After a quick trip around the ship, Atlantis, Thirteen, Iwi Loli, and I made our way to the Loft. I had learned where the pool, kitchen, and most importantly, the band hall, were located. The Crescendo had three floors: the entry level, where Derek and I had come in; the second floor, which housed the Observatory's ground floor and the Maze; and the third floor (the one with the band hall), which featured the Loft and a multipurpose gym. There were also a few rooms I hadn't expected to see, like the third floor training arena - which at the moment had been occupied with a green-haired boy fighting tar black monsters with a high-powered potato gun.

The three of us rode the elevator down from the third floor, chatting and laughing on the way. We stopped in the Observatory, where a tough-looking girl and a shorter guy joined our small party, asking us how was the tour, and had we met Chef yet, and oh really? How scary was she? They introduced themselves as Smithie and Sticky Rice, a percussionist and an oboist.

We sat at a table together, where woodwinds and strings flocked around us - or me, really - welcoming me to the family, or dropping hints and small bribes about which instrument to play for orchestra. Across the domed room, the doors opened to admit Derek and his guides, Bones, Kraken, and Cap. They were laughing and punching each other in the bicep as trombones swarmed them, slapping Derek on the back and guiding him to a cluster of tables full of whooping brass players. For the first time in all the years I'd known him, he finally looked genuinely happy to be somewhere.

It seemed like everyone was in the Observatory now, either sitting with friends or weaving among tables. I caught a glimpse of Flaming Sock Girl (her nickname was Knick Knack, and she always had every sort of item on her person), but fortunately her fiery weapon was nowhere in sight.

From the front of the mass of tables, a whistle sounded, and every head whipped around to face it - some turning a full 180 degrees so that they could look in the direction of the podium.

"Thank you, DCI," Max smiled at a tall girl next to him, who was dressed in a white t-shirt and athletic shorts. She dropped the whistle from her lips, smiled back, and moved to a table full of what I guessed were french horns.

"And thank you to Jordan for calming down the most recent Section War in C Block," continued Max, nodding to an older boy at a sax table and raising an eyebrow at the assembled crowd. "I appreciate a little competition now and then, but please keep the burning fabric to a minimum."

A laugh rippled across the room as Knick Knack grinned sheepishly and sank into her seat a few inches.

Max gave her an amused half-smile and turned back to the audience. "I would give a lengthy and boring speech about new arrivals and new opportunities, but that would just make me sound like an overused mentor archetype -" another wave of snickers, with a few young questions of what an archetype was- "but I think I'll just make my point and let you devour lunch.

"May and Derek," Max opened his arms wide, beaming at us in turn. "Welcome to the Crescendo!"

Applause broke across the room, my table cheered me on, and Derek was lifted onto the shoulders of the trombones, who were pumping their fists and uttering the traditional male chant of HOO! HOO! HOO! HOO!

I laughed and stood on a chair, overdramatically basking in praise. Turning, I caught sight of Max. I had never seen that much pride on someone's face, much less directed at me.

Eventually, Max motioned for the room to go silent, using the band director's universal sign for "shut up" as he brought both hands around in a circle, then pulled his fists apart.

I sat as he spoke again. "And now, the most awaited moment since breakfast, I present to you… lunch!" Max flourished an arm towards the kitchen-side elevator, where a team of white-uniformed kids balanced gently steaming platters of heavenly-scented food. A new chorus of cheers erupted across the tables, and the banquet began.

oOo

The cheeseburgers were amazing. And the strawberry milkshake I picked. And the fries: perfect. That's all I could think about as I stuffed my face with beautiful, delicious food. The only sounds in the room were the clinking of glasses and satisfied sighs as flavor introduced itself to tastebuds. No one spoke. It's rude to say something with your mouth full.

Too soon, my plate was clean, and I reluctantly surrendered it to the dish crew. There had never been a meal that good at the orphanage - or in my hometown, for that matter. I'd never realized that food didn't have to come in a pre-planned box. Maria would have loved this…

A soft wave of homesickness washed over me as I thought of my best friend. She must have been so lonely at the Home, and here I was having the time of my life. I felt awful. My tablemates must have noticed my face fall, because now several pairs of concerned eyes were on me.

"What's wrong?" Iwi Loli asked gently, placing a green hand on my arm.

I frowned at my hands. "I never thought I'd feel homesick…" I murmured.

Sympathetic smiles grew around the table. Loli squeezed my arm softly.

"We all go through it at first," she assured me. "We've all had to leave home at some point, or we wouldn't be here."

"And we were all orphans, like you and Derek," Ginger added. Heads bobbed in agreement.

"Otherwise we wouldn't be here," said Atlantis. "Max isn't the kind of guy to just take kids to build a personal orchestra. He rescues kids without parents."

Thirteen's smile turned a shade grim. "Or kids whose parents have ignored them their whole lives."

Another round of nods.

"The point is, we feel you, May," finished the Italian-looking boy from earlier - Alphonse, nicknamed Capone. He had joined us from a table full of saxophones. "Homesickness doesn't always go away at first, and it might take a while for it to fade completely. Maybe it never will."

He gestured around the table. "But we're always - always going to be here for you."

I looked into the faces around me, full of empathy, and I nearly lost it right then and there. Instead I opted to wrap my arms around Loli, triggering a group hug.

"You guys are the best," I mumbled through the warm cocoon of limbs.

oOo

I should have known it was coming.

No band kid can ever escape it, even if they put it off individually. The one thing we in the musical world fear the most - rehearsal.

There we sat, an hour after lunch, in the rows of chairs stationed in the Observatory, waiting for the brass to sit down with their instruments. I was placed in the middle of the saxes by Jordan and Capone, who I learned later were the saxophone SI's. No one really knew what "SI" meant - everyone I asked just told me that they were in charge. So I shrugged and sat.

Now I waited, golden woodwind in my lap, giving the trumpets looks loaded with sarcasm. At long last, the final egotistic member of the brass family took his seat, fidgeting with his valves. We had settled in for practice.

That is, until DCI rose from the french horn section and faced the very back row of empty chairs in front of where percussion had set up.

"If anyone back in the percussion section does not have their music on them, go get it now," she called with a sarcastically sweet tone.

More than half the section froze, blinked at her, then took off down the the Maze.

A mixture of exasperated sighs and badly-concealed snickers rose from the rest of the band.

Five minutes and several soaked oboe reeds later, Max watched expectantly from the podium as finally, finally the bass drum skidded to a halt next to her instrument, breathing heavily, loose sheet music clutched in her hand.

"Right," Max smiled at the band. "Now that we're all here, with all our music, let's get into the show."

Excited whispers crossed the rows of kids.

"But first, we warm up!" Max said cheerily as his smile became a grin, accepting the chorus of ugh and whyyyy with the kind of humor only a band director possesses. He raised his baton to get our focus back. "Everyone find your long tone exercise! We're going to attempt to tune the flutes and oboes!"

One sax girl next to me slumped her shoulders and leaned close.

"We're gonna be here forever," she muttered in my ear, then sucked the spit out of her instrument through her mouthpiece, prepping to play.

I followed suit, the familiar taste of wood, saliva, and the tears of my enemies on my tongue. I was ready for practice.

oOo

I was not ready for practice. It took all of ten minutes just to make sure that everyone was playing the same F concert as the person next to them. Then another seven-and-a-half minutes was filled with the sound of Remingtons and flexibility exercises. Finally, finally, we moved on to actual music.

"Okay, now that the clarinets are in some sort of tune that's not 30 cents sharp, let's take a look at Vesuvius," Max smiled, shuffling his scores around.

Sheet music was pulled out of plastic protectors as we scanned the piece. It was a few pages long, about two or three based on section. I took a look at the first line for my part.

Okay, I thought to myself. Quarter notes, not bad. Then I caught a glimpse of the rest of the piece. Hoo boy.

Up on the podium, Max's face was slowly infected by an evil grin.

"Why don't we try sight-reading this?" he asked, looking me directly in the eye.

I stared back, wide-eyed, then set my jaw. Okay, Max.

Challenge accepted.

The band director's expression changed just before he flipped on a metronome in the control center, and I thought I saw a bit of pride. Mostly evil amusement, though. After all, I was pretty sure this was his revenge on the snare that kept playing in rests during warm up.

Max counted us off, and the piece began.

The first note was strong, and we stayed together for maybe the first four measures.

After that, it was… well...

Then we hit the saxophone solo. I played my heart out, trying to hit every note I could. But of course Frank Ticheli had to make everything complicated. The saxes, flutes, and percussion made an attempt to do the falls with each other - we weren't too bad, actually. The rest of the band joined in on a cool vocal immediately after; all of us sitting there like dorks and going ch-chh ch-chh ch-chh ch-chh ch-chh ch-chhhhh

An oboe solo came up next, and a girl with a curly brunette bob absolutely nailed it, keeping soft brown eyes on Max like she didn't even need the sheet music. The flutes joined her for a repeat of the phrase, taking the band into another round of ch-chhs.

Another sax solo entered the scene, and Capone took it, concentrating. The band continued the idea, adding urgency with every instrument, building up until the bass drum got involved. Then a cacophony of desperation sounded as the whole band attempted to play the phrase - then it mercifully cut off as Max dropped his arms and killed the metronome.

"I think that's good," he said. He was looking at me. Everyone was.

I noticed I was standing, and clutching my instrument in a death grip. Before we stopped, I had probably looked like I was trying to use laser vision on the pages in front of me. Sheepishly, I cast a glance around at the band. A few olders were nodding sagely, like this had happened before. Capone was beaming his toothy grin from our row.

"That," Max pointed at me, "is called being in The Zone."

I flushed, embarrassed.

He gave a half chuckle at my complexion, and smiled. "Well done," he nodded. "As for the rest of the piece - how about we take it slowly?"

Relieved laughter floated from the assembled rows, along with a trombone shouting "Ohhh, thank you!" from the brass section.

"Alright, page one, measure one! Saxophones, let's talk about all these lovely eighth notes you have here…"

oOo

The rest of practice had been a lot less stressful. We made it through the first few parts of Vesuvius, then took a look at other pieces, some classic, some contemporary. I took note of the Annie medley mixed into the repertoire, catching Max's mischievous wink.

After practice had ended, Capone and the other saxophones motioned for me to follow them. Confused, I grabbed my case and trailed after them towards the elevator. The entire section squeezed inside, hefting instruments over heads.

"What we're about to show you will blow your mind," Capone intoned from between two bari saxes.

The elevator began shifting down to the first floor.

"It is one of the many great secrets of the Glade Family Orchestra."

Ding.

The saxophones spilled out of the elevator in a rush, laughing and stumbling.

Capone adjusted his neck strap, grinning. "This is how we case our instruments."

He led the way forward, past an oddly-curved wall to a straight one. If we had gone around the corner, we would have reached the exit. Instead, Capone opened a door directly in front of us, showing us into a room filled with instrument cases. Our group stopped in front of shelves marked "Woodwinds" in neat block handwriting.

"Got your case?" Capone asked, glancing at the black box in my hand. "Ok, good."

He handed me an analog watch, with two knobs on the side. "Put this on."

I wrapped the grey leather around my left wrist after setting my case down, feeding it through a silver buckle while cradling my instrument. The back of the silver-lined face felt cool and odd on my skin.

Capone grabbed my hand and lifted it to my eye level. "The first knob adjusts the time," he explained, setting the time and clicking it in place. The second hand began its ticking journey around the face.

"What does the second knob do?" I wondered, peering at it.

"I'm getting there," the well-dressed alto shushed me, interrupted. He lifted my case and pushed it into my left hand, then clicked the second knob.

Immediately, my saxophone glowed a bright white and disappeared from my right hand. Suddenly my case felt about 3-5 pounds heavier.

Wide-eyed, I stared up at Capone. "No way…"

Capone grinned back at me. "Yes way."

I practically tore my clasps off trying to get my case open, yanking the lid up. There she was. My beautiful saxophone, disassembled and neatly cased, reed in its place alongside its brothers. I sat there on my knees for a few moments, trying to process what just happened, mouth agape.

Capone, activating his own watch, cased his sax. "Max says that this tech was supposed to be for packaging weapons like rifles. Ones that had to be assembled, see. But he worked with Pyth0n to program them to case instruments. That way, we can play in a flash." He smirked down at me. "Pun intended."

I stared back down at my case and smiled softly. "Cool," I murmured.

"Yeah," Capone laughed. "That's what every newbie says."

oOo

"I have an idea," said Max suddenly. He was leaning on the wheel of the control center, each arm looped around one of many handles. "Why don't we accelerate our schedule a bit?"

Heads turned to look at him, and the scattered group of kids in the Observatory stopped their small talk to listen. Some grinned and began to whisper excitedly. Capone, who had been telling me about his misadventures in the pool room, winked at me.

"What do you mean?" I asked, curious and confused.

Max grinned, unhooked his arms, and adjusted his coat. "Let's have dinner in space."

He jabbed a button on the control center, activating an alarm. Except someone had reprogrammed the the alarm to play Come Fly With Me. As Frank Sinatra's voice flowed throughout the ship, kids stampeded into the Observatory and skidded into their seats. Capone laughed and grabbed my hand, pulling me to the rapidly-filling saxophone section. DCI slid into one of the chairs at the control center, spinning a couple times from momentum. Another girl wearing brown overalls jumped into the other chair, then cracked her knuckles, wiggling her fingers over the panel in front of her in anticipation.

"Everyone ready?" Max asked, still smiling wide as the song launched into its last chorus. As soon as the last percussionist sat down, seatbelts clicked over each of us and adjusted themselves. Max spun to face the wheel, filled with energy as the song ended.

"Let's go!"

DCI and the other girl began flipping switches, making the Crescendo hum, until one of them threw open a lever. The ship woke up and purred. She pushed off the ground, slowly rising through the plaza. From one apartment building, a small boy hung out of his window, jaw on his chest.

Max noticed him, and tapped DCI with the back of his hand. "Turn cloaking on, will ya?"

"Oh, shoot, right." She jabbed a button on the panel, and the astounded boy outside blinked, rubbing his eyes. A few clarinets giggled.

Max shot them a rueful grin and shook his head. "Take us up."

DCI's copilot (Thirteen leaned back from the second row and informed me her nickname was Gizmo) slowly opened the throttle, and the Crescendo gracefully left her haven.

A warm sunset spilled into view.

We barely had time to ripple an ahhh through the band before Max faced us again.

"Escape velocity," he said. "Anyone know anything about it?"

In unison, the kids around me shouted, "YOU CAN'T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT!"

Spinning back around, Max laughed and gripped the ship's wheel.

"LET'S FLY!"

Gizmo flung the throttle wide open, and the Crescendo roared, leaping forward and racing toward the sun. DCI pulled a large lever back, and the ship replied. She pitched back, climbing the sky. Night fell at thousands of miles an hour. I was pushed back into my seat, g-forces holding me in place.

Which made me wonder, how was Max still holding onto the wheel? He should have lost his grip by -

"Ah, crap." Despite his white-knuckled hold, Max's fingers slid from the ship's wheel.

But before he was sent tumbling over the band, cables shot out from under the podium, wrapping around his torso. Sighing, he turned to Gizmo.

"Thought I had it this time!" he called.

Gizmo guffawed, a deep, loud laugh from the belly. "You never have it!"

I would have joined the ribbing, if it weren't for a sudden feeling of weightlessness. We had cleared the atmosphere. I heard a low, raw whisper of awe from the trombones; it was Derek. I stayed silent, barely hearing the soft click of my seat belt as I undid it. Gently, I pushed off of the arms of my chair, floating to the middle of the Observatory.

In front of me, through the glass, were tens of hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of trillions of stars. Galaxies stretched across the universe, and a green nebula stared back at me from the dotted void. The only word for it was vast. I couldn't look away.

Someone drifted next to me. I turned, expecting Max. Instead, Derek's eyes reflected the flecks of light across the glass. "It's beautiful."

My gaze was drawn back to the starscape. "Yeah…"

Derek huffed out a breath. "Look -"

"Yeah?"

"I'm… I'm sorry. For everything, y'know?"

"Everything's a lot."

"I know that," he scowled, looking down. "But… I've been such a horrible person to you. All those years I thought maybe you would shut up like the rest of the kids if I just scared you enough. Except you didn't. And it made me so angry, that you would push me back. So I -"

"You had to hit me," I muttered, swallowing a hard lump of emotion.

Derek squeezed his eyes shut. "I had to make myself feel better than you. And it never, ever worked. You were always the one the other kids would listen to. That night, when Max first came? And those monsters attacked us? I wasn't the one on the table making sure everyone was safe."

He looked at me.

I stared back.

"That was you, May."

I blinked quickly. Something in my eye was bothering me.

"I don't think you'll really forgive me. You're too pig-headed for that. But… no matter how many times I say I'm sorry, it's not gonna be enough. So - so go ahead and hate me. You deserve to."

I sniffled, mentally cursing my stupid emotions. "That's pretty deep for a twelve-year-old."

"It's space," he mused. "Everything's deeper in space."

I laughed softly, swiping my arm across my nose. Then, not really knowing how to respond, I clapped Derek on the shoulder, resting my hand there. "You're a stupid, thick-headed bully," I said, "but you're my brother now, so… I guess I'll get over it."

"Really?" Derek looked at me hopefully. For a moment, we just stared at each other, some unspoken acceptance forming behind our eyes. Out of the corner of my eye, I remembered that the whole ship was watching us.

So I punched him in the arm. Hard.

"Ow!" he complained. "What was that for?!"

I grinned toothily. "Nothing like a little sibling rivalry!"

Atlantis's head drifted between us, upside down. "Are you two done with your heart-to-heart yet? I'm hungry."

Max's warm laugh filled the dome. "Then let's eat!"

He kicked off the podium, flying towards our trio, pulling band kids toward the floor as he went. Once he reached us, he sent us back to the floor, just as Gizmo threw a switch and turned on the gravity. Max dropped, landing in a crouch like some comic book hero.

To me, he was.

oOo

Dinner was just as amazing as lunch. Whatever ancient rituals or black magic Chef was performing in the kitchen, it was working. Until that meal, I didn't even know what jajangmyeon was until it was whisked neatly in front of me by one of the kitchen staff. I didn't exactly know what was in it, but as I slurped down noodles I noticed pork and a thick, dark, salty sauce. It was kind of weird, but it was good.

Just as I stuffed my last forkful into my mouth, I felt someone tap my shoulder. It was Gabbana. At the moment she was a professional navy blue, but her wild magenta hair gave her excitement away.

"I wanted to get started on your theme," she said. "It will be a bit easier for you, since you have something in mind already."

I swallowed my bite of jajangmyeon quickly. "Okay, sounds good to me."

Gabbana smiled and began walking towards the elevator (dinner was served in the Loft as usual) and motioned for me to follow. Now that I wasn't trying to process a hundred faces, I noticed that Gabbana wore a simple white blouse with matching capris and flats. This combination complemented her complexion as she gently shifted through hues.

Eventually, we reached her room in B Block, and her door slid open. I was dazzled when I stepped inside. Immediately across from the door were three massive mirrors, one flat and two angled inwards, outlined by dressing room lights. Coating one wall were a long racks of clothing, a rainbow of dresses, suits, and costumes neatly color-coded and sorted by size. The opposite side of the room seemed like an explosion of fabric and mannequins of all shapes and lengths, punctuated by a sewing machine or two and all but covering a plain bed shoved into the corner. The walls were black, accentuating everything.

"Up there, go," Gabbana instructed, all business. She was pointing to a dais rising from the dark carpet, in front of the mirrors, and I stepped up onto it. As my eyes adjusted to the onslaught of lights and colors, I noticed a soundtrack softly bumping in the background. Gabbana pulled her curly hair into a springy ponytail - it was navy, like her skin. She was clutching the paper bag that my theme clothes were in, peering inside

"A good start, I like it," she stated. She pulled my leather aviator's jacket out of the bag, holding it up and turning it this way and that. Then she walked swiftly to me, untying the flannel at my waist and yanking it, sending me spinning.

"Hey!" I interjected, but Gabbana was already sliding the jacket onto me. In one smooth motion, she whipped the red scarf from the bag and slung it around my neck. Lastly, she snapped the goggles on like a headband, after insisting that I would only wear them over my eyes onstage if she were dead. Gracefully twisting to the side, Gabbana stood next to me and inspected her work in the mirrors. She experimented a bit, trying the jacket closed, or the scarf tied, or the goggles just a bit to the side. In the end, she settled on having the jacket open, with one end of the scarf dangling loose. She and I both agreed that the goggles were best worn straight-on, though I was only saying so because I didn't want to argue with the person deciding what I wore in front of hundreds of people.

"There's just something else this needs…" Gabbana trailed off, tapping her chin. Her eyes narrowed and she bent to examine my face more closely, grabbing my jaw.

"What's wrong?" I asked, startled.

Something seemed to dawn on her. "May… do you have freckles?"

I pushed her hand away and looked down, scowling. "...Yeah…"

Gabbana's face softened as she understood, and she turned a gentle powder blue. "What's so wrong about freckles?" she asked me quietly.

"Nothing, I just… theywrmdfnf…" I mumbled.

"What was that?"

"They were made fun of!" I blurted, then crossed my arms and looked away. "So I stole some of Miss Rebecca's concealer and covered 'em up."

"Oh May," Gabbana sighed. She stood up straight, hands on her hips, and blew a stray strand of hair out of her face. Then she held up her index fingers, looking determined.

"Wait here."

She bustled over to her sewing machine corner, rummaging in a drawer, then came back with a small round container. Makeup remover wipes.

"Come on, I don't -" I started, but a finger was pressed against my lips.

"No arguing," Gabbana instructed, half-professional again. "I'm the stylist here."

She took a wipe from the container, scrubbing away pale liquid concealer. My freckles came into a view like stars after sunset: slowly, but surely. When she was done, Gabbana turned me back toward the mirror, squeezing my shoulders and kneeling to my level.

"Well, what do you think?"

Reluctantly, I looked into the mirror, seeing my speckled cheeks and nose. Surprised, I stepped closer to the giant looking glass. Some way, somehow, Gabbana had magically made my freckles look like they actually belonged on my face. "They're…" I trailed away, not sure what adjective to use.

"Amazing," Gabbana finished firmly, smiling. "They make you look wild and free."

Free. My new favorite word.

Just then the door opened, killing the smile that had begun to tug at the corners of my mouth. I turned to face its murderer. It was Derek. Whipping back around, I crossed my arms.

"Hey, I was told to come here by Bones," my freshly former rival said, poking an uncertain head through the doorframe.

Gabbana switched her gaze to Derek, navy once again. "Yes, we need to find your theme before the concert."

She bustled down toward him, pulling him up onto the dais by his arm. I whipped my face away, trying to hide my spangled skin. But instead of discouraging him, I drew his attention.

"Why are you acting so weird?" he grumbled, trying to get me to look at him. No way was I going to let him see the dots he had made fun of for years.

"What's that all over your face, May?" Derek sneered, the brain trust around him guffawing. "You look like you stood behind a truck stuck in mud!"

The boys were howling with laughter now as one revved an imaginary engine. Another idiot stood behind him and squawked in mock horror as make-believe mud splattered on his face. He pantomimed trying to wipe it away, then shook his hands and squealed "It won't come off!" over and over in a bad falsetto.

I ran, tears streaming down my face, and found myself in Miss Rebecca's bathroom. My shuddering breaths filled the space as I shakily found liquid concealer lying on the counter…

"Are - are you crying?" Derek asked gruffly, though a little more gently than before.

"No," I sniffed, trying to suck water and bad memories back up my tear ducts.

Derek, not convinced by my inability to lie about crying while crying, put a hand on my shoulder and slowly spun me to face him. I swiped my sleeve across my eyes, trying to get rid of my tears and my freckles at the same time.

"Oh," Derek said softly. Apparently he remembered too.

"Oh yourself," I muttered, bitter fragments pushing at my brain. It won't come off…

Derek looked uncomfortable. "For the record… or whatever we're using to keep score or something, I… I like your freckles."

I stared at him, not sure what emotion was bubbling in my chest. "Then why would you say something like that?" I asked, incredulous.

"I just… wanted some guys to like me. I was dumb."

"Astronomically."

"Exactly. I'm a big stupid bully and you can punch me in the face for all I care!"

Neither of us really remember what we were getting mad about at this point.

"Well maybe I will! Maybe I do hate your guts!"

"Fine!"

"Fine!"

Then I hugged him, hard, trying to crush his ribs and sobbing. He hesitantly put his arms around me, kind of awkwardly patting my shoulder. We stood there like that for a while, me sniffling as he grew incrementally more comfortable.

"I hate you," I sniffled.

"I hate you too," Derek replied, resting his chin on my head. After I took one last shaky breath, we released each other. Then we noticed Gabbana standing to the side, a confused shade of chartreuse.

"So… is… is that your therapy or something?" she asked us, clutching her tape measure like a charm against crazy children.

Derek shrugged. "I guess."

"Talk about sibling rivalry," she sighed, shaking her head.

"I mean," Derek began, thinking. "Every pilot's gotta have a wingman, right? Like May needs someone she can punch to solve her problems."

"I resemble that remark," I muttered, smirking ruefully.

Something seemed to turn on in Gabbana's head. "What did you say?" she demanded, grabbing Derek by the shoulders.

"Uhhh, she needs someone to punch?" he answered, looking at Gabbana like she was nuts.

"No no, before that." She was magenta now; an idea had sparked.

"Every pilot's gotta have a wingman?"

"Yes! Yes, that's the one!" she exclaimed, her skin jumping to neon pink, and she dashed off toward the clothing rack, stopped, rushed back to Derek, measured him at light speed, then hustled the same direction she was originally headed. She practically dove into the racks, flinging jackets, shirts, pants, everything aside, pausing only as she found something she liked. Then she flew over to us, and the only verb I can use to describe the way she was putting clothes on Derek was shwooping.

Shwoop. World War II style aviator's jacket, buttoned up.

Shwoop. Tan cotton pants, tucked into -

Shwoop. Brown leather combat boots.

Gabbana then shwooped an aviator's cap, goggles and all, onto Derek's head. Shooting me a mad grin, she flourished her arms.

"I present to you Derek 'Wingman' Glade!" she announced.

I couldn't help but smile. Sure, the pants looked chunky and weird from his shorts underneath, and he kept tugging at the cap, but I had to admit he looked pretty cool.

"What's 'Wingman'? Is that my nickname?" Derek wondered, slowly warming up to his getup.

"Yep! I just came up with it. Well, you did really, but if you like it…"

Gabbana positioned me next to Derek in the mirror's frame, reminding me that I was still wearing my theme clothes.

Derek looked at the two of us standing there, then puffed out his chest. "I look cool," he stated proudly, crossing his arms.

Now I had to laugh.

"What's so funny?"

"Nothing - heh - just the way you looked, all full of yourself!"

Derek glared at me, but my giggling infected him, and he smiled reluctantly.

Gabbana sighed, content as a sun-warmed cat and turning a pleased purple. "There they are," she said to no one in particular. "Wingman and…"

I glanced at her, realizing I didn't have a nickname yet. "Well… 'Wingman' is obviously aviator themed, and if we're going to be a kick-butt duo, then I need a pilot name too."

Thinking, I stared down into the void, lost for a moment. Then it dawned on me.

"You know what my nickname could be?" I asked Derek, a huge, crap-eating grin spread across my face.

It dawned on Derek too. "Oh, no…"

"I'll be Mayday Glade!" I exclaimed, thoroughly enjoying the length of Derek's agonized groan. Gabbana's light pink hair gave away the grin she was suppressing.

"I'm never gonna live that one down, am I?"

"Nope!"

I threw my head back and cackled to the ceiling, watching Derek try not to smile.

oOo

Gabbana told us to wait out of sight in the the Maze while she went ahead through the double doors to the Observatory. Derek and I kept looking at each other's costumes, grinning. Individually, we were alright, but together we looked like the duo to end all duos: me with my bat and him crossing his arms, a head taller than me.

Through the doors, we heard Gabbana announce her "latest masterpiece, Mayday and Wingman Glade!"

That was our cue.

We strode through the double doors, met by a collective ooooOOOOOOH! and the roar of applause. A little shell-shocked, we paused for a moment. Then Derek grabbed me under the arms and hefted me onto his shoulders. Grinning down at him, I brandished Louie and yelled my to-be-infamous battle cry.

"FOR CERDIIVAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!"

The crowd of kids echoed me, taking up my referenced war scream.

"FOR CERDIIVAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!"

Laughing, Derek pushed around in the mess of kids, high-fiving brass as saxophones surrounded us. Capone stood in front, proudly announcing to anyone listening that his section was the best section because it had Mayday Glade in it.

"See that girl up there? That's my girl Mayday. She'll kick your rear in combat and in competition! Section Wars has changed my friends, we have Mayday Glade!"

Meanwhile the trombone section leader gave a simple but powerful soliloquy that consisted only of "TROMBONES, TROMBONES, TROMBONES, TROMBONES!"

I spotted Max and waved enthusiastically; he waved back and elbowed his way through the crowd. On Derek's shoulders, I was as tall as he was. I high-fived him, and he grasped my hand, a smile radiating off his face.

"Congratulations!" he shouted above the din. Then, smiling at Derek too, he added, "Both of you!" Then he nodded to DCI, who blew a long, shrill blast on her whistle. Everyone shut up immediately, and I scrambled off of Derek's shoulders.

Max pulled us both into side hugs, facing the band. "I'm sure you're all excited about new themes and nicknames," he said. "But if we're going to perform in a week, we should really get moving."

He sent Derek and me off into the crowd with a gentle shove.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it's time for a dress rehearsal," he announced.

Excited whispers ran rampant in the band.

"Readygo!"

We all made a mad dash into the the Maze. I didn't really know what I was doing though. From what I gathered I was already ready for a dress rehearsal. Unsure, I slowed and stopped in A Block. People rushed by me to their own rooms to get ready. Most of them shot a brief "hi" or "hey Mayday" at me. I still felt a little alone.

The door next to me slid open suddenly, and Bones, the skeletal trumpet player, poked his head out. He was dressed like an undead jazz musician, with a black fedora, pants, and button-up shirt. In contrast, his bow tie and suspenders were bright red.

"Hey, could you help me out for a second?" he asked, holding face paint and a small brush. It was then that I realized his face was covered in black paint, like a Día de los Muertos calavera.

"Uhhhhh… sure, I guess," I said, following Bones into his room. It was dark, lit only by black candles strewn around small tables. Posters of famous jazz musicians were plastered on the walls. In the middle of the room, Bones yanked a chain dangling from a ceiling fan, lighting the room and chasing away the creepy shadows.

"Usually Alice helps me out," he explained, handing me the red face paint. "But she's busy and I could never get all this done in time. Lucky for me you're already ready. " He smiled, thin lips stretching over white teeth. So he did have skin.

"What do I do?" I lifted the brush and paint, uncertain.

"Just fill in the little flower petal lookin' things around my eyes, and any open circles you can find," Bones instructed.

"Okay." Easy enough. As I worked, Bones asked me about Gabbana, was she intense, of course she was, she's like that. I finished, and Bones inspected my handiwork in his mirror.

"Not bad," he smiled. "Alice's job might be in a bit 'a trouble."

"Thanks!"

He looked at the silver watch around his wrist. "We'd better run."

He turned his light off, and we made our way to the Observatory together.

oOo

"Whoa."

A huge array of color splashed into view as Bones and I passed through the double doors. It was the usual mad dash to set up for rehearsal, but this time, everyone was proudly displaying a theme. Capone turned and waved to me from the sax section, then adjusted his navy pinstripe suit. Thirteen brushed past me, wiggling black-tipped fingers at me and giggling creepily from under her witch's hat. Atlantis was hiking up a long Greek chiton to kick Cap in the shins - he scowled, adjusted his feathered tricorn hat, then gave her mallets back. At the podium, Max was the only one who hadn't changed.

"Where's his costume?" I whispered to Capone after I had settled.

He fiddled with his watch, calling his instrument. "Mom doesn't usually wear something different for normal concerts," he started.

"This is normal?"

"...But sometimes we'll do something different for holidays or special events. Like that time we all dressed as wizards and did a Harold Popper movie tribute. Mom went as Professor Dumblydoor."

"Sounds fun."

Capone grinned at me. "You should've seen Thirteen's face."

DCI's whistle blasted from the front of the ensemble. She was dressed in an honest-to-goodness marching uniform: a red and white jacket over black pants (I was later informed this was called the bib), and a silver G embroidered over the left breast. Her shako was black and sported a white plume.

"Thank you, Laci," Max said to her quietly, smiling. She saluted quickly and sat in her section, gracefully removing her shako.

"Cool," I whispered to Capone.

"Very," he murmured back. "She's trying to get us all to march, just for kicks."

"Alright, since we've already practiced once today, let's all just take a break and hang out in setup for no reason," Max announced.

We all stared at him, brass waxing hopeful.

Then he grinned evilly. "As if we would ever not take an opportunity to get better! Get your instruments back out, trumpets. The concert's in a week."

A choir of groans and broken dreams emanated from the band as Max shuffled through his scores thoughtfully. "We definitely need the most work on Vesuvius," he mused. "Maybe we could work on that some, try and iron out the beginning, then do a bit in Earthso-"

He was cut off by a loud CRASH! as the Crescendo shook, and a huge video screen fizzled to life behind the control center. Max spun to face it as a huge, ugly face filled the screen with a snarl.

"MAX GLADE!" the face growled through a disgusting line of blocky teeth. "I hear there's a pretty bounty on your head from some men lookin' for ye."

Max said nothing.

"A real pretty bounty, if ye catch my meanin' Mr. Glade," the hideous alien continued, rough chuckles from his crew filtering behind him.

Max smiled coldly. "I'm flattered, but I think concert revenues are keeping us comfortable at the moment."

"Aw, now ye know that ain't what we meant," Ugly Mug wagged a green sausage finger.

As Max and the alien bantered back and forth Capone leaned over to whisper to me. "Space pirates," he muttered. "Dumb as rocks, most of 'em. This one's Tito. All he cares about is filling out bounties and climbing the underground social ladder."

Tito. I'd have to remember that. Watching him sitting so comfortable on his side of the video link, insulting Max and the band from his safe little ship - it made something behind my eyes pulse.

"May? May, sit down!" Capone hissed.

I ignored him, pushing his hands away and gripping Louie in one fist.

"Where were you even keeping that?!"

I marched up to the screen behind Max, ignoring the quiet warnings from the front rows.

Tito noticed me as I reached the podium. "Huh? Who's that?"

Max glanced down at me, at the expression on my face, at the baseball bat in my hand. Half-curious, half-concerned, he hesitantly stepped aside.

"HAW! You're gonna let a little pipsqueak like that negotiate for ye? Pathetic!" Tito guffawed.

"Pipsqueak?" I snarled quietly, pushing the word through my teeth.

"You heard me girlie! Yer so small I can barely see ye over the dash! HAW!"

Furious, I planted a foot on the dashboard and yanked myself up by the ship's wheel. I quickly found the small orb that served as the camera on our side, and grabbed it.

"LISTEN HERE YA LUMPY FREAK!" I bellowed into it. "IF YOU THINK YOU CAN COME HERE AND START FLINGING AROUND INSULTS LIKE YOU OWN THE PLACE YOU'VE GOT ANOTHER THING COMING!"

Tito blinked, misshapen mouth hanging open.

"THIS IS MY FAMILY AND I'M NOT GONNA LET YOU HUNT IT DOWN BECAUSE YOU WANT WHATEVER CASH SOMEONE'S WILLING TO FLING AT YOU! IF YOU SO MUCH AS SET YOUR UGLY BIG TOE ON THIS SHIP I WILL PERSONALLY INTRODUCE YOU TO MY BASEBALL BAT! DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR, POTITO?!"

Shocked, the space pirate blinked.

"GOOD! Now," I released the camera and pointed Louie at the screen. "Go pick on someone your own shape!" I stomped on a button and terminated the video link.

The entire ship was dead silent. Without another word, I jumped down from the control center and strode back to my seat. I plopped down, fuming, and shoved Louie under my seat.

"Did… did you just call him 'Potito'?" a euphonium asked from the back.

I turned in my chair. "Yeah. Doesn't he look like a weird potato to you?"

The euphonium smiled as a slow wave of nervous laughter rippled from the brass and infected the band. But of course someone was asking the important questions.

"Where'd they go?"

Smiles died as the ship rocked violently, and angry shouts were heard on the level below us. We had been boarded.

"Everyone in your rooms, now!" Max barked, herding scared kids into the the Maze. I stood on my seat, gripping the back as the front rows rushed around me, trying not to get trampled. Max spoke urgently with a blonde girl who nodded curtly, then swept a smaller child into her arms, whispering to her gently and jogging into the Maze. I passed her as I jumped off the chair and dashed towards Max.

"Max!" I shouted, Louie in my hands.

"May," he knelt, putting his hands on my shoulders. Not a good sign. The last time he did that people were trying to arrest him. "Go back to your room. I need you to be safe right now."

I shook my head, pushing his arms away. "No. I told that ugly pirate what would happen if he came here and he did. I have to hold up my end of the deal."

"I understand that, May, but these people aren't just bullies. They will kill you," he insisted, trying to get me to retreat.

I stood my ground. "I've bashed monsters in the face before, I can do this!"

"May, please, now is not the time to be a hero! I'm not going to risk your life because you think you can take on Tito and his gang!"

"I'm not just gonna leave you here alone!"

"I'll be fine, I've dealt with people like this before. You don't understand, there are certain things I have to do before they get awa-"

He was cut off by the elevators opening, pirates swarming into the Observatory, assorted weapons being brandished by brash bums. Max rose slowly, one hand on the hilt of his sword, and protectively pushed me behind him.

"Well, well, if it isn't the same little brat who thought she could threaten me!" Tito chortled loudly, a club in his meaty fist. His rusty hodgepodge armor squawked as he pointed a sausage finger at me. "You will make a lively little addition to the Fight Ring, girlie."

There was a taut, quiet squeak as Max's grip tightened on the hilt of his sword. "Get off my ship," he said quietly, his voice low and dangerous.

Tito guffawed loudly, leaning back and thumping his club on the tile. "Make me, fugitive! HAW!"

"Fugitive?" I asked, trying to hide the tremble in my voice.

Max scowled and tensed, but didn't move. "I will tell you one more time. Get off my ship."

"Won't be your ship much longer, Minervan," Tito growled, readying his club. "I think I'd like to take it now."

"You think," Max repeated, raising his eyebrows. "That's new."

Tito roared, insulted, and charged us. There was a ringing hiss of metal on leather, and suddenly Tito was missing his club. Rather, it was still in his grip, but his hand was lying on the floor, still wrapped around the blunt weapon and detached from his arm. Tito roared again, this time in pain, as his dark green blood dripped from Max's broadsword.

The swordsman turned to me. "May, get to your room, now."

Eyes wide, I stared back at him, then shot off in a dead sprint towards the Maze. Two pirates tried to break off and follow me, but they were intercepted by deadly steel. I stopped at the double doors and looked back.

"GET OFF MY SHIP!" Max roared, and the pirates scattered, dragging Tito and their fallen crew members back to the elevators. After the Crescendo was clear, Max's shoulders slumped, and he sheathed his sword. Cursing under his breath in a language I didn't understand, he ran to the control center and started punching buttons.

"Come on, come on," he muttered, shooting glances at the screen that grew more and more frustrated. Eventually he stopped and ran his hands through his hair, sighing in relief.

"Fugitive?"

Max turned to see me behind him, hugging my bat to my chest. He looked up briefly, then sat on the podium. "Do you remember those men in grey from your planet, May?"

I nodded.

"They're space travellers, like us. I used to be one of them," he explained, fixing a far-off gaze on the floor. "But they didn't like what I was doing, so they sent me away."

"Off your planet."

Max broke his hundred-yard stare and looked at me. "Yeah. Minerva."

"That's why Tito called you a-"

"Minervan, right. And now the grey men want me back there. They didn't expect me to start a band," he smiled ruefully.

I looked at my shoes, thinking, when an awful notion slid into my head. "What were you doing at the control center?"

"I was trying to disable the navigation system on Tito's ship. They don't have the money for a tracker to stick on us, but they were broadcasting their course to their buyer," Max said.

"The grey men," I guessed, praying I wasn't right, but unfortunately, Max nodded slowly.

I was shaking now, realizing what I'd almost done in my attempt to save the day. "I could've led them right to us," I whispered, horrified. Tears fled down my face. "They could've taken you and left us here alone."

Max pushed off the podium, taking a knee and pulling me into a hug. I buried my face in his neck, quietly sobbing.

"It's okay," he murmured reassuringly. "It's okay, they're not going to take me. We're going to be alright..."

Told you it would get better. The purpose of this book is to make you think you're getting into a fun, light-hearted adventure and then WHAM! Drama hits you out of nowhere. Oh, you thought this was the dramatic part? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Buckle up.