Strays 4

A/N: Um, I'm tempted to say this is just twenty pages of filler. Stuff happens, both good and bad, but the plot won't really thicken until the next chapter, when the villain makes a real entrance. This one might be a little confusing and hectic, in the meantime. I hope everyone enjoys this chapter, and to those who have read and reviewed (or just one or the other), thanks so much.

Chapter 4

Wendy doesn't call Max. Not yet, anyway. After all the trauma and excitement yesterday, she just couldn't bring herself to pick up the phone and plan the date she knows he's going to ask about. As she gets ready for school, she thinks about James, instead.

She smiles as she pulls her hair back into a loose ponytail. They had watched movies until James finally had to go home and make dinner for his mom. Wendy now knows that James' weakness is movies. He had confided (maybe warned) between films that he hates when people talk or fidget during movies.

Applying blush takes a little more time than usual. She barely touches the feathery brush to her cheeks, because as she discovered before, if she presses too hard, she ends up looking like a bar wench. And maybe she didn't call Max, but she still wants to look pretty around him.

Gene hasn't bothered her for the bathroom yet this morning, which means he is probably still asleep. He never came down to watch movies. It was pretty obvious how disappointed James was.

A thin layer of lip gloss finishes the look. It's amazing how much difference a little make-up can make, she thinks. It makes her feel powerful in a way super-strength doesn't. Not that she needs the make-up. People have told her for years how beautiful she is naturally (mostly her mother), and it's not about ego-tripping, but she likes to turn heads.

Especially if that head belongs to Max.

Max, who never commented on her red-rimmed eyes after she finally returned to school, just rubbed a comforting hand over the back of her neck.

If she thinks about him any more, she may get little hearts in her eyes.

She sighs, and goes to wake the beast.

"Gene?" She tries the handle, but the door is locked. She hears the rustling of sheets and blankets.

Gene makes a completely inhuman sound and croaks, "What?"

"We have school, doofus. Hurry up, I want to be early."

The door swings open and Wendy laughs. Gene looks like one of those kids in a rock band or something. His choppy black hair is completely flat on both sides but rises in the middle like a Mohawk. His cheek is littered with band-aids, some of them curling off his skin at the edges. James assured her last night most of the cuts were shallow. The bruise is pretty bad, though. It stretches from Gene's cheekbone to the corner of his mouth.

People are definitely going to ask questions.

"Why are you so happy?" He runs his fingers through his hair, but it just makes the problem worse.

"Magic's in the makeup," she answers glibly. "Also, I had a good night. You know, with James? Who you never said goodbye to?"

"I didn't hear Harlan and Scott leave either," he says. "What's the big deal?"

She shakes her head. "Ugh, boys. Never mind, dweeb. C'mon, get ready. Mom is in the kitchen; don't let her see your face."

Gene huffs and slams the door in her face. Wendy is resolute, though. Today is going to be a Good Day. She wants to feel like she does when she wins a tough debate, the way she feels when Max breaks up with his girlfriend of the week.

The way she felt before she got these awful powers.

They actually make it to school early, which is a miracle for them.

Gene never really managed to tame his hair. The Mohawk alone keeps a smile on Wendy's face, and maybe it will distract attention from Gene's.

James is sitting outside the front doors with huge headphones over his ears. He doesn't see them. His eyes are closed, head titled back into the sun, and Wendy thinks it's only a matter of time until Gene crawls out of his asexual shell and notices what's right in front of him.

As if reading her mind, James opens his eyes and zeroes in on them. His throws his arm up in a ridiculous wave. "Gene, Wendy," he yells, "Good morning!"

No one else is around, but if they were, all eyes would be on James. He unfurls his body and stretches his arms high in the air, shirt riding up over his too-thin stomach. Wendy has this completely bizarre desire to lock him up and feed him until he has enough body fat to pass for a normal teenager, and not some third-world refugee.

"Why are you here so early?" Wendy asks.

James brandishes a trumpet case. "I usually skip first period to practice in the band room. No one uses it until third period."

"You have a solo coming up in the concert this weekend, right?" This from Gene, who never knows what to say in a conversation. Wendy awards him a mental gold star.

James absolutely beams at Gene. "You remembered! And also, I love your hair! Will you come to the show?"

Gene laughs. "Sure."

The question is then directed at Wendy, and she nods. James says, "Wendy, your mascara is flawless. You look amazing."

Her face lights up. Even James complimenting her looks is enough to make her day that much better. If James likes it, she can't wait to hear Max's opinion. They chat for a few more minutes, until the first period bell rings.

"What classes do you guys have?" James asks, slinging his backpack over one shoulder.

"Gym," Gene answers, just as Wendy says, "Lit."

"I think you should both skip and come hang out in the band room!"

Wendy laughs. "I'll pass. But Gene should. He's in no shape to be in gym class." She nudges Gene with both hands on his back.

"Okay, okay," he says. They don't have any classes together, and they have different lunch periods, so Gene says, "I'll meet you by the car after school."

James tugs on Gene's sleeve and whisks him away into a crowd of students. Wendy shoulders her backpack and starts for the entrance, but a hand on her shoulder stops her, and she twirls around to find Max standing there. She wishes she had a compact with her so she could make sure he makeup is still flawless, but James or Gene would have said something, and—

"Wen," Max says smoothly, "you look nice."

After years of flirting, it's easier not to blush. "Thanks. Walk me to Lit?"

He nods. "So, you going to call tonight, or am I going to cry myself to sleep again?"

"Oh, like you don't have a three-way conversation with Scott and Harlan right before you go to bed," she teases.

Their hands brush. Max laces his fingers with hers. Wendy might swoon. She keeps her hand still, careful not to squeeze. If she does—the thought dampens her perfect mood.

"Hey," Max murmurs. They're almost to her classroom, but his is right down the hall. "Everything cool?"

She forces another smile, and is startled to find she doesn't have to fake it for long. "Everything's perfect," she says.

"Good. So, I'm thinking we should have dinner Friday." She agrees. Duh. "Good. I got us reservations at Vermont's."

Vermont's is the nicest restaurant in town, and Wendy knows for a fact Max has never taken a girl there before. She has eyes and ears all over the school, and she would have heard about it. The very idea makes her giddy with excitement. And then she remembers the band concert.

"Oh, hey. You think afterwards we can stop by the band concert? Gene has his heart set on seeing James play, and I told James I'd come along."

"James Peters and your brother? You have to tell me how that one happened." He doesn't seem surprised or upset, and it's like he gets more perfect every time he opens his mouth.

"Well, it hasn't happened yet," she says slyly. They pause outside of the classroom. Others are filing in, and the final bell is probably going to ring any second now. "But it means a lot that you'll come." She twitches her fingers, which is enough to feel like a tight squeeze for a girl trying to tell a boy something important.

He apparently gets the message. He bends down and presses his lips to hers gently. When he pulls away, he practically whispers, "Sorry. You just look amazing. I can't wait until Friday."

Wendy seriously might explode. She somehow manages a coy smile. "I can't either. See you at lunch?"

Max nods dopily, a wide smile stuck on his face. "Not if I see you first," he says, and they both laugh.

Wendy feels like she's the one who can fly as she walks into class.

She takes her usual seat near a few of the girls from the debate team near the back corner.

"Don't think we didn't see that," one of the girls says in a high-pitched whisper.

"And we expect details."

"What you see is what you get, ladies," Wendy says lowly.

This is how her life is. This is how it should be. But in the back of her mind lingers the reminder of how easy it is to knock a man twice her size to the ground, how easy it would be to hit too hard, go too far.

She'll worry about that later. Right now, she's going to draw hearts in her notebook and plan her outfit for dinner.

The more she wishes class would end, the slower it goes. She passes notes with the girls like they're in third grade, all exclamation points and smiley faces. If only they had some glitter.

She somehow manages to answer any question her teacher asks about the sonnet they just read. She thinks she's going to wear the summery yellow chiffon dress she absolutely had to buy last time she went shopping. She's only worn it a few times, but she always gets good reviews. Her dark hair, fair complexion, and anything yellow is pretty much the perfect combo.

Max actually sends a text message mid-class. You should wear that yellow dress.

Okay, seriously? Wendy doubts someone can be that perfect. Not that she minds.

She tries to think of a really clever response, but before she can begin to think, the fire alarm goes off.

There is a collective groan over the noise. Everyone hates drills, even if they interrupt class. Wendy doesn't even hate this class, she just can concentrate. She shows the girls her text from Max as they file out of the classroom. They laugh and sigh and act jealous, as they should, and point at Max filing out of his room.

"How lame is this?" He shouts. The single file line becomes a massive crowd that shuffles for the front door.

"I know," Wendy answers. "It's—"

She thinks she's the first to notice the other classes running from the hallway that runs perpendicular to theirs. The hall leads to the lower level and most of the secondary classes—like band. Most of those should be empty, though, save gym class.

She can tell the moment they join the crowd in their oversized shirts and colored shorts and sneakers. Gene is not among them, and she suddenly remembers he is ditching. He's with James.

In the band room.

The band room is further down, but not as far as the gym, and she should have seen them by now. She can't see any hint of a Mohawk or James' animated face.

A cold knot of fear builds in her stomach. She has no reason to worry. Gene and James are perfectly able to take care of themselves. Still, she tightens her fists and almost doesn't feel the pads of Max's fingers against her shoulder. "I think something serious is happening, Wen."

A blackish-grey plume of smoke rolls down the hallway from the direction of the music room.

Outside the school is frantic. People are yelling, and some kids are crying, mostly the freshman classes. Wendy feels badly for them, but she takes comfort from Max instead of giving any to strangers. Her brother may be inside that building. She is allowed to be selfish.

"I think Gene and James are still inside," she yells. Max tightens his grip on her, and she can tell by the set of his shoulders, the way he turns his face away, he wishes he could do more. He wishes he could be the hero and charge inside.

It's crushing to know she can physically do what he cannot and she starts to cry. Her perfect makeup must be blurred, she must look like a wreck, and she turns away too.

And it started out as such a good day, too.

--

Harlan wakes up alone in Scott's bed. Scott, the inconsiderate blanket hog, left the sheets and comforter strewn along the other side of the bed. He also left the fan on. Harlan wakes up cold.

The alarm clock never went off, but if the blinking red numbers are anything to go by, it's a little too late to try and make to first—or even second—period. Harlan doesn't worry about rushing. He stretches his arms and legs enough to make his entire body vibrate. He feels so good, so well rested, the tips of his fingers glow. It's still damn cold. He makes the fan stop.

Embarrassment comes next. He pretty much promised Scott some nookie and completely failed to deliver when he fell asleep mid-kiss.

The bathroom door is wide open. Harlan has no clue where Scott is, but he smells coffee, so the kitchen is a pretty good guess.

He stops in the bathroom first, flipping the lights on with a roll of his shoulders without realizing. After he finishes washing his hands and walks out, the light snap off.

Scott's older brother has a room just down the hall. The door is open. Harlan looks in. The room is spotless, devoid of any character save a bed and an aquarium with really small turtles on some rocks. Harlan doesn't remember seeing Tim's car recently. Maybe he's out of town.

He thinks about his dreams as he walks downstairs. One was all about his tenth birthday party, when all thirty kids were playing tag in the back yard, only every time he finally caught up with someone, he shocked them. One by one, the kids fell to the ground. After that, he touched every single balloon, watching them burst without sound. He doesn't really bother trying to interpret them.

Scott's not in the kitchen, but a big coffee mug and a little note with a smiley face are. He's also not in the living room, where Scott left the big screen TV on the cartoon channel. Both immature and a waste of energy. Harlan turns it off.

Finally, he stumbles through the back door and onto the patio. He takes a long, delicious drink from his mug and sets his down on the little table. The four matching chairs are pushed in neatly, hardly ever used, save for Scott and maybe Tim.

Come to think of it, Harlan hasn't seen Scott's dad in a long time. He's constantly in business meetings or halfway around the world, doing some job he and Scott are both really vague about.

Harlan wanders down to the edge of the pool, expecting to find Scott lounging at the bottom of the deep end. He's still half-asleep, and is confused to find the pool empty.

He calls Scott's name, but gets no answer.

An inane thought strays through his mind. Maybe Scott went to the store.

He feels like an idiot standing around in the back yard in just his boxers. Scott is probably walking around somewhere, fully dressed, and knowing how absent-minded he is, he probably forgot Harlan is even here.

Two hands on his bare back and a firm push banish the thought. He teeters for a second, arms flailing. A single finger between his shoulder blades sends him into the water face-first.

The water is freezing. Harlan utters a cry underwater. Bubbles push to the surface. He curls his fingers in a fist and thrashes to the surface. Once his head is above water, he realizes the entire pool is lit up.

Scott looks caught between amusement and shock. Harlan was wrong in his earlier assumption. Scott is wearing nothing but his boxer briefs, low on his hips, and Harlan forgives him instantly. The grabs the edge and pulls himself out of the water. It crackles and hisses and goes dark again.

"What, were you waiting in the bushes until I woke up?"

"Nah, I just woke up a little bit ago. I just kind of wandered around. I wanted to think. I didn't know if things would be, uh, awkward. Because of, uh."

"Close encounters of the gay kind?" Harlan, asks, amused.

Scott huffs. "Well, there was all this talk about adrenaline yesterday, and you fell asleep last night. A guy has to wonder." Harlan slides his boxers off and wrings them out. Scott sputters for a second. "Dude," he says. "Dude!"

"That was kind of the first time I've ever woken up in someone else's bed," Harlan says. He stretches once more and slides his slightly drier boxers back on. "I kind of always thought that someone else was supposed to be around."

He waits for Scott to comment on his confession. The two stand quietly for a moment. Scott finally yells, "You can't just get naked right by my pool and talk about waking up with other people and—and—you are so bad for my damn blood pressure, Harlan Grace!"

Harlan smiles and darts forward for a quick kiss. "Good morning to you, too."

"You're the devil," Scott mutters.

"The coffee is good, but how about we grab some cereal and watch some cartoons?"

"Naked?" Scott asks hopefully.

Harlan graciously accepts these terms. They have done this a million times, though usually Max is around. And usually they at least have boxers. Harlan isn't really modest, though.

Scott's dad gives him a limitless budget when it comes to groceries, so there are ten different kind of cereal in their giant pantry. He grabs the kind with raisins and whole grain, while Scott goes for marshmallows and sweetness.

He thinks the TV on before they even reach the living room. "Showoff," Scott mutters.

They both shuck their boxers at the edge of the couch. Harlan situates himself carefully so he doesn't spill his cereal. Scott crowds in next to him and pulls a blanket over their laps.

Harlan finds out mid-bite he can control the volume. Cool.

"It's like you don't even realize you're doing it," Scott says.

Harlan glances over. A drop of milk dribbles down Scott's chin. He wipes it away with his thumb. "What do you mean?"

"I still freak out when I hear the turtles in the morning. I only saw Wendy for a few hours yesterday, and for part of that we were stopping a bank robbery." He laughs a little hysterically. "She looked like a wreck. James is so spacey; I think he could actually fly before all this went down. I don't really know what to think of Gene, except he might have low self esteem. But you, you act like this is your second nature. Sorry for the cliché, but you literally light up the room when you walk in. I mean, I am the tiniest bit messed up over this. Do you even care?"

Harlan chews his cereal thoughtfully. "Just to be clear, are we talking about your feelings or mine?" Scott bares his cereal-covered teeth in answer. "Okay, okay. I just don't think it's a big deal."

"You don't—Harlan, we have powers. Mutant abilities. We are freaks. Phrase it however you want. How can you just accept this?"

"Well, it's kind of the same with you. I mean, I never expected to wake up in bed with you—which technically hasn't happened yet—but that doesn't mean I don't welcome it. Until Gene figures out what happened to us that night, this is something I don't think will go away on its own. Better to learn to control it than freak out every second of every day."

They work on their cereal in silence. Harlan assumes Scott is thinking about what he just said. During the next commercial, he asks, "Do you want to talk about it, or something? Because I am okay with sharing feelings, as long as it doesn't interrupt Scooby."

Scott shrugs. "I can talk to animals and am now officially the best lifeguard in the world. There's not really much else to say. You're just so damn Zen about all of this. I've always know you're hard to phase, but seriously. We have powers, actual super powers, and you are like Buddha. A hot, skinny Buddha."

"And naked," Harlan adds helpfully.

"About that."

"Yeah. How about that?"

Scott shifts around. "You mentioned this being the first time you've ever…help me out here."

"Dude, we've been best friends since puberty. If I had ever hooked up with someone, you would know. I've just never really been interested in anyone. Except you, I mean."

"I can't hear you, dude. I think my ego just over inflated and burst my eardrums."

"On the bright side, you won't have to listen to the turtles anymore."

"Ha, ha, you are so funny." Scott leans his head on Harlan's shoulder and looks up into his face.

Something triggers in Harlan's brain, a fuzzy thought just out of his reach. "Wait. About the turtles. Your brother's turtles."

Scott hides his face behind his cereal bowl and practically shovels it into his mouth.

"Where is Tim? I haven't seen him around."

"That's where he is. Around. He goes on these road trips. I watch the turtles, who he carelessly abandoned."

"Huh. You never mentioned."

"You're still not surprised." Scott sounds a little in awe. "I tell my brother is busing around wherever, probably sleeping in ditches, turtles totally need a nurturing environment by the way, and you are made of stone. No reaction to anything."

"I freaked out," Harlan blurts. "The night I went to figure out how Gene was involved, I freaked out. I caught him in a chokehold. I was mostly upset about stepping on all of the shards of glass as soon as I woke up in the morning. That kind of thing surprises a guy."

"Okay, seriously, not to ignore you shocking admission, but are Gene and James…anything?"

Harlan shrugs, making Scott's head roll around. "Not sure. Gene strikes me as asexual. Or science-sexual. I don't know, man. James' body language, though—"

"Oh, you read body language now?" He grunts as Harlan shoves him off of his shoulder and into a sprawl on the couch. The blanket dips low between his legs, one of which is now free and hanging off the couch.

"I am completely bilingual. I speak English and body language," Harlan says, to which Scott says 'smooth.' "Anyway, if you would stop giving me grief for one second, I could tell you that James seems pretty interested."

Scott says dryly, "But you never picked up on my…feelings for you?"

"It's easier to see when it doesn't involve your own personal interest. But it does," Harlan stammers, weirdly flustered, "involve my personal interest."

Scott pulls a face, but he's blushing. He doesn't have any smart quip ready. Harlan stacks their empty bowls and sets them on the table.

"Gene has this theory that we all got a power that goes with our personality. Me, I'm a swimmer. And while I don't agree with PETA, I am an animal lover. I already gave my opinion on James. I can't figure the rest out. I especially don't understand yours. I mean, why electricity?"

Harlan grins. "Dude, didn't you know?" Scott looks at him blankly. "I'm afraid of the dark."

--

Gene has never really been that into music. He assumes most kids in his grade like the same kind of music, with a few exceptions. He enjoys silence, and sometimes like the songs Wendy listens to in the car.

James is fanatic about music. He does a silly little shuffle as he opens his trumpet case. The case and the instrument both look old. James picks up a little bulbous metal part and carefully pushes it into the body. This is the closest Gene has ever been to an actual instrument.

He stands in the doorway of the music room, absolutely no idea what to do with his hands. What if James expects him to clap or something? Is he supposed to compliment him at the end?

Gene really hopes James does not suck.

The band room and cafeteria are the only rooms in the school with skylights.

The sun catches on his hair, his sharp cheekbones, and finally on the trumpet. He puffs out his cheeks and makes his eyes really wide. Gene laughs and James smiles brightly.

He keeps his cheeks puffy as he starts to play, and it sounds nothing like what Gene imagined it would. He imagined it would be choppy, as brassy as it looks. The notes are smooth. James' long, pale fingers fly over the three keys.

He makes it look easy.

They make eye contact for a minute, and James curls his lips behind his little mouthpiece. The sight makes Gene suck in a breath a little.

James spends the next few notes with his eyes closed and a blissful expression on his face. He obviously loves to play. His feet slowly lift off of the ground and he rises, unaware. Gene is captivated by the sight; James hunches his shoulder over a quick succession of low, smooth notes, and snaps his body straight again as they get higher. Gene notices every small detail. James' cheeks are reddish, and he curls his eyebrows in and together every time he takes a breath.

His shirt pulls tight over his back, putting every little bone in his back on display. James is so thin, the kind of thin that always makes Wendy coo and talk about taking people home and feeding them like they're pets or something.

He doesn't look sick or anything, just thinner than most kids their age. His pants are tight all the way down to his ankles, where the fabric is pushed up to accommodate his bright sneakers.

The same sneakers he used to prop the door at the bank, and the same sneakers he dropped on Gene's head just a few days ago.

Gene thinks about it as he watches James twist and bend in the light. He woke up less than a week ago with a burning sensation under his skin and the ability to become whoever he wants. He wonders how James felt the morning after the night no one remembers.

Maybe he woke up several inches, or even feet, above his bed, or maybe he didn't realize until he was outside on the sidewalk, skipping through the air.

And he would skip, too. Gene just knows it. James is a skipper.

James is so happy, and it's such a contrast to the way Wendy holed herself up in her room and cried for days and days. She was maybe a little justified in her reaction, since most girls don't wreck the bathroom for a morning shower.

Gene, though, he's always felt like a stranger in his own skin.

Even with his ability, though, he could never mimic James. He knows, just watching him right now. There is so much more to James than his angles and attitude. He has this complete love for life that Gene thought was only possible in The Sound of Music.

James' song finally comes to an end and he opens his eyes. He looks surprised to find himself five feet in the air, but only laughs.

And yeah, Gene maybe feels a bit of a zing in his stomach.

James pretends like he's walking down a set of stairs. He touches his feet gingerly to the ground just a few feet in front of Gene, and Gene really can't help but reach out and tug down the bottom of James' shirt, which is hitched up on one of his hips.

James just makes this face, lips pulling wide over the top row of his teeth. His eyes crinkle a little at the corner. He wags his eyebrows at Gene, and it's so ridiculous it startles a laugh out of him.

"You're good," Gene offers, completely honest. He feels awkward, and the words feel thick and clumsy on his tongue.

"Really?" James fidgets a little. Moves his trumpet from hand to hand, reaches up to tuck some stray hair behind his ear.

"You have to know you're good, you have a solo at the concert."

"Well, yeah." He shakes his head enough for the hair to fall back against his cheek. Tugs on the collar of his shirt. "But I didn't know you think I'm good. That's totally different, you know!"

"What does my opinion matter?"

He presses keys idly, playing a silent tune with nervous hands. Looks down at his shoes, gazes up at Gene through his eyelashes.

The last steals Gene's breath.

It's like this perfect moment or something, which is, of course, when the fire alarm goes off.

James jumps away and into the air, wild-eyed. The sound echoes throughout the room, which happens to have great sound quality. Gene throws a useless hand over his ear and jerks James back onto the ground with the other.

He knows this isn't a drill because people are screaming, and there is a moment where everything goes quiet in a deafening way and the ground shakes.

James' fingers go slack and Gene stumbles trying to catch the trumpet before it can hit the ground, despite the fact that James can do the same without moving. James shouts something, but Gene can't hear over all of the noise once the alarm picks up again.

He pulls James out through the double doors and into the most chaotic scene of his life. Most people are running in the direction of the main entrance. The people are coming from the lower level. Gene's gym class runs by.

There is a trail of smoke hugging the walls and ceiling down the hall.

Naturally, he runs toward the flames.

James resists, tugging on his arm and yelling a stream of words Gene can't decipher. The stairs to the lower level are at the end of the hall, and Gene knows, in the pit of his stomach, that's the fire is coming from the lab.

From his lab. No one else uses the room during the day but him and the freshman science classes, which aren't until after the last lunch period. Gene almost breaks both of their necks running down the two flights of stairs into what most people refer to as the dungeons.

The halls are completely empty. They pass the locker rooms and a few classrooms, round the corner, and skip to a stop just before they can reach the science lab. James slams into his back almost comically, one arm flying around his waist to keep both of them balanced.

Black smoke pours out of the room in waves and Gene loses any hope he had of finding clues about what happened to them, how they got these powers. He thought he had an idea yesterday, but there was nothing but pages of scribbles and multiple dead ends.

James is still trying to tug him back in the opposite direction, but Gene holds fast. He pries James' arm from around his waist and steps forward when he sees something move in the smoke around the doorway.

He might be going crazy from smoke inhalation, but it looks like a person, if a person were tall and twisted like the trunk of an old tree. The shape emerges from the smoke, but Gene can't see very well.

"Hey," he yells. "Are you okay?" His eyes water and James tugs even harder on his wrist. Seconds later, they go flying backwards into the concrete wall. Gene's skull cracks against the peeling paint.

He cradles the trumpet to his chest, feels blood trickle from his nose. His mom is going to kill him. First, assaulted by his sister, now this.

James screeches and crawls up the wall, hands braced back behind him. The figure stops as if stuck, smoke curling around its gnarled silhouette. Another invisible pulse hits Gene. James scrambles madly to the side in his demented crabwalk. He hits whatever it is with a shock wave of his own. Gene is going to need to run tests later.

His body is slowly pushing back into the wall, and the trumpet is digging painfully into his skin. James throws another pulse wave and grabs Gene when the body tumbles like a leaf in the wind.

Gene can barely breath, barely see, but James navigates them, feet tangling he's running so fast. Gene wants to tell him to slow down, turn around; they need to find out who or what that was. There is a sixth affected person, and he's thinking they sway more towards super villainy.

James gets them up and out of the stairwell and almost flies to the back entrance. The alarms are deafening. Smoke fills the hallways; Gene hopes everyone else got out.

James actually does trip outside. They roll into a heap, and a sneaker catches Gene in the ribs. This is not his week. He's pretty sure the hospital will be annoyed if he shows up again in so many days. His dad especially, who has yet to realize there is a big chunk of money missing from his bank account from the last trip to the ER.

They land in an awkward pile. James goes face first into the dirt and grass; Gene rolls onto his side. He sets down the uninjured trumpet and gingerly crawls to James, who is prone. When he gets James on his back, he can barely recognize him through dirt and grass stains. He looks a little worse for the wear, but okay.

His eyes blink open.

There is a tense moment before he gulps in a breath like a fish out of water. He chokes on the air, and actually coughs up a few pieces of grass.

The back courtyard is deserted. Gene's not sure if everyone congregated in the front or just ran home. He hears the wailing of fire trucks in the distance.

He is seriously never reading a comic book again. He used to think this stuff was cool. The science behind it is fascinating, but he is going to rack up some hefty medical bills pretty soon. James touches the side of his face without bandages, slowly runs his fingertips down Gene's cheek.

Gene gropes around for the trumpet and when he finally grasps it, the brass is cool against his skin. He holds it out to James, who opens his mouth just as he passes out.

Right.

Gene opens his phone to call Wendy, but gets no signal.

--

Scott never wants to leave his house. He is naked on a couch with his best friend and they just finished another belching contest. The most he ever expected from Harlan was a pat on the shoulder and acceptance. He's probably one of the only guys in the entire world this lucky.

He woke up this morning with Harlan's breath hot on his neck and it should have been creepy, but he really just had to sneak into the bathroom and jerk off like a complete sketchball.

They have a brief tussle over the remote which ends with Harlan stretching his (naked!) body over Scott's. He is so smooth, and a lot better at the whole gay thing than Scott. Harlan even said he was pretty much Scott-o-sexual, which okay, this is weird, but he kind of never wants to leave this couch or the company of his naked companion.

It might be embarrassing that he pops a boner in less than three seconds. Harlan snickers, because he probably just thought of the word boner too, and who doesn't giggle about it?

Harlan tucks his hands under Scott's head just as he hitches up his hips, and Scott almost breaks his record short of sixteen seconds. He is maybe about to have sex, though, only not that kind of sex, just the fun teenage kind, and he kind of wants to last.

Static darts on his skin like tiny bolts of lightning, and in response, he runs his fingers along Harlan's jaw and Jesus, bubbles trail behind. They cling to Harlan's skin and burst one by one, which makes Harlan shiver.

Harlan drops his face into Scott's neck and pants, and the volume very subtly increases on the TV. Scott is relieved, because sex sounds extremely embarrassing out loud, especially when he moans like this is some porno.

They don't do anything fancy like a porno, just nice, long open-mouthed kisses and hips snapping together completely out of rhythm.

It's completely perfect in every way.

Harlan bites down light and wet on the juncture of Scott's neck and shoulder and he doesn't know how he is supposed to be able to last through stuff like that. He twines a leg around Harlan's hips and jerks him down in retaliation, and suddenly it's like a race.

And then Harlan pulls a hand free and shoves it beneath the blanket hanging over their waists and Scott almost screams when Harlan's grip sends tiny shocks all throughout his body. Scott just hopes he doesn't come bubbles or something.

Scott takes a deep breath and sticks his own hand down there, and this is really for real both of their first times, and has he mentioned how lucky he is? His hand is wet and almost slippery, and Harlan definitely finishes before him, but if Scott's being honest, only by about ten seconds.

They just kind of lay there for a second.

Harlan starts to laugh. Scott is offended for maybe a millisecond before he realizes they just kind of ruined the Swiss import couch. His dad won't care, though.

This whole part is just messy and sticky, and Scott wants the clean sex part back. Harlan makes a face and wipes them off with the blanket, which, gross.

They start laughing all over again.

"I am in favor of doing that again in five minutes."

Harlan sits up and scrubs a little more closely with the blanket, which is thick, and not really the best for…absorbing.

Ew.

"Not all of us have the sex drive of the energizer bunny. And, yeah, we pretty much lasted for a commercial break, but that was pretty cool first time sex. Let's get some condoms for next time, dude. That was really cool up until I had to use this shitty old blanket, and yeah, I know your aunt knitted it as a wedding present to your mom and dad, but seriously, dude. I don't want to think of your aunt during all that."

Scott has never heard Harlan say so much as once. Harlan has probably never heard himself say as much. "Go on, ramblin' man," he teases, "tell me more."

"I think I'm done. Hey, where's your soccer ball? I'm in the mood for a game."

Scott groans. "Seriously? We just…how can you want to play soccer? I want to crawl into bed and nap for at least twelve hours."

Inside his head, there is a twelve-year-old girl covering her eyes and squealing with joy. He yawns. "Maybe we should opt for shower, then nap, then maybe some soccer. After dinner."

"Wow. So, you're the lazy type."

"I know, and you just drank eight cups of coffee. We just learned about our after-sex tendencies."

"It was a little revealing."

They don't really move for minutes. Scott feels loose and liquid-y, like his bones are made of water. He wants to have sex at the top of every hour for the rest of his life.

"Hey," he says, softly.

"Hello," Harlan answers, and leans forward for a nice, languid kiss.

They need to get on that hourly schedule thing. He's about to suggest this to Harlan when he hears his phone vibrating somewhere in the room.

The hunt for his cell lasts all of two rings, and the id comes up as Wendy. Weird, because it must only be second or third period by now. He flips it open and tries not to sound like he just had sex on his couch with Harlan Grace.

She sounds frantic on the other line, and her voice comes in and out in waves of static blur. "The school…"

"What's wrong?"

Harlan glances over and the TV is suddenly on mute. "Fire…Gene and James…" In the background, he can hear sirens.

"I'll be right there."

"…Seen Harlan?"

"No, I'll call him," Scott says.

He flips the phone shut and turns to find Harlan staring with a bemused expression. "What's going on?"

"There was a fire, I think. She doesn't know where Gene and James are. We need to go."

They bypass their dirty boxers and actually hop and jog up the stairs. Scott makes his closet available to Harlan. They dress quickly and silently. Harlan pockets his car keys and they're on their way to school before he can blink, tense and quiet.

Finally, Harlan says, "You kind of lied to Wendy about me being with you."

Scott fiddles with his seatbelt. "Yeah, man. I think she might be a little suspicious, us ditching school together."

"We've done it a million times before. The only difference is you and I just did some really gay stuff together." He doesn't sound angry, but Scott flinches anyway. "I mean, she's our friend, and who cares what the hell other people think?"

"I do," Scott answers quietly.

Harlan is just as quiet when he says, "Well, at least you're being honest about that."

Scott feels a buzzing in the back of his neck. They just had the most—and okay, he is a twelve-year-old girl—magical morning ever, and somehow he managed to fuck it up in about five words or less.

"Wendy mentioned a fire. Something about Gene and James. I hope they're not hurt," Scott offers.

"Yeah," Harlan says.

The sight of the school puts the rest of the conversation, if it can be called that, on hold. Plumes of black smoke surround the building, but no actual fire. Students fill the front courtyard. There are no ambulances, so Scott assumes no one is seriously hurt. Harlan pulls around the back of the school, and Scott sees two figures in the grass. One is definitely Gene, and the other is unconscious.

It's horrible, but Scott kind of wants to stay in the car and resolve whatever just happened. Harlan doesn't really seem mad, not at all, but he has this kind of disappointed look. Or maybe it's just that he won't look at Scott.

They don't bother to lock their doors behind them.

James is laid on the grass with an honest-to-God smile on his face. Scott almost laughs. "What happened?" he asks instead.

"We were in the band room when the fire alarms went off. The smoke was coming from the basement. There was someone down there," Gene rambled thickly. His voice sounded hoarse and painful. "Someone else who can do what we do. What James does. I think he used too much energy."

Scott pulls off his over-shirt and clenches it in his fist until it comes away damp. Gene looks blankly at James, surprised when Scott kneels on the ground and pushes the cotton to Gene's bleeding nose.

"We need to get this to stop bleeding." He guides Gene's shaking hand up to his nose so he can hold the shirt there. Harlan stands watch, eerily silent behind Gene, taking in the scene, unsure of what to do.

Scott lowers his ear to James lips and pushes two fingers up under his jaw. He gets a pulse and the slightest of breaths. "He's just unconscious." He holds up three fingers and watches moisture appear on the tips like dew. He smears them across James' forehead and blows a trail of cold air behind. Like kissing a scrape and making it better. Something his parents have never done, but he's seen it enough on TV.

A moan rattles free from James' throat. His eyes flicker open, golden even in the dark air.

"James? Are you okay, man?"

"Mm…"

Gene scrambles to Scott's side, peering over his shoulder. With Harlan in the back, they form a line.

"James," Scott whispers, and now the situation reverses, his mouth seconds away from James' ear, "we need you to wake up." He holds out his hands and thinks of cold sprinklers. The ground creaks beneath them once, twice, and a final time before small fountains of water burst out like leaks. The cold water dousing his face brings James too life.

He looks eerie and beautiful in the light. The water casts a weird glow off his cheeks, and smoke clings to his skin like shadows. He looks like a painting. "Wha'?"

"James, it's Scott. You're okay." He starts to struggle, still confused. "Gene is okay." This helps to calm him. His eyes roll around until they focus on Gene. James gasps in air, sits up, wide awake.

His first act of consciousness is to push Scott aside.

--

He reaches for Gene.

Gene, whose face continues to bleed. He has a crimson knot of cotton pushed up under his nose.

James nearly knocks it to the ground when he tackles Gene, arms tight around his throat. Even on his knees, he's taller than Gene in a sitting position and has to bend over. His spine pops and aches as he moves. His temples explode with pain when he twists his head to set it on Gene's shoulder.

"Idiot," he tries to yell, but it sounds more like a whisper. "Thank you."

James rubs his wet face on Gene's shirt. He had felt it before, faintly, the wetness of a kiss along his skin with a cool breath of air, the way his mom still does anytime he hurts himself around the house.

Scott is sitting on his butt, knees propped in front of him. His hair is damp against his skull, and his eyes look shining and wet, but not with tears. James can't tell with what, though. He whispers another thanks. Scott nods.

"I'm going to call Wendy," Scott says. "But first, let's get you guys in the car. Harlan, help Gene out." Something sounds weird about the way Scott tells Harlan to help, almost like he's asking. Harlan follows his orders without question.

One of James' legs really hurts, and Scott makes sure he stands on the other side when he slides James' arm over his shoulder and his own hand around James' ribs. He helps James keep the weight off it.

Once more, Gene grabs for the trumpet. James wants to tell him not to, that it's just a cheap piece of junk anyway, but they would know he was lying. His chest fills with warmth and almost bursts. He feels too heavy to lift off of the ground, though. He limps slowly and carefully next to Scott instead.

He casts a very subtle suspicious eye on Harlan. The soccer player has Gene pulled tight against his side several steps behind him and Scott. Not cool.

Scott's skin is so nice and cool, though, almost damp without being sweaty. James almost drifts back into oblivion as Scott helps boost him into the back seat. On the other side, Harlan does the same, and James scoots closer so he can rest his head on Gene's shoulder.

Scott has a really quiet conversation with Wendy. James can actually hear Wendy's side more than Scott's. After a brief moment, Scott hangs up. "Okay, so, Wendy is going to get Max to give her a ride to her place. We're all going to meet there."

Gene's house is totally becoming their headquarters.

They drive in mostly silence. Scott plays some music, but it's really quiet and slow and in a language James doesn't understand. Scott has secret hidden depths, James thinks, and he would really like to ask about all of them, but his throat hurts and Scott seems a little sad. Sometimes James doesn't like to talk when he's sad, but he totally only gets sad like once a year and his mom always bakes him a cake, so he maybe doesn't understand how Scott feels.

The blare of Harlan's cell phone makes everyone jump, including Gene, and James narrows his eyes at the passenger seat in front of him. What a complete jerk.

"Hey, mom. No, I'm fine. The principle said we should go ahead and go home." He listens for a second. "No, his dad's out of town. I'm going to go stay at his place for a while. Okay, I'll invite him. Okay. Yeah. Bye, mom."

And he's rude to his mom. In the driver's seat, Scott slumps his shoulders and seems even sadder, but he doesn't say anything to Harlan. It's weird; because James is totally sure they were making out the last night in Gene and Wendy's kitchen. Whatever is wrong, James is 100 percent sure Harlan messed things up.

Wendy is sitting on the front porch when they get to her house. There's no sign of Max. Max is really nice and also handsome, and James really hopes they get married one day, but he doesn't really want Max to know about them, because then he would know about Wendy, and some boys aren't okay with things like superpowers and super-strength in a girlfriend.

Wendy rushes to Gene, and Gene rolls his eyes at the attention. "It was James who needed help." Everyone shuffles into the front yard where the air is clean and the sun is bright.

Wendy shifts her teary gaze to James. "It's okay, I just passed out a little," he tells her. His voice sounds so gross. "Scott totally helped."

Now she looks like she wants to hug Scott. Scott just shrugs. "I didn't really do much of anything. Gene had things under control. He didn't even need CPR. Thank God, because I kind of don't remember how to do it."

"Yeah," Harlan says, and it's a surprise to hear his voice, "and that would have been a little gay."

Everything gets quiet in a different way. James hobbles over to Harlan and is totally ready to hit him even though he doesn't like violence.

Scott jumps between them, though. "Hey, it's okay. I kind of deserved that. So," he says, like he's about to talk about the weather or sports or something, "I'm gay."

James falters. "Duh," he says. "That doesn't give that stupid jerk the right to say things like that."

"I was kind of a jerk about it earlier," Scott says gently. He puts his hands on James shoulders to steady him. "Listen, I'm going to head home, I have some things to take care of. Gene, call me later and catch me up."

Gene is watching the scene distantly, but even he sends an angry look in Harlan's direction. He nods a second later, like it took the words a really long time to reach him.

James is so, so tired.

Harlan says, "Scott."

Wendy snaps, "Harlan."

Scott slams the car door and zips out of the driveway.

"I was in the best mood this morning," Wendy growls. She slams her foot into the ground and leaves a dent in the grass. "Let's get this over with."

James waves his hands at Harlan. "You're a stupid jerk," he yells, and limps past him to the front door. He touches the handle, and when he turns around, Harlan is gone. Gene and Wendy are a few steps behind him, and they all pile in the front door and into the worried arms of Mr. and Mrs. Landry.

Mrs. Landry actually pulls James into a tight hug. "Oh, honey, we saw the news. Are you kids okay?" She looks over at Gene and squawks a little. "Gene! Baby, what happened?"

Gene still has bandages all over his face and under his nose the skin is dark and crusty. James still thinks he's super cute. "I'm okay, mom. We were in the lower level when the fire broke out. The school nurse said I was fine, it's just shallow stuff."

Speaking of nurses, James needs to see his mom right now. She's probably still in bed from her late shift and hasn't heard about the fire. He doesn't want her to worry, though. He doesn't want to interrupt Mrs. Landry's teary tirade or anything, but he has so ask. "Can someone drive me home? I want to see my mom."

"I will," Wendy says. "Gene, you need to lie down." He looks like he might argue. "Seriously. My class was the first to get out when we heard the fire alarms, I spent the whole time socializing. I'm fine, and you are not. And I'm going to be honest, you could use some beauty sleep."

"You really don't," James throws in, because it's true. "Need the beauty sleep, I mean. But maybe you should lie down. I'm going to take a nap, too."

Once again, he darts forward and grabs Gene in a tight hug, in front of his parents and Wendy and anyone out in the street who happens to be looking in through the open door. "Thanks for saving me," he whispers.

"Ditto," Gene says, and lets his parents lead him upstairs.

Wendy holds his arm all the way to her car.

They chat a little on the drive. It's not long, only a few blocks away, but James' foot hurts too badly for him to walk and he can't just float around in broad daylight. Well, he could, but he doesn't want Gene to yell at him.

They don't talk about the fire, and Wendy doesn't ask about the person who hurt him and Gene. Maybe she doesn't know. James doesn't want to be the one to tell her.

"You need me to come in?" she asks when they pull up in front of his apartment building. There isn't really a driveway.

"No, it's okay. My mom might be kind of cranky. She worked the overnight shift, so she's probably still in bed. I need to make her some lunch," he adds as an afterthought.

"You're really sweet, James." Wendy holds her fingers carefully on the steering wheel. "I know Gene thinks the world of you, seriously."

James almost has enough energy to fly again when he hears this. "Really?"

"Really," she says. "Science is the only thing that comes to him naturally. Everything else can take a while."

"I can wait," James promises. He opens the door and slides out of the car. "Thanks, Wendy. You are a super good friend."

She laughs a little. "Thanks. I'll see you later."

He waves as she pulls away. He makes it up the two flights of steps to their place, and tries the door. It's unlocked. His mom must have gotten home after he left for school. He bypasses their tiny, dimly lit kitchen (she must have had a snack, too) and goes straight to her bedroom.

She is asleep, like he figured she would be. The covers are pulled up to her chin and her light red hair fans over her pillow in waves, the way it does after she's had it up in a bun for hours straight. James has to limp on tiptoe so he doesn't wake her. He crawls into the bed, on top of the covers, and breathes in the smell of hospitals and shampoo.

He falls asleep, still alive, smiling.

--

"I'm sorry," Harlan says when Scott opens the front door, to which Scott replies, "I've been keeping some stuff from you."

Harlan feels like shit on the bottom of a shoe. He felt like someone else said the words that made him a complete jackass earlier. He never even had a right to be upset or disappointed. "Okay, we'll get to that, but first I need you to know I'm sorry."

Scott waves his hand around. They continue to stand in the doorway. "Under the bridge, dude. How do you feel about dating me?"

"It's been pretty good so far," Harlan answers honestly. Scott looks surprised. "Oh. I meant we should start, but that works, too."

Scott still looks distracted. Harlan leans forward and kisses him. "It's okay for you to be angry," Scott tells him after the kiss. "But don't be disappointed, okay? Or at least try not to be."

Harlan nods.

"You want to come in?"

The dirty blanket is still on the couch. It's weird to think they had sex earlier today, weirder to think two outrageously awful and unconnected events took place in the last twenty-four hours. They weren't even around for the second one.

Scott moves toward the kitchen, but Harlan stops him with a hand on his wrist. "You said something about secrets before."

In response, Scott initiates another kiss. He's kind of rough, swiping his tongue against Harlan's and tugging at Harlan's bottom lip with his teeth. Harlan lets the kiss go on for about a minute before he gently pushes Scott away. "It's possible I'm nervous," Scott admits.

"No shit."

"This is actually something I meant to tell everyone at once. It affects all of us."

Harlan drops his fingers from Scott's wrists and twists their fingers together. "I can call Gene?"

"I'm pretty sure they are all either asleep or traumatized. It can wait. I guess the important thing is that I'm moving."

The bottom drops out of Harlan's stomach. He dips his mouth down in a frown. "What?"

"I'm selling the house. Maybe we should sit down?" Scott leads him into the kitchen and Harlan sits while Scott fills a big plastic cup with ice water. He joins Harlan at the table and sits the cup between them. "So, I'm moving into an apartment downtown, an empty loft. I already found a place and I talked to some realtors. I've had the idea for a while, because this place is so expensive to keep up with, and once all this stuff happened, I figured my money could go to better things. The loft is for us." Harlan stares. "The team, I mean," Scott adds hastily, cheeks and nose turning pink. His blush looks more like a rash, and Harlan has always found it kind of charming. Especially now.

"Does your dad know about this?"

"Oh. That."

"Yeah, that."

"So, hey, he left a year ago. He's been living in France with his girlfriend—who is my age—for the last five months. Tim, uh, Tim is with him. They never really told me. They sent a nice postcard, though."

"What the fuck." Harlan is admittedly surprised, which, seriously, doesn't happen to him very often. He's also angry. This is a big deal. Scott is acting like Harlan usually would: unaffected. "You're just telling me now? That happened to you, and you're just telling me now?"

"How do you tell your best friend—or anyone—your family doesn't want you? My dad left me a trust fund, left me the house, and I control the stock. I have a share in his company."

Harlan has to blink for a second to keep his thoughts in order. "Okay, so, to recap, you kept this from me because? Was that some macho thing, going through this alone? Because Scott, I don't know if you even heard or understand what happened. Your dad left you."

"I know that! Fuck, Harlan, do you think I want you to see me cry? Because I am mostly okay with being gay, but I am not okay with crying."

"Hey. Sorry. I get that. It's just; I'm your best friend. I'm your boyfriend, which, hey, is kind of weird, but in a good way. I'm the one you talk to about this. I'm the one you tell, Scotty. A year. I mean, shit, Scott." He can't resist pushing his face into Scott's neck. "I just wish you had said something."

"I mean, I had a crush on you, how creepy would it be for me to tell you my dad pays me thousands a year to not be his son? Hey, maybe hook up with me out of pity. I didn't think you'd think more highly of me, dude. I kind of thought you'd feel sorry for me or something."

"Your logic is so retarded. You are so retarded."

"I know."

"It's not about what I think of you. It's that I worry. I care about you. You're my best friend. In case I haven't said that enough."

"It's good to hear," Scott murmurs.

"Good. Any more secrets?"

"I might have groped you this morning while you were asleep."

"Dude!"

"You had morning wood, I couldn't exactly resist. And you were drooling, it was kind of irresistible."

Harlan takes a big gulp of water. And another. "Wow. So, barring that, you psycho-rapist, I'm sorry about your dad. He always seems kind of weird when I saw him. And your mom…well, all of that sucks."

He can't imagine going through life without one of his parents. Scott's mom died when he was young, though. Harlan never met her, but he can't imagine she would be the kind of woman to marry and love a man who would abandon one of his kids.

"The turtles?"

"I made him leave them. He wanted to set them loose in the back yard, like they can handle that. Sometimes they miss him. They know his name, dude."

"You don't need assholes like that. You're too good for them."

"Harlan Grace: always knowing the right thing to say. Thanks. I still have my grandparents, though. And yeah, maybe they get bad phone reception in the Hamptons every year on my birthday, but they're still okay."

"Yeah. It's just bizarre. My parents are still happy together, and we have sixteen people over every Christmas."

"I've been meaning to tell you, your cousin Adrian is hot."

The ice cube Harlan scoops out of the cup hits Scott square on the forehead. "Don't perv on my family. He's like, thirty-two. And has a kid."

"Mm, hot dad." Scott laughs almost helplessly. "So, I have to tell everyone else eventually."

"We have time." Harlan stands and stretches his arms. "I remember you saying something about a post-sex nap earlier? Of course, that's probably expired by now, so maybe we should renew it."

Scott doesn't lift his eyes from Harlan's exposed stomach. "I think…you just broke my brain." He accepts Harlan's hand and follows him to the stairs.

"One more thing," Harlan says. "This team thing. I know Gene is the brains, but you're a natural leader. You need to be the guy in charge."

"That's something we need to talk about with everyone else."

"No one will argue. The way you handled the situation with James and Gene today…we need that. James is like our own little nurse—" "Sexy," Scott interrupts. "—Wendy is strong, but she's too emotional." "Sexist," Scott interrupts once more, and adds, "And you? You're like a rock, Harlan. Don't take this the wrong way, but sometimes it's like you don't really feel anything. You're calm and level-headed, and you can keep us all together when we need it. I wasn't entirely kidding about you knowing the right thing to say."

"Yeah, but I don't always know the right thing to do," Harlan manages. "And that's what we need you for. No arguments. Hey, I wonder if I'm any good at blowjobs."

Scott actually stumbles. "Oh my god, dude. Don't just say stuff like that! Why are you taking this so well? Guys don't just turn gay. Oh my—are we experimenting?"

Harlan throws a look over his shoulder. "Did you miss the part where we're dating? Was I the only one there for that? Because that's going to make Valentine's Day a really awkward holiday."

"You're so retarded," Scott says, but it sounds more like, "You're really fucking wonderful."

At the top of the stairs, Harlan turns and blocks Scott's path. "Hey."

"Hello," Scott replies slowly. "What's up with the traffic jam?"

Harlan reaches out, touches Scott's shoulders. He follows the curve of muscle down over his arms. "I was just thinking," he murmurs, leaning forward. He stops before their lips can touch. "How do you feel about costumes?"

--

James wakes to the smell of pancakes.

He feels disoriented, only half-awake. The clock reads just past eight. His jeans are hitched and twisted around his ankles and one of his hands is asleep.

He finds his mom in the kitchen. She still looks so tired, but he barely ever sees her wide awake. She's busy doing his job. "Hi, mama," he says, and she turns and opens her arms to him.

"Are you okay? I made some pancakes."

"The school caught on fire a little. Gene saved me," he says, and his cheeks warm up and his chest almost hurts.

She smiles, and it is so, so tired. "I'm so glad you're okay." As if to prove it, she pushes her face into his hair and breathes deeply. James wriggles around, because he's sixteen and is totally supposed to pretend he hates this kind of thing. She kisses a sore spot on his temple and blows on it. "You're still not allowed to date until you're seventeen," she whispers against his skin.

"No fair! Gene is totally a gentleman and what if he goes to kiss me in a super romantic way and I have to tell him I'm not allowed? What if he goes and finds someone who can?"

"Make a deal?" His mom asks, pulling away to glance at the pancakes. They look so yummy and even have chocolate chips in them. "You can have your kiss. But you tell him you have three months until he can take you to the movies or dinner or have anything besides a kiss."

"I don't even know if he likes me. Maybe he—maybe he likes girls and I'm just being stupid!"

His mom taps his cheek with the warm plastic end of the spatula. "It's stupid to think he wouldn't be interested. Too many people are interested. That's why we have rules."

"That rule is so archaic, though. Everyone else is allowed to date."

"Everyone else is in too big a hurry."

"Scott and Harlan are dating," he tells her, and makes sure to make Harlan's name sound like a piece of trash he was forced to pick up.

"Well, they don't have a mom like me."

"Duh, no one has a mom like you. You are totally one-of-a-kind."

She smiles softly. "You must have gotten it from me, then. Come on, grab a plate, dinner is ready."

They're a little burnt on the bottom, but James really does not mind. He digs into them like he hasn't eaten in days, drenched in butter and syrup. They watch the home shopping network and make fun of the ugly, overpriced outfits together.

They sit smushed together one the loveseat, shoulders touching. He feels sleepy again once he finishes his food. His mom must notice, because she lowers the volume and her voice to tell him, "I have work tonight at eleven. I'll see you in the morning. If school is cancelled, clean your room."

"Mm, okay," he mumbles.

He's asleep again in seconds.

In his mom's bedroom, shoved under the extra pillow, his vibrates three times.

Gene doesn't leave a message.

The text comes right after from an unknown number with an address in the city and a time to meet.

--