I walked down the hall of A wing slowly, knowing full well that all the buses had gone, and so felt in no particular hurry to be anywhere anytime soon. I had had a meeting with my counselor, who acted as my college advisor, which had been rescheduled from break period to the end of the day, and it meant that in lieu of there suddenly being a hovercraft or pogo stick available for use, I was walking home.

My locker was in B wing, and I stomped up the steps that connected the halls like a five year old kid, taking the time to add a little skip in my step at the top. It was just one of my rituals when no one else was around, and I could do whatever I wanted, like click my heels every time I saw a poster with a grammatical error, or sing loudly and badly in the nice acoustics of D wing. Maybe I enjoy those things a little too much, but in all honesty, I might as well get my kicks from whence I can get them, if you're pickin' up what I'm puttin' down.

I was poring over the contents of my locker when a pen entered my line of vision, up close and personal with my left eye. I turned, eyes trained on the pen to make sure I didn't accidentally make myself into a pirate, and looked at the owner of the hand that held it.

"I've been looking for you," came Step Leigh's voice out of Step Leigh's mouth. I caught myself just in time before I started to gape at him, but I think the fish-out-of-water may have come across anyway. "I didn't want to abscond with your pen and leave you thinking I'm some kind of bandit." He offered me a smile, and after a slight hesitation, I returned it, if just barely.

"Uhhh…right. Abscond. Good vocab."

"Yeah," he chuckled a beautiful chuckle, adjusting his backpack strap with his left hand, his right still offering the pen to me like a peace greeting. "Thanks. So…are you going to take it or not?"

"Oh. Yeah." My vocab choice, on the other hand, was poor. I made a grab for the pen, thanking every single deity I could think of that I got it on the first try, and stuffed it in my pocket. Then I looked at him again. He wasn't leaving.

In fact, he was looking right back at me in a way that suggested that he was waiting for me to explode or to say something. One of the two.

"I'm Danny," he said, spreading his hand from where it still grasped his backpack's strap. That little smile lifted the corner of his mouth as he spoke.


"I know. Nice to meet you." He flashed a grin at me, as if this were a completely normal meeting.

"You too," I said, but it sounded as uncertain and insincere as I felt at the moment. The smile dropped off his face slightly. His forehead wrinkled a little as his eyebrows pulled together. Eyebrows that were allied with Amber Leigh and her bunch of hillbilly-cum-compatriots. Thus, treacherous eyebrows. Treacherous, treacherous eyebrows.


I slammed my locker. "What, what?"

"You keep looking at me like you expect me to whip out a gun or something."

"Well, gun was not my first thought, but yeah."

"Why?" Maybe he was stupid. Maybe he honestly hadn't noticed how things worked here. That would have made me sad, because for all that I didn't want anything from him, having him be the paragon to which other men are compared would have been nice for a week or two.

"You know who I am?"

"Yes…" he said, as if this failed to mean anything to him.

"Okay. Then take that knowledge and run free with it. Have fun." I hoisted my bag onto my shoulder and walked away from him as fast as anyone could with ten pounds of books on her back.

"Wait, wait, wait. Hold up," he hurried after me, his long legs making quick work of the distance. "I'm not understanding any of this at all."

"Really?" My sarcasm was kicking in full throttle now, as if in apology for being absent before. "And what about this makes no sense to you?"

"Try why you're mad at me when all I did was return your pen to you." He was actually indignant. I thought that was cute. And dangerous. Cute and dangerous.

"Okay," I stopped in my tracks, turning to face him. He had both hands on his backpack straps now, and was pulling his bag a little forward onto his shoulders. His eyes flashed with annoyance and genuine confusion. Mostly annoyance. "The way I see it, there are two possible reasons for you to be here right now. The first is that you want to mess with me, because you've seen how it rolls here—"

" 'How it rolls?' Really? And you really think—"

"Or, second, you came out of genuine gentlemanly concern for my pen and my status of writing implements, and completely failed to realize what that could do to you if more people were around. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt, and consider you a gentleman, in which case I'd suggest for your own good that you make other friends and not talk to me again unless you really can't help it. Comprende?" I turned again and made for the nearest exit.

"What the hell are you talking about?" He called after me again. Idiot. Did he honestly not understand?

"You'll understand in a couple of days. " I called over my shoulder, not bothering to turn around again.

Shit. I had been perfectly prepared to stare at Danny from afar, listen to gossip about him, and wonder what he was like as a person. I had not been prepared for a real conversation, and it was unsettling. I liked Danny. I knew that much already. I didn't want to be the reason he had no friends.

"Okay, you need to be a little clear, here," said a voice to my right. I rolled my eyes in frustration, fully prepared to put my bitch wheels on. This kid just didn't take a hint.

"Okay. How about very short words?" I said nastily, looking up into his face with what I knew came across as contempt. "You and me? No good. No bueno. Okay? So—"

"Save it." He pulled on his backpack a little more, so that he was bent forward to look straight at me. "I'm not two. What's the deal, Tess?" he used my name in such a familiar way that it was hard to argue with the part of me that clamored for me to be selfish and be his friend.

I sighed, hands on hips, eyes to the ceiling. I didn't want to have to be the one to inform him about my status. I would rather have let someone take care of that. When I looked back at him, he was waiting patiently. I sighed again, straightening, and decided to tell him. Whatever, it wasn't like I'd speak to him much after this anyway.

"No one here likes me. Especially Amber. If you're seen talking to me, that would be bad. Like, really bad. You make friends with me, you lose any chance of being friends with about ninety-five percent of the student body offhand. So thanks for the pen, it's really nice of you to return it, but for your own good, you really shouldn't be seen with me."

He stared at me, mouth slightly agape. I would have laughed, if I hadn't been deadly serious. I stared back at him, waiting for him to process the information. It took a couple of seconds.

"That's stupid."

"But true," I reached out, maybe stupidly (okay, I know stupidly), and patted him on the side of the arm consolingly. "So just don't talk to me again unless you can absolutely help it. It's better for you that way."

I turned away again, and this time, he didn't follow me. I tried not to let that hurt.

The next day, he sat across from me, and didn't look at me. He walked into the cafeteria, and I didn't look at him. Dot gossiped away, and the girls giggled to their best friends, the guys greeted him with respect. He brought his own pens. The teachers called on him with interest. No one whispered about him for no good reason behind his back. No one speculated. It was the way it should have been. It was the way that was best for him.

Except that it wasn't really that way. Not totally, anyway. There were times when I caught his eyes on me out of my peripheral vision, only to find him taking notes intently when I turned casually to look around the room. When he walked into the cafeteria, I definitely noticed, even if I didn't look straight at him. Dot did gossip, and the girls did giggle. The guys did greet him with respect. The teachers did call on him with interest. But the day before had left speculation out in the open, and it would take a few days to put any of those rumors to bed for now.

It was unsettling. I had met this guy the day before, and already it was like I had a personal Danny radar. I always knew where he was in the room, I was always conscious of him when he was in my vicinity, I always noticed who spoke to him and his attitude toward him or her. Mostly her. A whole lot of her. It made me feel pathetic, like I was the little man in the submarine who stares at the blippy screen and alerts the captain in his big hat about the enemy missile within twenty clicks. It was entirely due to the fact that he was the first person my age (besides Dot) who had addressed me with civility in a very long time. I liked that. He was also smart. I liked that. He was also attractive. I liked that more than I should have done. Our banter, while short, had been enjoyable in parts, and he had enjoyed my jokes. That was flattering.

But I wasn't stupid. I knew that no kind of friendship could happen. In addition to what I had said to him, about wanting him to have friends in this school, which was certainly honest and true, there was also the question of what would happen to me if I claimed the New Kid as my own. Nothing good, that was for sure. And besides, I wasn't a very friendly person. It wouldn't be worth the bargain to have me—and sometimes Dot—as his only social network. The system was too well established, too rigid, to crack now just because one guy wanted to do it.

Though it would piss Amber off. That was on the plus side. She would hate being associated with someone like me, even distantly. That would be hilarious. But then, I would only be using Danny to get at Amber, and while the end game would be enjoyable, I wasn't like that. I wasn't going to use him to gain a point or two on the personal scoreboard.

Danny and I didn't make eye contact the rest of the week. Which was good. Toward the end, I hoped someone had informed him fully as to why he wasn't supposed to talk to me. That was perverse, but at least it would let him know what people thought of me.

It helped that I was buried under a mountain of homework. Junior year was picking up in earnest, if the twenty page US History paper was any indication. Holly had to physically drag me out of the Batcave to get me to eat something, and came to confiscate my books at midnight. I felt bad for giving her more stuff to take care of, but I did like it when she mommied me, so I didn't put up a fuss about it.

Gym on Monday was my least favorite class choice ever. Giving me the least enjoyable class last period of the first day of school was like a kick in the teeth after a slap in the face. Totally unnecessary. What made it even more superfluous, in my humble opinion, was Matt Larkin's unrelenting presence, the Mrs Danvers to my blushing heroine. All in all, I could leave gym by the roadside naked and unfed, and not feel the least bit of guilt abandoning it.

It started off pretty much the same as usual. Everyone took at least five minutes longer to change than the allotted time written on the novelty-sized piece of lined paper in faded red marker that hung on the wall. I left the locker room at about five minutes and thirty seconds, which was a perfectly acceptable time lapse. I leaned against the blue plastic mats that adorn the walls of gyms the universe over, arms crossed, one ankle hooked over the other. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Danny emerge from the boy's locker room, Steve Weltz on his heels. Cameron Baskin shuffled out five seconds later, and I had a feeling Steve had administered some of his infamous locker room justice on the poor string bean.

I cursed to myself. It seemed to be a cosmic joke, or simply poetic injustice, that I had just about every class with him. Danny, I mean. Especially gym.

I didn't have to look up to know when Amber Leigh entered the room. The smell was enough, the perfume that preceded her and left a reminder of her presence and hour after she left. It annoyed me that it wasn't some pungent, musky, perfumey bullshit, but then I would have to smell some pungent, musky, perfumey bullshit every day, so I didn't really mind that much. But the smell was not the only factor. Looking at the clock on the far wall, I could see the reaction from the guys on the other side of the gym, and I chuckled a little to myself. They were so predictable.

"Yeah, laugh it up, freakazoid," Maya Stern snapped, hands on her hips. Amber's little group paused, all assuming poses that seemed stolen from the cover of the Charlie's Angels DVD. My smile widened, " I plan on it. But please, don't let me keep you. The boys are waiting." I motioned to the right, giving a little bow with my head. Then I smiled at Amber in a conspiratorial manner, and waggled one of my eyebrows.

"Not a chance," she said, clicking her tongue in disgust, "we're not all like you, Oldowsky."

Last names. Cute.

"No, I'm counting on that fact, Amber. One of a kind, that's me," I stretched my arms over my head, straightening from my position against the mats.

"Tell that to Amsterdam," Beth McCarthy piped up from behind Amber's left shoulder.

I grinned wolfishly, and Amber rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Maybe I should, Beth. Tell me, should I call Amsterdam up myself, or do you think that would be a little gauche? We haven't spoken in so long, it might come off as desperate. Maybe I'll send Amsterdam a card instead. Flowers. Candy. A singing telegram."

Beth had no idea she was being made fun of. She wrinkled her head in confusion at my train of thought, and Amber sighed. It must have burned to have a strike against her for the stupidity of one of her semi-cohorts.

"Whatever, Tess. Don't be jealous just because you're disgusting." This came from Maya again, and she rolled her eyes too, before bugging them out and trying to give an attitudinal head circle. If she had snapped, she would have made my day.

I chuckled again, propelling myself off the mat as I saw Mr. C walk in with his clipboard and whistle. His track suit was dark green today. Monday. "I'll try not to be Maya. The life you live is just so charmed, I don't know how I'll be able to restrain myself." I walked over to the wall by the boy's locker room that was the wall from which we invariably started every activity. I settled against it, and Steve, Matt, Paul, and Kyle made a great show of moving out of my way. Like Amber, Matt had a memorable smell, but for completely negative reasons, so the change was welcome to me.

Gym was much the same as usual, in every way. I am decently coordinated, so I didn't make a fool of myself, or get hit by a dodgeball in the face, or trip on my own shoes during the obligatory five laps around the gym which were supposed to keep us in shape. I was even able to dodge plots to the contrary in both situations. It was good day.

Mostly. At the end of the hour when, sweaty and sick of participating, we headed off on our prospective paths to get changed, Matt Larkin snuck up behind me and with a huge windup, send his hand smacking down on my ass with a force that sent me staggering, blushing with anger and humiliation. It took me a second to collect myself, and even then I'm sure that you could see something beyond the usual sarcastic amusement in my eyes as I turned toward him and said, "Now, now, Matt. When you want something, you have to use your words, you know." I chided him gently with a waggle of my finger.

He didn't want to let me have the last word. "Or I could wave a twenty in your face, fuckin' whore."

I smiled brightly. "Waving it in my face doesn't work, silly. In our service-based economy, the payment is made before the service is given. Dur."

"Whatever, cum-dumpster."

"Hey!" a voice to my left cut off my comeback. I winced internally, then turned to give Danny the evil eye. The last thing this situation needed was his intervention.

"What the hell are you doing, man?" Danny glared angrily down (ha!) at Matt, his treacherous eyebrows knit together over his eyes.

"Dude, stay away from this chick. You don't even want to mess right now. She's fuckin' gross."

I laughed happily, throwing my head back a little. Danny looked at me like I was crazy. I turned to Matt. "I thought you were propositioning me for sex? Why do you keep doing that, if you think I'm nasty?"

Matt looked in panic from Danny to me. Apparently, what the new guy thought of him was of utmost interest to him. Interesting. "You fucking wish—"

I interrupted him, placing a conciliatory hand on his shoulder, "I understand that no other girl wants to enter the shield of your stench to get to your forest moon, but that can be changed easily, if you would just consider using the soap your mom bought you. It works like a dream." I patted him gently, and turned away from him, catching for a second Danny's disbelieving stare with my own glare of warning. The door closed before Matt yelled "Whore!" after me, and for a second I let myself glory over his stupidity.

But Danny's involvement brought me down from that high. He couldn't be involved, and hopefully after seeing that little display, he wouldn't want to interfere anymore. I wasn't even feeling as proud of myself as I normally did after winning a spat with our friend the Ape Man. That was bad, because I needed to keep that good feeling going.

However it happened, I would make it happen. Danny McCleod could not be involved in any of this.

No matter how much I'd liked him coming to my defense. Which was dangerous. Very, very dangerous.

I sighed, shutting my locker tightly and locking it, slipping my bag back onto my shoulders. This was going to happen . I would make it happen, no matter what. No one else would suffer from my social hermitude. Especially not Danny. I liked him too much.

And that worried me.