Charles and Louis were teeming with nervous excitement as they entered the cafeteria for breakfast. It was Sunday, the day of revelation. Today they would find out their teams and the people they would be around for the next six years. The rest of the students seemed excited too. Most of them were already in the cafeteria when Charles and Louis entered and they were buzzing with talk and laughter. Lennon was sitting with her teammates at their table. Charles wondered if she had asked Ross to show him around yet, but since breakfast was about to start, he decided to ask her later.
This plan backfired completely as Lennon left the room before breakfast started. Charles finished eating and wondered what to do next. He waited until most no of Team Brown had left, thinking that if Lennon had asked her friends and they had agreed, one of them would have approached him by now. He figured he'd just go back to his room and try to read the book he'd brought or maybe go exploring by himself. Just as he was leaving the cafeteria, he noticed a commotion in the hallway. He didn't know what it was and it was coming from the other direction, but he wanted to know what was going on. Apparently he wasn't the only one. An irregularly shaped group of people had already started to form, blocking out any chance Charles had of seeing what was happening without getting much closer.
Charles set off down the hallway, trying to get at least a glimpse of the action. He made it all the way to the edge of the group without seeing anything but the backs of the spectators, but he could hear things. He could hear a boy yelling out insults that attracted every student within a twenty yard radius.
"I thought you'd learned your lesson, Cory," said the boy venomously. "I haven't seen you in a couple of days. I thought you might have actually left the school; run home to your zombie-loving family. Is your brother planning an attack on the school? He needs someone on the inside? Is that why you're still here? Come on, fight back you little freak!”
Charles drew back sharply. He didn't understand what was going on. Why was no one stopping this? He wasn't sure what all of it meant, but he was pretty certain this was bullying. There was a short period of silence and anticipation and the crowd shifted a bit. Now Charles could see them. There were two boys about his age in the center of the crowd, one standing threateningly with his fists clenched and his eyes angry. The other boy was pressed up against the wall looking scared and miserable and somewhat resigned.
"My mother isn't a traitor," he said, in a small voice, "and neither am I."
"Right," said the angry boy skeptically. "And what about your father? Who is he? Is he a traitor too?"
The boy didn't say a word, but his jaw went rigid. Charles thought he was going to yell, stand up for himself, but he didn't. He seemed to just be trying to ignore the abuse and hoping it would go away. But it wasn't going away. Not if his opposer had anything to say about it.
"I bet he knew what you were. That's why he left you. Or maybe you're right. Maybe your mother is just an innocent woman trying to make a futile change. It would explain a lot if your father was... Tommy? The traitor who ran away instead of facing the consequences he deserved like a man. Why don't you run away like your cowardly traitor father? Huh, Cory?"
The boy had gone too far. Cory shut his eyes trying to block it all out and Charles pushed his way through the murmuring crowd. He could sense a plea for help and he was so disgusted by the way this boy was being treated, he knew it would torture him if someone didn't step in. And he had recognized the name. He was pretty sure he had already made two friends at this school and he wasn't going to forget that. Lennon had mentioned Cory the night before and Charles decided that any friends of hers were friends of his. The angry boy moved in closer and began to hiss more quietly.
"If you love zombies so much, why don't you just become one, Cory?" he said. He pulled his fist back, ready to strike the defenseless, blinded boy before him.
A girl on Charles's left covered her mouth with her hand as Charles pushed past her, finally making it to the front of the crowd. He shouted desperately, drawing everyone's attention to him, including Cory's attacker.
"Why would he want to be anything like you?"
The fist dropped and Cory's eyes shot open, confusion and disbelief playing across his face. As the other boy turned Charles could see a similar expression on his face.
"What?" he asked.
Charles took a deep breath and stepped away from the bystanders and towards the boy. "I said why would he want to be anything like you?"
The boy sneered. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
"It might be hard for you to comprehend. I'm suggesting that you're acting like a zombie because you're practically feeding off of a human. If he were to become a zombie, he'd be a lot like you and it's obvious that no one in their right mind would want to be like you. In fact, as I've observed from Cory's behavior, some people would even prefer being devoured by a zombie to being one like you."
"Are you sure you want to be crossing that line?" the boy asked quietly, moving towards Charles.
"Um... yes," said Charles. "I'm sure."
"Eric," called someone from the crowd behind Charles. "He's a newbie. He's not worth it. You could get detention."
The boy, whose name was apparently Eric, grunted. He shoved his way past Charles, pausing for a moment to threaten him so no one else could hear.
"Just you wait," he whispered into Charles's ear. "I'm going to make your life miserable. I'm gonna make sure you get onto Team Brown, just like all of the other losers. Then no one will care about you and I can have my fun. Better watch your back, newbie."
Eric walked away surrounded by friends, including the boy who had stopped him from messing with Charles. Cory pushed himself off the wall and stood beside Charles, watching his opressor retreat. The remainder of the crowd dispersed and the two of them were left alone in the hallway.
"You shouldn't have done that," said Cory. Charles made no reply, so he continued. "Why did you do that?"
"You needed help and no one was doing anything," said Charles.
"You don't even know me. I don't need anyone to stand up for me. I'm used to it by now and if you ignore Eric long enough he stops. He's just likes attention."
"He must have escalated then, because he wasn't stopping," Charles said. "Your eyes were closed and he was getting ready to punch you when I stepped in. You needed help, dude, just admit it. I know as well as everyone else that this is the first time you've ventured out of your room since Friday and I've only been here that long. And I just barely met you. What's that about then?"
Cory ignored the question and shook his head. "You don't understand. You just made it worse. For both of us."
"Eric can do whatever he likes to me. As long as I'm here I'm not just gonna let this happen. I don't care if you think I made it worse. Maybe it was getting worse anyway because you weren't doing anything about it."
"Someday I hope you'll understand," said Cory. "But thanks for standing up for me."
"Any time," said Charles.
Cory turned to walk away and as he did Charles had an epiphany.
"Hey, Cory. Where are you going?" he asked.
"What do you mean?" Cory turned back to face Charles.
"Well, I met Lennon a couple days ago and she told me about you. I tried to get her to give me a tour, but she's in detention. She said she'd ask Ross to show me around, but I guess she forgot, or he was busy or something. So how about it? Will you give me a tour?"
"What about Eric?" Cory asked.
Charles dismissed him with a wave of his hand. "Eric told me he was going to stay away from me today. He said he'd wait until I got onto Team Brown and since that will be happening tonight, he'll have to wait until tomorrow to try anything. Besides, I'm pretty sure Eric is done with you for today. What do you say?"
Cory looked around uncertainly, then finally gave in. "I don't really have anything better to do."
Cory and Charles made their way around the school, touring the science department, then the math department, then the ballrooms, then the hallway where the Headmaster's office resided, then the team dorms, then the English department and finally the grounds. For this they were escorted by Mr. Buckley, who was an obvious favorite of everyone on Team Brown because of his laid back, blunt manner and his under-the-table toad renting business, which Charles had just seen the evidence of in the Team Brown boys' dormitory. There was a big patio behind the school and an even bigger parking garage. There was also a gymnasium that Charles had already entered when he'd taken his physical fitness exam. Eventually they made it to the fire pit, which was surrounded by several large logs.
"Do you guys use this a lot?" Charles asked.
"Not at all, since I've been here. Ross says they used to have an annual start of school year bonfire and an end of school year bonfire. Now they only do one at the end of the year. I'm not sure why, since it only goes into disrepair when it's not used."
"How does a fire pit go into disrepair?"
"Don't ask me! This is all words of wisdom from Ross Wallace."
Charles's eyes lit up as he had a beautiful thought. "Hey, Cory. Did Ross tell you where the secret passageway was?"
Cory smiled. "Actually, he did one better. He showed me. It was mostly so I could avoid Eric. The problem is, we've only found two passages and you have to take the hallways to get from them to your real destination."
"He found two passages?" asked an awestruck Charles.
"No, he found one and I found one by accident later on."
"Why wouldn't you guys show Lennon?"
Cory's smile faded. "You asked, okay? I don't want to be in the middle of all of this, but I am, thanks to my idiot brother. Lennon isn't who you think she is. If she wasn't on Team Brown she never would have talked to you guys. She just did it because she doesn't have any friends."
"I don't understand," Charles said. "Doesn't everyone want friends? I probably wouldn't be talking to you right now if I didn't want friends."
"First of all, you could have picked much better. Second of all, it's not exactly about her wanting friends, it's about why she wants friends. Lennon could have picked better too, and I guess she did the second time around. The point is, she already had friends, Charles. Namely Eric and his gang. They were her friends. The only reason she tried to be friends with you and Louis is because we don't trust her after all the things she did with them and you guys didn't know her or what she did."
"Why does she even care, then?" asked Charles. "And if that's true and if what I've heard is true, how did she get onto Team Brown?"
"I don't know. My guess is that Eric had a list of people and she was on the bottom. Or he forgot to add her to it. Then, when she got onto Team Brown, they just ditched her because if they didn't they would be giving up one of their means of superiority. None of them would be caught dead with any member of Team Brown, outside of bullying them. Lennon's friends betrayed her and she had no other options. I guess she decided she needed new ones. But we don't really know what happened. If we let her in and she's still one of them, she could do a lot of damage. They could use her to get to us."
"Basically, you're all afraid of Eric, so you won't take the chance that Lennon actually feels sorry and really needs a friend?"
Cory sighed. "What do you expect me to do? It's impossible to just trust someone when you're them to slaughter you at any minute. I'm not just going to show her the secret passage and hope she won't tell Eric because I know that if she does, I'll never be safe here. I won't do it. Not until I know she's changed."
"You might never know that for sure unless you trust her. I get it, you're scared. So don't show her the secret passageway, but at least give her the chance to redeem herself."
"She's had her chance," Cory said. "Until today, no one has ever stood up for me. It has been a month. The only thing Lennon's done is watch Eric attack me."
"That's all your other teammates did too, if no one has helped you at all. Don't you think that she might be just as scared of Eric as you are? He betrayed her, maybe got her onto Team Brown, maybe turned all of her friends against her. Given that, and the fact that her friends can probably do worse to her than they've done to you because they actually know her and people will actually believe what they say about her. She's either in league with Eric as you say, or she has more reason to be afraid of him than you do."
They reached the school in tense silence. Cory knocked hard on the door and soon a teacher came to open the door for them. It was Miss Perry. She gave the pair of them a perplexed look, then pursed her lips and walked away. They walked down the hall after her and once she was a sufficient distance ahead of them that she was unlikely to hear what they were saying, Cory shook his head and held out his hand. Charles shook his hand as Cory furrowed his brow.
"I don't know what it is, Charles," he said. "But there's something about you that's different. It's like who you are makes everything seem better. Hopeful. I think you're right."
They walked for a short distance down the hallway and then Cory stopped walking and motioned for Charles to do the same. Miss Perry rounded the corner and Cory stepped on part of the baseboard that ran down the length of the hallway. The wall above it shifted slightly and a rectangle of wall swung open to reveal a cramped hallway. Cory stepped into it and Charles followed him, pulling the door closed behind them.
"Don't tell Lennon," said Cory. "I'll be as forgiving as I can, but I don't have a death wish."
Charles nodded and the pair of them walked down the hallway together. The passage was shrouded in near darkness, but the boys could still see each other by the light peeking in through random cracks in the walls. There were twists and turns in the hallway, but it seemed to be running in one general direction: West. After several minutes, they reached the end of the hallway. In the wall in front of them a pole stuck out, and a lever stuck out of the wall to their left. Cory lifted the end of the pole to his eye and squinted. He twisted it around a bit, then let it drop and pulled the lever. The wall creaked open like a door.
"I had to make sure the aisle was clear first," said Cory. "That stick hanging out of the door is a periscope. You don't want to startle anyone and you don't want other people to know about the passageway, so you always have to make sure no one is standing outside. It works nine times out of ten."
Cory and Charles stepped out of the passage and into a room. The shelves around them were full of books and reached all the way to the ceiling, about four feet above them. A soft light shine on the floor directly in front of the passage door, which was also a sort of bookshelf. Cory pushed the bookshelf closed and guided Charles out of the aisle, into an open area filled with tables, chairs, and a big desk. A woman sat in a chair at the desk, sleeping and snoring loudly. Cory spread his arms out in a grand gesture and spun in a full circle.
"This is the library," he announced. "It's pretty much the safest room in the school, outside of the dormitory, of course. It's been my refuge for the past month."
Charles looked around at the abundance of books and smiled. It was way bigger than the library at his old middle school and he was glad he'd gotten the opportunity to experience it. His eye caught on a wall clock just above the desk and suddenly he realized it must have been getting close to lunchtime. He walked up to the desk so he could see it better. It read two o'clock.
"Can I help you, dear?" The woman at the desk had woken up and was looking at Charles sleepily.
"Does that clock show the correct time?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," she said. "I replaced the batteries yesterday."
Charles frowned and turned to Cory, quickly thanking the woman. "It's two o'clock," he said. "We missed lunch."
"Well, dinner is only three and a half hours away. What do you want to do until then?"
Charles looked around the library carefully, his gaze stopping on the fiction section. "I want to look around here a bit more. I like to read, especially adventure novels."
The next three and a half hours were spent in companionable silence and quiet enjoyment of stories. Charles was busy reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, which Cory had just recommended to him, when the bell finally rang for dinner. Charles leapt up and started towards the door. Cory called goodbye to him as he began to exit the room and he stopped in the doorway and turned back to face him.
"Aren't you coming to dinner?" he asked.
"I never do. Ross usually brings me food."
"Usually?" Charles said, raising his eyebrows.
"Yeah. When he remembers. Sometimes when he's plotting something he forgets to eat, or at least forgets that I haven't eaten."
"Why don't you just go get food? Don't say Eric. They keep the teams separated during meals."
"So that's how you met Lennon. She's trying to prove herself as a loyal Team Brown members or maybe she's just trying to get back to her friends. As a matter of fact, it was Eric. He has certain restrictions during meals, but those are really just to keep him safe from me rather than the other way around. He used to follow me out of the cafeteria and he and his friends would ambush me. I just decided that being at dinner wasn't worth that, especially when Ross offered to being me food."
Charles bit his lip in concentration. "You might as well come tonight. Like I said earlier, Eric will leave you alone if you're with me and you'll be safer going to the Team Announcement in a group, so he can't single you out on your way. You are going to the Team Announcement, aren't you? Getting detention will only give Eric more opportunities."
Cory sighed and drew himself out of his chair. "I guess I don't have much of a choice, do I?"
"Unless your schedule involves another confrontation with Eric," Charles shrugged.