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I was still fuming when I got back (having successfully devoured a Mc-Bigger-Than-My-Head Burger and two large fries), so much so that I rounded a corner and ran smack into someone’s back. Said someone swore and rounded on me.
“Watch where you’re going, Private Boy,” he said, looking me up and down. “Private Parts.”
I flushed, hands fisting at my sides. “Piss off,” I snarled, with what was fast becoming my usual astounding genius. Master of Wit, that’s me.
“Piss off yourself,” Public Boy – Pubic Boy? That seemed fair – replied, vicious grin lighting up his face. “Especially since you’re, oh, I don’t know,” he looked at his watch, “five minutes late. That little pocket rocket you have on your team, she won’t be too impressed about that now, will she. Been giving you the cold shoulder all morning. Think what she’ll do now.” He tsked and shook his head.
My cheeks felt hot and my jaw and fists hurt from clenching. How dare… I mean, it’s not like… And seriously! But most of all: what the hell? I inhaled, long and slow, and forced the tension away. “You know what?” I said, wrestling my voice towards normal. “You’re right. I am late. I should go.” I turned and walked away. Megan should be proud.
Pubic Boy snickered. “Oh yes,” he said. “Don’t let me faze you. I’m only a public student. My words should just… pass right through.”
I froze, heart jolted. He knew. He’d seen me phase through the door earlier and he knew. What else could that mean?
He snickered again. “Don’t let me detain you, though. I’m sure you’re just dying to straight-line back to your little friends. After all, they clearly need you.”
I flexed my fingers and worked my mouth, trying to make my dried-out tongue function. “What do you want?” I said slowly, wondering if I could just walk away from this. A chill ran over my shoulder, skin contracting and shivering as something fluttered over it.
“That depends,” Pubic Boy breathed against my neck. “What’ve you got to give?”
Abruptly I realised what the strange feeling in my shoulder was: his hand. The feeling wasn’t on my shoulder, it was in it – which meant that his hand… I gagged, and the motion jerked on his arm, which sent panic spinning through me. I gasped for air and forced down the chants of ‘Chris-fit, Chris-fit.’
“Easy now,” Pubic Boy said, steadying me with his free hand. “Stand still!”
I tried, fighting to stay upright against the whirling in my stomach. The world blurred and I tasted bile, panting, gasping. Breathe, breathe, breathe! I shouted at myself, covering my mouth and nose with my hand. I sucked at it, slurping in the air, but it forced me to slow down and I gulped, swaying.
“Dude.” Pubic Boy sounded concerned. How touching. He shook his hand free with barely a second of effort and grabbed my shoulders, spinning me to face him. “Seriously?” He wrinkled his brow at me. “Just chill, okay?”
I nodded, releasing my mouth and inhaling myself fully upright. I squeezed my eyes closed. I’m fine. I’m fine. “How did you do that?” I said with my eyes still closed.
I felt him shrug. “Same way you walked through that door.”
Guilt surged in the pit of my stomach. Megan would be livid. Crap. I was late. She was probably already livid. I exhaled shudderingly and opened my eyes. Questions. I’d been about to ask him something. I stared at his arms, still propping me upright. Oh yeah.
I dragged my gaze upwards to his face, just registering the concern in his frown before it vanished and he was sneering. “But,” I forced out. “Can’t you only do that with inanimate objects?”
“Inanimate?” His sneer deepened back to a frown.
It was my turn to sneer. I shook him off and straightened my tie. “Inanimate, doofus. Not alive.”
Anger flashed through his eyes. “I know what it means, Private Parts. But why should that matter?”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, I don’t know: maybe because living things are complicated. Their molecular structure is irregular. Doesn’t that make it harder to phase through?” I bounced a little on my toes. In spite of myself, I was intrigued.
Pubic Boy shrugged again. “Glass is irregular. Wood is irregular. Didn’t seem to stop you with the door.”
I opened my mouth to retort – and stopped. Damn it. He was right. I blinked and close my mouth.
He snickered at that. “So, going to break that one to your dear little friends? They are your friends, aren’t they? You all looked like you were having such a good time.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Funny. No. I know them, that’s all.” Which was true: they weren’t my friends. They were the League of Extraordinary Losers, and sure, they’d invited me in when the rest of the world had shut me out but that didn’t mean I liked them – except maybe Megan, because hello, hot and intelligent.
So why was my heart pounding like I was trying to convince Dad that it had been Mitch that had wrecked the car that time, and not me?
Pubic Boy raised an eyebrow. “That so.” He paused, then continued in a rush. “And do they… you know.” He flapped his hand ineffectually. “Phase.”
I shrugged, trying to ignore my still-pounding pulse and the tiny voice that was whispering that this was a guy who’d pretty much attacked me just a few moments ago. “Maybe.”
“Of course they do,” Pubic Boy murmured to himself. “That’s why you’re with them.” He hesitated again, twisting up his mouth, then stuck out his hand. “Evan,” he said. “Evan Frampton.”
“Chris,” I returned, shaking his hand after only a fraction of an instant. So he’d tried to muscle me; the rivalry between public and private schools was as old as their existence, and he’d let up pretty quickly. “Chris Webb.”
He nodded. “Well, Chris Webb. We’d better get back inside, or your Pocket Rocket might just murder us both with her eyes.” His tone suggested that he wouldn’t be surprised if that turned out to be a real possibility, and I chuckled. Well, why not? We were a bunch of people who could walk through walls, after all.
Inside, my new acquaintance gave me the nod as he split to join his team halfway down the room. I sauntered up to the top table and plunked down like to Megan like nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
I mean, comparatively, nothing had, right?
Megan shuffled her chair around to shoulder me out.
“What?” I said. “I came back.”
Greg’s gaze burned right through me, accompanied by a chill sense of dread as a hand landed on my shoulder.
“Chris Webb? A word, please.”
She was a stern-looking teacher, hair pulled back in a tight bun, heavy-rimmed glasses weighing down her nose.
My stomach twisted. I’d been in trouble before, obviously – though I wasn’t like some of the guys, I didn’t look for it deliberately – but this was different. I’d never been in trouble before when I’d been trying not to be. “I’m sorry,” I said, trying to forestall whatever might be coming.
Stern Teacher just raised an eyebrow at me and led me to the corner of the room. “Just stand here a minute with me, please.”
I leaned against the wall, arms crossed tight over my chest – and swallowed. Two other teachers stood at the table with the Losers, rummaging through their papers.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“You’re not supposed to leave the premises,” Stern Teacher said, echoing Megan’s words earlier. “This is a closed event. Who knows what you might have brought back with you.”
I jerked and nearly lost my balance against the wall. “Like what?” What did they think I might bring back? The plague? Ebola? Bird flu?
Stern Teacher pursed her lips and nodded towards the table. “If we find anything there that looks like it might be calculated to aid your team, any unpermitted materials…” She trailed off and relief flooded over me. I hadn’t brought a single thing back in with me; there was nothing to find.
Then one of the teachers frowned, staring at a sheet of paper in his hand. He passed it to the other teacher, who also frowned, before starting in my direction. It was Megan’s death glare though that really had me feeling queasy.
The first teacher waved the paper under my nose. “How did you get this?”
I stared. The paper was unfamiliar, thicker and creamier than regular paper, and more to the point, I’d never seen what was printed on it. I squinted. It looked like… I drew in a sharp breath.
“Yes,” the teacher said smugly. He handed the page to my stern babysitter. “A complete list of all the questions from the contest. All rounds. Verbatim.”
The Stern Teacher echoed my gasp. Perhaps she wasn’t so stern after all. But then – “Mr Webb, what do you have to say for yourself?”
“I… I… Nothing! I didn’t bring it in! I’ve never seen it before!”
I’d been in trouble before. Plenty of times. Even sometimes when I hadn’t actually done anything wrong. But I’d never been in trouble in front of a crowd full of people containing not a single person who’d be impressed by it. And worse: Megan caught my eye, and the death stare had melted. Instead, sheer and abject horror widened her eyes, followed very quickly by such an intense loathing, I actually considered phasing through the floor right there in front of everyone.
See, Megan? I wanted to tell her. This is why I don’t care.
The teachers finished their murmured conference behind me and my stomach jolted as I caught the final words: “…disqualify them.”
I shook the teachers off and strode to Megan, heart pounding like it wanted to burst through my veins. “I didn’t do it,” I said, wishing that if I just stared hard enough into the depth of the ocean, it would believe me. I’ve been to the ocean twice. Both times, it was utterly merciless, dumping me over and over and over, grinding me into the sand until I coughed and choked and conceded defeat.
The oceans of Megan’s eyes were just as cold.
“I didn’t,” I said. “But I’ll find out who did.” And just as suddenly as that, I knew that I would: that despite their stupid dorky glasses and perfectly knotted ties and passion for a Maths trophy that mean exactly squat out there in the real world, I would find out who had done this to them, because even though caring hurt so much I couldn’t breathe, having Megan stare at me like I was dog crap she’d stepped in when she’d expected fresh, clean snow was worse. A million orders of magnitude worse.
And as I walked away, escorted to the staff room by a posse of excitedly concerned teachers buzzing like bees over the prospect of Real Discipline, Pubic Boy caught my eye and winked. And I remembered: we weren’t the only ones who could phase.
A stupid Maths competition was one thing. Someone who had every reason in history to hold grudge against us and could literally walk through walls, people, and anything else that stood in his way? I glanced back at Megan. She’d never let me protect her now. I’d never wanted to protect anyone before. Fights – real fights, not things staged and choreographed for show and reputation – they ended badly for me. But this time… I ground my teeth. Pubic Boy was going down.
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