Hooray, hooray, HOORAY for this chapter! Seriously guys, this has been my Ultimate Brainchild for years and years and YEARS. I am SO HAPPY that this is up now.
With that, the only things I should note are

A. This is a character-driven novel. A REALLY character-driven novel. Seriously, look for a plot if you dare.

B. There are secrets in this novel. That said, as I am attempting to effectively communicate the secretiveness of certain aspects of my characters' lives without resorting to forced references to "THE INCIDENT", some pieces of what would seem like necessary information are strategically omitted. These are not mistakes, so please refrain helpfully informing me that I forgot to clarify why Gypsy is living with her sister, and the like. Except, Werrwulf, if I don't describe a character well enough to give you a clear picture, let me know; you have a fabulous eye for that and it helps a LOT.

I really hope you enjoy this!

Thursday Afternoon, Mid April

After several weeks of undue cold it seemed as if Mother Nature had finally decided to grace them with seasonable weather.

As far as Lorena Chang was concerned, it was about time. And it was not like Lorena to fail to make the most of anything. Lorena had been decidedly horizontal on a blanket on her back lawn since school had let out for the afternoon, a bowl of fruit salad next to her and an arts and crafts magazine in her hands. Lorena was living it up. As far as she was concerned, life was good. She had picked up the lime green hair dye and was going to transform her hair after school the next day; she had found a Hello Kitty T-shirt in the children's section that fit her perfectly and looked fabulous with her penguin knee-socks, and she was reading about how to turn said T-shirt into a sleeveless tank. Arms Race wasn't practicing that night, Todd was going to drop by after he was done babysitting his sister and "study English", and she had a near-inexhaustible supply of fruit. Oh yes, life was very good indeed.

The profanities that spewed forth from Lorena's mouth when her cell phone rang at that moment turned the air around her black and corroded a small hole in the ozone directly above where she was sitting.

Her caller ID read Vince. Damn it, WERE we supposed to be practicing today? The last thing she needed right then was Vince riding her ass about a practice he forgot to schedule.

"Hello?" She snarled. "What the hell are you calling about, Vince, I thought you were helping Gypsy learn the songs today?"

"I was." Said Vince with a nearly-imperceptible hint of sheepishness.

This didn't sound good.

"And now…?" Lorena wondered if she wanted to know.

"She's not talking to me."

Lorena paused. She took her phone away from her ear and looked at it very hard. She wondered how far it would go if she threw it. She thought momentarily about what she was going to say to Vince when she put the phone back to her ear, and found that this made throwing the phone look like a more attractive option the harder she thought about it. She took ten very deep breaths. She prayed for Buddha to grant her the patience to deal with Vince and for Karma to kick his ass. She took another deep breath. She pictured the cell phone soaring across her lawn and over the fence, to be violently devoured by her neighbor's crazy Pomeranian. She pictured tall, grumpy, melodramatically black-clothed Vince being halfheartedly attacked by a small, yappy dog. It made her smile. She put the phone back to her ear.

"What exactly do you mean, she's not talking to you?"

"I mean she's not talking to me. We are not on speaking terms anymore, by her decree, as of two minutes ago."

"So where is she?" Lorena demanded, aggravated. "And where are you? Put her on the phone!"

"I can't." Said Vince ruefully. "She's walking home."

"She's walking home!?"

"Yes." Said Vince, growing irritated. "We got into an argument and she stormed out of my house and is now, presumably, walking home."

Lorena carefully put her phone down on the blanket next to her and smacked herself in the head several times with her craft magazine. Patience. She told herself. Patience is very important. When this failed to convince her, she paused for a moment to reflect upon the Buddha, waiting for forty days for enlightenment to happen. If Buddha can wait forty days for enlightenment to happen, I can spend the rest of my career as a bassist mediating petty squabbles between Vince and Gypsy. Besides, I have fruit salad. Buddha didn't have fruit salad.

"So I'm guessing you want me to call her." Lorena said slowly, rubbing the back of her neck.

"Mhm." Said Vince, "Call me back when you've made her see reason. Talk to you soon."

"Um, hello? Magic words? Please? Thank you?"

Dial tone.

"You ass." She said to a Vince who couldn't hear her, and sighing closed and re-opened her phone and punched in Gypsy's number.

Gypsy was great at storming out. She theorized that she'd picked it up from her sister. It was some combination of the perfectly executed turn-on-the-heel, the possibly lethal flip of her waist-length curly hair, the hip-swinging, arm-swinging, perfectly-in-rhythm attitude walk, the hard line of her lips and the steel glint in her eyes, and the way all that hair fanned out behind her. She never stopped once she was out of the room, either. If she was gonna storm out and go home, she would storm all the way home, just in case somebody she was storming away from was following her. Being stormed out on by Gypsy was like being slapped in the face by anybody else. If mass walkouts could be staged so that everybody stormed out like she did, nobody would ever be oppressed again. Gypsy could storm like nobody's business.

She was good at slamming doors, too.

This particular storm, she was taking a great deal of pride in. As far as Gypsy was concerned, this was long overdue. She should have stormed out on Vince something like nine weeks ago. This day was just a culmination of hours upon hours of squabbling, name-calling, harsh criticism, vicious sarcasm, and loud screaming matches that had been going on and on and on since she had made what she felt was the colossal mistake of agreeing to sing for Arms Race to begin with. But Lorena begged her to stay, she liked Todd, the music was actually excellent and it was nice having something to do with her day, so she stuck this out. She put up with Vince (and Kevin. But mostly Vince.) for two and a half months in the hopes that he'd change his goddamn bossy attitude and this band thing could be a good experience for her. But it hadn't happened, and if Gypsy had learned any lesson in life it was not to hold her breath waiting for an asshole to stop being an asshole. So she was storming out, and she was storming her way clear out of this whole mess with Vince. And good riddance.

She was still storming, if only out of momentum since she was now on a quiet, friendly neighborhood road on which nobody could even see her, when her phone rang. The ID read Lorena. She scowled.

"I'm not going back." She snapped by way of a greeting, not slowing her pace at all.

"Sweetie, honey…" Lorena wheedled.

"Don't give me that! He treated me like crap!"

"Listen, he doesn't mean it…"

"Bullshit! He expects me to learn everything within a month of joining, and when I couldn't do that he decided I was stupid. You get me? He treats me like I'm stupid!"

"I know darling, I know…"

"Like a little kid, all fucking day! I ask a perfectly legitimate question about something and he answers all fucking slowly, like I'm three years old or some kind of retard – "

"Watch it." Lorena rebuked her.

"Sorry." She said quickly. Todd had a little sister with Autism, so they tried to avoid being too liberal with 'retard'. "But you know what I mean! Does he do it to anyone else?"

"It really depends on his mood, hun. Listen, babe, I promise, I'll talk to him, I'll yell at him, I'll do whatever I need to but he'll be on his best, I promise, just don't run home yet or Clara won't let you go back."

"His best?" Gypsy chortled. "What do you consider Vince's best, Lor?"

"He's really not always a jerk." Lorena admonished, vaguely angry at Vince for giving her such a strong impression to the contrary. "I mean it, Gyps, I'll talk to him."

"I don't want you to talk to him!" She snapped. "What good will that do? You've been talking to him this whole time! I'm through with it, is the bottom line. It's ridiculous and I'm not taking it!"

"But sweetheart – "

"Don't sweetheart me!"

"We need you! Come on, we can't do this without you. We're nothing without you, Gypsy!"

"That's bull!" She said vehemently. "You did fine without me before, and all that's happened since I started singing for you is that nobody gets along anymore."

"Oh c'mon, hun…" Lorena cajoled. "Please come back, sweetie; you're making me sound like a desperate ex-boyfriend and it's freaking me out."

As per Lorena's hopes, Gypsy's tense, irritable demeanor shattered for a moment and she let out a refreshing whoop of laughter.

"You know this is all your fault." She said accusingly, in a reassuringly facetious tone.

"I know, I know…" Lorena said apologetically. "But you know I don't regret it. We sound better with you, and Vince will warm up eventually and then everything will be perfect. Until then, you need to tolerate him while he's still getting used to you."

"Getting used to me?!"

"Just give him a couple more chances, okay?" Lorena wasn't dumb enough to ask for only one. "Listen, why don't you just go home and cool off, I'll call him and tell him to reschedule this for another time, I'll talk to him about being an asshole and we'll try to make Saturday's practice better."

Gypsy had stopped storming by then; she was standing still on the sidewalk, a light, warm breeze blowing across her face. When Lorena had told her that the garage (or, as it were, underground bomb shelter) rock band she was in could use a new lead singer, it had looked like a cool prospect. Lorena drew Vince's attention to her by dragging him to the auditions for the school musical, West Side Story, insisting that he "absolutely must hear this girl sing". The endeavor was a very mixed success: Vince fell instantly in love with the sound of Gypsy's voice, but it was immediately apparent that the two could not stand each other. Furthermore, he still wanted her to join the band, which she refused to do on account of having gotten the part of Anita. Ever the determined bastard, he followed her around for three months trying to talk her into quitting the play – not being a thespian himself, Vince did not understand that principal roles did not just quit plays, especially plays in which no understudies had been cast. In a shockingly ironic turn of events, halfway into the rehearsal process the play was cancelled due to a slashing budget cut by the school board. Gypsy agreed to become Bombshell's lead singer, albeit as resentfully as if Vince himself had ordered the budget cut. Not being what you might call a diplomat, Vince fanned the flames of her resentment by expecting her to learn all their songs absurdly fast, rejecting her request to be allowed to help write songs, having a conniption every time she changed a word or improvised part of a song, accusing her of trying to take over the band every time she expressed an opinion, and criticizing her clothing. And so Gypsy, of course, would fight back, Vince would try to shout her down, Gypsy would throw it back in his face, and the argument would escalate until Lorena started to mediate.

Lorena was sick of it, and so was Gypsy. But Lorena wasn't sick enough to let Gypsy leave the band.

"Come on, dear." Lorena wheedled. "Just head home and calm down, I'll talk to Vince, we'll all become great friends over ice cream tomorrow evening and on Saturday everything will be fine."

Oh, absolutely Gypsy thought with sarcasm, shaking her head, but she gave in. Lorena was unmovable. "Okay, okay…" She groaned. "I'm still in. But you'd better get Vince to lay the fuck off, or…"

"Consider it done." Lorena said soothingly.

"Call me later." Gypsy sighed.

"Buhbye, baby."

Relying solely on hearsay, one could surmise that Vincent Margarelli was a no-good punk, a true gentleman, a self-righteous asshole, a misunderstood musician, a rebel, a poser, an emo kid, a badass, a prude, a goth, a stoner, a hottie, a fag, a juvenile delinquent, a pretentious bastard, an antisocial freak, a religious nut, a godless heathen, a sensitive artist, a heartless thug, a genius, a flunkie, a feminist, a male chauvinist pig, a future serial killer, and a big softie once you got to know him.

Most of it was kinda true.

Although the carpet was red and the walls were technically white, Vince's room gave the impression of being almost entirely black. The walls were papered with band posters to the point where the only visible stretch of white was the ceiling. Everything that made up his bedding was black. The carpet was extremely dark red, and that too was almost never visible under all Vince's stuff – clothes left on the floor, notebooks of poetry and half-written songs, crumpled-up rejected poems that missed the overflowing trash can…

The grandiose mess that was the room came as a surprise to anyone who knew what a control freak Vince was…

…until they saw his reaction when they tried to move something.

If you asked Vince how tall he was, he would respond "six foot", and his friends would promptly and gleefully remind him that he was only five eleven-and-a-half. If you asked his shoe size, he would glare at you and finally, if the conversation could not be avoided, warily admit, "fourteen". You would probably say something like "wow, that's big!" and thus confirm his suspicion that you were trying to embarrass him and most likely cause him to resent you forever. Vince was a puritanical prude living day in and day out surrounded by people who couldn't take their heads out of the gutter long enough to breathe. He grew to despise anyone who commented on the size of his feet or fingers. As it were, Vince's bed was too small for him and his enormous feet dangled over the edge as he lay stretched out next to the phone, notebook on his lap and guitar within arms' reach as always.

It was rumored that Vince couldn't sleep without his guitar in the room.

After several moments of contemplation and internal debate, Vince slowly pulled off his fingerless black gloves and dropped them on the bedside table next to the phone and his boom box. This was truly a testament to the warm weather, because Vince always wore his fingerless gloves.

Lorena had said they were going to give him a tan line. He said she was stupid. It had been a year since he'd taken them off in front of her and there was a reason for that.

Now relatively convinced that Gypsy was not going to come back, Vince dropped his Image in favor of catering to the demands of the weather. Surreptitiously, as if someone was going to jump in and take a picture, he pulled his shoulder-length, poker-straight dyed black hair into a ponytail – the ponytail he swore up and down that he would never wear, but actually made good use of when he was alone in his room and needed to concentrate or just didn't want his thick hair to stick to the back of his neck anymore. His Nirvana T-shirt was already sticking to him in the heat. Vince had the attic bedroom (it was more accurate just to say that Vince slept in the attic: it wasn't a fixed-up attic, and it wasn't much of a bedroom) and all his fan did was push the hot air around.

The phone rang.

"Hello?" He figured it was Lorena, but there wasn't any caller ID on his phone.

"Dearest, do I ever tell you that I hate you?"

"Not usually." Vince said wryly.

"What the hell did you SAY to her? She was going to quit!"

"She was going to quit?" Vince sat bolt upright. "Just because I yelled at her once? The fucking prima donna, why do we even – "

"Vince!" Lorena slammed her magazine down on the ground in an unseen gesture of exasperation. "This is exactly why she was going to quit! This is why we're your only friends! NOTHING IS EVER YOUR FAULT."

"But – " He protested

"No! No buts! I love you like my own flesh and blood but you are such an asshole."

"She can't take criticism!" Vince's tone of voice brought no words to mind more clearly than 'she started it!'

Lorena groaned, but her face instantly brightened as a vague glance around her revealed that Todd had arrived with his English textbook and was making his way towards her.

"Listen, sweetheart," She held up one finger to Todd in the universal gesture for Please Hold. Todd saw her cell phone, put his hands on his hips, and pouted exaggeratedly. Lorena made a gun with her fingers and shot herself in the head. "If you really want, I'll just call and tell her that you said it wasn't worth it, it was a good effort, she's very talented but maybe it'd be better if she just – "

"Don't you dare!" Vince snarled, vehemently twisting the phone's black cord around his fingers. "Our sound is incomplete now without the vocals, we can't go back."

"Excellent that we're in agreement." Lorena said smoothly. "So I'll see you all tomorrow at Dairy Queen and I hope we'll all be acting like the best of friends, savvy?"

"But – "

"No, no buts."

"No, wait! This isn't bad! At least call her and make sure she got in okay? Since I couldn't walk her home?"

Lorena rolled her eyes but a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. "Yes, alright. Buhbye, baby."

With a long-suffering sigh, Lorena put the phone down next to her, looked up at Todd with an expression of exhaustion, and proffered the bowl. "Fruit salad?"

Friday Evening

Gypsy surveyed herself in the mirror with something between anxiety and distaste. Was it her, or was her favorite shirt – form-fitting and hot pink, with off-shoulder sleeves – looking a little tighter than usual?

Maybe it's just my bra. It does provide a bit of…"oomph". She thought wryly of the new bra she was wearing, jokingly described by her older sister as The Industrial Strength Bra for the vast amount of support it was designed to offer, and of the four torturous hours she had labored away in small, unflatteringly lit dressing rooms just to go home with that one bra. At least it lived up to its promise, though she cynically suspected that it would be worn out by mid-summer. Gypsy was hard on her bras.

"Oomph" isn't really something my boobs necessarily need more of, methinks. Gypsy thought sardonically as she continued to critically evaluate her figure in the full-length mirror in the hallway. At least my butt doesn't look like it could block traffic in this skirt. She looked with satisfaction at the ankle-length black hippie skirt that successfully obscured her entire bottom half. My face definitely looks rounder, though. Maybe I shouldn't be going for ice cream.

"Of course you've gained weight." Her sister Clara said coolly as she walked past, reading Gypsy's mind. "Back then you were eating one meal a day. This is your natural shape, Gyps."

Gypsy nodded understandingly, but she gave her natural shape one last stern look in the mirror just so it knew she wasn't letting it off the hook.

"The skirt looks nice." Clara told her, lending Gypsy a hand as she fought to subdue her hair into a high ponytail. "But why the long mirror-glaring session tonight? Is this a double date or what?"

Gypsy hooted with laughter. "With Vince?" She scoffed.

Clara stuck her tongue out. "Oh, right." She mocked gently. "I forgot Rock Star Gypsy only hangs out with people she can't stand."

"Shut up!" Gypsy laughed, tightening her ponytail, slipping into pink flip-flops, and heading into her bedroom to rummage through her drawer full of hair accessories until she found her favorite obnoxiously huge pink flower clip.

Clara made a clucking sound with her tongue and threw Gypsy her purse. Gypsy started and almost slammed her hand in the hair accessory drawer as the purse hit her lightly in the stomach and dropped at her feet despite Gypsy's far-too-late fumbling attempts to catch it in her hands.

"You know I can't catch!" She wailed, stamping her foot comically as Clara doubled over laughing.

"Sorry, sorry, my bad." Clara chuckled. "Your cell phone's in there, do you have money?"

"Mhm." Gypsy tucked a ten-dollar bill into her purse, zippered it and slung it over her shoulder.

"And where is it exactly you're going?"

"It's right down the street and around the corner."

"Alright. Be careful, stick with the group, don't go off alone – even if they piss you off, you hear medon't get a ride anywhere from anyone without calling to get my approval first,"

"Don't walk home after dark, call you to pick me up…" Gypsy intoned, sidling past her sister and towards the door.

"Hey smartass," Clara cuffed her on the shoulder. "Don't give my lecture for me."

"Yes ma'am." Gypsy retorted, saluting.

Clara made a face at her. "Have fun."

"See ya." Grinning, Gypsy blew her sister a kiss and shut the door behind her.

Moving in with her sister had been the best decision Gypsy had ever made. Clara was twenty-six and single, and had bought a house in a remote Philadelphia suburb two years ago. Gypsy had been living with her for five months now – since mid-December – and it felt like taking off a girdle she'd been wearing for fifteen years.


"Todd!" His father called up the stairs. "Get the door; it's her."

Ignoring his father's tactlessly obvious distaste, to which he had grown accustomed by now after dating Lorena for almost two years, Todd cheerfully bounded down the stairs and welcomed her into his living room with a big hug.

"Nice hair!" He tousled it appreciatively, "Good for crossing the road at night."

"Oh hush." Lorena grinned. "Carrot top."

"Nuh-uh." Her boyfriend stuck his tongue out. "Carrot tops are green, thanks. That'd be you."

"Oh, psh." She hit him on the shoulder as he sat on the bench next to his door and put on his shoes.

"Carrot top." He stuck out his tongue. Lorena crossed her eyes.

"Oh, hello Lorena!" Mrs. O'Keefe greeted her with a very polite smile "I…see you've died your hair again."

"Yes indeed," She replied just as cheerfully, smiling from ear to ear. "Turned out perfect. The weather is beautiful, isn't it? Mmm, that smells good."

"Would you like some?" Todd's mother asked warmly.

"We're just about to eat." Added his father, just as welcoming. "You two could stay for dinner."

"Oh no thank you," Lorena said sweetly, adjusting her lime green pigtails "I've already eaten. Thank you for offering!"

"Oh, you're welcome." Mrs. O'Keefe smiled, exchanging glances with her husband.

Todd sensed it. His eyes flashed.

"What'd you eat, Lorena?" He asked loudly.

"We cooked out!" She shot back, right on the ball. "Hot dogs. Oh, and I have some clothes my Mom picked up for me that were a little too big, do you want me to bring them over and see if they fit Susan?"

Todd looked up as his parents exchanged very pointed looks and tried, and failed, not to look sideways at Lorena's XXXL-t-shirt-made-dress and purple fishnets.

"No thank you." Todd's father said quickly.

Good-naturedly, Lorena threw back her head and laughed.

"Darl…Mr. O'Keefe, my Mom picked them out; they aren't like what I get when I go shopping." She assured them. "I'll bring them over next time and subject them to your approval. They're a nice soft material, they probably won't bother her."

"Well, that's very thoughtful of you." Mrs. O'Keefe said appreciatively, giving her husband a Look before he could say anything else.

"So we'll see you guys later." Todd broke in, standing up and putting his arm around Lorena's waist.

"Have fun!" His mother called after him as he shut the door.

They were only halfway off the doorstep when they burst out laughing.

"One of these days, while you are in the bathroom your mother is going to invite me into the kitchen to try something she's making, and you'll come back downstairs and find me lying dead on your kitchen floor with multiple stab wounds from a carrot peeler, and a note on the refrigerator door that says 'Todd – went out to run some errands, be back in half an hour; Love, Mom.'"

"I keep telling them it's ok, you know they hate you." Todd chortled.

"You said that?" Lorena shrieked in a mixture of horror and delight, throwing her arms around his waist "what did they say?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Todd, we Don't Hate Anybody!" Todd rebuked himself sternly in the style of his mother.

Lorena doubled over with laughter. "Oh, for the love of enlightenment…" She shook her head. "They don't know I'm bi, do they?"

"Are you kidding?" Todd scoffed. "I'd never hear the end of it, the 'won't she cheat on you with a girl??' And they wouldn't let you near Susan."

"Oh yes darling, because eleven year olds make me totally hot." Lorena scoffed, disgusted. "That's ridiculous. And they totally think I starve myself, too."

"Yeah, I know." Todd said apologetically, sighing and kissing the top of Lorena's head as they rounded a street corner. Todd was only around five foot six, but he was a full head taller than Lorena, who stood at four foot ten and weighed something like eighty-seven pounds. "So…are we expecting this to be a disaster, or what?"

"Oh, I don't know…" Lorena shook her head. "Vince promised he'd be on his best behavior."

"And do we believe him?"

Lorena shrugged. "Beats me. I really think they'd get along so well if they could just see past…I mean, they've got so much in common."

"Exactly. They're both hotheaded, stubborn, and easily offended."

"They just need to learn to pick their battles."

"Nah They always pick their battles. They just always pick the same one."

Vince was the first to arrive.

He leaned against the building a fair distance away from the door. With his height, hair, and black clothes, Vince tried never to loiter directly in front of an entrance where people couldn't avoid him, because he got the feeling he made passersby nervous.

It was a warm evening, but not uncomfortably so. Vince waited with some apprehension. Friday evenings were generally relaxed – that was the tradition, that was the RULE – but he hadn't really seen or talked to Gypsy since she slammed his front door the previous day. He twisted a strand of his hair around his finger. He had to ask Lorena to dye it again. It was fading a bit and you could tell it had originally been dark brown.

Never mind that you could tell it was supposed to be dark brown anyhow, because that was the color of his goatee. Despite the well-meaning protests of all his friends, Vince refused to shave the goatee. He thought it was badass. It really wasn't.

A flash of pink in the parking lot made him look up. Gypsy was approaching with an uncomfortable smile on her face. He waved. She waved back. God, this is awkward. Trust that they'd be the first two to show up.



"So, um, she said seven, right…?"

"I think so…"

If she really said seven-thirty, they thought in unison, though they did not know it I will kill her.

Vince fidgeted. Gypsy tightened her ponytail.

Gypsy's hair was described as the Hair that ate Manhattan. Her hair was thick enough to stuff a mattress and cascaded down her back in an untamable mass of brown curls, stopping a couple inches below her waist. Most days she would either subdue it in a braid or ponytail with an industrial-strength scrunchie or let it have its way. Economy-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner lasted Gypsy a couple of days, and no amount of anti-frizz serum could make even the slightest difference when humidity would rear its ugly head. Barrettes were useless to her. Gypsy's hair had a mind of its own, and it did what it wanted.

"So, I think they say that every time there's an awkward silence, a…" Gypsy stopped mid-sentence as her eyes fell upon the approaching figure in the parking lot. "I thought he wasn't coming!"

"Kevin, what the f…" Vince flushed angrily. He didn't curse in front of girls. It took a lot of effort. "What the heck are you doing here?"

Kevin, Arms Race's rhythm guitarist, casually leaned against the wall opposite Gypsy, next to Vince, tucked his hands behind his head and looked Gypsy up and down in the most obvious manner possible. She surveyed him back. His denim vest was unbuttoned, and he wasn't wearing anything underneath. He looked okay without a shirt on. Well, ok, he looked really good. He smiled the smile of someone who knew it and stretched his limbs slowly.

Kevin had an impressive knack for stretching in just such a way as to show off his well-toned arms to best advantage. He practiced it in front of the mirror.

Kevin was attractive no matter who looked at him, but if you happened to be afflicted with bad boy syndrome, he was downright dreamy. His wavy light-brown hair had somehow contrived to be windswept on a day that hadn't offered so much as a breeze, and he had broad shoulders, good posture, a nice smile, and a very distinctive manner. His manner was distinctive because it was so definitively cocky. Lots of people are cocky, but theirs is the kind of cockiness that can be called confidence by people who want to shed a good light on it. This simply couldn't be called confident because it wasn't confident. It was cocky. His swagger oozed arrogance.

Kevin never "walked". He only swaggered. Kevin would swagger off a cliff at gunpoint.

Every Friday afternoon, the members of Arms Race were supposed to get together and do something, anything at all, that was not practicing. This measure was put in place to remind them that they were still friends first. Kevin, however, was unwilling to give up his Friday evenings and didn't get along with Vince, so the rule was amended so that Kevin did not have to attend Friday Fun if he had a date.

Up until that very Friday, he hadn't attended a single one.

"What are you doing here?" Gypsy demanded tactlessly, groaning and agitatedly pulling on her hair again, "Lorena says you never show up at these things!"

"He couldn't get a date." Vince said sourly, taking a step towards Gypsy, away from Kevin.

"Bullshit." Kevin shot back. "I came for you, princess." He flashed Gypsy his most irresistible smile. "I don't think we spend enough time together."

"You've got to be kidding me…" Gypsy groaned, deflecting Kevin's attempt to hug her and exchanging pained glances with Vince.

"You know, Gypsy," Vince said dully, "If I find you motivate Kevin to spend more time with us, I really might kick you out. Nothing personal."

"Oh, get a haircut." Kevin scoffed, shoving Vince from behind. Vince stumbled forward but caught himself, glaring as he pushed his hair out of his eyes.

"Helloooooo, I am not feeling the love here!"

The indignant singsong cry rang out as Lorena pranced across the parking lot with Todd in tow.

"I was not told that he was going to be here." Gypsy complained, hands on her hips.

"Neither was I." Lorena shrugged, hugging Kevin and then Vince. "C'mon, let's eat."

"This is some kind of conspiracy." Vince muttered, jumping to hold the door for the rest of the band to a stream of polite monotone "thank you"s.

"So, is this a good thing or a bad thing, exactly?" Todd murmured discreetly in his girlfriend's ear, glancing at Kevin.

"Total disaster." Lorena said smoothly out of the corner of her mouth, "but we have to pretend it isn't, because we actually like Kevin."

Todd paused for a moment, to get things straight.

"We do like Kevin, right?" He whispered.

"Yes." Lorena said quietly. "We do. We do not, by any stretch of the imagination, want him here at this very moment, but we do like him."

"That's what I thought." Todd nodded wisely.

"I'll have the brownie earthquake," Lorena handed the cashier her money as Todd contemplated the Blizzard menu.

"Small vanilla soft serve with butterscotch dip, please." Said Gypsy at the next register.

"I'll cover hers." Kevin said smoothly, stepping in front of her and proffering his money to the woman at the counter.

"You most definitely won't." Gypsy retorted, handing the woman her own money.

The unfortunate Dairy Queen employee looked back and forth between the two piles of money on the counter and finally, deciding that it was always safest to cater to the customer who was angry, handed Kevin's money back to him and told Gypsy she'd have her ice cream in a minute.

"Hey Kevin," Lorena called over warningly as she took her seat at the table "make an ass of yourself much? Cut the crap."

Vince looked daggers at Kevin as he placed his own order. Why is he here? He glowered. If I have to watch him crawling all over Gypsy all night, I'm going to throw up.

Vince didn't know why Kevin was all over Gypsy. With exactly one exception, Kevin's interactions with girls were governed completely by his ego and his libido. Since Gypsy wasn't fucking Kevin and generally sought to deflate his ego more than she ever boosted it, it only stood to reason that he should have given up on her immediately and moved on to the next prospect. And he had moved on to the next prospect; currently there were three girls Kevin went on dates with regularly, and at least two labored under the impression that he was their boyfriend. But he was still hitting on Gypsy.

Lorena had patiently explained to him many a time that Gypsy was having enough trouble becoming well acclimated to her role in the band without the addition of the rhythm guitarist trying to get her into bed. Kevin invariably replied that she'd surely loosen up a bit once he actually did.

Lorena often hit Kevin, but he did not take it personally.

"Kevin!" Squealed a girl a few tables over with two friends, jumping up. "Come sit with us, Kevin!"

"I'm sorry, Tina, I have to – "

"We really don't mind if you sit with them." Vince said loudly. "Seriously. He's all yours. We wouldn't want to keep you from enjoying yourselves."

Even Gypsy snickered at Vince's complete lack of subtlety. Kevin rolled his eyes and sat down next to Gypsy, not dignifying Vince with an answer. He beckoned to Tina.

"Why don't you guys come sit over here?" He gestured to the table next to them.

"Um, we don't want – " Vince was cut off by the sudden hubbub of three girls having to gather their purses, walk ten feet, and decide who got to sit closest to Kevin.

"Oh, don't worry." A small, dark-haired girl rolled her eyes at Vince. "We have to go soon anyway, we're gonna catch a movie."

Gypsy shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She didn't know any of these girls.

"That looks good!" Commented the other unnamed friend, a girl with long, very straight blonde hair, leaning across the table and pointing at Gypsy's ice cream cone. "How many calories are in it?"

There was a really weird silence.

"I don't know…" Gypsy said quietly.

The girls exchanged glances and Gypsy lost her appetite completely.

"I don't think this was the place to come if you're worried about calories." Lorena raised an eyebrow.

"I'm watching my figure." Calorie girl said primly.

"You and every man in the room." Kevin cut in smoothly, slicing the tension that had grown thick in the air as Lorena's irritation and Gypsy's embarrassment grew more obvious. He winked. One by one the girls at the other table got it and burst into giggles, and calorie girl made a very pronounced show of shrieking and diving across their table to bat vaguely at Kevin.

"You spew bad pick-up lines like a fountain." Todd observed, sampling Lorena's ice cream.

"It's part of my charm." Kevin grinned. "You'd know, wouldn't you," he added aside to Gypsy, playfully nudging her with his elbow.

Gypsy laughed in spite of herself, relieved at the reprieve from the awkwardness. "What charm?" She teased.

"Ouch!" Kevin vividly pantomimed being stabbed in the heart. "You're brutal!"

Vince scowled at Gypsy as she laughed and shoved him playfully, Traitor. You're supposed to hate him; that was the only thing I liked about you.

Gypsy was actually thinking kind of the same thing – wasn't he an asshole a couple minutes ago? – but he was nice now, and Gypsy was easily influenced by kindness.

Tina scooted determinedly closer to Kevin. "So do you have a date to junior prom?" She inquired, flipping her hair.

"I've got a few offers." He smiled. "I'd be happy to consider you."

"Oh, I don't know," She sighed, off-put by his failure to beat around the bush like she did. "I might go with Jason. He asked me."

"You can not go back out with Jason!" Snapped the girl next to her, tiny with short, dark hair.

"I don't know, I think we might be getting back together." She shrugged. "I still love him, you know?"

Dark-hair shook her head. "Doesn't matter. Once a cheater, always a cheater."

Kevin stiffened.

"This is a really excellent sundae!" Exclaimed Lorena very loudly.

"Don't you agree, Kevin?" Vince whispered.

Gypsy chomped nervously on her emptied waffle cone, wishing she knew what was going on.

"Actually," said calorie girl, looking somewhat ruefully at her watch "We have to go, the movie starts at six thirty and it's gonna be packed. Do you want to come with us?" She directed her offer solely at Kevin, excluding the rest of the group. He shook his head.

"Nah, I'll hang around here. But hey, gimme a call when the movie's over, maybe we'll do something afterwards."

"Afterwards?" The dark-haired girl raised her eyebrows.

"Sure." Kevin winked. "We'll be spontaneous."

"We'll give you a call." Tina assured him as he stood up to distribute hugs. Dark-hair avoided hugging Kevin, appearing disconcerted by his near shirtlessness. She was clearly the only girl in the group who wasn't thrilled by his mere presence.

As Gypsy crossed the floor to throw out her napkins in the trash can by the door, she heard them squeal as they passed; "He's so cute! You should totally go to prom with him!" Calorie-girl squeaked, nudging Tina delightedly. "I think he's kinda sleazy." Dark-hair said distastefully.

They didn't wave at Gypsy on their way past. They just glanced at her and kept walking. She rolled her eyes and went to sit back down.

"So, princess," Kevin addressed her as she took her seat. "Will you go to junior prom with me?"


"C'mon." He wheedled, draping an arm around the back of her chair. "I'll bet you're an excellent dancer."

"I am." She replied immediately, without any semblance of modesty. "I just don't want to go with you."

"Oh, that's nice!" Kevin protested, laughing. "Alright, then, thought I'd ask." He moved closer to her, so subtly that only Vince noticed. "I'll go with Tina, then. Brittany's hotter, but Jason's a serious prick."

"Oh, well thank God Tina won't be going to the dance with a serious prick." Vince snorted.

"You should really be a comedian." Kevin yawned.

"Darlings! I am still not feeling the love!" Lorena complained, finishing her sundae and laying her head on Todd's shoulder.

Vince glared at his chocolate-smeared spoon as the conversation resumed without him. Dresses, junior prom, senior prom, who had a date, who didn't, why they couldn't afford a sophomore or freshman dance at Whitstown High, blah blah blah.

And Gypsy and Kevin were actually getting along. He watched with increasing irritation as Kevin edged closer to her with every joke of his that she laughed at. The smarmy asshole, and she totally bought it, too. Idiot. Next thing he knew she'd be going to the dance with him after all.

Kevin and Vince's animosity went back about two years, which was about as long as they'd both been stock boys at a local convenience store. It was nothing more than a simple clash of personalities; when you have two alpha males, one who thinks he's a nineteenth century gentleman and one who thinks he's James Dean, you get conflict. Lorena, however, had befriended Kevin, and even though it was already established that they couldn't stand each other, Vince allowed him to play for them because he was talented and refused to kick him out for fear of damaging their Sound. And they fought like two he-lions in the same pride, every single day hour of every single day they were forced to share airspace.

It had occurred to Lorena that this story sounded really familiar, and she hoped this wouldn't be a pattern. She intended to refrain from recommending new members in the future, just to be on the safe side.

Vince soon lapsed into daydream. This was boring, Kevin was an ass, Gypsy was a moron and he'd be better off at home with his guitar. The new song he was working on was coming pretty well. He'd gotten almost all the chords perfected. Now there were just the words. Vince wasn't always too fond of words. His innermost feelings had an annoying tendency not to rhyme. Maybe he really should head home soon.

"Todd, sweetie, dearest, come on you have to get something substantial to eat…" Lorena's nagging wafted vaguely under and through Vince's ears "If your parents find out you had a blizzard for dinner, you know who's gonna be to blame."

The conversation had split off in two. Lorena was pestering Todd about his dinner and Kevin and Gypsy were deeply engaged in an apparently hilarious discussion of where their school got its near inexhaustible of toad-like old woman substitute teachers who could not be differentiated from one another but all introduced themselves by different names.

Well, they have got a point. But everyone knows that Mrs. Elison is the original and the rest are just clones. Mom almost killed me when she wrote me up for disrupting her class. I still haven't really eaten dinner, have I? I wonder if she made dinner. I wonder if she's awake yet. I wonder how much she drank last night. I hope Dad's still out when I get home…

Out of the corner of his eye, Vince saw Kevin drop his spoon and slide down under the table.

Oh, so that's it tonight.

Vince counted to three and then calmly stood up and pulled back the table without warning, catching Kevin in the act of getting a peek up Gypsy's skirt.

Gypsy screamed bloody murder and leapt up, knocking her chair over backwards with a crash. Kevin scrambled to his feet, launching immediately into Appeasement mode

"I'm sorry – it was just a joke – my spoon was – you just looked at – I was – I'm really sorry – I didn't mean – "

"Don't fucking touch me!" Gypsy snarled, viciously slapping away the hand Kevin tried to place apologetically on her shoulder

"Kevin, damn it!" Lorena shouted, furious, right on Todd's heels as he and Vince jumped up to help Gypsy right her chair.

"Look, I'm sorry – "

"That's right, you're fucking sorry, excuse me while I don't give a shit." Gypsy righted her chair and slammed it down hard on the tiled floor.

"Excuse me!" The manager was out now and everyone in the restaurant was staring. "Is there a problem? You're causing a disruption!"

"There is a problem, but don't worry, I'm leaving." Gypsy said icily, throwing her purse over her shoulder as Todd, Vince, and Lorena hastily re-arranged the table and the chairs.

"Oh c'mon princess, please don't – "

"Will you stop calling her that?" Vince jumped in, saving Gypsy the trouble.

"Baby, darling, wait…" Lorena caught her by the wrist "Don't walk home, it's getting dark, wait until my parents come and we'll give you a ride."

"It's not dark yet, I'll be fine." Gypsy snapped, making for the door.

"I'll walk you home." Vince followed after her.

"You don't have to – "

"I know. My house is just a couple blocks away, you know that. It's no big deal."

"It's not necessary."

"Just let him walk with you." Todd jumped in. "It's safer."

"Buddy system." Lorena added.

"This is ridiculous, you don't have to up and leave – " Kevin protested. "You're making a big deal out of noth – "

"Shut up." Todd and Lorena chorused, looking daggers at Kevin.

"Whatever." He threw his hands in the air and plunked back down in his chair.

Furious, Gypsy turned on her heel and stalked out the door, her ponytail flying out behind her like a banner. With one last disgusted look at Kevin, Vince took off after her, catching up in just a few long strides.

Looking out the many large windows, Todd, Kevin, and Lorena watched Vince calmly remaining one step behind Gypsy as she stormed down the length of the parking lot and out to the street corner.

Lorena sat down, folded her arms on the table and rested her head upon them. Todd sat down next to her and stroked her neon hair.

There were several long minutes of silence. She did not look up.

"…whatcha thinkin' about?" Kevin asked finally, sick of the dirty looks.

Lorena looked up.

"Karma." She said calmly. "I am thinking about what you are going to look like in your next life."

"You didn't have to leave, you know." Vince finally said as they reached the end of the parking lot. "We'd have told him to go."

"You can't kick him out of the restaurant."

"Yes we can." Vince paused, looking hard at Gypsy as they approached the street corner. "Are you okay? Are you crying? Don't cry!"

"I'm not crying, I'm just…" she wiped the tears out of her eyes. "I'm not crying crying, I'm angry…"

"You cry when you're angry?"

"Yes Vince," She said coldly "I cry when I'm angry. You've made me do it."

"Oh. Right." There was a long, awkward pause. "Move," he grumbled "you're on the wrong side of the sidewalk."

Gypsy looked at him. "…what?"

"The sidewalk." He persisted irritably. He hated having to explain his chivalry to people. "Girls are supposed to walk on the inside. In case there are splashy puddles, or somebody shoots at you, or something. It's polite."

"It hasn't rained in two weeks!"

"That's not the point." Gypsy watched with traces of amusement as Vince waved his hands around for emphasis. Vince was tremendously Italian. If you tied his hands together he couldn't communicate. "It doesn't matter if there are actually any puddles. It's traditional. They did it back in the Victorian age."

"But, we don't empty our toilets out the window into the street anymore."

There was a very aggravated pause.

"It's just how it's Done, okay?"

"So you're blatantly admitting that it doesn't make any sense at all?" Gypsy smirked, feeling better already.

"Just move. To the other side. Of the sidewalk. Please." Vince said through gritted teeth. She did. "Thank you."

There was further silence.

"You knew he was gonna do that?"

"Of course not!" Vince was vaguely indignant. "I knew what he was doing when he did it, but not before. That's why I pulled the table away when he went for the spoon."

Gypsy scowled.

Another awkward pause as they fell into step.

"You didn't have to walk – "

"Yes I did." He cut her off. "You don't let the girl walk home alone at night."

She sighed. "It's another one of those things…?"

"Yes." Vince felt vaguely as though he was being both humored and made fun of. He was mostly used to that feeling.

"This is it." She pointed at her house and quickened her pace. "You can head back…"

Vince ignored her, stubbornly following her right up to her front step. "I'll see you tomorrow at nine."

"Mhm." She rolled her eyes. Vince could never leave out his reminders about rehearsal.

"Don't be late!"

"Yes, Vince." Pause. "…thanks."

"Don't thank me."


He didn't leave until she shut the door behind her.