It's a Cruel World, Sir

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11 | Cupcake

The air is muggy, dark rain clouds hovering over our heads. It’s a little past seven-thirty in the morning, a good fifteen minutes before the bell for classes is supposed to ring, and everyone is standing in the parking lot, two out of the six looking thoughtfully at nothing in particular. TJ and I are sitting on the concrete, legs crossed, looking at the dreary sky.

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” Leon asks. Again.

“Yes,” I say, exasperated. “I’ll be fine.”

Whit doesn’t look convinced, though. “You say that even when you don’t think you will be.”

I shoot her a look, but she easily ignores it, staring at a strand of white hair.

“To leave you alone the day after someone threatens you just doesn’t sit well with me,” Nik continues explaining, even though I’m sure I’ve heard it more than twice already. “God only knows what Leon’s thinking.”

“We know what he’s thinking; we just don’t understand why we all have to go,” TJ supplies.

“It’s the only way,” he defends. “We need to get our bearings straight before this turns into an all-out war.”

I sigh, lying down on the cold ground. “Calvin’s going to be here,” I remind them.

“Yeah, but he chooses today to be late,” Whitler says sharply. “I swear to God, if I find out he’s not here because he decided to go hook up with another girl from the club the other night, I’ll throttle him.”

I simply roll my eyes, feeling the indentations in the concrete with the tips of my fingers.

Leon had decided sometime last night that he and the others would go scope out Preston’s territory. Apparently, someone tipped off that Preston’s supplier is a good friend of Leon’s dad, so he and Trent are going to go beat information out of him. Nikki and Whit are going to figure out what the girls on the streets know, since one of them is on our side. TJ’s job is to see what his dad knows—Mr. FBI agent has been on Preston’s tracks for almost three months now. Calvin, poor child, is stuck with me. While they know it’s important to do recon and figure out as much as we can, they’re still worried about leaving me alone in school, and since Chase can’t simply leave his room any time he wants, it’s up to Calvin to do the babysitting.

“Seriously, I’ll be okay,” I try to assure her again. “It’s not like I need you five to hold my hand in class.”

“I wonder if that’s even possible.” TJ purses his lips, staring at my hand.

Nik rolls her eyes. “Maybe if we each grab a finger.”

I let out a long, exasperated sigh.

The bell chimes, surprising the three paranoid teenagers around me. They each practically jump into action, muscles tense.

“I’m going to be late for class,” I say, standing up. “Why don’t you guys take some Valium and sleep for a while. Like maybe three or four months.”

“Don’t be a smartass,” Leon scolds.

“Yes, yes, my apologies,” I say mockingly over my shoulder.

“Be careful!” Nik shouts. “And don’t talk to strangers!”

I flip her off just before the front door shuts completely.

The halls are still covered with more students than expected. Most are hurrying to their classes, but there are some making clusters in the middle of the walkway, uncaring that the late bell is going to ring in five minutes. As I walk by, they throw subtle glances my way, with more whispers, but I ignore them, making my way to my locker.

Before I can get to it, however, someone steps in my path, towering above me.

Noah.

I sigh openly, not bothering to hide the annoyance. “Yes?”

“Heard Leon and them were gone today,” he says conversationally, though there’s a definite smugness in his voice that causes the hairs on my arm to stand on-end.

“And?”

“I was just wondering if you needed another bodyguard,” he explains. An irritating hand falls on my shoulder, the touch a little too friendly. “I’m very... thorough about my job, though.”

Instead of wasting my breath, I sidestep him, continuing down the hall.

He doesn’t take being ignored very well and grabs my elbow, jerking me back roughly. “Don’t turn down my offer so easily, freak.”

“Yes, Noah, because calling me a freak is going to convince me to sleep with you.” I roll my eyes. “Nice approach you have there, but I’d rather eat nails than touch you.”

“You—”

Suddenly, someone’s crowding my personal space, a palm pressed firmly against my lower back. I look over to see Ryan standing next to me, eye-to-eye with Noah. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“And who the hell are you?” Noah demands.

“Does it matter?” Ryan retorts.

Noah snarls, baring his teeth like a rabid dog. “Are you trying to start something, dickwad?”

“Not in the middle of the hallway, I’m not,” he says darkly.

He growls, and for a moment, I think he’s going to take a swing at him, but before I can stop him, he turns around, fuming as he walks down the hall.

I let out a sigh as I watch his retreating figure.

“Are you okay?” Ryan asks, peering down at me.

“Yeah,” I say reassuringly, smiling. “Thanks. You didn’t have to come to my rescue, though. He would’ve gotten bored when I didn’t react.”

He shrugs, like it’s natural for him to step in. “Don’t worry about me.”

“Ah, but you keep sticking your nose into my business,” I say, rerouting to my locker. “What if you get hurt? Hm?”

He chuckles, walking beside me. People whisper, but he either doesn’t hear it or pretends not to. “Why would anyone hurt me for standing up for you?”

I open my mouth to tell him it’s because I’m the most hated person in the school but close it. “Do you not know who I am?”

He tilts his head, confused. “Vixen, right?”

“No. Well, yes, but no one calls me Vixen,” I explain.

“Then what do they call you?”

The late bell rings as I open my mouth, and he smiles. “I have to go, but if you need me to, I’ll pick you up after class.”

I shake my head. “That won’t be necessary,” I assure him, “but thanks nonetheless.”

“Any time.”

He waves before he heads down the hallways, and I shake my head again, smiling as I head to my seat.

Class is slow and monotonous as usual. Canty’s looks of distaste aren’t missed, but I ignore him, trying to remember if I had told Ryan that I’m a part of Leon’s gang. It’s usually the first thing that comes out of someone’s mouth when they introduce me, so I had assumed that he knew. From his nonchalant attitude, though, it’s possible that he doesn’t, and that could be a problem. Ryan’s thoughtful, with lean features; I doubt he could defend himself if someone like Noah decided to get back at him for ruining his game.

A cold chill runs up my spine at the thought.

Maybe I should have had him walk me to class, just to make sure he’s okay.

When the bell rings, I’m the first one out of the room.

I wander the hallways, looking for any signs that they’re trying to hide his body, but come up empty. I almost walk back to Chase’s class, claiming that Leon and Whit’s paranoia has infected me, when I hear rustling around the corner. My mind automatically goes to the worst, and I round the corner faster than light.

As I feared, Noah has Ryan backed in a corner. Thankfully, Noah’s the only one, no one else on his side. Maybe that’s why Ryan looks calm, collected, like he’s not the least worried about the six-foot-two soccer player.

“I’ll ask you again: who the hell are you?” Noah bullies, getting in his face.

Ryan looks bored. “Is that the only thing you can say?”

Noah’s face turns red, fist clenching. “You have no idea who you’re getting involved with, dumbass.”

“I could say the same thing,” Ryan says evenly.

“All right, enough you two,” I say, breaking it up as I walk down the tiled floor. “Really, Noah? Does it make you feel better about yourself, attacking some guy because he took up for me?”

“Of course it does,” he snarls. “If I wanna fuck with you, I can. This bitch can’t do anything about it.”

“Is that the only insult you have?” Ryan asks.

I know what he’s going to do even before he cocks back his fist. I clip his wrist with my palm, causing him to hit the wall above Ryan’s head, and backhand with my knuckles, hard enough to bust his lip, but easy enough so I don’t break his jaw.

“I can’t believe you actually thought that would work,” I say, shaking my head as he cups his mouth. “You should’ve learned from the last time.”

If looks could kill, his would peel my skin layer by layer.

“Lay off him, okay?” I put my hand on my hips, looking down at him. “I mean it.”

“Tch.” He clicks his tongue. “Whatever. It’s not worth it anyway.”

He scurries away, leaving me with a dumbfounded Ryan.

“Wow,” he breathes. “I didn’t know you could fight.”

“Uh, yeah.” I rub my head awkwardly. “About that, I should probably tell you...”

He tilts his head.

“Do you know who Leon Reid is?”

The recognition in his eyes is almost instant. He doesn’t look scared, though, so I guess that’s something.

“Well, I’m a part of his group,” I say slowly, watching him take it in.

His eyes widen. “Wait.” He takes a step back, disbelief filling his voice. “You’re not Cupcake, are you?”

I sigh, ruffling my hair. “Guilty.”

“Holy shit.” He looks sick, like he might throw up.

“That’s why I said you should probably stay away from me,” I explain.

He doesn’t say anything, eyes still wide, but I don’t give him time to, escaping to Chase’s class.

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