Don’t cry, Kiki ordered herself as she walked out of the classroom. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
She inhaled sharply and blinked in rapid succession before turning at the family voice. “Hey, Amber.”
Her friend and neighbor didn’t return the smile. “Can I talk to you? It’s about me and Brent.”
Kiki nodded, trying to push aside her own horrible feelings for the moment so she could listen. “Of course you can. What’s up?”
Amber sighed as they headed for their lockers. “Do you think I was too harsh on Brent this morning?”
Kiki often thought Amber was too harsh on Brent, just as she thought Brent often lost his temper too easily with Amber when she did. But coming right out and saying that bluntly wasn’t going to help anyone.
“I think you were frustrated and you let that get the best of you,” Kiki said carefully.
Amber sighed. “Yeah, I think so too.” She shook back her long, auburn hair. “I just don’t like that, you know? I can answer for myself. Just because we’re dating, we’re not married. And even if we were, so what? I’m my own woman.”
Kiki nodded. “Sure. You want to be an independent woman.”
“Exactly,” Amber said.
Kiki gave her a small smile. “And I think that’s fine for a high school dating situation, but . . .” She thought of how to word this.
“But what?” Amber prodded.
“But if you’re taking the relationship more seriously, that doesn’t work. You can’t be in a partnership and independent, not in the way you’re thinking. No I in team and all that.”
Amber’s brow had furrowed and Kiki knew her words disturbed her in some way. Kiki just wasn’t sure if it was because she disagreed with them or agreed with them.
Kiki smiled at her. “Look, that’s probably too heavy for the situation at hand. Like I said, we’re all still in high school. As far as you two fighting goes, all I can really say is be kind to one another.”
“Well, isn’t that just adorable?”
Kiki felt that familiar sick, plummeting feeling, though this time it had nothing to do with taking a test.
Liz Carter was a classic delicate beauty. Her silky blonde hair hung all the way to her tiny waist. Her eyes were China-doll blue and her skin was equally as flawless.
But that was where the beauty ended.
With her high grades and wealthy family, Liz had all the makings of someone that should have been popular. But she was so horrible to people, the only ones that hung out with her were the ones she could buy with expensive gifts and exclusive trips with her family to lavish vacations.
Liz had always had a crush on Jake and in the fourth grade, she had gone up to him at recess and all but demanded he be her first kiss. Jake had been red-faced and flustered, all his ten-year-old buddies oohing and laughing as children do.
“Look, Liz,” he had said. “I’m really sorry. But I don’t want to kiss you.”
Liz had gone even redder while Kit Shaw had crowed, “Shut! Down!”
Jake, ever the nice guy, had tried to shut him up.
“Well, who do you want to kiss?” Liz angrily stamped.
Jake hadn’t answered. At least not verbally. But his brown eyes slid over to the swings.
Right where Kiki had been sitting in his giant bow and floral dress, watching the whole thing.
And eight years later, Liz Carter had not let it go.
“And what episode of Barney the Dinosaur did you rip that advice from?”
Kiki swallowed, feeling her cheeks burn with embarrassment.
Amber stepped in instead. “Isn’t there a pair of ruby slippers you have to try and steal?”
Liz glanced at her as if just noticing her. “Hilarious,” she said, deadpan. “But excuse you. I wasn’t talking to you.”
“And we weren’t talking to you,” Amber said. “No one was. Ever. Not since I’ve known you had anyone spoken to you of their own free will.”
Liz scowled at her and then turned her attention to Kiki. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised you’re letting your friends fight your battles. You know what they say about Mexicans being lazy.”
Amber slammed down her books on the floor, fists balled as she took a threatening step forward. “Get the fuck out of here, Liz!”
Liz had the sense to take a step back with wide, frightened eyes. But she tried to recover by rolling her eyes and mumbling, “Whatever,” before flouncing off down the hall.
Amber practically growled as she went to pick up her books. “Racist bitch.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Kiki said. “She’s only using the race thing because she’s trying to hurt me.” And it worked, Kiki added silently.
“Like that makes it better,” Amber muttered, straightening. “The fact that she could even come up with something like that—”
“Hey!” Jake said brightly, approaching them and interrupting Amber without realizing it. “How’d the test go?”
The test. Liz. Which disaster was Kiki more upset about at the moment?
It didn’t matter.
Because at the other end of the hall, a fight had broken out.
“Oh, crap,” Jake groaned before rushing down the hall.
Amber’s eyes widened. “Brent!” She followed after Jake, and Kiki wasn’t far behind.
It wasn’t until Jake broke through the crowd that Kiki could actually see what was going on.
Brent was in the middle of a scuffle with a blonde football player named Kit Shaw. Kiki had grown up with him and he had been both Taylor’s boyfriend and Jake’s best friend. Until he had cheated on Taylor one summer. Both Taylor and Jake cut him out of their life after that and now Kit constantly made a point to be a first class jerk to both Taylor and Busta.
Who Kiki could see was on the hall floor, blood streaming down his nose.
“Busta!” Kiki cried in surprise, rushing to him and dropping to his side. “Are you okay?” She looked at a student standing nearby. “Go get him some paper towels, please!”
“I’m fine,” Busta all but growled at her.
Kiki blinked at him in surprise at the rough tone that wasn’t usually in Busta’s sweet nature.
A look of guilt flashed over his face. “Sorry.”
But Kiki shook her head and immediately became distracted watching Jake tear Brent off Kit. “Enough, Brent!”
Kit laughed, breathless, his normally perfect blond hair completely mussed. “Yeah, down, boy,” he said in his typical smarmy tone.
Jake turned fiercely to him. “Shut up, Kit!”
If anyone else had said that to him, they would have gotten a smirk and another smartass remark. But with Jake, not only did Kit actually shut up, but the smile was gone as well.
He had taken the loss of Jake’s friendship hard and had never gotten over it. Kiki would have felt sorry for him if he wasn’t just an asshole.
But the shutting up only lasted for a few moments before Kit pointed an accusatory finger at Brent. “He attacked me!”
“You sucker punched Busta, you little bitch,” Brent growled, glaring at him with those icy blues of his.
“He took a swing at me,” Kit said defensively.
“Busta had gotten to his feet again, anger in his features. “He called Taylor a slut.”
“Yeah, well, if the whore shoe fits—” Kit started.
Chaos erupted anew. Busta and Brent tried to rush forward. Brent didn’t get far as Jake held him fast, knowing he was most likely to do the most damage.
But that left Busta, and Kit was rushing to fight with him as well. Without thinking, Kiki got in the middle, just as the two boys collided.
She wasn’t sure whose elbow caught her in the ribs, but she did remember the sharp pain and the blow hitting her hard enough to knock her to the ground and blow the wind out of her lungs when she landed.
She felt dizzy for a moment, more surprised than anything. But she did hear an audible gasp from the crowd, including Amber, who said, “Oh, God, Kiki!”
When her vision cleared, the first face she could see clearly was Jake’s.
Kiki had never seen that look on his face before. It was a look of pale horror and shock. And then it changed to another she had never seen before either. Something beyond anger.
And when he spoke, it was a booming voice of rage that echoed through the hall.
“GET THE HELL AWAY FROM HER!”
The fight between Busta and Kit had broken apart. Busta stared down at Kiki. “Oh God, Kiki, are you okay?”
Jake was scooping her up in his arms to help her to her feet when she nodded. “I’m okay,” she assured him, feeling shaken, which she was sure was more due to surprise than actually being hurt. She looked into Jake’s brown eyes and nodded. “I’m okay,” she said again, bringing up her hand to his cheek, trying to calm him.
“I didn’t see her . . .” Kit started to say.
He didn’t get further than that as Jake stepped away from Kiki toward Kit. “Get. Away,” Jake said. He was no longer yelling, but his low voice was somehow more intimidating.
Kiki could visibly see Kit swallow and he stepped back before turning and walking down the hall.
The crowd that had gathered dispersed as Jake’s eyes swept over them, a silent command for them to go to class.
One person did emerge. A.J. munched on a Cheeto, reaching into a crinkly bag for another. “What’d I miss?” he asked cluelessly.
“Just a run in with one of the many assholes that go to this school,” Brent muttered.
Jake finally closed his eyes and blew out a breath before asking, “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Kiki nodded. “Promise. But I’m more concerned with Busta.” She looked past him where A.J. was inspecting Busta’s nose with mild disgust, but not enough to keep him from shoving another Cheeto in his mouth. “Come on, Busta,” she said. “I’ll take you to the nurse. I have a free period.”
Jake hesitated. “I can do it.”
But Kiki was already shaking her head. “You have class, which you’re already late for.” She looked around to her friends. “All of you.”
Brent shook his head. “I’m not going to class. I’m too wound up.”
Amber slipped a hand into his. “Let’s go for a walk,” she suggested.
Brent looked a bit surprised by the suggestion and Kiki had to admit, so was she. Amber took school pretty seriously and she didn’t take skipping class lightly. But Brent didn’t point that out, instead just nodding and heading off with her.
Jake was still hesitating and Kiki forced herself to smile for his benefit. “Go. Learn about some war in history class. That should bore you enough to calm down.”
“Or give you some ideas against Kit,” A.J. said before tipping the bag back into his mouth so he could catch the crumbs.
Kiki frowned but didn’t respond to that, and before Jake could argue with her, she bounced to her tiptoes and kissed his mouth before turning and linking her arm through Busta’s, leading him toward the nurse’s office, which, admittedly, was a bit of a walk.
“I’m really sorry about this, Kiki,” Busta said, trying to both tilt his head back and see where he was walking at the same time.
Kiki steered him from walking into a water fountain. “Don’t. I’m sorry Kit’s an ass.”
“Pretty sure you had nothing to do with that.” He paused. “What are the chances of you not mentioning this to Taylor?”
Kiki gave him a look, even though he couldn’t really see it. “Um, hi, in case you forgot, this is high school. Gossip is currency and a fight in the hall is a black Amex. Pretty sure Taylor’s gonna hear about it, most likely from Brandy.”
“Brandy wasn’t even there.”
Kiki knew she didn’t even have to respond to that.
“Right. When has that stopped her?” Busta sighed. “I can handle her knowing I was fighting, though she definitely won’t like that.” He paused. “It’s the why I was fighting I don’t want her to know.”
Kiki smiled sympathetically and rubbed his arm. “I know.”
They reached the nurse’s station and Kiki finally let Busta out of her sight. As she made her way to study hall, she let out a breath. This day was pulling out all the stops.