As lunchtime fell upon Wellspring High, a small group of students planned to meet up at the benches by the school gymnasium. First to arrive was Ari, who waited for her friends next to a small tree. Moments later, she noticed Ken pass a corner as he began to walk towards her. She was about to call out to him, but then noticed that he was wearing a gym shirt with the Wellspring High logo on it. Clearly different than the shirt he wore earlier that day.
As Ari was puzzled, Ken was the first to actually speak. "Hey, I'm here." As Ken waved over at his childhood friend, Ari, she had rustled the back of her green hair with her hand. She seemed to be stressed over Ken's appearance.
"What the hell are you wearing?" Ari asked, vehemently.
Ken looked down at his attire and then back at Ari. "A gym shirt," he replied, as plainly as ever.
"You don't have P.E. class." She folded one arm over her chest and motioned her other hand in an arc to emphasize her confusion and frustration.
At that moment, the two heard a voice speak from a few paces down. They recognized it as Rayner’s voice. "Let Ken explain what happened real quick," suggested Rayner, quickly walking up to join the pair with Blake by his side.
Ari almost forgot about the current matter with Ken as she saw Rayner and Blake come up to them.
"So you finally decided to hangout with us," Ari commented, joyfully.
Rayner let out a small chuckle of embarrassment as he said, "I guess I did. I'm sorry that it took this long for me to finally come and see you guys during lunch."
Blake jabbed at his side lightly as she interjected herself into the conversation. "You always make it sound like you did something guilty. Just ease up and enjoy the company instead of feeling bad." She spoke in a teasing manner, although Rayner could not refute her point.
Rayner stood silently as Blake then exchanged greetings with Ari and Ken. After tilting her head upon seeing Ken, she said, "Something feels... different about you."
Ari's face then sharpened as she turned back to Ken. "Yeah, don't think I forgot about you," Ari added. "Why are you wearing a gym shirt all of a sudden? When I last saw you third period you still had on a messy and wrinkled T-shirt."
As she seemed to press Ken about this matter, Rayner fidgeted around awkwardly because he didn't know whether he should say something or not.
Ari noticed Rayner shifting around and asked, "Do you know the reason, Rayner?"
"I um..." His eyes darted back and forth as Ari pressed the issue. "Well if I did, it wouldn't be my place to speak about it."
Ken then patted Rayner on his upper arm and said, "Well, at least I know who I can trust my secrets with." He laughed to lighten the mood and also put Rayner at ease.
Wordless, Rayner racked his brain for something to say to Ken. All that came out was his most common phrase. "Er... I'm sorry."
Ken put a finger to his lips and closed an eyelid. "Apologize less, my friend." He then pointed finger guns at Rayner. "You really gotta work on that."
Rayner let out a small laugh as Ken did that. "I'll try my best." To everyone's relief, he didn't seem tense afterwards.
Ari squinted at Ken with a displeasing glance as she then murmured, "Well Ken, it's good to see you hanging out with your new best friend."
Ken took on a sarcastic tone as he then said, "Oh, is somebody jealous now?" He gazed back at Ari with a playfully mocking expression.
As the pair of childhood friends were messing around with each other, Blake loudly interjected. "No," Blake exclaimed. "Raynie is mine! You can't have him, Ken." She stood between Rayner and the other two with her arms outstretched.
Surprised by her outburst, Ken and Ari looked back at each other silently for a moment.
Rayner felt awkward about the current situation and wondered how to combat Blake's seemingly selfish opposition. Before he could say anything, however, he was interrupted by a cacophony of laughter shared between his three nearby friends. Ari covered her mouth with a hand to try and conceal her laugh to no avail. Ken bent forward and rested his hands over his knees, laughing out loud. Lastly, Blake had been holding onto her stomach while laughing at her own playfulness. Rayner stood there and watched them for a moment before realizing that all three of them were just messing around. Rayner felt embarrassed for not realizing that they were only kidding. After hearing the others laugh the way they did, he understood how easy it was to determine that fact if he really thought about it. Despite his embarrassment, hearing his friends joy and amusement also had Rayner join in on their laughter.
As the atmosphere of the group mellowed, Ken talked about what happened to him last period. He told them how Paula and Winston conspired together to spill coffee over his project paper and make it look like it was just an accident. He stated that Rayner happened to stop by his classroom at that time to pick up something for his teacher and walked with Ken to the gym to get a new shirt.
"Paula is the worst," exclaimed Ari. "And that dog on the basketball team is no better."
"Get this, though," Ken said, with a mischievous smile forming on his face. "As soon as Rayner walked in, everyone stopped laughing and went dead silent. He even scared the life out of Winston with the second most frightening gaze I've ever seen."
"You got to see his scary face?!" Blake asked, in a whiny manner. "Lucky! Rayner never shows it to me no matter how much I ask him to."
"It has to come out naturally," protested Rayner. "If I try to do it when it's unnecessary, it doesn't feel right. And to be honest, I hate when I end up making that face..."
"I know," assured Blake. "I'm only teasing. You just need to stay being my good boy, Raynie." She patted his shoulder, playfully.
Ari whispered over to Ken as she saw Blake do that. "It's like he's her pet or something."
"To a lot of people's envy," Ken commented. "I bet a lot of guys would kill to be Blake's pet."
Ari shook her head in disgust. "Ugh, boys..." She then looked at Ken with a concerned glance and spoke aloud. "But are you sure you're okay, Ken? Like, are you seriously okay with this?"
"Yeah, its nothing. You know me, Ari. I can take it."
"You always say that, Ken. You know I don't mind defending you, right?"
"I know, Ari. And I appreciate it. I really do... But you've been stretching your neck out for me since middle school. I can't have you sticking up for me my whole life."
"Why not? I plan on sticking with ya for a while. Let me bash some skulls in. Especially Paula's." Ari formed a fist and slammed it into the palm of her other hand.
"It sounds like you just want a reason to beat her up specifically..."
"The rich bitch deserves to get her ass beat!"
"Who's Paula?" Blake suddenly asked.
Ari and Ken then turned towards her, heads tilted as they forgot that both Blake and Rayner were with them.
"They're talking about Paula Vinetree," proclaimed Rayner. "She’s in our study hall class. You may have heard about her. In fact, I'd be surprised if you didn't."
"Oh," Blake said, as she recognized the surname. "Yeah, I have heard about her. Her grandmother is the mayor of Sproutling Town, right?"
"Yeah, that's who we're talking about," said Ken with a disgruntled tone. "She’s popular and pretty enough to get a bunch of horndogs to do her bidding for her."
"I see..." said Blake, disturbed. "I also heard that her parents have well-paying occupations."
"And she thinks she owns the whole world because of that!" Ari complained.
"Is that so? Hm..." Blake started to realize that everyone's opinion of Paula was very negative. Not just from Ken and Ari, but also from what she's heard others say behind Paula's back. Blake turned to Rayner to see what he thought about her. "How about you, Rayner?"
"Me? What do I think about Paula? From what I can remember, she always spoke to people in a condescending way. And I think she was the first person that started calling me a monster. She's probably the reason that everyone else started calling me that too."
"That jerk!" Blake's expression changed completely after hearing that. Instead of curiosity, her face was now full of resentment towards a girl she's never met before.
"Okay, how about we move on to a fun topic?" Ari suggested after sighing loudly and taking a deep breath. "Homecoming is coming up in a few weeks now. Ken and I know what we're doing but I wanna know what you two have planned for that night." She motioned to Rayner and Blake.
"Oh, I forgot about that," stated Rayner. "Homecoming never really mattered to me since I always avoided social gatherings in the past."
Ari nodded, expecting that answer. "Not surprising. How about you, Blake?"
"I'm not sure," Blake replied, honestly.
"Do you not want to go?" Rayner asked, somewhat surprised. "I thought that you liked to mingle around with other people."
"I mean, sure..." Blake looked unnerved for some reason. "That's not the issue though."
Ari raised an eyebrow as she came to a conclusion. "Is the entrance fee a problem for you?" Ari asked, suddenly.
Blake twitched but didn't reply. Instead, she gripped onto her arm and averted her gaze.
"That $20 is a bitch," commented Ken. "No way in hell I'm paying twenty bucks to go to a party."
"I though that Ari said you guys were going," said Rayner.
Before Rayner even finished his sentence, Ari spoke up. "I said that we had plans. I never said it was Homecoming."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I guess just assumed incorrectly."
Ari smiled at him. "No worries. The way I phrased our plan might have misled you."
"Well if not you're going to Homecoming, what are you two going to do?"
Ken and Ari showed off big smiles and glanced at each other cheerfully before revealing their plan. As they looked at each other in agreement, Ken nodded towards Ari for her to continue.
Ari smugly closed an eye and raised a pointed finger by her face as she then said, "There's an indoor swimming park, that Ken and I like, and we always go there on the day of Homecoming."
"Why that day specifically?" Blake asked, curiously.
"I'm glad you asked," declared Ken. "We like going there other days too but we're not the only ones. The popular kids at school like going there too... jocks like Will and Winston. Even Paula frequents the place."
Ari did a gagging motion as she heard Paula's name mentioned. "As if she needed a sexy swimsuit to grab all the boys' attention..."
"But during Homecoming," Ken continued, "we don't have to worry about any of them showing up and ruining our time there."
"That sounds nice," commented Rayner. "I wouldn't mind coming along if you guys will have me."
Ken and Ari smiled triumphantly as Rayner stated that. Together they both said, "Good! you were invited anyway." Ari then turned to Blake and gave her the same verbal invitation.
"How much is it to get in?" Blake asked.
Ari then pulled off a dynamic and dramatic pose as she answered. "Not a dime," she declared. "I have family members that work there who can give us free passes that day."
"Well that's convenient," stated Rayner. "Are you sure that's alright?"
"Uh-huh. Ken and I don't always ask for free tickets to get in. Only like once or twice a year. And I'm sure adding two more people shouldn't be an issue."
"Yep," Ken said, cheerfully. "Ari is our free swimming ticket."
"Hey, I'm not a consumable item," Ari retorted.
"No, you're not," Ken agreed. "You're more like a key item." Both Ken and Ari started laughing at their own jokes together.
Their laughter was cut short as they heard a voice call out Ken's name. As the group looked to where they heard the voice come from, they saw Miranda hollering to Ken.
As Miranda stood before the others, she eyed everyone silently for a brief second. All the while, standing nonchalantly with a hand over her hip.
Ari looked at Ken with genuine concern and asked why the school's female titan was looking for him. Ken whispered that he shares a lot of classes with Miranda and that he had conversed with her a handful of times earlier that day.
"Hey Miranda," Ken greeted, breaking the silence.
Miranda nodded and said, "Ken," in response. "I forgot to let you know that while you were off getting a new shirt, Mrs. Washington told me that she gave us a passing grade for our presentation."
"Really? But we didn't even finish."
"She looked at my paper and said that the work was sufficient. I even told her that your work was good too. Although I thought your notes were sloppy and lacking in detail, I refrained from telling her that."
"Sweet," he said, unashamed by his lack of proper study. "Thanks for that." He smiled, proudly.
Ari then spoke out, in slight anger. "Hey, it sounds like you're belittling him!"
Miranda raised her chin and looked back at Ari, dauntingly. "The hell do you mean by that?!"
"I'm just saying that I don't appreciate you talking to him like that. It sounds so condescending!"
"Tch! This is just how I talk..." Miranda scowled and averted her gaze down to the ground.
Rayner then suddenly called out to Miranda and said, "Hey Miranda. I suppose I haven't talked to you in years. How's your brother?"
Rayner’s friends glanced at him, curiously, after he casually asked Miranda a question as if they were old friends.
Miranda squinted her eyes at Rayner as she then walked over to where he was. She inched closer and closer until she stood face-to-face with him. Rayner was taller than her, but Miranda gazed up at him with an intense stare that seemed to hold some leverage over him.
"Did I say something to upset you?" Rayner asked, genuinely concerned.
"You're a real pain in the ass, Rayner," Miranda declared as she began to walk passed him, away from the group. As she walked a few paces down, she said in a bland tone, "Ron's fine. Now that he lives out of town."
Rayner frowned and looked downwards, regretfully. As he noticed the worried and puzzled looks of his friends, he said, "I'll admit that I shouldn't have spoken to her that way just now."
"What was that ordeal about?" Blake asked, confused by Miranda’s interaction with her friends.
"And you know Miranda pretty well," commented Ken. "At least it seemed that way to me."
Rayner shook his head. "I was a grade above Miranda in middle school. And I was friends with her older brother, Ronnie, back then."
"What happened to him?" Ari asked. "I mean, what was so bad about Sproutling that made him leave?"
"I don't necessarily know," Rayner admitted. "Last I heard, he was expelled during my first year as a Freshman. But from what I knew about Ronnie, he was such a nice person. I can't imagine what he did to get expelled."
"You don't know what occurred with him?" Blake asked, solemnly.
"It happened after my family incident. I wasn't in the right mindset at that time and pushed people away..." Rayner bit his lip. "If only I was there for him back then. Maybe he wouldn't have gotten expelled."
"You can't blame yourself for this. You don't even know what he did. Don't feel guilty until you know the truth of the matter. And when you do, don't sulk over what you could've or couldn't have done."
Rayner nodded and smiled at Blake in appreciation. He then looked up at the sky and voiced his thoughts aloud before his companions. "Just now, I meant to ask Miranda about her brother with concern, but I'm afraid I used a tone that was too casual for her to understand my grievances."
"Well she's no prize herself," stated Ari. "I hate the way she talks to people."
"She seemed tense for some reason," proclaimed Ken, suddenly. "I talked to her earlier today and she didn't sound as rude as she did just now."
"How can you say that after the way she talked to you and Rayner?"
Ken shrugged. "Hey, all I'm saying is that she can't be all that bad. Like if Paula is a ten on the bitch chart, I'd rank Miranda at a three at most."
"She was just as sweet as her brother," added Rayner, "if not sweeter back in middle school. She would always thank me whenever she found me spending time with her brother at school."
"She’s not sweet at all," Ari protested.
"Maybe she changed after her brother got expelled," Ken surmised.
"That may or may not be the case," stated Blake. "It could just be a phase for Miranda. I mean, we're all preadolescent. People at our age tend to try and discover who they are by trying new things and acting in certain ways. For some, it could be as simple as rebelling against their own parents. For others, they might start to act like a completely different person after a year or two."
"I belive Miranda’s been like this throughout all of high school," stated Rayner. "She at least dressed the part since she was a freshman."
"Yeah," agreed Ken. "And I've seen her beat up some guys that tried to mess with her before. I've kept my distance from her these last few years to ensure that I don't piss her off. It was unavoidable this year because of how many classes I see her in."
"Talk about unlucky," commented Ari. "But let's stop talking about Miranda and those who shall not be named right now. Back to what's important." She called out to Rayner and Blake. "So you guys wanna come with us to the swimming park or not?"
Blake turned to Rayner and said, "It sounds fun. Why not, right?" She closed her eyes and smiled at him.
If Rayner wasn't certain of his answer before, he was now after seeing Blake's adorable expression. Responding somewhat flustered, Rayner replied with, "Yeah, that sounds great."