To The Mattresses

That day I'd meant to call Dani to find out where she'd been but I just never got round to it. I did my homework and then Simone called so we were busy catching up after our half day of not talking to each other. It was odd how attached I'd become to her and the guys after only knowing them a few weeks.

As I was falling asleep that night I could have sworn I heard my parents whispering outside my door but I didn't have the will-power to tear myself away from my bed and ask them what the hell they were doing. I fell asleep in minutes.

The next day was like a nightmare.

When I sluggishly dropped myself down at the breakfast table and tried to muster up an appetite I missed the looks my parents shot each other over my head. A moment passed before it dawned on me. "Dad what are you still doing here?" He was normally at work before I woke up.

My parents were usually those disgustingly kind of upbeat couples in the morning. The type that wants to make pancakes and go for morning jogs. They didn't look happy. Something was wrong.

"I took the morning off today. I don't think you'll want to be in school either. I can call your Headmaster if you want."

"Principal." I corrected. "Why?" The beginnings of panic made my stomach prickle. "What happened?"

My mother placed a comforting hand on my shoulder. "It's Dani. She's fine," she said quickly, "they said it's not permanent but it's not pleasant either. She's developed a rare kind of partial paralysis."

I jumped out of my chair, horrified. "She's paralysed?"

"It's not permanent, sweetheart." My dad took over. "Your uncle Peter called last night but we didn't want to wake you, visiting hours were over and you'd have only worried through the night. It's a disorder called Bells Palsy; an anomaly really. More like a stroke. Her motor skills are limited on one side of her body. The doctors think it might be stress related."

The idea was so ridiculous I almost wanted to laugh. "Stress?" I repeated.

"That was my reaction too." My mum confided. "Dani's usually so laid back but I suppose something must have been bothering her. She won't talk to her dad about it. He's worried this might turn into depression if it goes unchecked."

"I'll talk to her." I said immediately. "How long does this thing last?"

"She's being treated for it but some of the symptoms can last up to six weeks."

I felt weak suddenly and had to sit down again. What the hell had been going on with Dani and why hadn't she talked to me? She was my cousin Damnit. Like a sister to me. Then my anger turned into self-flagellation.

God, I should have realised something was wrong. I am such an idiot. I'd been so caught up in my own social problems I'd barely talked to her recently. And whenever we did talk she changed the topic when I asked how she was. And I let her. I should have known that something was off; she hasn't been herself for a while now. "When are we going to the hospital?"

"We can leave now." I love my dad.

I was silent through the whole car ride and although my dad tried to make me talk I didn't really respond. I felt like shit. And then I felt worse for feeling like shit when only Dani had the right to it. My dad parked the car and grabbed a pay-and-display ticket. When we got to the ward Dani was in, my mum finally snapped.

"Would you stop being so bloody selfish Felicia?"

I jumped out of my skin. "Wha?"

"How do you think your cousin's going to feel if you come in there looking and acting like somebody's dying? You're here to cheer her up not bring her down. I know I raised you to be stronger than this so start acting like it." She probably would have continued on her rant if my dad hadn't covered her mouth. She glared at him.

"What your mother's trying to say Felicia is we're aware this is hard for you but you need to be strong for your cousin. Don't worry; she's going to be absolutely fine."

I shook myself, literally and mentally. "Sorry mum. You're right. Let's go." We smiled prettily at the nurse but she still made us wait for twenty minutes before going in to see Dani. This hospital wasn't like the one from Grey's Anatomy like I'd been half expecting. None of the doctors looked younger than forty and the nurses were mostly stocky women with strained smiles and dark circles under their eyes. The waiting room was your typical white-washed affair with a small children's area and inappropriate magazines that people had donated.

Dani was sharing a room with five other occupants, mostly elderly women. The air was sterile and oppressively stuffy. My heart nearly broke when I caught sight of her. A nurse was helping her walk back from the bathroom but she was limping horribly. Half her face seemed oddly expressionless – almost drooping - and the other half was grimacing. I wondered if she was in pain.

I aimed for flippant. "Hey Dani, what's up?"

She looked up and the half of her face that still had some life to it smiled slightly. "Hey Felicia." It was an odd contortion, to see her eyes and mouth light up on one side and remain dead on the other.

The nurse helped her onto the bed and then gave us some privacy. My mum fussed around with her pillows and my dad kissed her forehead. "How are you?"

"I'm not in any pain." She said automatically. I got the feeling she had answered that question a lot. Her parents were on their way over and they'd apparently been with her all yesterday.

"When did this happen?"

"Last period yesterday," She mumbled. When she spoke it was only from one side of her mouth, a bit of drool slipped out of the other side and she brushed it away self-consciously. "I suddenly started losing control of my left side. I couldn't move my leg when I was trying to change after gym. The face thing happened after."

"They treating you right Dani love?" My mum demanded. "The food and all?"

"Never mind that…" My dad interjected. "What medication are you on? We want you healthy and doing back flips ASAP."

"Don't know about that Uncle Ben, they have me taking steroids." Another grimace. "They said I could gain weight while I was on them. I doubt I'll be doing back flips any time soon. The face could stay like this too."

I felt my eyes tear up, Dani wasn't vain but she was as image-conscientious as any teenage girl.

"Now, none of that Dani. You're going to be as right as rain, you believe it. Your dad told me the odds of a full recovery are well in your favour. Your face will be fine; you just need to take it easy."

She nodded slightly and I hoped she took his words to heart. "So…we get TV in here. Nothing good's on in the morning except the news…but ah London has a new mayor."

My parents made faint noises of interest and allowed her to change the topic but I couldn't make myself participate in the farce. I needed to speak to Dani alone. I didn't straight away. Her parents came shortly so I instead took the opportunity to take her dad aside. "Uncle Pete, did she tell you what had her so stressed out?"

"No, honey." He rubbed his tired eyes. "She won't talk to me. Not about that. She keeps insisting it was just school work but she seems to be forgetting we all know her better than that."

"How long are they keeping her here?"

"The doctor said the worst of the symptoms should be gone in a week. Her face paralysis may linger for a few weeks but as long as she isn't stressed and takes her medication there's no reason she shouldn't make a full recovery".

It was somehow more comforting and believable coming from my uncle.

The parents rushed in and out, bringing in food and then flowers, chatting until they finally all decided on a coffee run from downstairs. I seized the chance and said I'd stay with Dani. She was looking at me expectantly.

"Well? Let me have it Fel."

"I'm not going to shout at you."

"You're not?"

"No. No matter how angry I am at you right now it doesn't even begin to compare how angry I am at myself. I should have known something was going on."

She scoffed. "Don't be a moron. This is in no way shape or form your fault."

"Then whose fault is it?" I asked abruptly.

"No one's. My own. I don't know."

I stared at her, realising, "Yes you do."

"What?"

"This wasn't a random anomaly triggered by mounting academic stress. This was a breakdown triggered by someone. Who did this to you?"

She looked up sharply and I met her gaze, her ice blue eyes tried to cut through my mountainous brown ones but ice melted and the earth stayed strong. She sighed. "You're not going to like this story."

I sat down on the side of her bed. "You don't say." My tone was flat.

"Pass me the TV thing."

I did so without thinking, it was one of those touch-screen units attached to the bed that gave patients access to terrestrial TV, a phone and apparently the internet too because Dani was logging into facebook. "Hello? Dani, I'm still waiting on that story. Don't think stalling for time is going to get you anywhere cuz this," I tapped my nose, "world-class B.S detector."

She rolled her eyes. "I don't need to be made privy to your faeces sniffing ways Fel." She turned the screen to face me. The window displayed a boy's profile. He was attractive, with long dark hair and enigmatic eyes. He'd be my type if he was a few years older. The name read "Damon Long."

"Cute. What's your point?" She'd gone silent, her eyes suddenly teary. "Oh." I suddenly hated Damon Long. "This is about him?"

"I like him." She sniffed. "I really like him. For a while, things were awesome. He flirted with me a lot. I thought we'd get together, thought it was just a matter of time. All my friends said the same thing. I was such an idiot. I am an idiot."

"What happened?"

"Laura had a crush on him too."

"Laura Banks?" I recalled thinking she was old enough to be in Dani's year but I'd never really seen them together. Come to think of it, I hadn't met any of Dani's friends since I'd moved here.

"Yeah,"

"I take it you don't run in the same circles?"

"Remember me telling you our social structure mirrors yours? It's all the same, Felicia. Paul's the king of Ballard high so she's the princess. She gets whatever she wants."

"That's not the whole story."

"No," She agreed. "This is the part you're not going to like. Laura's friends with Brittany and Heather. They'd do anything for her because she's Paul's sister so I guess Brittany figured that was her way in. She probably thought helping Laura out would score points with Paul. They wield so much power in our school people will believe whatever they say."

"She started the rumour at her table, and let it spread from there. I had no idea what was going on. All of a sudden everyone was avoiding me. All the people I thought were my friends stopped talking to me. Then someone let it slip. People were saying horrible things about me." She brushed a tear away and I realised I was clenching my fists.

"They were saying that I…did things for Damon and that was the only reason he talked to me. That I had slept with all these guys, like I was some kind of slut. And everyone believed it Fel! Even the people I thought new me. They made me an outcast. I had no-one to hang out with because of our stupid clique ridden school. Guys started writing mean notes and

putting them in my locker and girls tried to trip me when I walked down corridors."

"How long has this been going on?" I demanded.

"Since just before you moved here."

"What?! And you didn't say anything? What the hell, Dani! I thought we were closer than that."

"We are. We are Fel." She grabbed my hands earnestly, her one active eye looking up at me through wet eyelashes. "I just thought I could handle it. At first it wasn't so bad, it made me see that those people weren't my real friends. But then it got worse, Laura and Damon started dating." Her voice broke. "The catcalling and backstabbing…I stopped sleeping. I couldn't handle the workload we were getting because I kept looking over my shoulder, knowing everyone hated me. And then yesterday before gym class one of Heather's cronies said something to me and I just broke down."

She took a deep breath and wiped her red eye again. "I didn't want you to find out about this. It's not like there's anything you could have done, and anyway I know how you hate situations like this. The drama." She gave a self-deprecating half-chuckle. "It's my own fault anyway, the way I was living my life, I….I shouldn't have let all this get to me. It's like you always say, there's so much more important stuff going on in the world than my little unrequited crush. I guess I'm just as pathetic as any of those girls at school."

My emotions were in so much tumult I thought I would go cross-eyed. I hated the defeated tone of her voice. I made myself respond to her last statement first. "I know I can be judgemental. But even I'm not so high-handed that I'd dismiss something that was causing you pain." I said softly, "I want you to know that. Your emotions are important Dani. This should never have gone so far."

She shrugged a shoulder weakly. "I know."

I closed my eyes, trying to get a handle on myself. I still felt guilty as hell for not seeing what was going on with my cousin but slowly a more powerful emotion was bubbling to the surface. Something long-suppressed and something I barely ever indulged. Anger. White hot anger.

I'm not quick to anger but once you get me started I'm like a steam train, picking up speed by the second. How dare they? Who did they think they were to mess with people's lives like this? Brittany just saw Dani as a pawn in her game to get to Paul but she was my cousin Damnit! Who the hell gave Brittany so much power anyway?

I clenched and unclenched my jaw. Paul bloody Banks and his harem. That's where all this shit started. He sits there lording it up, allowing the world to turn around him and two blonde bimbos to vie for his attention, not even caring about the collateral damage. I bet he knows exactly what's going on, I thought maliciously. How could he not? He'd proven in the car how intelligent he was. Bastard probably gets a kick out of it. All the bitching and tearing people down.

My attention went back to Brittany. The perpetrator. From now on she was public enemy number one. I remembered what Yassir had said yesterday. Some things were worth fighting for.

Brittany was going down.

The only question about it was how. Sure, I'd love to march into school and drop kick her but that would only provide momentary satisfaction followed by lasting suspension. I had to hit her where it hurts. Her reputation, and if possible her chances with Paul. And if, in the process I could somehow find a way to unravel some of that stupid tight-knit clique system, then all the better.

Dani eyed me warily and mumbled in a cautious voice that was very unlike her "I know that look Fel. What are you going to do?"

"Nothing for you to worry about. Just get better Dani. Don't worry about anything. By the time you get back to school, things are going to be different."

Now I had set myself a time limit of maybe six weeks to put myself in the game and beat the masters. I think Bruce Willis said it best with, Yipeekiyay…

I woke up earlier than I normally would for two reasons, firstly and most pragmatically, I was taking the bus. Secondly, I needed time to mentally prepare myself for what lay ahead. I knew I'd go through with it still but my mental state had altered slightly from what it had been at the hospital yesterday. I was still angry, but it had simmered down to embers that I kept alive with images of Dani's forlorn face whenever it needed to be stoked. I wanted to turn it into something productive.

Revenge is such an ugly word. That's not what I was after. I wanted retribution. It was a slim distinction but vital to my resolve. This needed to be done. While I was thinking, I applied a thin layer of make-up for the first time since coming to Seattle. I don't normally bother with the stuff just for school but there was something almost ritualistic about the familiar motions.

A colleague at my old part time job had once referred to it as "war paint" and that's what it was for me. Whenever I needed that extra bit of confidence, when I was acting - I'd fall back on it. I left my hair loose, curled it a little and then jumped into a comfy pair of jeans and a plain black v-neck. I wasn't really out to impress anyone; I just didn't want to look dowdy.

The familiar sight of Tyrone and Jake slumped in their chairs when I got to school was a welcome one and I found myself smiling. "Hey, guys."

Jake looked up and grunted before doing a double take. "Uh, Felicia. You look different."

I shrugged. "Mascara and a curling iron. Proof that I have too much time on my hands."

Tyrone was laughing as I sat down, "What?" I questioned.

He shook his head, looking from Jake to me and cracking up.

"What?" Jake sounded annoyed.

"Nothing," He leaned back in his chair, "My man Jake's finally realised you're a girl."

Jake looked embarrassed. "I knew she was a girl." He turned to me, "I knew you were a girl."

"Nice to know."

"A sexy girl," I couldn't reach Tyrone so Jake hit him for me. "Ow! Man I'm just saying…you treat her like she's your kid brother or something."

I found this irresistibly sweet but I didn't want to embarrass Jake any more so I let the topic rest. I think I failed my math test first period because I was becoming apprehensive. I had to channel Ann and first act normal to convince myself I wasn't nervous. Today could end with me making a complete fool of myself and solving nothing.

No. No time for thinking like that. This wasn't about me. It was about Dani.

A snippet of conversation emanating from the ladies washroom jerked me out of my reverie between classes. Something about it made me stop just outside.

"…so the girl's face was all puffed up and she fell on the floor and started crying. Coach Pike made us clear out of the changing room but I hear they had to call an ambulance. I'm talkin' loony bin!"

Giggling followed this declaration and that ember grew into a flame. It was obvious what they were talking about. Vultures. Dani had been down for the count and they'd just picked at her carcass. I frowned at the morbid imagery my own imagination had conjured. I was officially losing it.

The door opened abruptly and I had to take a step back to avoid getting hit in the face as Heather and a younger Hispanic girl exited the ladies. "Whatever, I'm sure she deserved it, slutting around gets you nowhere fast. If I could have been there I'd have put her in her place in a heartbeat. Who does she think she is, trying to steal Laura's boyfriend. And anyway why are we talking about your little sophomore issues again? I want to buy…"

It was official. Heather was on my list too. She probably wasn't the only person that found what had happened to Dani amusing but I didn't care. Her tone had been callous and I'd warned her. I told her to stay away from me and mine and in my mind the line had been crossed. It wasn't a purely logical assumption but Heather was just as bad as Brittany. Wouldn't it be just perfect to eradicate both of Paul's little groupies at once? My cousin definitely wasn't the first person they'd crushed with their pink stiletto heels. There'd be more kids sympathetic to the cause.

Simone and I had third period together, she noticed my silence but when she questioned me I made a flippant remark about not sleeping much. She was my friend but she was also friends with Paul and I didn't know where I stood in regards to him. He probably needed a beating as much as Heather and Brittany but I wasn't secure enough with my social standing to take on the king of Ballard High.

I bypassed our normal table after we'd paid for our lunch. "Where are you going?" Simone asked.

I shot Tyrone and Jake an apologetic look. "Girl talk?"

"Understood." Jake said immediately. He clearly didn't but he dragged a protesting Tyrone away with little effort.

"I'm an enlightened brother who's sensitive to the female condition…" Tyrone was whining.

Simone looked cynical. "Girl talk?"

"Actually I just need a favour and I didn't want to answer a million questions from Tyrone."

Simone looked intrigued. "Done. What is it?"

"Get me onto the 'cool' table?" I jerked my head at the table that the athletes and cheerleaders occupied.

Her eyebrows shot up into her hairline and I could tell she was itching to ask but she restrained herself. She parked herself next to Paul and I sat across from him, which put me in the midst of a bunch of jocks and dead centre between Heather and Brittany.

"Hey…" Paul volunteered.

"Hey Simone," Heather chirped. "…Felicia."

Brittany was in the middle of a conversation so ignored us for the time being.

"So, are we all psyched out for the game next week?" Simone broke the ice. The guys at the table immediately responded with a mixture of grunts and affirmatives.

"We all know tomorrow's game is gonna be a push-over." One guy declared. "We've won against Nova three times in a row now." I didn't know enough about basketball to chime in with anything spectacular so I stayed quiet and ate my lunch. Paul spoke occasionally but every now and then I caught him watching me almost warily.

Falling back on Ann, I made an effort to mediate my expression, hoping it didn't betray my aggressive thoughts. Ann was happy here. Ann was sociable.

As the conversation picked up the jock next to me turned to me. A Korean guy, also on the basketball team, I recognised him as being one of Paul's closer friends. "We haven't met properly, I'm Jae."

"Penelope." I deadpanned.

He chuckled. "Well yeah, I remember you from then. Don't take it personally, Heather's not the brightest…well she's not the brightest."

The chatter around us covered up his comment from prying ears but I liked him immediately for it. "Are you feeling as confident about the game as these guys, Jae?"

He shrugged. "The odds are stacked in our favour. You're not a basketball person?"

"I feel like I'm at the wrong table to answer that question truthfully." I admitted.

"Well that about answered the question. Don't worry, we'll convert you later. You're coming to the game right? Support the team."

"I'm not too sure…"

"Come on," He coaxed. "What else are you gonna do on a Thursday evening?"

"Eat pizza and watch Lost?"

He scoffed. "They're off the island, then they're on it, and they'll probably get off again. Why does anyone watch that show?"

"It rocks." I replied stubbornly. "If you can't see the mastery of it you don't deserve to have a TV set."

"Heroes is better." That was Paul.

I stared at him. "I'm personally going to come and take a sledge-hammer to your TV set for that blasphemy." I told him, I knew he'd been baiting me from the telltale glint of amusement in his eye but I went along with it, only…half serious. Hey I love that show OK?

It was pathetic but I thought I heard Heather gasp in indignation as if I'd actually attacked Paul with my imaginary sledgehammer. The guys at our table just looked amused and Simone was uncharacteristically silent.

"You're threatening a guy's TV. That's just un-American." Someone said.

"Pssht. He deserved it." I rebuffed darkly. "I mean an X-Men rip-off over the show that brought you Benjamin Linus?"

As I expected, this started uproar. "Dude, people can fly and shit in Heroes."

"Save the cheerleader, save the world!"

I grinned at their ardour, having fun with my Heroes bashing. Who knew my geeky viewing habits would come in handy in a social situation. Now that I was in the thick of the conversation I noticed Brittany scowling in my direction. Heather too. They obviously didn't appreciate being excluded from things. Good, just a few more minutes…

"Are you always this controversial Felicia Gray?" Jae asked, his dark eyes boring into mine and a smile playing about his lips.

Was he flirting with me? I channelled Ann and made myself appear at ease even though I was at the centre of things. "Hey, why be difficult when you can be impossible?"

"Why be either when you can come to our game and be my lucky charm?" He grinned.

That was an affirmative on the flirting. Now I knew I had both Heather and Brittany's attention, Paul had looked up sharply too at Jae's change in tone and a couple of the guys around were smirking. Simone's eyes had gone wide.

I made a noncommittal noise, "I've never won anything in my life, I'm more likely to be unlucky,"

"You beat out everyone else for the lead in the school play. That's winning something." Paul pointed out.

I almost punched the air in triumph at the opening he'd given me but used every iota of my acting talents to portray apathy. It was about damn time he spoke directly to me. "I guess so. It's a good play, it practically reads itself. Oh, speaking of reading, you remember when you were dropping me home the other day?"

Half the people at the table did a double take and even Paul looked surprised I was bringing it up. I could feel the two queen wanna-bees burning holes in the sides of my head. If looks could kill I'd be in trouble. "You're asking if I remember it?"

Ann spoke but I held my breath. "You know, just in case you recently injured your head in basketball practice and somehow developed partial amnesia or something."

There was a distinct pause and I briefly wondered if he could somehow foresee the ramifications of how he answered this. "Yeah, I remember."

I heard nothing from the two cheerleaders that I knew would be seething. "You mentioned a Dean Koontz book. I've only read Cold Fire and Intensity. Which one were you talking about?"

He nodded slowly. "Those two are good, very psychological. I was talking about The Good Guy."

"Hmm…" I peeled the orange on my tray of food, forcing myself to take my time. "It sounded interesting. Was it a quick read? I breezed through Cold Fire."

"It was quick, I liked Cold Fire better though."

"Really? I thought it was a bit shallow, not as layered as Intensity. The bad guy in that book was intriguing. But Cold Fire had more cheap thrills than depth."

"Maybe you weren't looking close enough." His gaze was piercing and it annoyed me, there was a standoffishness in how he was holding mine.

I tried to keep my tone light. "I didn't like the fact that there was no real villain in that one."

"There was, it just wasn't a person."

"Really? Was it the alien that didn't exist?"

"It was living your life without purpose."

"Purpose is important, but I'd rather my thrillers have something the heroes can fight."

"There isn't always a bad guy in real life."

Patronising ass. "You're right, sometimes there's more than one."

"And sometimes the protagonist's own demons are the thing that needs fighting."

"So there's a right and wrong but not a good guy and bad guy." What the hell was I talking about?

"Sometimes."

"Right."

"Good and bad are usually subjective, but right and wrong aren't. People are capable of both the second two but are usually a mix of the first two."

"Is that what you think?"

"You think I'm wrong?"

"I think…" I stopped short of telling him exactly what I thought and snapped back to reality.

The first thing I realised was that my orange was gone. The second thing was that everyone was staring at us, watching our back and forth with rapt attention. The third thing was that I had completely veered away from my original purpose in sitting down and managed to lose my composure enough to let my real feelings bubble to the surface, to coalesce with my frustration with Paul and his attitude. With effort, I tore my gaze away from his and grinned at Jae sitting next to me.

"What do you think?" I asked just to take the attention off me for a moment.

"Huh? Oh I think you're right. Face it Banks, London here's gotta know her literature better than us 'yanks'." His faux accent on the last word earned him a few guffaws and even Paul's lips twitched slightly in a rare show of amusement.

I chuckled. "Thanks for the vote of confidence Jae. Anyway, I'll have to give it a read and make up my own mind," I could grin openly at Paul now that I found Ann again and took a sip of my apple juice. "I prefer the classics usually but sometimes I want something a bit faster paced." I stood up, done with my lunch. "See you guys later."

I left the refectory but stood outside, waiting. 5,4,3,2..

."What the hell was that?" Simone blurted as she joined me.

"Nothing," I grinned, "I just wanted Heather and Brittany to know Paul dropped me home the other day."

She spluttered and I gave her a moment to figure out what to question first. "Do you have a frickin' death wish? Did that really just happen? What the hell happened to not making waves? Why did Paul drop you back anyway? How come you didn't tell me? What are you up to, Felicia?"

I thought for a moment, and then counted off her questions on my fingers. "No, yes, they forced me into this, I don't know, I'm doing it right now and nothing you'd want to be a part of."

She narrowed her eyes at me. "Don't think you're off the hook that easy missy, I-"

"Sorry, gotta go!" I'd seen someone I needed to talk to. "Peter!"

Again that slight reddening of cheeks, but I was pleased with the welcoming grin that accompanied it. "Yes?"

"I have a quick question and something told me you'd know the answer."

"Is it about science? Because I…I mean I don't…well people say…I am pretty good in terms of-"

"Nothing like that," I demurred. "I was just wondering…if I wanted to get my hands on a timetable for a student here, how would I go about it?"

"That depends…whose schedule do you want?"

"A sophomore student. Laura Banks. Is there an administration office I could stealth my way into and, I don't know…hack into the school server to print one off?" I was thinking along the lines of Veronica Mars.

"Laura Banks?"

"Yeah. What? You think it will be too hard to get her schedule?"

He frowned at me, his shyness momentarily gone. "I'm going to assume that question is a result of you not being here very long and not a lack of intelligence on your part."

I was too amused to be offended. "What are you getting at?"

He walked down a hallway and cornered a random sophomore girl with pigtails and neon pink nail polish. "Hey, what class does Laura Banks have next period?"

"History with Lewis," The girl said automatically. "Wait…who are you?"

We walked away. "Thanks" I told him. "I guess I didn't think that every teenage girl would know Laura's schedule."

He shrugged. "She's Paul Banks' sister. That makes her the Brittany or Heather of her grade. Everyone sucks up to her."

"Nepotism too? We'll see."

"Huh?"

I didn't elaborate. I found Laura right where the pig-tailed girl said she'd be. Outside Mr Lewis's class. She smiled widely at me. "Hey, what's shakin'?"

I channelled Ann and forced a smile. I wasn't sure whether she'd had an active part in the destruction of Dani or not but she was still going out with the guy my cousin was crushing on. "Hey Laura, got a minute?"

"Sure thing," She handed her books to one of her lackeys and followed me around a bend in the hallway where we could speak more privately.

I jammed my hands into my denim pockets, trying to make it look casual but in reality needing to access my cell phone. "I just wanted to make sure you were alright. I heard about this new guy you have…"

"Damon?" Her eyes shifted up and slightly to the left of me, taking on a dreamy look "Isn't he great."

I stared at her. I'm really and truly stuck inside one of those stupid sitcoms.

"What's wrong?" Laura questioned.

I shook myself, hoping she hadn't caught my incredulous expression. "Nothing! Nothing…So tell me, how did you guys get together?"

"He asked me out. He was so amazing about it too…so gentlemanly. He didn't leer at me or try any dated pick-up lines. He just told me he really liked me and been thinking about me…" She sighed.

She told me briefly about their first date and I made the obligatory "Aww" sounds.

Finally, hitting three keys on my cell phone I leaned in conspiringly. "So I heard rumours that there was someone else in your grade that tried to steal him from you?"

For the first time a look of discomfort flitted across the girl's face and I could almost see her having no part in Dani's downfall. But then it was quickly replaced by an open smile and most people would be hard pressed to say it was ever there.

"Well, it's not quite as sensational as all that."

"Don't be modest, you won this guy fair and square right?" I couldn't resist needling that possible guilt I'd just witnessed.

"…Right."

"And you just went for him from the get-go. That's an admirable trait; going after what you want."

She was anxious to steer the conversation away from Dani. "Well truthfully, I was really nervous about him at first. I wasn't sure how to fl…how to talk to guys like him."

"A girlfriend helped you out."

"Yeah, I would never have done anything if it weren't for Brittany's advice. She's really nice, right?"

"Yeah…she's…an interesting person…umm…."

Luckily the first bell rang, saving me from my temporary verbal paralysis. Laura rolled her eyes. "Guess I should be going."

"Wait a sec,"

"Yeah?"

"Your brother, what does he think about Damon?"

Laura made a face. "Oh he's just being silly. He's got the wrong impression of Damon; thinks he's not a good guy but he doesn't know D like I do."

"I have a confession." I grinned sheepishly. "I heard your brother and you on the phone the other day when you got Damon to give you a lift home. He seemed more than upset."

"Oh he was." Laura rolled her eyes. "He's furious about the whole thing but I know he'll get over it." She glanced at her class. "Gotta go, but hey we should all hang out some time, me, you, Paul and Heather! It would be fun. Bye!"

She scampered off and I hoped I hadn't openly cringed at her parting suggestion. I spun around and very nearly jumped out of my skin when I realised I wasn't alone in the sparse hallway. Paul was watching me with an inscrutable expression.

I decided to play it cool, not knowing how much of that he'd heard. "Hey, got any gum?" OK, where did that come from Felicia? Never mind, roll with it.

"You're different." He was weighing me with an icy gaze.

"So I don't deserve gum?"

"Last week you would have nodded and walked away if you'd seen me standing here."

"I had tuna at lunch today."

"And now," he continued, my frivolity not fazing him, "You sit at our table at lunch and deliberately draw attention to yourself."

"I hope I didn't have any in my teeth."

"I thought you were keeping yourself out of the game they play."

They play? It was funny how he didn't include himself in that statement. As if he weren't the reason behind the social dynamics in this ridiculous place. I didn't say any of that though, I wanted him to underestimate me, to think I wasn't really as angry or serious as I was. Instead Ann smiled through me, not a care in the world. "There's a tuna eating game?"

"What happened Felicia? You've snapped."

Snapped? And the way he said my name irritated me, it was the familiarity. Like he'd said it many times before. "I don't know what you're talking about, Paul. It sounds like you're imagining things. That can be a sign of fatigue…I suggest you regulate the fibre in your diet."

"Fine don't tell me. To be honest I don't really care what you're trying to do, just so long as you keep my sister out of it." He turned away, the King of Ballard deeming that the conversation was over.

He was probably used to having people listen to him unconditionally which is why I couldn't resist. "And if I don't?"

"If she's involved then so am I." He said, not bothering to turn around.

His reply struck a chord in me. Leave me and mine out of this. That's what I'd said about Dani. I could understand and even respect his need to look after his younger sister, but she'd played a big part in this and I'd need her to help me fix it. But still, I'd do my best to make sure she'd come out relatively unscathed. And if Paul wanted to take it up with me later that was fine. I could go three for three.

The rest of the day went relatively uneventfully but all the while I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'd set things in motion and I knew that the fallout wouldn't be pretty. Surprisingly, it was Brittany that got to me first; the silicone clone I'd had the least contact with.

Unlike Heather, she went for a less open approach, cornering me at the end of the day as my last class let out. A couple of her cronies backed her up, forming a loose semi-circle around me. I tried not to grin at their obvious scare tactics. "Excuse me," I tried to move around them but they cut me off.

"Felicia," Brittany put her manicured hand on my shoulder and favoured me with a smile. "We haven't really had the chance to…chat. Why don't we take a walk?"

This was different. Unlike Heather who went for the screaming raging bitch approach when pissed, Brittany was more self-possessed. This could mean she was dangerous. But then, she was the one I really had a beef with anyway. I tried to match her casual tone.

"Sure Brittany. Let's walk."

Her back-up posse fell into pace a step behind us as Brittany led me out into the courtyard, near a tree and gestured for me to sit down. I considered a moment, I could sit but then she would inevitably stand, giving her the tactical advantage of height. She probably wanted to be looking down at me. But then if I didn't sit then I'd be the one making the mood confrontational and it would seem like I was intimidated.

Don't play by their rules, a nagging voice told me. If I wanted to break their stupid system I'd have to stir things up a bit.

So I smiled sweetly at the blonde and sat down but I sat facing away from her. There. Now she could either talk to my back and feel ridiculous or else walk around me and make a concession- let me set the pace for how this is going to go.

She was intelligent enough to realise what had just happened because when she stepped back into my line of sight she was frowning slightly. "So what's up?" I questioned.

"Well I just realised that we probably haven't made you feel welcome here at Ballard. Introduced you to the right people, explain how things work around here. That sort of thing."

"I feel welcome enough." I grinned. "People have been really nice to me. Simone, Jae, Paul…"

I could practically feel her ire leap. She was incensed. "Of course they have. I mean, it's not often that we get someone from across the pond joining our ranks. It's a novelty." A passing interest, you'll be out of their minds in no time…Her unspoken sentiments were unmistakable in her phrasing.

"Sure, yeah." I agreed succinctly.

Maybe she thought I was trying to be genuinely amicable because she ran her hand through her blonde tresses casually, like she was calming herself down. "Well, so this is probably obvious but if you strike while the iron's hot you could probably get almost any guy you like."

I blinked a few times and pasted a look of polite befuddlement on my face. "Almost?"

"That's right." Her cat-like eyes bored into my own. "Almost. You see, certain people around here might not have made this clear but Paul Banks is off limits. We've had an understanding for a while now. He'll only ever date me."

Internally, I snorted, 'an understanding'? I would bet my red passport that this understanding was the fabrication of her deluded mind. Not that I'd put it past Paul to lead her on. Not that I knew him well enough to accuse him of doing so. Not that I wanted to know him well enough to do anything…

"Oh, no don't worry. I know that."

Brittany frowned, caught off guard. "You know that?"

"Oh yeah." I rolled my eyes. "I mean it's obvious. And when he dropped me home I think your name did come up, but he was so distracted."

Brittany sat down on the grass, paying no heed to the potential stains her cheerleading outfit would endure. One of her sycophants held her arms akimbo, "What the hell Britt?"

She waved them away. "Go to the parking, I'll meet you there."

A few of them shot me scathing looks as they walked away.

"What distracted Paul from talking about me?" She demanded immediately.

I sighed and stretched. "You know, I really can't seem to remember."

Her jaw set, she grabbed my wrist urgently. Yow, this cat had claws. "Tell me."

"Fine, but are we done with the passive aggressive shit?" All this faking was giving me a headache.

She nodded.

"Right well, he got a phone call from his sister and she was talking about her new boyfriend. He's really not happy about that situation you know. I feel sorry for anyone that he finds out has supported that relationship."

She let go of my wrist and appraised me. "You have no proof I was involved in getting them together."

I reached into my pocket and retrieved my cell phone, then played her back the recording I'd made.

"So I heard rumours that there was someone else in your grade that tried to steal him from you?" I mouthed my own parts to Brittany as they were being said.

"Well, it's not quite as sensational as all that."

"Don't be modest, you won this guy fair and square right?"

"…Right."

"And you just went for him from the get-go. That's an admirable trait; going after what you want."

"Well truthfully, I was really nervous about him at first. I wasn't sure how to fl…how to talk to guys like him."

"A girlfriend helped you out."

"Yeah, I would never have done anything if it weren't for Brittany's advice. She's really nice, right?"

"Bitch." Brittany breathed.

"There's more. In case you doubt that Paul wont be happy if he realises you were behind the whole Damon thing,,,"

"Wait a sec,"

"Yeah?"

"Your brother, what does he think about Damon?"

"Oh he's just being silly. He's got the wrong impression of Damon; thinks he's not a good guy but he doesn't know D like I do."

"I have a confession. I heard your brother and you on the phone the other day when you got Damon to give you a lift home. He seemed more than upset."

"Oh he was. He's furious about the whole thing but I know he'll get over it. Gotta go, but hey we should all hang out some time, me, you, Paul, Damon and Heather! It would be fun. Bye!"

"Heather!?" Brittany exploded. "I helped her out and that tramp wants to arrange a pseudo-date for Paul and Heather?"

I can't believe I'd actually thought that Brittany had more self control. This girl was insane.

Her furious gaze settled on me. "What do you want?"

I sighed dreamily. "World peace?"

"For the tape, what's it going to cost me?"

"Uh uh. It's not that easy. Now let me explain how things are going to work Brittany. I go when I want where I want and you back me up or this recording goes to Paul and you'll lose whatever shot with him you have. And you know I can get it to him too, we've established something of a...rapport" Let her guess what I meant by that.

The girl clenched her teeth but was astute enough not to challenge me openly yet. Heather might have but Brittany had more of a killer instinct. She wouldn't strike until she was sure it was worth her while. "Fine. But if you think you can try to overthrow me you've got another thing coming."

"Oh I don't try. I do. So be prepared because things are going to change around here, and I'm just the start of that." I stood up, "Welcome to the new Ballard High, B. It's going to be a bumpy ride."