’t survive.”), but Shirley had already had such a conversation last week after Garrett’s breakdown over losing his calculator to a pack of neighbourhood dogs.  Jeff maintained his silence.

It wasn’t until they heard shouting outside the window – Mike waved his fists in the air, face red as he paced in front of Troy Barnes and Abed Nadir, both of whom stood stoically with their arms crossed – that the silence broke.

“Whippersnappers,” Bauer said in disdain, grinning nevertheless as she stooped down to grab something beneath her desk.  “I’ll deal with this.”

“I thought they convinced her to give her harpoon away to charity,” Shirley said once Bauer left.  Jeff snorted.

Silence threatened to loom again.  Shirley bit her lip.  It hadn’t been so bad, when Bauer was around to ward off conversations that would take an inevitable turn for the horrifying, but now…it wasn’t like anyone had to know.  “Sooooooooooo.”

“I bet you that Abed was quoting Supersize Me at Mike.”  Jeff turned away from the window to look at her directly.  Shirley blinked.  “Mike hates Supersize Me – unresolved issues, I guess.”

“He used to supersize his hamster’s quarter-pounder meals in the third grade,” Shirley said, the story automatic on her tongue.  “He still thinks it’s because of all the trans-fat, not because hamsters don’t eat McDonalds.”

Jeff nodded, satisfied.  That was enough of an opening for Shirley to continue.

“So do you know if Duncan is right?  About Chang’s girlfriend,” she said when Jeff gave her a quizzical look.  “Starburns’ started a betting pool, and, well, gambling may be a sin, but winning—”

“Yeah, I heard about that,” Jeff said, turning in his seat to face her properly with a frown.  “But why would I know?

“Well, the two of you are friends, aren’t you?  I mean,” she amended when Jeff grimaced, “you…well, no one else will actually hang out with you.  No offense.”

Jeff opened his mouth, about to argue, before relenting with a defeated shrug.  “Hot Spanish Girlfriend used to be a thing – Alessandra broke up with him a month ago after commented on Slater’s new skirt.  Also because he eats with his mouth open.  He’s in denial.  And I’m only telling you this because me and him?  Not friends.”

“Fair enough.”  Shirley grinned and made a mental note to get a hold of Starburns in the morning.  “How does someone like him get any girl anyways?”

He doesn’t grin back, but there’s a softer slope to his shoulders.  “I think their families work together – did you know that he has no idea that his mom is definitely probably a mob boss?”

“I remember seeing her on Family Day.  There’s no way he doesn’t think that she’s definitely probably a mob boss.”

The two launch into a speculation on whether or not the Chang matriarch is bribing Pelton into not expelling her son, and they miss watching Nunez wrestle Bauer to the ground as she angled the harpoon at Troy and Abed, the former clinging to the latter as they clambered on top of Mike’s car, who is flat on the ground with his hands on his head and begging for forgiveness.  Britta jogs away, pumping her fist in the air, and Andre began a car-less trek home.

Diablo struck again at ten to five, taking his graffiti to a Let’s Potato Chips billboard and proclaiming them to be crunchy and flavourful.  Cackowski shakes his fists in rage and explains to Big Cheddar his suspicions that Diablo has discovered how Let’s is possibly the reason that Cackowski’s brother has cancer.  Big Cheddar can only promise that she’ll pray for him.

 

“…so then Britta came up to me asking for a distraction, so I tried, but it turns out that being assertive isn’t enough to distract people from the big issue of whether or not the tangy flavour was because of the macaroni or the meatloaf, so I asked Troy and Abed for help – they’re really good at distractions, remember the Great Glitter Escapade? – so Troy told everyone that he thought they didn’t actually put any of the macaroni into the mix, and Mike was a macaroni advocate, sooooo…”  Annie clapped her hands together, face flushed with the excitement of reliving yesterday’s events.  “That’s how we got revenge on Andre!”

Laughing, Shirley linked her arm with Annie’s.  “You did good, girl.”

Annie beamed as they stopped in front of the Chemistry classroom.  “You think?  I’m not usually one to advocate chaos, but it was for such a good cause…”

She fell silent and narrowed her eyes as Jeff brushed by them, sparing Shirley a quick nod before he took off for his seat in the back corner.

“I’m going to bust him this time.”  Annie leaned closer into Shirley’s side with a conspiratorial hiss.  “We have a quiz today, and I’m going to figure out how that scumbag keeps matching my grades.”

Shirley didn’t stop to think before, “He’s not so bad.” comes out of her mouth, and Annie’s look of determination melts into one of horror.  “I mean, for someone who tried to garner sympathy out of school population by faking appendicitis, he has some very good opinions regarding Pelton’s motivations for his ‘five dances a year’ policy…”

“Shirley.”  Annie squared her shoulders.   “No.”

Annie left no room argument.  With one last hard glare, she spun around on her heel and marched to her front row seat.  Thank the Lord that Shirley hadn’t told her about Jeff’s theories regarding Annie’s insecurities.

 

This time when Shirley opened the door to Bauer, she did not scream and she did not jump, despite the grappling hook in the teacher’s grip.  Bauer nodded in approval.  “That’s my girl, you’re toughening up.  Now if you excuse me, young Mr. Chilada thinks that he can skip my detention.”

“The grappling hook is new,” Shirley said, watching the teacher waddle down the hallway.  When she turns around, she’s surprised to see Jeff sitting in the middle of the room.

He looked surprised too, when Shirley sat beside him.  “I think she ‘confiscated’ it from Troy and Abed – that’s the story, at least.  Apparently they have a Friends marathon planned today, and they weren’t willing to reschedule.”

The silence lasted for five seconds, which Shirley spent adjusting her bag, before he spoke again.  “Diablo’s been pretty feisty lately, huh?  Wonder why Big Cheddar isn’t doing anything about—”

“Oh please!”  Shirley rolled her eyes.  “There’s nothing to be done about him, he’s just a crazy old man who can fly and has access to a seemingly never-ending supply of spray paint.  The police could easily handle him if they bothered investing in a giant net.  There’s nothing Big Cheddar can even do about him, you can’t just punch an old man, even one as aggravating as Briggs…”

“Wait, you know he’s just Briggs too?  Nobody else ever talks about it!”

“He doesn’t wear a mask, he isn’t even trying to keep it a secret.”

Jeff leaned back, running a hand through his hair.  He looked triumphant and regretful, but he narrowed his eyes before she could figure out.  “Then do you know who Big Cheddar is?”

She didn’t get a chance to answer because Bauer was back, dragging Mike into the classroom as spluttering obscenities and tried to yank out the hook snagged in his hood.  But she did wonder if maybe Jeff wasn't as clever as he always presented himself, because she had spent the last year punching and kicking her way into heroism, and while fame was never the objective it still stung that everyone remained oblivious.

His jaw dropped when Shirley turned away.

“You kids get a fire started,” Bauer ordered, stepping down on Mike’s shoulder to stop him from wiggling.  “I’ll get him properly trussed up.”

There was no fire and no trussing up, because Pelton barged in at that moment.  “June, what have I told you about hunting the students?!”

What happened next was a blur, but Shirley was reasonably sure that Pelton was screeching at them to save themselves, so Shirley grabbed Jeff by the arm and dragged him out.  “I knew it,” he gasped when they were in the hallway, pulling away and pointing his finger in Shirley’s face once she slackened her grip.  “I knew you were Big Cheddar—”

Shirley frowned and hoisted her bag onto her shoulder.  “Then why did you ask?

“Irrelevant!”  He jeered, his finger still hovering accusingly.  “What matters is that I knew you were the one who ruined my life, and now I’ve tricked you into admitting it!”

“Oh for God’s sake!”  Shirley took a step to the side, intending to walk around him leave the area before the Bauer situation was resolved and they were called back into detention.  “You could have asked like a normal person!  Where is this even coming from?  And what do you mean, I ruined your life?”

Jeff matched her step and dropped his arm to his side, hand curling into a fist.  “If you hadn’t decided to play hero that day, I could have gotten away with—”

“With what?!”  With a snarl to complement his, Shirley straightened her shoulders and met Jeff’s expression.  “That stunt you tried to pull with the ‘appendicitis’?  I’m sorry if I was too busy saving your ass to worry about whatever you were trying to accomplish with that!  Honestly, Jeffrey, what was that even about?  You know what,” she added, cutting off Jeff before he could interrupt to continue his own tirade, “I was starting to think you weren’t so bad, but I guess Annie’s right.  You are a scumbag.”

Surprise flashed in his eyes as Jeff loosened and tightened his fist.  “Yeah, I am.  I’m the scumbag, and when I get out of this hole and into the real world, I’ll be the scumbag lawyer with the perfect life and you’ll be the girl who was ditched by the asshole she planned on marrying, who beat another student up, who couldn’t stop an old man from vandalising the city.  No more Big Cheddar, no more putting up with this school’s bull, and no more sitting with Chang at lunch.”

Shirley went still, steel in her eyes and mouth curved down.  When she spoke again, Jeff fought back a shudder.  “I never told anyone that I planned to marry him.  Not even Annie or Britta.”

“Yeah, well.”  He crossed his arms and took advantage of his height to leer down at her.  The effect was ruined by the half-step he took back.  “You aren’t the only one with a superpower.  Besides Briggs and his flight.  And Garrett’s sonic scream.”

“Telepathy,” she said quietly.  He nodded.  “That’s how you cheated off of Annie.”

“If you hadn’t ruined my reputation, I wouldn’t be bothering.  But now all that I have to look forward to is being wildly successful after school so that I can rub it into everyone’s faces, well, take advantage of whatever I can, right?”

“You had something to do with Andre.  Didn’t you.”

“Think of it as recompense for ruining my ability to get a hot girlfri—”  The smugness drained out of his expression to be replaced with a look of horror as Shirley continued to glare at him.  “You’d go to jail if you did that to my spine.”

“I’ll risk it.” 

She didn’t get a chance to do anything more than step forward and make Jeff squeak before a familiar, “Hey?” stopped her.  She whipped around, flushed and shaking and she could hear Jeff taking off, the sound of those ridiculous dress shoes tapping against the back of her skull as she met Andre’s nervous expression.  “What do you want?” she snapped, quietly reveling in his obvious fear.

Andre stuffed his hands in his pockets.  “Bad time?”

“A little bit.”

The stiffness of her answer made him shrink into himself and stare at his shoes.  It’s a ridiculous sight on such a big guy, and she’s proud of herself for causing it.  She wondered briefly if she should feel bad for that.  “Look, I’m sorry.  About the thing with Misty.”

The rush beneath her skin waned and she looked at him, contrite and broad and in the sweater he got from his dad last Christmas, she had been there.  She remembered how they cuddled after school and watched tv and she would feel calm and content and she wouldn’t need to wander the streets every day after school looking for perps to beat, because sometimes she’s just so irrationally angry that she can’t think.  And Jeff Winger was the kind of smarmy jackass who could convince such a sweet boy to go down the wrong path if he thought it would benefit him.

“Andre,” she sighed, and she didn’t realize how tight she was clenching her fists until she felt the sting her nails left in her palms.  “Look, it’s alright.  Whatever Jeffrey said to you, it doesn’t matter, we could—”

“Jeff?”  Andre raised his eyebrows.  “I’ve never talked to him.  Misty’s brought him up a couple of times, but I don’t really know what he has to do with this.  Were you talking to him?  You know he’s a creep, right?”

Her mouth is dry and her skin is hot.  It took a couple of seconds to speak again.  “What do you want?”

He scuffed his shoe against the linoleum, looking apologetic again.  “I’m sorry about this, but…um, do you remember that mixed tape I gave you?  I was wondering if I could have that ba—”

The request turned into a pained howl when Shirley stomped on his foot.

 

“Thank god you showed up on time today.”  Cackowski clapped Shirley on the shoulder when she trudged onto the scene.  “Diablo has gone just a bit too far today – he’s kidnapped some kid and now he’s stuck on that roof.  That one, see?  Diablo won’t bring him down unless he reads something.  Probably something heinous.  Also, put your mask on properly.  Knowing that you’re a high school student makes relying on vigilante justice that much more sketchy.”

Shirley ignored the last request, choosing instead to look wearily up at the roof Cackowski had indicated.  She could make out Jeff’s ruffled hair and the handful of papers he was shaking at Diablo, who floated just beyond his reach.  “You can’t just…use a ladder and get him yourselves?”

“The last time we used ladders, Diablo just pushed them all over.  Several officers were grievously injured.  …it was traumatizing for us all and nastier than we’re used to from him.”

She considered walking away.  She had no obligation here, just a lot of pent up rage that she would be better off displacing elsewhere because at this point she was just as likely to throw Jeff off the building as she was to punch Diablo’s lights out.

(No more Big Cheddar.  That’s what Jeff had said earlier.  He had been proud of that.)

She groaned.  “If you can’t use a ladder, then get me one.”

 

“Did you actually whack Diablo in the face with a ladder yesterday?”

When Chang materialized at her side with a wide grin and dirt smeared across his nose, she couldn’t help letting out a shriek.  “Oh heavens, where did you come from?  Do I even want to know where you’ve been for the past few days?”

“Jeff’s basement,” he said, shrugging casually.  “But did you?  I mean, Winger told me all about it, but that’s just really hardcore.”

Shirley wrinkled her nose and switched her bag to the shoulder further from him.  “What about it?”

“Aw, don’t be like that!”  Still beaming, he elbowed her affably in the side, and remained unfazed when she pulled away.  “Winger’s a close, personal pal of mine, and if you’ve got his back, then you’re also my close, personal pal.”

“So I should have left him on the roof to suffer until he read Diablo’s ten page food review praising Eugenio's Four-Cheese Pizza then.”

Chang cackled.  “You’re funny.  Detentions gonna be a blast today.”

Shirley grimaced when they reached the detention room, where the door was open.  To her relief, there was no Bauer – instead, Duncan lounged at the desk as a noticeably black-eyed Pelton thanked him profusely for coming in as a replacement.  Duncan’s expression shifted from vaguely irritated to stormy when Chang stopped beside her.  “Benjamin.”

 “Limey,” Chang sneered and dropped into the nearest desk as Pelton gasped at the slur, setting a hand on Duncan’s shoulder, who just rolled his eyes.

In the desk next to Chang was Jeff, hunched over and chewing his lip.  He glanced up and gave her a weak smile.

“Well now!”  Pelton clapped his hands together and winced when the bandages on his palms shifted.  “You kids have fun today!  And by fun I mean, you shouldn’t, this is detention, but at least with Bauer on suspension there will be less excitement!  Now if you excuse me, I have to go convince Mike’s parents to not file a lawsuit.”

“That’ll be the day,” Duncan grumbled when Pelton closed the door behind him, leaning down and fishing a bottle from under the desk.  He gestured impatiently at Shirley, who remained hovering by the door.  “Well sit down already, nobody’s going to bite.  Well, Chang would.  He’s possibly rabid.  Don’t sit next to him.”

Chang made a face, encouraging Shirley lift her chin into the air and march towards the seat on Jeff’s other side, meeting his sheepish expression with a nod.

“Hey,” he mumbled, as Chang started rummaging through his bag.

“Hel-lo,” Shirley replied, before being shushed by Duncan.

“This isn’t chit-chatty time,” he said, swishing around his bottle before bringing it up to his lips.  “You’re all being punished for…something or another.  Being brats, would be my guess—HEY.”

Chang sniggered and shoved a straw and bits of paper back into his bag as Duncan clasped his cheek, wiping off the spitball with a sound of disgust.

“Okay, you know what, I knew this would happen!  I can’t believe that I thought extended microwave privileges was worth this.”  Duncan slammed the bottle onto the desk and lurched to his feet, jabbing his finger towards the door.  “You know damn well that we have a strict policy against spitballs after the West Hallway War!  We are going to take a march down to Pelton’s office and I don’t care how terrifying your mother is.  You two, no canoodling while we’re gone.”

No can-oooodling while we’re gone,” Chang parroted pompously, rising from his seat with a smirk and a quick wink in Jeff’s direction before traipsing out of room, Duncan following behind him swearing that expulsion would be a sure thing this time.  Jeff nodded in quiet appreciation before turning to Shirley.

“Before you lecture me about yesterday like I know you want to,” Jeff began, raising his hands in supplication, “I am a horrible human being.  I’m basically the worst.  The whole appendicitis thing last year, I was just…in a messed up place, and I probably always will be, but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.  Seriously, that’s a wasted year of my life dedicated in finding a way to screw you over.  I set up Misty and Andre hooking up, and then I wanted to get closure, but since we don’t actually share any classes I needed to find a way to get close to you so that I could confirm that it was you, because you never actually think about being Big Cheddar?  Which is weird, but whatever, it is you and I thought I had to rub it in your face so I landed myself in detention, and I thought everything was going to be great because you’d be just as miserable as I am…”

“Didn’t you win a speech competition earlier this year?” Shirley interrupted, unable to stop the corner of her mouth from turning up.  “What happened to that?”

“This is tough for me, okay?  I don’t get a lot of opportunities to make, y’know, apologetic speeches.”  Jeff paused to take a breath and brought his hands together.  “What I’m trying to get at here is…I like you more than I thought I would.  I’ve seriously never seen anyone wield a ladder with that much intensity before.  It’s kind of amazing.  And what I did was awful and petty and I really need to stop abusing the whole mind-reading thing.  Your friend Annie ended up driving a pencil through my desk yesterday and I definitely drove her to that.  So, basically, what I’m saying is…”  Jeff exhaled, set his hands on his knees, and looked her straight in the eye.  “I’m sorry.”

Shirley thought about it – and she could see Jeff desperately tracking those thoughts, because not abusing that kind of gift was a trial he wasn’t totally up for yet, and she could get it.  It wasn’t like her heroic escapades were completely for the sake of innocent citizens so much as it was for the thrill of being able to take her rage out on people who deserved it, something to blow off steam and then forget about.  She thought about telling him how she mostly just helped him yesterday for the sake of proving that, no matter what he did, she wasn’t going to be ‘no more’.

She thought about Andre briefly, how she had to return that tape to him, wondering how many pieces it should be in, and Jeff grinned.

“I suppose,” she finally settled on, shifting her bag around so that she could extend a hand to him, “that at the very least, we could start over.”

“…I’d like that.”  He accepted her hand and shook it firmly.  “It’s nice to meet you, Shirley Edwards.  I’m Jeff Winger.  Did you know that the table you broke with Starburns really did turn out to be his old drug-deal table?”