....

I woke with a start, terror pulsing through my body. It's not real, I told myself. Just a dream. Just a dream. Just a dream. I repeated the words until I fell asleep again.

"Do you suffer from blemish overload?" inquired a squeaky-voiced teen. "Do pimples get in the way of your good times? Then zap those zits with—"

I fumbled for the cord to my radio alarm clock, yanking it from the wall.

The next thing I knew, Mom was tapping me on the back. "Ariana, it's almost seven!"

The details of last night slammed into me with alarming clarity, officially waking me up. "I'm sick," I told her. My eyelashes felt stuck together.

She laid her cool hand across my forehead. "Not even warm. Get up."

"Haven't you heard of a mental-health day?"

"No. What's that?"

"It's when kids need a break from school to gather strength so they can make it through senior year."

She smiled. "You can't run from your problems, sweetheart."

Running? Who was running? I was jogging in place.

My conversation with Mom made me fifteen minutes late for class—my third tardy in two weeks. At least I had a note from home, saving me from detention. The hallways were empty, so I slowed down and took the long way to class.

I tensed when I saw Nora's PE teacher by the door of the teachers' lounge, gripping a thick white mug with permanent coffee stains. Mascara tears rolled down her face and dripped onto the collar of her cream blouse. I froze, paralyzed by the sight. I'd never seen a teacher cry before. It seemed so ... out of place.

Mrs. Wilkerson, the art teacher, stood beside Madame Detroit. I ducked into the girls' bathroom and cupped my ear to the swinging door.

"I was only going to be a substitute until Marsha recovered." Madame's accent was faint, hardly noticeable. Unlike Nora's impersonation.

"I have to admit, Pauline, I'm worried. What message will it send?"

"I tried to deal with it. But I can't imagine who would hate me enough to do this," she said. "These are angry kids. I can't help but wonder what they'll do next. All I know is I don't want to be around to find out."

"The police think it's a senior prank," Wilkerson said.

I let out my breath. Finally, someone got it.

"I suppose Trueman's some kind of joke, too?"

Trueman? What was she talking about? My orchestra teacher, still recovering from her breakdown, hadn't returned to school yet.

"I know it's—" Wilkerson's voice faded.

I nudged the door open and leaned closer. Without warning, it swung inward, smacking me in the face. I stepped back, stunned. Samantha Hawkins glanced at me with mild curiosity and headed for a stall. Over the sound of peeing, she called out, "There are easier ways to get a new nose."

I pushed the door open and sped past the teachers, holding my sore nose. I could feel their eyes on my back. Lucky for me, I'd shown zero talent in introduction to charcoal drawing last semester. My name wouldn't survive Wilkerson's short-term memory.

During the break between third and fourth period, I slipped notes into my fellow League members' lockers, asking them to meet me in a music practice room after school. With its soundproof walls and thick curtains, it was the perfect place to hold an emergency meeting.

Justin was the last to arrive, Richie in tow. "I hope this is important," he said, pulling the already-drawn curtain a quarter inch to the left. He shrugged off his backpack. It dropped to the floor like a lead weight.

I looked at him, taken aback by his attitude.

Richie sent me an apologetic glance. "Reid was following us again, but we lost him in the crowd."

"What do you mean?" I asked. I remembered what Richie had said about how Mr. Reid watched them sometimes. But following them around was a lot creepier.

"Does he know something about ... ?" Nora glanced at the closed curtain but lowered her voice, anyway. "Well, you know. Us."

"Nah, this is nothing new. He's been stalking Richie and me for a long time. Before the League," Justin said.

Richie dropped his chin to his chest. "He hates me. Justin says he won't let up until I leave the school ... or graduate, if I last that long."

"If you go, I go. We're a unit," Justin said. Richie looked up, a smile spreading across his face.

"Why is he following you? Because of the drug thing?" I asked. I still couldn't see why Mr. Reid would care one way or the other about Richie's private life.

"I told you, he's a homophobic bastard," Justin erupted. "Anyway, I don't want to talk about that asshole. What's up, Ari? Why are we here? I'm the one who calls the League meetings."

I lowered my head like a wounded puppy. "Madame's quitting," I whispered.

Nora let out a victorious whoop, which, thankfully, was swallowed by the acoustic foam tiles. Was I the only one who felt guilty that Kennedy High was losing a teacher?

As Justin looked at me, the bearer of good news, a genuine smile replaced the frown that had been etched into his face a moment earlier. "Well, I guess that's a good enough reason, Ari."

I was glad I had a sweater on, because it covered up the goose bumps that sprung into action when he directed his topaz eyes in my direction.

"What's with you?" Zoe whispered in my ear. "Your neck is all red."

"Um, allergic to cafeteria food," I mumbled.

Zoe started to tell a joke she'd heard, but I phased out, my thoughts returning to Madame. Why didn't it bother them? We'd done more than send a message; we'd made a teacher quit. And she was leaving because she was afraid. Afraid of us.

Richie laughed at the punch line. I did, too, but only because Justin's eyes were like radar, scanning the horizon for blips on the screen.

"I've got a better one." Richie turned to Justin. "You tell it. The Adam and Eve joke."

Justin laughed. "You know how it goes."

"No one tells it like you," Richie said.

They shared an unreadable look, then Justin glanced away. A second later, he looked back, holding Richie's gaze. Richie blinked and lowered his eyes. It was disconcerting, their exchange. Something I couldn't, or didn't want, to define. I checked Richie's ears. Sure enough, they were red.

"Oh, wait, I think I know that one," Nora shrieked. "Let me tell it!"

Justin waved Nora on. She rewound the joke to get it right. Justin leaned back in his chair, observing us with pride as if we were everything he'd ever hoped for. His royal court.

"You feeling okay, Ariana?" Richie asked.

I nodded, thinking about my AP history class last semester when Mr. Rickman read a quote aloud from the first Inaugural Address of Franklin D. Roosevelt, thirty-second president of the United States: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

"Sure," I told them. "Everything's great."

A/N:

so, what is Justin's deal???

let me know your thoughts!

also, thank you so much for 400+ votes already, y'all are so lovely wow.

love ya xo

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