Chapter One

Sunlight poured in through the windows and filled the Miss McCann's homeroom, as did the low hum of chitter chatter, with students gossiping and chatting about their summers. When the teacher walked in, though, the classroom fell silent. "Class, we have a new student today," she began, and sat at her desk.

Technically, it wasn't the first day of school, so Miss McCann almost was legally bound to give this spiel. In all reality, the new student, Clarance Reed, hadn't really been new, per se. He'd been living in town for all of three days, and, since three days ago was the start of school, he hadn't been enrolled until now. So far, though, he was fairly disappointed in the school. They allowed him to wear his military coat he'd acquired from his grandfather from class to class, which was cool, but their system was slow and insanely out of date. Most of his teachers probably wouldn't know he existed yet.

That's what you get for coming to a small suburban school corp, he thought glumly. For most of his time in school, he'd been in big schools in the city. This one was tiny compared to the last school he'd attended.

Apparently, though, Miss McCann knew about him. "Clarance, could you please stand and tell us a little about yourself, please?"

With a small shrug, Clarance stood. "Um… I'm Clarance Reed, and I moved here from a big metropolitan school corporation." He shrugged again, not wanting to say much else. After all, his life had kinda been crap, and he didn't want to think about what had happened up until that point. This move gave him a new chance, and a bit more hope for the world.

"Thank you, Clarance." Miss McCann didn't say anything to him after that, and that was fine, as Clarance didn't have anything to say either.

He cast his gaze around the room. There was a broad mix of boys and girls in the classroom. Silently, using their body language, and any identifiers, he made a mental attempt to understand them. There was a young… man, Clarance thought, who had written "Hatter George" at the top of his page. He was dressed like some of the girls in the homeroom, and that's what made Clarance second-guess the boy's gender for a moment. His eyes were bright and cheerful, and his hair was tossed around his shoulders in a big mess, as if grooming wasn't his top priority, even though makeup was.

A girl in a pretty floral sun dress sat across the aisle, in front of Hatter. Her hair was curly and blond, and when she turned, Clarance noted that she had a large pair of circular glasses perched on her nose. Her posture indicated that she was rather meek and shy, but her smile was confident. There were paint splatters on her flats, and a smudge of blue on her cheek. Clarance now was under the assumption that she was an artist. As he watched, a paper fluttered from her binder, with an intricate design scrawled across its front. Artist, definitely, he thought dully, not even amused by his minor deductions.

Behind Hatter, a young man with a blank face frowned down at his worksheet. Next to him, there was a chittering girl who was giggling with another, occasionally casting glances at Clarance. On both of their desks were top-turning notepads and several pencils, a thing that perked his interest slightly.

"Are you guys with the newspaper?" he inquired in a low, hoarse whisper to the three across the aisle.

The guy slightly behind Clarance lifted his gaze a little let out a grunt of, "Yeah."

The girl across the aisle asked, "What's it to you?" And Clarance got the impression that these Newsies weren't a very friendly crew. There again, he knew from experience that they tended to approach newbies with an elitist, I'm-better-than-you mentality. He knew this because he was a Newsie at his last school, and a damn good one at that.

"I'd like to join the newspaper writing madness." He leaned back in his seat, a wry grin creeping onto his face. "I was the editor at my last school, and I had a weekly editorial column."

The girl narrowed her eyes. "Oh, really?"

"I was just the school's most hated reporter. Kinda glad I left, kinda disappointed I'm going to have to claw my way up again." Crossing his arms over his chest, Clarance continued, "And all I need is a little dirt to get myself started with a couple over blown mountains of stories and then some solid front-pagers."

The guy's brow crinkled a little as he processed the information, but the clipped comments he'd made now turned into a compliment punctuated with a clap on Clarance's back. "Wow, you're my kinda man."

Clarance beamed at the praise. "This mean I'm in?"

"You're in. I'm Luce, your editor and front page jockey; that's Pipes, our runner, and Marie, our second in command and weather writer. Over there's Ana, our photographer, and Maurice, the black guy, writes for sports." When he smiled, it was crooked, something Clarance took mental note of as he just put on a face of not disgust, but pride. "Mandatory meetings after school until four thirty on Wednesday, where we discuss all the recent rags and dirt."

Clarance knew through his time with his last school paper that 'mandatory meetings' was just way of rephrasing 'gossip columnist time,' especially when paired with the two words 'rags' and 'dirt'. It was a heist to rise to the school's most hated group in the school. Nothing missed the newspaper's ears. Especially not while he was working for them. He let out a low chuckle. "Got it. I'm good with names; shouldn't be any trouble getting to know all of you."

"Piper Griggs, Luceil Welsh, Clarance Reed… I understand all of you are making friends, but it can wait until passing period." Miss McCann pushed her wire frames up on her nose and peered at the group through the lenses with a gaze that didn't appear amused.

"Yes, ma'am," they all replied, but Luce cast them all a glance that spoke without words, reading, It better continue later, or else.

After class, Luce made vague gestures for Clarance to follow him. All the Newsies were tailing him, occasionally casting glances at the newcomer. Clarance frowned at this, but had no desire to disagree with them. After all, this could be his group again. He needed a group like this, anyhow. Scholarships were the simple part of it – he wanted to get a writing scholarship. But another thing that he was interested in was the school's dirt.

Luce cast Clarance one last glance before turning the corner into a room nearby. Clarance followed like a lost little puppy, but not because he was lost, because he was interested.

"Welcome to our lair," Pipes said with a coy grin, tossing her caramel-colored long hair around and out of her face with a flick of her head before she sat down at a desk.

Piles of paper littered every corner of the room. There was a cork board with papers pinned up on it, and beside that, a white board with text scrawled up on it – at the very top, there were the words "Friday's rags" in wide print. The tech hadn't been upgraded in what Clarance presumed to be more than five years, considering the quality of the computers and printers. The room was dim, but cozy, file cabinets filling the empty space. It was like a maze to get to each other's desks. After everyone had taken a seat, Clarance noted one desk open. The name tag was in the trash and all the papers on the desk were completely organized.

"What happened here?" he mused, taking the name tag from the trash bin. The name read 'B.J. Morcott' in capital letters. Wasn't a fancy name tag at all; as a matter of fact, it seemed to be that it'd been reused a lot. Absently, Clarance began to brush it off.

"Oh, no biggie," Marie chimed. "Just another day at the office for him."

Clarance hummed a little bit of an "Mm… hmm…" in a disbelieving fashion. "What happened to this B.J. guy?" he asked monotonously, pulling the paper from the tag.

"Got ate," Maurice remarked dully, as if it were completely normal for someone to be eaten. "They found him in the Hell Hole last Friday. He was going to be on our team. Was gunna be a senior this year, but you know, he's just a little dead."

Clarance's brow furrowed, slightly disgusted.

"That's your desk, now, bud," Luce said, and gestured vaguely to the swivel chair. "No complaints."

"Dangerous job, I take it," Clarance said, lowering himself nervously into the chair.

"Very," replied Luce. "You ready for the worst, man?"

"Yeah," he managed hoarsely. He couldn't find his full voice. At the last school, it was just as dangerous. And it was natural for him to be so nervous. The guy who sat at his desk before, if his sources were correct, was eaten. The fact that they welcomed him so openly made him think… was something up with this picture? Yes, probably. What if Clarance was next?

The newest reporter shrugged the thought. He'd go about his business normally and nothing – nothing, seriously – would go wrong.

Piper, who had been hard at work at her computer, got up and waited on the printer. After the slow machine was done, she shoved a stack of fresh papers onto Clarance's new desk. "Hey, Newbie. Tack these up around the school. I've got stories to hunt."

He frowned down at the pages in front of him, picking up the first one. "There's a dance on Saturday?" he asked, reading the top. It was a nicely illustrated flyer in sleek design with bold letters offering information about the event.

"Annual," was her response. "And sorry, but I'm not going with you." After pulling back her hair, she flounced out, her boots clicking on the tile as she left.

"Don't need a date," he said to himself. "I'll go alone."