As always full credit to my friend Sarah for letting me vent, helping me work out plot ideas and reading everything to make sure it's okay to be posted.
Chapter Thirty Six - Tribute
Clouds crept along the horizon as Hilary stepped out of the dormitory and into the cool night air. She could taste rain, just the hint of it, and she wondered if she could run back to her dorm to get her coat. Probably not. She'd risk waking someone and get herself caught before she started.
Squinting through the gloomy light, she wondered if she'd been duped. Had Russia left without her? Surely, not after going to so much effort to rouse her. Unless she was here as a distraction? Anxiety prickled over her skin as she strained her ears for any sounds of approaching footsteps.
This late at night security prowled the grounds wielding batons and flashlights. She'd rather not get caught by them—with a Prefect there was a chance of leniency or convincing them she was only out for some air, but security had to take a students ID and report them to Dickinson.
"Oh, you came."
She jumped and spun to find Shahero easing out of the door behind her, carrying a duffle bag and wearing black. She eyed Hilary's outfit with disdain.
"Couldn't you have found something a little less eye-catching?"
Tugging at her peach hoodie, Hilary flushed. She hadn't given her outfit much thought but now she regretted not grabbing something darker. "I didn't have much time to prepare. No one told me this was happening tonight." Or ever.
"If it was up to me, you wouldn't be involved," Shahero told her pithily, then skipped down the steps to saunter nonchalantly across the courtyard that separated the male and female dorms. Hilary envied her lack of fear and then promptly decided that a healthy dose of fear was a good thing. She didn't believe herself invincible, which meant she'd be more careful. After all, she had a lot to lose—not just potential expulsion but the respect of her peers.
"Aye, well we needed a lookou'," Russia said, voice quiet as she descended the steps from the male dormitories. "And 'ilary can't tattle on us if she's par' o' it."
Hilary shot Russia's back a scathing look, then followed the girls, keeping to the shadows as best she could.
This was so far out of her comfort zone. She'd never rebelled in her life. Well, except for that time last summer when she'd wanted to go to a concert to see her favourite band. She'd been grounded for a week after her parents caught her but she accepted that punishment as her due. And that was the height of her rebellious teenage years. It was hardly the same as partaking in a prank that could see her expelled. Suspended, she told herself, she'd probably only get suspended.
Her stomach rolled and she pressed her hand to it. Think happy thoughts.
"Hilary! You made it!"
She jolted at the hushed male voice and spun to face Tyson. "What are you doing here?"
Tyson smirked as his long strides carried him up beside her. "Clearly I'm here to help with the plan." He glanced down again and raised a brow. "Didn't you think of getting dressed? It's pretty cold out."
She scanned his outfit and her lips firmed. He was dressed in black too: black jeans, black shoes, black beanie hat over navy hair tugged back from his face and a black turtle neck that stretched across his shoulders. Obviously, the lack of communication only applied to her. She scowled as he continued to walk beside her as casually as if he were walking to class and not out past curfew on his way to potentially vandalise school property.
How could they all be so lax about this?
"Fine," she replied curtly, a shiver of foreboding running down her spine.
"Yeah? Don't worry about this. The girls do this kind of thing all the time. You couldn't be in better hands."
No, but she could be in her dorm and not breaking all the rules. She hunched her shoulders against the faint breeze that whispered across the grass and rustled the trees.
The main school building came into view, rising like a stalwart shadow. It was eerie at night. Despite the faint glow of emergency lights illuminating spots along the corridors the rest of the building remained submerged in darkness.
Hilary licked her dry lips and slid her hands into her sleeves. This was such a bad idea.
"Hey." Tyson's shoulder brushed hers as he leaned close. "I meant to ask, did Kennedie say anything about her corrupted article?"
Startled by the topic change and the normalcy of the conversation, she blinked up at him before her brain translated the question. "Oh. No. She didn't. I don't think she suspected anything. She told Maye the file got messed up when saving but she had a spare article anyway." Which had surprised Hilary but Kennedie was smart and a diligent student, she was always two steps ahead.
She jolted out of her conversation with Tyson and carefully crept up behind Shahero and Russia as they motioned for them to follow them along a diverging path.
They skirted the building, sticking to the path when Shahero pointed out the flowerbeds under the windows that would act like fresh plaster for their footprints. No need to give the school any leads in tracking down who'd broken into the school. So with their feet scraping and slapping against the tarmac, they continued on, dodging the spill of light from the hooked lamps.
Around the back of the building, Russia skipped up some metal steps to a narrow side door that served as a fire exit-slash-smoking area. She tried the ancient brass doorknob and Hilary stiffened waiting for the wail of an alarm.
The door opened with a jerk and Russia slipped inside.
"Shouldn't there be an alarm?" Hilary whispered.
"The main school building itself doesn't have an alarm," Shahero muttered, moving up the steps. "When they first installed it, it went off all the time so they got security cameras and keycards instead. It's not like there's anything in the corridors anyone would want to steal."
Hilary couldn't argue with that. It didn't really surprise her that the school was lacking certain security measures. After all, she knew of the limited budget and the more recently lapsed protocols. Without a notable monetary injection, things would only get worse. The security roaming the campus would be relegated to perhaps two men posted at the entrances to the school—if even that. Right now there were quite a few video cameras that were decorative only. Not that she'd told anyone that.
"Come on," Shahero muttered, shoving past her.
Hilary hovered on the breach. This was her last chance. She could run back to the dorm, pretend she knew nothing. Or she could go forward and risk everything.
Taking a deep breath, Hilary straightened and with one last glance over her shoulder, she stepped inside.
"Where to first?" Tyson asked, looking around.
In the gloomy light, with no students around, the school took on a more ominous appearance, with dark shadows pooling in corners and doorways.
Hilary froze, lips parting in shock. A computer lab?
"Come on, Hils."
"Wait, computer labs are incredibly well secured. They have access cards…" She trailed off, eyeing the card caught between Shahero's index finger and thumb. "Where did you get one of those?"
Shahero sent her a bland smile. "I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you."
"Well, what about the cameras?"
Tyson's hands landed heavily on her shoulders, urging her forward as he chuckled in her ear, sending a shiver down her spine which locked in place in reaction. "Come on, Hils. Let them think of the details."
Hilary shrugged off the warm grip of Tyson's fingers, instead choosing to walk beside him as she scanned the shadows. Letting someone else think of the details made her feel nauseous. What if they didn't actually think? What if they had a plan A but no plan B or C?
She took a steadying breath. No, she would just have to trust them. It went against her ingrained instincts but she didn't have a choice. Besides, as Tyson said, they'd done this before. They were the experts here.
A security light flickered and fizzled in the quiet and somewhere deep within the building something clanged. She jumped and inched closer to Tyson's warmth, suddenly wishing she'd pulled on pants. She felt so unbearably naked wandering the school in her PJ shorts.
Reaching the second floor, they eased open the heavy double doors into the main corridor, feet squeaking on the worn tile imprinted linoleum. They passed walls of lockers and were about to turn down another corridor when a beam of light passed over a wall in front of them. With a hiss, Hilary shuffled back only for Russia to yank her into a side corridor. Tucking themselves into gaps left by doors and between lockers, they pressed against the wall and watched the light swish over the hall they'd just left. The light danced to the tune of a whistled melody and footsteps crept closer. It flashed across their hall before disappearing.
For a tense second no one moved, then once the whistling faded away, the foursome crept along the hall, passing benches bolted to the walls and locked notice boards. Russia held up a hand and they froze. Up ahead, a camera inched in a slow semi-circle. Once it faced away, they jogged past and slipped up another stairwell.
Hilary's stomach began to twist as her skin crawled. She recognised the path they were taking now. Maye's computer lab. She clenched her fingers around the cold metal of the banister and wished for her breathing to quiet.
Pausing on the top step, Russia glanced over her shoulder and found Hilary's face in the dark. "Alrigh', we're goin' inside. Y're gonna stan' by da door an' keep watch."
Hilary clenched her teeth at the tone. "What are you planning to do?"
"The less you know, the better."
Probably true, but inwardly Hilary seethed and tucked her fingers within the cuffs of her hoodie. It was the dead of night, she was out of her bed, out past curfew and she was cold. The least they could do was share their plan. What did they think she'd do? She was involved now.
"Hey, come on, you can tell her. She came to you guys with the article. She can be trusted."
Hilary's breath caught at Tyson's words and she risked a glance at him through her lashes. He stood with his arms folded, towering over the girls as he studied them with a disgruntled expression.
"S'not a matter of not trusting 'er," Russia muttered, before meeting Hilary's gaze. "S'for yer own good. If we get caught, y' 'ave plausible deniability."
Shahero blinked. "I don't think that's the right phrase."
"Wha'ever. Poin' is if ya don' know wha' we're doin', y' can't tell dem. Ya can jus' say we forced ya t' come alon' as our lookout. Say we blackmailed y' or threatened t' burn yer 'air or sometin'. We'll agree wit' dat."
Warmth spread through Hilary's chest. They were protecting her. That was surprisingly nice of them.
Shahero shifted her duffle bag over her shoulder and curled her lip. "You being here is just to make sure you don't have an attack of the conscience and tattle on us. If you did, we'd say you were completely in on it. Got it?"
The warmth was doused by ice and Hilary nodded with a heavy sigh. "Got it."
At least they were honest. Hunching low Hilary followed them to the door, making sure her feet followed their footsteps. She crouched beside Shahero while Russia took the key card and they exchanged a quick whispered conversation. Hilary scanned their surroundings. It was on her second sweep, as Russia was opening the door, that she saw the camera tucked up amongst the metal beams and piping above the fluorescent light and it was pointed directly at them. She froze and latched onto Shahero's wrist.
"Camera," she muttered out of the side of her mouth.
Shahero looked directly up, smirked and flipped her middle finger up to it. Hillary squeaked and tightened her grip. It was one thing to be caught flagrantly breaking curfew and potentially sneaking into a computer lab, but to be so blasé and obnoxious about it? They'd definitely get expelled.
Shahero jerked her arm away with a groan and an exaggerated eye roll. "Oh, stop your whimpering, Hilary. The camera doesn't work."
"How can you tell?"
"One," she counted on her fingers, "it's not moving. Two, there's no red light. It's not worked for months."
They could have told her that earlier. The twist in her gut wouldn't feel so knotted if they'd just casually mentioned this camera was offline.
Inside the air-conditioned room, Shahero dropped her bag and began to root through it. Hilary angled around Tyson to peek inside and frowned at the array of red rubber. A torch flashed on and she shielded her eyes from the high powered beam.
"Go keep watch."
"Oh yes, I'm sure I'll do a spectacular job now that you've blinded me," Hilary muttered, but she dutifully stepped up to the door, looking through the square of glass. With her heart pounding in her head, she studied the shadows lurking ominously down the corridors and beyond the windows. She took comfort in the fact that none of the security guards tended to walk around in the dark so she would see a torch before it saw her. Hopefully.
She heard the hiss of air and the sound of rubber stretching. Then there was a fizzle and a snort, followed by soft laughter.
"What are you guys doing?"
"The less you know," Tyson called out to her from somewhere near the back of the room.
She forced her gaze to the corridor again. Everything seemed quiet and still. Through the large windows that adorned the opposite wall, she could see the orange stain along the horizon from the Preston town street lights. It should have looked peaceful but her stomach was a mass of squirming nerves.
"Miyami's going to be so pissed she missed this," Tyson muttered, and Hilary was certain she could hear a hissing sound.
"Da less people involved, da better." Something swooped and was that a balloon?
Hilary rested her head against the cool glass and watched as it fogged in front of her in a small circular patch. With practice borne from many, many classes of endlessly waiting for someone to give the right answer, she drew a perfect circle and then speared it with an artful arrow. She smirked and stepped back, watching as the fog dispersed leaving just a smeared outline on the glass. Her smile melted away. Her fingerprints were on the window now.
Looking around and seeing nothing, she quickly pulled off her hoodie and swiped it over the image, erasing it from sight. She spun away from the door, satisfied with her ingenuity.
Tyson gaped at her, a balloon springing from his hand and swooping through the air with a flat sound as it shrivelled.
"Maybe put your hoodie back on," Shahero suggested as she pumped up a red balloon, tied it off and dropped it on the floor. "Poor Tyson will go into cardiac arrest."
Hilary's frowned then followed his gaze down to her chest, flinching at the sight of her nipples trying to poke a hole through her thin grey t-shirt. She fumbled with her hoodie, then sucked in a breath, puffing herself up. "Get over it, Tyson. Most girls don't wear a bra to sleep in." Then she scowled at Shahero. "It's not like anyone told me I'd be pulled from my bed in the middle of the night."
With as much cool as she could muster, she slipped back into her hoodie and pressed her fingers against her burning cheeks.
Why did she constantly have to embarrass herself in front of him? She was such a fool.
She glanced back at the empty corridor and deeming it safe, she sidled over to Russia who was hunched over Maye's computer, wrapping a keyboard—not Maye's as her computer remained disturbingly normal looking—in cellophane. The white light from the screen illuminated Russia's sharp face, a study of concentration. Wait. "Did you hack into her computer?"
Russia cut her a look of visceral disdain. "No. Maye doesn' lock 'er screen. She got locked ou' so she 'ad da smart card login disabled, now she just turns off da screens an' tinks we're all too tick t' notice."
Hilary groaned, dropping her face into her hands. That was such a breach of ethics and privacy. Anyone could just walk into this room and get access to her computer and yet here the Octopussies were, and they were filling the place with balloons and wrapping everything in cellophane. She was beginning to doubt their genius.
"What are you planning to do with her computer?"
Shahero glanced up from her spot. "Nothing."
"Nothing? It's unlocked and you're going to do nothing?"
"Yeah, you heard us. Nothing. One, we're not getting ourselves into potential legal trouble and two"—Shahero grinned wickedly—"it's more fun if she thinks we did something."
Comprehension dawned and Hilary slowly nodded. "You're going to drive her mad. She'll wonder what you did, search for it and get more frustrated when she can't find it. You're going to break her."
"It's not the intention but it's a benefit we'll take."
"You guys are evil."
"Maye brought this on herself. Besides, it's April, it's tradition. We believe in tradition in Preston."
Hilary bit back a smile as Shahero quoted back one of the tried and tested quotes that Maye peddled when greeting visitors and potential new students.
The next hour passed in a cacophony of squeaking rubber and strained Saran Wrap. It was so basic and juvenile and yet the trio accompanying Hilary seemed to derive such pleasure in their antics. Snickering and giggling as she navigated the room. Nothing had stirred out in the corridor and bored beyond measure, she'd taken to sitting on the edge of a desk and tying off the endless red balloons passed her way. There was now a small sea of them and Hilary was half afraid they'd burst on contact.
"Are you guys nearly finished?"
"Nearly," Shahero muttered, shaking her dark hair back from her face as she stretched out another balloon, while Tyson wrapped up another chair in a plastic cocoon.
"Alright, it's done. Let's rollout," Shahero cheered, then clamped her hands over her mouth. "Whoops."
"Idiot," Russia muttered, setting down the sellotape she'd been attaching to the base of every mouse in the room. "Let's go."
They were heading down a flight of stairs when Russia stalled. A circle of light bounced around the floor in front of them. Waving frantically, Russia urged them back up the stairs. She turned to creep up and her foot squeaked. They froze.
The flashlight went off.
Hilary pressed back into the cool wall, the metal railing firmly wedged into her spine, and held her breath. Tyson's hand covered hers, warm and slightly damp, sending sparks dancing over the skin of her arm. She glanced up at him. He stood watching her, a finger against his lips as if she hadn't thought of staying silent on her own. He really was such an idiot. Handsome but still an idiot.
She shot him an arched look.
"Is anyone there? Tom?"
Hilary rolled her lips together and squeezed her eyes shut. They were dead. They were so dead. Worse, they'd be expelled and then she would never go to college and she'd end up married to an older man who kept her barefoot and pregnant. Her fingers tightened on Tyson's hand as he began to tug her with him.
Hilary followed Tyson upstairs, keeping her feet on the rubber trim edge to minimise sound.
Reaching the top, Tyson crept to the left leading Hilary behind him, his fingers firmly laced with hers, their palms pressed together. Hilary looked over her shoulder, about to motion for Shahero and Russia to follow her, only to stare as they passed her the duffle bag. She caught it with the tips of her fingers and gripped it, feeling the weight as it nudged against her leg. Both girls began to quickly twist their hair up into buns and then pulled their hoods up.
"Alright, who's there? Come out now."
Tyson stopped at a door and looked at Shahero, giving her a quick nod. With a grin, she bounced to her feet and ran up the stairs with Russia fast on her heels, making enough sound to wake the dead. As they did, Tyson yanked open the door and nudged Hilary in before him, closing it without clicking the lock just as the heavy tread of the security guard raced by.
Oh my god. The words raced round and round in a loop in Hilary's head as she stood intimately close to Tyson.
"What were they thinking?" she whispered frantically.
"They'll be fine. They know this school better than the guy who built it."
His warm breath feathered the hair at her temples as she stared over his shoulder at the door. His chest brushed against hers with every short breath and his feet were wedged between hers. Not that they had much of a choice. He'd led them into the supply closet of all places. Hardly space to swing a cat, nevermind hide. She shifted to ease her bruised feet and Tyson hissed out a breath, catching at the flyaway hair and placing his hand on her hip, hot through the thin fabric of her shorts.
"Quit moving, Hilary."
"My feet are sore from standing all night," she ground out.
She wasn't like him. She didn't spend her nights pranking people. She stayed in her nice, warm bed dreaming about the day she'd go to college and be respected and liked by her peers. And now as she thought about her warm bed, all she could notice was how cold her legs were. She shuffled closer to Tyson, craving his warmth. Her poor legs were probably blue now. Lack of circulation leading to issues with her legs later in life.
She would look back on this moment and… feel a quick, giddy thrill. It had been exciting. And her heart was still beating fast and if they got back to her dorm in one piece, she would forever live on this moment as her one daring stunt in life. Not that she'd ever tell anyone about it—well maybe in College. If she was ever asked if she'd rebelled as a teenager, she could tell them this story. And maybe embellish it a little. Who would know?
"Do you think we can leave?"
"Give it—" Tyson broke off and Hilary frowned up at him, noticing the curve of his smooth jaw and the muscle ticking in it. She brushed her fingers over it and froze when he lanced her with a sharp look.
Then she heard it. The scuff of footsteps, a whistle and then a spill of light beneath the door. Hilary froze, her grip tightening on Tyson's shoulders. She didn't want to move at all. Anything could give them away. She pushed her face into his shoulder and concentrated on slowing her breathing, keeping still and quiet. And trying not to notice how Tyson's sweater smelt of spice and apples. His hair tickled her nose and she rubbed it against him. When had he gotten so tall? When did his shoulders get so broad?
"Hilary," he mouthed the warning against her ear. She shivered and fisted a hand in the soft fabric of his sweater as his fingers found skin above her the hem of her shorts, his thumb brushing the curve of her hip bone. "Is he gone?"
She opened her eyes and swallowed hard, loud enough that he was bound to have heard her. She looked at the floor. It was dark but was he gone? She didn't hear him leave. What if he'd just turned off the light and was waiting for them?
"I think so?"
A spurt of noise from down the hall made them still and then a voice murmured something followed by footsteps moving away from their hiding place. They waited a few more moments, then Tyson stepped back from her, hands reaching for the handle of the door. He turned as best as he could in the squashed room and then prised open the door, peeking out and checking the corridor before motioning for her to follow him.
She lifted her hair off her neck, letting her skin breath and settle. She felt hyper-aware and the spot on her hip was buzzing from Tyson's touch. She flushed. She'd all but rocked up against him and she felt itchy and hot and this was so embarrassing. She averted her gaze and opened her mouth to apologise.
"Not bad, Hils. We might make a rebel out of you yet."
She sent him an unimpressed look, mouth flat, eyes flatter. "I think I had enough excitement for one night." Excitement wasn't the right word to use. She was such an idiot.
Tyson's dark brown eyes gleamed but he said nothing, only swallowed a smirk and held out his hand. A thrill shot through her only to be squashed. She was not holding his hand again. She needed to reset the boundaries. Tyson was the kind of guy who'd affably flirt with a girl not meaning anything further. He was friends with girls, it happened easily. His emotions never got conflicted. Hers would. She'd fall and then she'd be left crushed. Better to just go back to being civil… whatever they were.
She gestured for him to lead the way and followed him out of the school, separating from him to go back to her own dorm and crawl into her own bed to sleep.
"So, I'm supposed to pretend you didn't have anything to do with Johnny and Kane showing up in my office last night?"
Kai glanced up from his phone and crafted a blank expression on his face as he watched his father across the desk. The pale light of dawn lit up the office as outside rain fell in a heavy sheet, washing away all signs of the day before. Leaves trembled on the branches of a low hanging laurel tree, water dripping in a steady stream onto the path below. Saved from having to step out into it, Kai sat ensconced in his father's office after morning practice and tried to figure out how not to be so obvious.
"Oh, they came to you? Good. I was hoping they would. I wasn't sure—"
"Uh-huh," his father cut him off with a wry twist of his lips. "At least we know about this incident. Gotta say, Kai, I wish they hadn't done it but in their place, I can understand their motives."
Kai perked up but carefully kept his eyes on the edge of the desk between them. "So does that mean they weren't punished?"
"No, they were definitely punished. You don't attack another student on school grounds, regardless of what they did or who they were." Nicolai shot Kai a pointed look but Kai remained remorseless. He'd never feel bad for what he did to Carlos. And the term attacked was grossly exaggerated, he much preferred the term saved the day. The idea of what could have happened if he hadn't shown up made his stomach lurch with an impending sense of dread.
His phone buzzed. A message from Amber that had his lips curving faintly before he flattened them. Did you really use the words "Or else expelled?"
No, he felt no guilt.
With a frown, he thought back to the previous night's conversation before quickly replying: I don't know. Yeah, something like that. Why?
"So," he asked, closing his hand over the screen of his phone, "what kind of punishment did they get?"
"Equipment duty and ice preparation both before and after practice."
It could have been worse, Kai decided, so he hoped the two idiots hadn't decided to bemoan their punishment. At least they were still on the team. That was a relief at any rate. "Well, that's something. What about tryouts?"
Nicolai shuffled his sheets of paper and slipped them into his metal clipboard, quirking a brow at Kai's question. "Why? Plan to sit in and watch?"
Kai squirmed. That was exactly what he planned to do and Tala would probably join him. Considering the pointed looks Ozuma and Rei had sent him when Nicolai announced it during practice, he figured they'd be there too.
"Don't worry, I'll give you plenty of notice. You won't get the final say but I will take your opinions into consideration. But, and I'm saying this now, I won't stand for any of you interfering in this. It's a courtesy that I'm allowing you to sit in but any attempt to sabotage it won't be tolerated."
Kai leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Amber's training to come back."
Nicolai's lips parted and he dipped his head. "That's good to hear." He paused and waited for Kai to look at him. "I'm not replacing her or Arista. I just want to add to our roster."
"I told her that," he said, jerking a shoulder at his father's arched look. "I didn't tell the others but Amber had the right to know that this was coming."
"Oh she did, did she?"
Kai shot his father a defiant look. "I made a decision as captain of the team. That's what I'm here for."
With a hiss, Nicolai leaned back in his chair and studied him. "And how did she take it?"
Kai licked his dry lips, his mind flashing back to that moment in the carpark when Amber had flinched from him, eyes wounded. "Timing wasn't great but she understands." Logically, if not emotionally.
With a gruff sound, Nicolai grabbed for his diary and scribbled a note. "I'll talk to her. I don't want her to think this is some punishment or an attempt to push her into coming back too soon. Her health is the most important thing." He muttered under his breath as he wrote some more notes.
Pausing with the pen poised over the page, he lifted his dark eyes to Kai and scrutinised him slowly. "What's going on with you two? Are you two…"
Kai froze. "We're friends. At least trying to be. It's not easy."
"I can't imagine it would be when you're still attracted to each other."
This wasn't a conversation he wanted to have with his father. The tips of his ears burned and he dropped his gaze to the phone in his hand. Another message had popped in while he was talking to his father and he studied the line of laughing emojis even while the silence buzzed in his ears.
"Kai, if you need to talk —"
The buzzing grew louder and Kai darted his gaze to the door, hoping someone would burst in or the fire alarm would go or something. Something that would stop his father's train of thought. It was awkward enough to do the relationship talk with his father but to talk to him about a girl that was his father's goddaughter and a player on his team? No. That was a line Kai wasn't crossing.
"Look, there's nothing going on between us. We separated for a reason. I'm focusing on my hockey and Amber needs to focus on her health. That's the most important thing here. Getting her back to one hundred percent." He rose to his feet and began to pace. "She's still not eating right but she is practising so maybe you could talk to her about some ice time with the team. And she's also dealing with James so—"
Kai faltered and shoved his hands into his pockets, his heart suddenly pounding in his chest. He'd said too much. Amber would kill him. "It's nothing."
"Kai, she's not only a member of my team, she's also my goddaughter. If there's something else I need to be aware of, then you need to let me know."
"You already know. It's not like it's some big secret that James is a shit father. How the hell are you even friends with him?"
Nicolai exhaled softly and pushed back from his desk, resting his hands on his stomach. "Do you want me to talk to him?"
"It's not my place but if he could stop making her feel inadequate at every turn and if you could stop trying to replace her and if—" He stopped, grinding his teeth to stop the spray of words.
Nicolai said nothing, just continued to watch him while he got his emotions wrestled under control. Pinching his nose, Kai inhaled and exhaled until he settled and with a groan, he dropped into his seat again, clutching the phone tight in his hand. "Sorry. I know you're not replacing her. She knows that too. Deep down. She's just had a rough weekend and it's not my place to say anything else. If she chooses to tell you, that's up to her."
"I can reach out to James, tell him to give her some space while she gets things sorted."
Kai snorted. "And you think James will just accept that bit of friendly advice? No, he'll want to know what Amber told you and then say something else to upset her. Just drop it, Dad."
"If that's what you want." Nicolai rose to his feet and retrieved a sheet from the printer. "There was one other thing I wanted to bring up to you. I got this email today. Thought you might be interested in checking it out."
Kai took the paper and studied it, feeling a sharp jolt of surprise. "Braxton is hosting a hockey camp?"
"Someone dropped out and he wondered if you wanted to fill the place. It's next week, so it's short notice but you know his reputation."
Yeah, Kai knew his reputation. Braxton was one of the toughest coaches in the district, had cut his teeth as an assistant coach for the national team before going on to lead the Olympic team to silver. He was good, and no one ever really understood why he'd never coached an NHL team, but the man seemed content to nurture younger talent. The man was a font of knowledge and experience, his support could propel people further in the sport than most.
"Next week?" Kai rubbed his thumb over his lower lip and tried to think about the feasibility of going. "I have the trip to Ireland."
Nicolai exhaled with a slow nod. "You do. Which is why I wanted to talk to you about this. As your Coach I say go for it, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it will do wonders for your career. No matter what you plan to do next, this will look good for you and it will get your name out there." He clasped his hands on the desk and Kai's stomach twisted. "As your dad, I don't want you to feel like you have to go if this isn't what you want. I know you have the trip to Ireland with your friends and it's your senior year, it's your last chance to have fun before going to uni and becoming an adult."
"I want to go; it's a once in a lifetime opportunity." He could get to Ireland later. Besides, a few days standing about in fields with dilapidated castles didn't exactly get his blood pumping. A week playing non-stop hockey with some of the best in the state, that was another thing entirely. He wanted this.
Which was why the indecision in his father's expression made him wary. "What?"
"Nothing." Nicolai sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face. "I'm just concerned. Kai, your dedication to hockey is incredible. It's why I've always pushed you because I know you have the skill and the discipline to make it to the NHL. But sometimes I worry that I push you too hard. I don't want you to look back at your childhood and think you missed out."
Missed out? "I want hockey. It's all I've ever wanted." More than anything in his entire life, the idea of going onto the ice to play in a brightly lit arena, in front of thousands, to have his name embossed on the front of the cup. It was everything he'd ever desired.
"I know and you deserve to have it. You've worked so hard to get where you are, Kai. As your Coach and your father, I couldn't be more proud of you. But I'm a dad and I worry."
Suddenly Amber's analogy made sense. "Ah, this is a hat thing."
"I'm sorry, what hats?"
He grimaced at his father's baffled expression. "Coach hat and dad hat," he explained, then added, "I wear the Captain hat and the friend hat. Well, mostly the captain hat but I'm working on that."
A furrow appeared between Nicolai's brows as he considered Kai's words. "I suppose, yeah, that's true."
He bit back a sigh, feeling the heat rising up his neck. "It was a conversation Amber and I had. I guess you would have had to be there."
Nicolai paused, and Kai could almost hear the thoughts formulating in his mind before he finally shook his head with a faintly amused smile. "I think I'm worrying over nothing. I'll put your confirmation through to Coach Baxter and I'll work something out with your teachers regarding the school trip."
Taking that for the dismissal it was, Kai got to his feet and headed out of the office, his stomach suddenly filled with butterflies at the idea of hockey camp less than a week away.
Arista stood at the edge of the main building and stared across the expanse at the front door to the Sports Complex. She sucked in a deep breath, held it, and released it. She could do this. She'd left her dorm and travelled to the main building with no issues. Now she just needed to take the first step and cross the 30 or so yards and open the door.
It was all about baby steps.
Inhale. Hold. Release.
She rubbed a clammy hand over her thundering heart and licked her dry lips. It was ridiculous. She should have been able to do this. She wanted to do this.
Why was she so worked up about going on the ice? Sure, she was probably out of shape. Her hand might not be as quick. But those things would come back with practice. The sooner she returned, the better she'd be for the upcoming games.
Her team needed her.
And she needed her team.
So, why were these steps so hard to take? Her team would welcome her back with open arms. She knew that. Geraldine had even said as much at their last meeting. She'd felt so good after that session; like she could start moving forward.
But her legs wouldn't cooperate and everything inside her urged her to go back to the dorm. She wasn't safe here. There was too much open ground. Anyone could approach her and—that wasn't helping. She wasn't in danger. She was fine. She was safe… on school grounds.
She'd been on school grounds that night too.
She bit her lip hard enough to taste blood—hard enough to suppress the memories.
It was quiet, no one was around—the hour too early for most students. The sun had barely graced the sky and the torrential rain had eased to a light shower, the drops tap-tap-tapping against the branches and barely budding leaves. The world smelled green and fresh, and the birds had finally begun a soft dawn chorus. That in itself reassured her that she was alone. But, still, that space between her and the sports complex seemed yawning and impassable.
It was like being on a rope bridge, she just needed to take that first step.
She couldn't do it. Embarrassed by her own weakness, she pulled out her phone and texted Ruin. Closing her eyes, she held the phone close to her chest and accepted that this was just another failure. Except Geraldine had told her that reaching out for help was the healthy thing to do, so she clung to that piece of advice as the greasy knots coiled and the oily darkness whispered to her.
She was slowly counting to ten when she heard the voices coming down the slope and she pressed further into the gloomy shadows cast by the building behind her. It was too soon to be Ruin.
She shrank closer to the building just as Maye appeared around the corner, heels clipping along the asphalt. Two security guards flanked her, while an irate Judy Tate threw her hands into the air.
"Rachel, this is ridiculous."
"I hardly see how, Judy."
"Don't you think this is a little extreme. After all, you are the one calling for the faculty to be more stringent with their spending."
"This is not the same thing. Security obviously failed last night and now I need to deal with the fallout."
Slipping her hands into the pockets of her crisp navy jacket, Mrs Tate sighed. "They're balloons, Rachel, and you want to call the police? You're giving the students more fodder to use on you. This was clearly a harmless prank."
Arista frowned, hand pressed to her mouth to hide her shallow breathing. What prank?
"No," Maye seethed, hands fisted at the sides of her pencil skirt as she drew herself to her full height, all shimmering rage as she stood toe to toe with Max's mother. "There could be anything in there. There could be a bomb for all we know. Maybe the balloons were there as a distraction. The point, Judy, is that someone broke into my computer lab during the night and then proceeded to vandalise it. And for my safety, and the safety of the student body, I will not step foot inside until it is declared safe and sound."
"But the police? I'm sure they have better things to investigate." Judy turned to one of the security guards with them. "Byron, can your team do a sweep of the room to ensure it's safe?"
"But you failed to ensure the safety last night."
Byron stroked his goatee, his jaw working as he took Maye's pointed criticism in his stride. "We cannot be everywhere at once. I would suggest looking into the management of your faculty's keycards as that is clearly where a fault in security lies. As to your previous question, Mrs Tate, we can do a sweep but to be sure that everything is done correctly, it will take a few hours before the room can be deemed safe."
Maye smiled tightly. "Well, if that's what it takes, then that is what must be done. I will refrain from calling the police at this moment unless something dangerous is found on the premises."
Tipping her head back, Mrs Tate gazed up at the sky for a long moment, clearly praying for patience. "So shall I assume that your classes will be cancelled for this morning?"
"Yes, and for my own wellbeing, I will be taking the rest of the day as a mental health day. I shall inform Dickinson of my intentions. This kind of willful maliciousness will not be tolerated at this school. I will be demanding an investigation into how this occurred and serious punishment for the culprits."
Arista shifted further back into the shadows and had just rounded the corner when she nearly ran into another body. She just barely bit back a scream when she caught sight of Ruin's face with Tala hovering behind her, looking equally concerned. Shame filled her.
Ruin shot Tala a look and he nodded. "I'll head back."
"Not through the school," Arista told him. "Maye's on the warpath. Someone did something to her computer lab." She pulled on a strand of hair. "Go the long way."
Tala's gaze darted over her shoulder before he nodded, mustered up a smile that was lacking most of its usual potency and leaned into Ruin. She kissed his cheek and they exchanged a murmured farewell, then he stalked off into the drizzle that was beginning to coat the campus.
Ruin watched him go before turning to Arista as the rain trickled slowly down the gutters. "I got your message. What are you doing down here?"
Looking to her shoes, relatively dry against the damp tarmac, Arista shrugged. "Morning practice. I just wanted to see—I wanted to feel normal. I wanted to help but I—I couldn't do it. I tried but—I can't."
"Arista, you have to give it time."
"I don't have time, Ruin." The words burst from her lips before she could stop them. Heat flooded her cheeks and she lifted her shoulders before dropping them. Rain kissed her cheeks, dropping faster as the drizzle gained traction. "I don't have time."
"These things, you have to let them happen naturally. If you try to push yourself—"
"He stole this from me," she spat out the confession that had been lying inside her, waiting to be revealed. And it felt good to say it, to lay the blame on someone else for a change, to admit that it was more than just the attack and the breach of trust. He'd stolen hockey from her. "I just want to go back to being normal. And that was my thing, my thing. What if they don't keep my space for me? I know the JV match is coming and we don't have a goalie, I know this. I don't—I don't want to lose that but I couldn't even walk to the building."
She felt so useless and stupid. Covering her face, she sank to the ground. She heard Ruin's sigh, and the susurration of fabric as she crouched down beside her. Silence reigned for a moment, punctuated by the rustle of the trees and the dull roar of the rain hitting the canopy and rooftops.
"Do you want me to walk you to the arena?"
"No. I thought I could do it but I can't. I'm sorry. Tell the team I'm sorry."
"You don't need to apologise. And Arista, you should be proud. This, getting up this morning and coming here, even if you didn't go in. It's a big deal. That's a big step."
Arista stopped and stared at Ruin. Her lips parted and then closed as she struggled to reply, but there was a lump in her chest and her bruised heart felt heavy and cumbersome. She didn't feel like she'd taken a big step. She didn't feel proud. She just felt broken.
"When's your next appointment?"
What did it matter? "Thursday but I don't think I'll—"
"I'll pick you up after class."
"You don't have to."
Ruin didn't bother deigning that with a comment and Arista made a face before allowing herself to be pulled to her feet. In the distance, she spotted a figure running through the rain and then the sound of engines as teachers and day students began to arrive.
"So what was that about Maye on the warpath?"
"I heard Maye called the police."
Tyson's stomach jolted at Daichi's words but he closed his eyes and threw himself into completing his reps, pushing up on the barbell until he reached full extension. Around him his team gathered in the weight room, working on their strength training as they discussed the biggest action of the day. The fact that someone had pranked Maye and so far hadn't been caught. Thankfully for him. He had to give it to the faculty, though, they'd kept the nature of the prank very much under wraps. Which only fuelled the imagination of the student body.
"No, she just called security," Max answered from his spot on the floor where he was slowly going through his crunches, fingers firmly secured around a bumper plate.
Tyson lifted the barbell again and held it before slowly retracting it back to this chest. His arms shook, his muscles screamed but he told himself he could do two more. Sweat dampened his face and soaked his shirt in a vee.
Miguel shifted his hands on Max's feet. "But why? What was in there?"
"Heard it was a bomb or something," Daichi replied, dabbing at his face with the towel around his neck. "Not surprising really; that woman is batshit crazy."
Tyson clenched his jaw and completed another rep, his arms crying in exhaustion. "It probably wasn't that big of a deal," he puffed out. "She tends to over exaggerate."
"She took the day off," Miguel muttered. "Must have been something bad in there."
Settling the barbell back into its place with a clang, Tyson sat up and reached for his own towel, pressing it against his face. He really didn't want to talk about the prank but it seemed like it was never far from people's minds. Everyone had been whispering about it on and off all day and several teachers had given them grim looks before starting their classes. Tyson had kept his head down for the majority of the day, he was all too aware of how expressive his face could be and he didn't want to give anyone any reason to suspect him.
"There's gonna be an investigation," Max confessed softly. "Whatever happened, Maye is really pissed off. She won't let this slide."
Tyson's stomach dropped to his knees and his eyes widened. An investigation? Wasn't that taking things a bit far? He dropped his elbows to his knees and studied the grooves and scarring in the rubber flooring. He needed to talk to Hilary. This kind of thing would freak her out.
They glanced up as Jim rushed in waving a flyer in his hand. Rising slowly, Miguel helped Max to his feet before taking the flyer that was shoved unceremoniously into his hand.
"You need to read this."
Tyson shifted closer to Miguel, peering over his shoulder as Daichi twisted his head to read it upside down. Kirby appeared at Tyson's elbow, having her own look. The words fuzzed in Tyson's vision before snapping into focus and he sucked in a breath.
"Varsity is holding tryouts?"
Kirby released a low whistle as she stepped back and clasped her hands behind her back. "Shit. So Coach Hiwatari is really going to do this."
Jim glowered at Miguel. "Did you know?"
Miguel shook his head, pushing his blonde hair back from his face. "I had no clue." His pale blue eyes lifted to Tyson. "You?"
Bobbing his head, Tyson swallowed hard. This was not how he wanted his team to hear about this and even though he hadn't done anything wrong, he felt that sickening layer of guilt settling in his stomach. He probably should have told them but that was Nicolai and Hitoshi's decision to make. Not his. He had no say about that. He'd made his decision. "Yeah, Hitoshi told me."
"And me," Max piped up, and Tyson was grateful for the vocal support.
Tyson glanced around his team, trying to read their expressions. Daichi had a wrinkle between his brows, Miguel's fingers were white on the flyer while Kirby bounced on the balls of her feet, anxiously watching the scene.
Jim snorted as he folded his arms and stared them down. "So are you guys going? I mean, you played on Varsity at the start of the season. Makes sense that you'd finish up there. A real cyclical thing."
"No," Max said, voice firm, eyes sober. "We're not going. Hitoshi asked us but we're on this team. That's where we're going to stay. We've come too far to drop the team now."
Miguel rubbed the back of his neck and set the flyer on the bench in front of him. "If you wanted to go, I mean, we couldn't begrudge you."
"Fuck yes we could," Daichi snapped back. "This is basically psychological warfare."
"How do you work that out?"
Daichi sneered at Kirby. "Seriously? He launches this the very week of the JV showdown? Way to attack our team morale."
Tyson slung his towel over his shoulder and tugged the hem of his t-shirt from his shorts to let some cool air in at his skin. "I don't think Coach Hiwatari did it on purpose."
"Daichi, relax dude. It's not all about the JV team." At least Tyson didn't think so and given Hitoshi's comments at the start of the week, he could tell that thought hadn't even crossed his brother's mind either. No, this was more in reaction to the Varsity's upcoming games and their desperation to take on the Sharks. The JV showdown was barely a blip on the radar. To Nicolai, this match was more of a gesture of goodwill to soothe the JV team's pride.
Not that any of the JV team wanted to hear that and Tyson didn't like to think it either, but he could see the writing on the wall. It stung but the truth often did.
"You ladies waiting for an invitation or what?" Hitoshi demanded as stepped into the doorway between his office and the gym, arms folding as he spied the cluster gathered at the weight area.
"We were looking at this," Jim stated, snatching the flyer from the bench and striding over to wave it in Hitoshi's face. Miguel winced and hurried after him, probably hoping to defuse the situation leaving Tyson with Daichi, Max and Kirby.
"You heard Coach, back to the grindstone," Kirby told them as she and Max headed to the leg press.
Once they were gone, Daichi rounded on Tyson. "So level with me, you're not even the least bit tempted to go for it?"
Tyson gestured for Daichi to take his place on the bench and helped him get situated. Around him, he could feel the air shimmer with interest and he knew a few eager ears would be listening to this conversation. So he pitched his voice louder than necessary. "Nah, it's not for me. I told Hitoshi already. I'm sticking here. After all, you'll never win without me."
"We could definitely win without you," Daichi told him, his mood visibly improving. "In fact, without you, my ice time would increase. Thinking about it, you should really go join the Varsity team."
Tyson smirked, reaching out to steady the barbell when it wobbled in Daichi's grip. "Not going to happen DC. If you want more ice time, you gotta learn to play with the big boys."
Daichi snickered and his eyes flicked around the room as his body strained to hold up the weight. "Think any of the others will go for it?"
That was a good question. When Hitoshi had first approached Max and him as potential tryouts, he'd never considered any of the others would leave. Which, now he thought about it, was naive. And a little egotistical.
There were a few, he decided, checking the room. Joseph had already stated that he was planning to leave the school, so maybe he'd choose to go out while playing Varsity but Tyson hoped not. Dunga was definitely big enough to play Varsity defence but he was still slow on his skates and his puck handling wasn't Varsity level. Goki was another option, equally big but he needed more seasoning. Still, beggars couldn't be choosers and the Varsity team was not beyond begging at this point.
He was about to offer Daichi a vague comfort when the click-clack of approaching heels caught his attention and his heart leapt to his throat. Maye strode into the room. Dressed in another one of her ill-fitting power suits and tottering on heels that were beyond ridiculous, she sneered around the room before catching sight of Hitoshi. Wobbling on the rubber floor, she stalked to the office and cleared her throat. A searing look had Hitoshi ushering Miguel and Jim out the door.
Tyson felt his throat close up when the door shut behind them with an audible click. Through the blinds he saw Maye begin a muted tirade while Hitoshi rolled back his shoulders and braced his hands on his hips, looking completely unruffled. When she held out her hand, Tyson watched as his brother jerked a shoulder and pulled out his keycard. Maye took it for a second, turned it over and then with a grimace, she slapped back into his palm. They stood brimming with tension before Maye turned on her heel and stormed back out the gym.
Hitoshi waited until she was gone before he emerged from his office and looked around the room. His gaze snagged on Tyson and his bemused expression faded to a frown. Quickly averting his gaze, Tyson focused helping Daichi through his next set as he waited for his brother's attention to wane.
When it finally did and the itching in his spine faded, Tyson relaxed. Just as he did, his phone buzzed in his armband. He twisted his arm and stared at the bright screen before his eyes leapt to his brother's back.
If anyone asks you stayed at my room last night. We played Mario Kart. I thrashed you in every race. You know nothing about the prank.
"Here, I got you this."
Amber looked up from her English notes and frowned at the croissant on the plate that appeared at her elbow. A quick glance at Enrique, the only other person at their table, told her that she wasn't in a parallel universe and yes, Ian offering her food was as weird as it seemed. "What's this for?"
"There was only one left so I got it for you."
She studied the flaky pastry and nudged it to the side to pick up her carton of yoghurt again. Dipping in the spoon, she considered her nemesis. "Is it poisoned?"
Affronted, Ian pulled out the chair opposite her and dropped on it, nudging the plate towards her again. "No."
Not like he'd admit it. She took another spoonful of yoghurt and forced herself to the swallow it, rubbing her stomach as it churned and her tongue twisted with the visceral urge to reject it. Her tastebuds weren't cooperating that morning and everything tasted unappetising. Not bad, just not edible.
Breathing through nausea, she poked gingerly at the croissant. Which admittedly, did look a lot more interesting than her yoghurt but it came from Ian, the Evil Queen to her Snow White.
"Did you lick it?"
"Wouldn't that be the same thing as poisoning it?" Enrique asked, not looking up from his phone, having dismissed their antics as the norm.
"Eh, I'm covering my bases."
Outside the rain poured in a sheet down the window, forming puddles on the crevices between the flagstone paths and in the dips of the asphalt. It dripped incessantly from the boughs of the tall trees and trickled down the windows.
Inside the warmth of the cafeteria, students lingered over their breakfasts or clustered together by the hot food counter to fill themselves for the day ahead. Considering Maye was on the warpath, they would definitely need it—the woman was making noises about cancelling the school trip, there wasn't enough food in the world to comfort eat that thought away.
She spied Tala near the front of the queue with Ruin and Rei a few spaces back. Sonia and Ozuma pressed close together in the line where they figured no one would notice that Ozuma's hand was hovering at the base of her spine, carefully protecting her from the rowdy sophomore boys who'd joined behind them.
"Just eat the damn croissant. I know you like them."
Amber flicked Ian a dark look. She did, but not first thing in the morning where everything tasted like cardboard and sat like a rock in her stomach. It was more a lunchtime treat or even brunch. She could sort of handle brunch but sadly the school timetable didn't factor in brunch. Sometimes she wished she lived in middle earth. Elevenses sounded divine but then there were two breakfasts and she already had trouble with one.
"Well, if you don't want it, and it's not poisoned, I'll have it."
Ian slapped Enrique's hand away. "It's not for you, it's for her. Don't steal her food."
Her spidey-senses tingled and she nudged the plate away. "Okay, what did you do to it?"
"Nothing," Ian snarled, eyes flashing as he stabbed a sausage and shoved it into his mouth, glowering at her. "Just eat it."
"What's going on?" Tala asked, setting his tray down beside her and reading the strange tension at the table.
"Ian's trying to feed me poison."
"It's not poison. It's food. Why are you the one girl who can't eat a pastry without making a drama out of it?"
"Because I don't trust you not to kill me."
"Well, newsflash, if I wanted to kill you, you'd be dead."
"Seriously, if none of you are eating the croissant, I'll take it," Enrique offered, reaching for it. "I was thinking about going back up for seconds but I don't want to queue again."
Ian smacked his hand away. "She has to eat it."
Now Tala stopped in the middle of doctoring his coffee with half the contents of the sugar bowl. "Why?"
"Because," Ian ground out, reaching into his letterman jacket and pulling out a crumpled piece of paper which he then thrust at her. "This is all her fault and she needs to fix it."
"My fault?" If it was another pregnancy piece from the school paper, she didn't want to hear about it. Still, she smoothed out the paper and scanned the contents. Tryouts. Wednesday Evening. Today. Her stomach dropped. Oh. "I'm not sure how you can blame me for this. Coach needs new players. It's hockey. You never know, maybe these tryouts will find you better players."
Still, the logical words and knowing that they were true didn't stop the numbness spreading through her body. Which just made her stomach roil even more aggressively. She rested her palm against it and hoped the heat would settle it.
"Because," Ian seethed, leaning across the table to command her full attention, scarlet eyes narrowed. "You're too skinny and you quit the team. If you hadn't quit the team, we wouldn't be down a player. We wouldn't be holding tryouts."
Making sure Arista was not in listening distance, Amber rolled her lips into a thin line and glowered back. She couldn't deny the skinny part but— "I didn't quit the team," she hissed. "I was told to stop playing."
"No, Ian, I was told to stop playing for medical reasons." As in, she was underweight and on stomach meds to keep her acid reflux under control. All because she suffered anxiety. What a trip.
"Well, that's not technically true," Tala said picking up a slice of toast from his plate and spreading on a layer of strawberry jelly. "You did quit the team."
Amber shot him a flat look. "You stay out of this." She didn't need everyone ganging up on her. Especially since none of them had been there.
"What? I'm just saying: you quit. You marched down to Nicolai's office and announced you were off the team."
She touched the tip of her tongue to her upper lip, struggling for patience, to swallow down the hurt. "It was a little bit more complicated than that, and you weren't there." She'd just received a letter from her father announcing he was going to be a dad—no heads up he was thinking about doing that, by the way—and then Arista had the fall out with Brooklyn which she'd facilitated and then Kai… it had been a huge mess.
Tala leaned into her space, blue eyes penetrating. "I'm not saying it wasn't complicated but I also know you. You overreact to things and that was an overreaction. You threw a hissy fit and quit Kai and the team. All in one fell swoop."
She jerked back from him, stung. "Wow." Swallowing hard, she set aside her yoghurt, feeling her cheeks burn. "Okay, thanks for the pep talk. Any more words of wisdom you want to impart on me, Dr Phil?"
Setting down his toast, he sighed and reached over to rub her shoulder but she shrugged him off, earning a disappointed look. "Look, Benz, I'm not trying to be hard on you. You know I love the bones of you, but the fact is—"
"That you need to stay out this." Ian pointed a warning finger at Tala. "This is about getting Amber back on the team, not raking her over coals for shit she already did. We're being proactive here, so, keep your trap shut and you"—he swung his finger at Amber—"eat your damn croissant. And you'll eat every damn croissant I give you for the next two weeks. You need carbs and lots of them."
"Who made you the food police?" Enrique wondered, accepting the half of the croissant Amber handed him.
"It's logic. If people cut out carbs to lose weight, then if you eat them, you gain it."
Amber's mouth dropped open as she struggled with that nugget of wisdom, then she groaned into her hands. "That's not how it works at all, Ian. Look, I appreciate the sentiment and that for some baffling reason you want me back on the team. But you can't count on me. Even if I do gain the weight, I am so far behind on training. And yes, it sucks to see that Coach is going to replace me but, you know what, you're going to have to deal with it. Right now it's hard enough to eat without you all putting extra pressure on me, okay? So just don't."
"Oh, fuck you, Tala," she retorted.
"I'm right. You need more calories than your daily intake to put on weight and guess what has loads of calories? Pastries."
Enrique set down his half of the croissant and set it back on her plate. "Amber, do me a huge favour and eat the damn croissant."
"Eat the damn croissant. Because he is just going to keep talking and I swear to god, I feel like I'm learning something and I don't want Ian to teach me things. It's wrong. It's perverted. Don't do this to me. Just eat the damn croissant."
With an exasperated sigh, Amber lifted the damned pastry and took an angry bite out of it, glowering at a smug Ian as she chewed. Fine, she'd eat the stupid croissant just to get Ian to leave her alone. Not because she put any faith in his sudden nutritional knowledge. The fact was, all the carbs in the world wouldn't put the weight on fast enough, but maybe it would be enough to convince Nicolai that she was trying.
But maybe it was already too late.
In the darkened stands of the arena, Kane sat with his forearms on his knees, body bent forward to study the wannabes that had shown up for the Varsity tryouts. Surprisingly quite a number of people showed up, the lure of a Varsity team—even a cliquey one like the Tigers—too much to turn down.
"Is it bad that I'm disappointed with Dunga and Jim?" Johnny asked, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms tight to ward off the cold that was seeping into their bones.
On the ice, two players skated up to the blue line and while one collected his puck to take down to the net, the other fumbled. Kane immediately dismissed him. Who needed someone who dropped the puck in the middle of the neutral zone? That was just dangerous.
"Why? It's a chance to play Varsity, it'll look good on their transcripts," Ozuma stated, jade eyes sharp as he followed the hopefuls down the ice.
Another dropped puck. Another shot on net and if the goalie couldn't make that save they'd be better off with an empty net.
Empty net it was then.
Kane snorted in disgust, his breath coming out in a cloud. Jesus, the kid had a stick, why didn't he use it? He could at least try lifting his goddamn hand! Incompetent fuckwits the lot of them.
"Surprised Max and Tyson aren't here," Rei said from the row behind them. "They're good. Max is amazing."
"They won't ditch their team," Ozuma replied. "I asked earlier and Max just smiled and patted me on the shoulder, told me he wouldn't leave the JV guys hanging like that. Not even to wear the V."
Kane had to admire that. Max was a good guy, the kind you wanted on your team. Reliable, talented and loyal.
"Okay, so that's Tyson and Max, but why isn't Daichi here?" Johnny asked. "He's got the Benson god-given talent. Your clan probably sacrificed a goat or kissed the Blarney stone for it."
Ozuma flipped up the collar of his jacket to protect the nape of his neck. "He won't play on the same team as me."
Kane didn't blame him. Since the moment Daichi had arrived at Preston and announced his name, teachers had spent a ridiculous amount of time comparing him to his brother. Tyson got the same to an extent but Tyson, to Kane's thinking, had more talent than Hitoshi. They also played in different positions and due to the age gap, Hitoshi and Tyson had never played on the ice together. No one had that opportunity to compare them in real-time. Surprisingly, Daichi was making a smart move.
Kane drew his knee close and watched another player speed down the ice. He, at least, could skate, could travel fast in a straight line but his actual manoeuvrability was dismal. He doubted the kid could go backwards if needed. He growled and raised a brow when Ian dropped into the seat beside him. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see what we're getting," Ian grumbled, glowering at the ice as if he expected everyone on it to spontaneously combust. Including Nicolai. Kane snorted and then looked around the empty seats. He spied Kai and Tala behind the sin bin, and Spencer and Bryan sat three rows up from them. "Why aren't you sitting with those two?"
Ian slumped further down in his chair, tugging up the zipper of his coat. "They're keeping secrets."
"If I knew what it was, it wouldn't be a secret, would it?"
Kane rolled his eyes and jabbed Ian with his elbow. The last thing he needed was attitude. They were all in a piss poor mood as it was.
Nicolai skated across the ice and lifted a puck, circling back to one of the new guys, catching him by the shoulder and imparting a few words of wisdom. Not that it would help him. The guy needed years of practice and training before he'd ever be good enough to play for the JV team, never mind Varsity.
"Anyone seen the girls?" Rei wondered.
Kane pulled out his phone. "No clue."
Ozuma flinched. "As long as they're staying out of trouble, I don't really care where they are. Maye's already acting like the Gestapo. It wouldn't take much to set her off. She's talking about locker searches, dorm searches and potentially cancelling the school trip."
Rei's eyes rounded and he leaned forward in his seat. "Cancelling the school trip? She's going to start a war by doing that. Does she have any idea who did it?"
Ozuma shook his head. "I don't think so. She's like a dog with a bone though. She found out that the key card belonged to another teacher and she nearly asked for his resignation on the spot. Turned out he'd dropped it on the floor and one of the janitors picked it up. Now she has this idea that somehow a student copied it."
Kane snorted, the cold seeping up through sleeves turning his fingers bone white. "What kind of students does she think we are?"
"She's going crazy. From what I overheard Tate saying, the prank was pretty juvenile."
"Someone said there was a terrorist threat or anthrax," Ian said, and his voice sounded incredibly excited in a way that had all four of the other boys staring at him. "Well, they did."
"No. It definitely wasn't any of those things. Maye had security do a sweep but nothing like that was found. We'd have heard that much."
"Maybe they got some blackmail on Maye that no one knows about? Nude photos on her computer or something? Would explain why she's taking things to the extreme," Johnny suggested.
Kane shuddered violently. "Now that's an image I did not need in my head."
"Who knows," Ozuma replied, fiddling with his watch strap. "I just wouldn't want to be the one who did it when Maye finds out."
"Whoever pulled this prank is an idiot," Johnny grumbled, as the puck clattered against the checking boards. "I hate to say it, but it feels awfully like something the girls would do."
Rei made a face. "Let's hope it wasn't. We can't afford to lose anyone else on the team."
Kane laced his fingers and rested his chin against them. Yeah, no fucking kidding. They were already up shit creek without Amber and Arista—more so Arista. They didn't need to lose more of the team. Not that he could really say anything, after what he and Johnny had done. He wiped his hand over his mouth. They were lucky to get off with such a light sentence from Coach. He doubted Nicolai would be so lenient if the team had another transgression that threatened their chance at the finals. God knows, they couldn't hold another tryout. They weren't having much success with this one.
He couldn't even find it in him to resent the tryouts, Coach had no other choice. But Kane felt for Arista. After all, the rest of them had made their beds.
Ozuma shifted in his seat. "I'll keep my ear to the ground, see if I can hear any rumours about who did the prank. Maye won't rest until she pins it on someone, and we know she has a vendetta against the team."
Rei sighed, resting his arms on the back of the empty chair between Johnny and Kane. "We might want to give Coach a heads up that this might be an issue. Maybe he could step in for us if it looks like Maye's starting a witch hunt. She can't punish anyone without evidence."
Like that kind of detail would stop Maye, Kane mused. He sincerely hoped the girls weren't involved but like Johnny said, it was classic Octopussy hijinks.
With a snort of disgust, Kane watched as yet another goalie fumbled the puck while a second shot through their glove. "Not one of them as any iota of talent. This tryout is fucking pointless."
Ozuma leaned over so that his words were for Kane's ears only. "Sonia mentioned something about seeing Arista leave yesterday morning before she went on her run. Said she had her duffle bag with her."
Kane's pulse spiked, a hopeful kernel flickered to life. "You think she was coming down to practice?"
"Maybe. I don't know. I hope so but after what she went through, I don't think we should pin too many hopes on that. Which is why we need a goalie. We can't expect Arista to come back, even if she wants to, she might never be able to and we need to accept that."
Kane wrinkled his nose, studying the distinct lack of talent on the ice. "I know. And I do. And I know none of them can match her but, Jesus, look at them." He spread his hands wide in frustration as yet another simple save slid through the guy's legs. "Even I could do better than that. Use your fucking stick!"
Nicolai looked up sharply and they all shuffled further down in their seat, including Kai and Tala who'd been making their own chirps.
"If you think you can do better, why don't you try out?!" Ian goaded.
"What, and leave the defence line in your tender mercies? Might as well just lie down and let the Sharks take the trophy."
Ozuma chuckled softly and clasped his hands around his knee. "That's the problem. Defence and forwards are a dime a dozen, but goalies, they're like gold dust. We're never going to find one to rival Arista's talent, and if by chance we do, we could end up pushing her off the team for good."
And that was the truth of the matter. Deep inside, Kane feared Nicolai finding a goalie that could rival Arista. Not that he thought she had any obligation to the team but if her coming down to the arena that morning meant she was even thinking about coming back, he didn't want to be part of something that might alienate her from the team for good.
Not that that would happen, he noted sourly as yet another simple goal found the top shelf of the net.
Fuck, he really could do better than that. He'd played in goals for his brothers' games and covered the net for friendlies in the basketball court. He knew the basics, which was a damn sight more than the trio that had shown up for the tryouts knew.
An idea slowly unfurled in his brain. Maybe he should take Ian's advice and try out. After all, that would kill two birds with one stone. The team would have a goalie that had at least a little skill and if Arista came back, he'd gladly step down and let her have her rightful place back. It was a win-win situation—if he ignored the fact that he fucking hated playing goalie.
Still, he'd fucked up with Brooklyn. Maybe he could make this part of his punishment to atone.
On Thursday morning Amber sat in the library during a double-free working on the history assignment from hell. Sheets were spilt over the desk beside her, textbooks from the shelves piled up in two columns of three, while a trio of highlighters sat by her elbow. Outside the wall of windows to her left, the brilliant blue sky from earlier had given way to grey clouds that slid over the sun and cast the world into shadows. Which made the offence of staying inside to study a little easier to bear.
Her phone lit up and she glanced at it, smirking at Kirby's message. Have you told Nana?
Grateful for the distraction, she glanced around the library to make sure no librarians were in the vicinity and replied: No. I don't want to get her hopes up. The teachers might say no.
Putting down the phone again, she turned the page and tried to concentrate on the war and not on her plans for when she got to Ireland. It seemed insane that it was only a week away. Everything else had eclipsed it.
They shouldn't. It's only two hours down the road from Belfast and you're spending a few days in the city, right?
Yeah, but they'll hear me say I want to visit my grandmother and think it'll take me days to cross the island.
Putting the phone aside, she focused back on her work for the next ten minutes—pretty much a record when her phone lit up again. With a frown, she picked it up and felt her heart flutter at Kai's name.
Got a meeting with Dickinson about the school trip. Raincheck on the library meet up?
She tamped down on the sudden wave of disappointment and released a heavy sigh. She was being stupid. It wasn't like she needed Kai here. Honestly, she drafted better without him distracting her by existing, and this meeting was incredibly important. The chance to go to camp was a once in a lifetime opportunity, she knew how important that was to Kai. She did. It was just the idea of going to Ireland without him seemed so empty—
She groaned and dropped her hands to her face. They weren't even dating. And maybe a week without him would be good for her, give her some much-needed perspective.
Shaking her head, at her thoughts, she opened the message to reply: Let me know how it goes. I'm crossing all fingers and toes.
Putting her phone away in her bag, she turned back to her sheets of paper just as the double doors opened and Miyami swanned in, laptop bag over her shoulder, and carrying a cardboard tray with two takeaway cups from the coffee kiosk down the hall.
"Hey, I ran into Kai and he said you were studying in here on your lonesome, so I brought you sustenance."
Amber peeked over the tray. "Oh, thank god it's a muffin."
"There were no croissants."
"I cannot keep eating croissants."
Miyami snickered and sat down opposite her, pulling out her laptop before taking a sip of her coffee. "Mm. So, how is the assignment going?"
"It's going. I'll draft it properly next week, send it to Kai and then we can work on it after we get back from our trip. It'll be done by the deadline. It's not going to be perfect but Shallow just wants a draft so if there's anything he thinks we can improve on, we'll still have another few weeks to get it done."
"Hey, not bad. So listen, when I was at the kiosk I overheard the two Julie's discussing the prank. Apparently, someone filled her office with helium balloons—which seems a bit excessive for a prank.
Miyami bit her lower lip and glanced around the library to make sure no one was listening in. "There's a chance that Maye has a phobia of them. And by chance, I mean she does."
"What? How do you even know that? How does anyone know that? It's not like it's on her profile."
With a grimace, Miyami leaned across the table, keeping her voice low. "Hitoshi told me and Arista once. It was during the summer holidays. You know how my family goes camping? We were sitting around the fire and telling ghost stories and Arista mentioned clowns and how they're creepy and we all agreed. Then that led to weird phobia names." She paused, eyes glazing as she thought back. Amber pressed her lips together to stop herself from urging Miyami to get to the point.
"So I mentioned that globophobia is the fear of balls, and he said it was balloons. We bickered over that but then he said he knew for a fact it was balloons because Maye had some kind of meltdown over prom balloons."
"So you and Arista knew?"
Miyami jerked a shoulder. "Well, yeah, but I didn't do it and you can't think Arista would pull that prank, can you?"
Amber shook her head but suspicion grew inside her. "No, not Arista." Arista wasn't in the right headspace to pull a prank like that. "But, if Hitoshi told you, what's to bet he told someone else in our little group?"
Miyami's eyes widened and she did another quick scan of the library. "Shahero? No way, she wouldn't dare."
"She absolutely would," Amber retorted, rubbing her forehead as tension began to throb there. "She and Russia have been really secretive lately and the idiot was humming 99 red balloons this morning in the shower. I was ready to shove a sponge down her throat because that's the kind of song that sticks in your head all day."
"Maybe that's why she was humming it."
"No. She thought she was being clever. Idiotic brat. I could kill her."
The printer to their right spluttered to life with a chug and a hum. Both girls silently waited as a student walked up to collect their papers and then left again.
Easing back in her chair, Miyami tilted her head, tucking silver strands of hair behind her ear. "Well, if they did do it, then it's bad but Maye brought this on herself. If she'd stop reacting to everything, no one would say boo and it's tradition. Everyone pulls a senior prank."
"It's just bad timing. Nobody needs this kind of scrutiny directed at the team right now and Maye is looking for blood."
"It's a senior prank. It's harmless."
Idly tapping her highlighter against the desk, Amber considered Miyami's words. Maybe Miyami was right. There was a school tradition of senior pranks that went back to the 60s. It was hardly new except… "Senior pranks have never targeted a member of staff directly before. If I were Maye, I'd want that kind of thing nipped in the bud. It doesn't look good for her, does it? The Vice Principal who can't keep control of her students? And for them to go after her with her own phobia? That's really personal. She's going to come down hard on this."
Dropping her gaze to the desk, Miyami rubbed her nose. "Okay, so maybe Maye would but the rest of the school won't let her. They can't. She's already incredibly disliked by the alumni. Remember Ruin said they're not making donations to the school because of her. If they heard about this too, it's only going to reflect badly on her. Let's just keep a calm head and not overreact? Okay?"
Amber flushed, Tala's words echoing again. "Sure. That's what I do, right? Overreact?"
Miyami blinked and lowered her laptop screen to look at Amber. "Um, is that a trick question? I'm not sure where that came from."
With a sheepish sound of distress, Amber covered her face and peeked through her fingertips. "No. No, I'm sorry. I've just had a weird week and now I'm super sensitive and apparently overreacting. I'm being stupid. You're right, there's no point in borrowing trouble." She smiled weakly and admitted, "I'm just scared. If it was the girls, then the team suffers another setback and I don't know if everyone can take another one. And Mum and Hiroshi don't need this right now either. Shahero should know better."
And god, it felt like her fault. Like everything was imploding all around her and that it all led back to that one moment when she'd lashed out at Kai and quit the team. Just like Tala had said. And she couldn't keep blaming her dad for that. That was all on her.
"Hey, what brought all this on?"
"Nothing, just something Tala said yesterday that made me think."
"I don't know if I want to talk about it."
"Are you sure?"
Amber paused, nibbling on the top of her pen. "Yeah… No. Tala said that I overreact and that I lashed out and quit Kai and the hockey team. I mean, is that what everyone thinks? That I just overreact to things and make mistakes?"
Miyami sat back and exhaled quietly. "I thought you and Kai broke up because he wanted to focus on his ice hockey?"
"We did. I mean that was part of it. It's just, part of me keeps wondering if my actions were what made him decide to focus on hockey. He never seemed to be against being in a relationship—he had no problems when he was with Mariam and then suddenly, he was too busy to have a girlfriend. I keep looking back and wondering if that's where everything started to go wrong, if I made a huge mistake."
Miyami made a face. "I can't say whether it was a mistake or not. I've lashed out at Johnny plenty of times and we're still together. It's just sometimes people want different things. And that's the key, communication. You two didn't communicate what you wanted and that's because neither of you have been in a relationship before. You're going to make mistakes because that's the human thing to do."
Amber flinched. That wasn't exactly what she'd wanted to hear. But maybe that's what she needed to hear. She kept having these little moments of hope, the kinds that fuelled dreams of grand romantic reunions and that honestly didn't seem to be on the cards. Because for Kai, hockey came first and so she had to support that because Kai was important to her. Still, why was it so hard for people to want to prioritise her?
And there she went, being selfish again.
Wiping his clammy hands against his jeans, Kane hovered outside of Coach's office. The corridor was silent but for the flickering and fizzling of the fluorescent light above his head. Practice had ended a good hour ago, with the rest of the team having fled to the dining hall leaving himself and Johnny to clean up. And when Johnny had made noises about leaving a little early to meet up with Miyami, Kane had taken that as divine intervention and chased his friend off. Now he stood alone in the corridor trying to work up the courage to knock.
Or maybe he could wait.
No, he couldn't wait. Grinding his teeth, he lifted his hand and rapped his knuckles against the frosted glass. There was silence and for a moment he wondered if Coach had gone back to his room or back home for the weekend. Then he shook himself. They had the JV match, no matter how terrible they were, Coach wouldn't just abandon them.
"Come in." The words were delivered in a sharp bark and Kane blew out a breath, wiped off his hands again before opening the door and poking his head inside. Nicolai sat in front of his computer, the only light coming from the screen and washing his face in an eerie white glow.
His gaze flicked up and his expression morphed to confusion before smoothing out. "Kane, you finished already?"
Kane nodded. "Yeah, we finished and Johnny headed back. I brought the keys."
A frown flickered over Nicolai's face. "Thanks. Hit the lights. Sorry, I was getting in some paperwork."
Flicking on the lights, Kane shifted forward. "That the shortlist for the tryouts?"
"Yeah. We have a potential or two." Nicolai rubbed his hands over his face, squinting against the brightness. He reached for his mug, took a hard swallow and grimaced. "Cold. You need anything? Pull up a chair."
"No." Feeling heat creeping up his neck, he fisted his hands by his sides and took a steadying breath. "Uh, you think any of those guys could be a goalie?"
Sobering, Nicolai pushed himself to the side so that the computer no longer sat between them. "Not really. I'm going to talk to Mariah, see if I can convince her to help out for tomorrow's game. There's a good potential for defence though. Do you know Rick Anderson?"
"The football player?" Kane sat down. No, he remembered. Rick had been kicked off the team last season. "He punched a referee. You really want him on the team?"
Nicolai smirked. "Sounds like he'll fit right in."
"He's a football player."
"He can skate, has played ice hockey during the offseason but never seriously. Now he's no longer on the football team… well, we'll see how it goes."
Kane blew out a breath and closed his eyes. Another twist of fate, he realised. No goalie, but a defence guy. "He might work well with Ian."
"Hmm," Nicolai hummed the word, then scrutinised Kane with a long look. "What's wrong, Kane. Has something happened?"
"No, it's not about the prank if that's what you're thinking. As far as I'm aware, it had nothing to do with us."
Nicolai nodded but his expression was laced with a heavy dose of scepticism and honestly, Kane couldn't blame him. His own gut instinct told him that the girls were behind that prank but as long as he had no knowledge of it, he couldn't be accused of hiding anything. The only thing he could say was that Aspin wasn't involved and that was all that mattered to him.
"Then what's the matter? Something's bothering you, spit it out."
"Look, so we still don't have a goalie—"
"No, hear me out." He sucked in a breath and then released it, puffing out his cheeks as his stomach flipped uncomfortably. "I volunteer."
The words were choked from his lips and he let them settle in the air, watching as Nicolai leaned back in his chair, hands clasped over his blue button-up shirt.
"You volunteer? For what?"
"To be goalie." Squeezing his eyes shut, Kane confessed the one thing that would seal his doom. "I can play goalie."
Amber left the dining hall with the knowledge that Ian was trailing behind her. He'd been watching her all through dinner and it had been almost enough to put her off her food. Honestly, when had Ian of all people become the food police? And for her? Making her excuses to Aspin and Sonia, she'd quickly placed her tray on the trolley before slipping out of the dining hall hoping against hope that she'd lose Ian in the crowd. Unfortunately, as most students had just settled down for dinner, the corridor to the dining hall was disturbingly empty.
Shoving her hands into the pocket of her hoodie, she spun on her heels and confronted her stalker. "What Ian?"
"You only ate half your lasagne."
"The lasagne is horrible, that's why. I'm trying to prevent food poisoning and seriously, you need to stop. I've been grazing all day, I can't eat anymore. Just let me deal with this on my own."
"You dealing with this on your own is how you got into this mess."
Amber rubbed her jaw, wondering how many emotional slaps she was supposed to take in one week. The boys on her team weren't pulling their punches. And honestly, it didn't feel like they were doing it with her best interests in mind anymore.
"Ugh, I need air. Stop following me, stalker, or I swear the gnomes will return. You're really pushing your luck these days."
She turned down the corridor that led away from the main door and towards the courtyard where students often sat out when the weather was good. Outside the setting sun had painted the horizon a pale peach which faded into violet-blue. Stars peeked through, flanking the sliver of moon that had dared to appear.
She heard the scuff of footsteps behind her and she fisted her hands in her pockets. Her lips parted, ready to deliver a scathing order to leave her alone when she heard the ruckus ahead.
"Don't be ridiculous Miss Belyaev. You are clearly hiding something. Don't think I didn't see you spying on me that morning. Now you can come to my office for a chat where we can handle this maturely or you can persist with this nonsense and I will be forced to call security."
Amber's heart jolted, her stomach flipping in anxious dread. That was Maye's voice.
"I didn't do anything. I'm not going to your office. Just leave me alone."
"Come along now, Miss Belyaev. If you simply apologise publicly for your actions we can have this all cleared up in no time."
"Let go of me. I haven't done anything wrong." The voice was thin and filled with panic but Amber recognised Arista's voice immediately. And she knew that terrified tone, had heard it in the middle of the night when her friend fought off the nightmares, when she pleaded for Brooklyn to stop.
Amber's heart began to gallop in her chest, but her legs locked in place, feet glued to the floor. She wanted to run around the corner, stop this confrontation but she couldn't move.
"Arista, stop being a child!"
She jolted as Ian appeared by her side like smoke, his eyes too big for his face. He grabbed her elbow and she finally convinced her body to move. With her breath coming in short pants, she rounded the corner.
"I said LET GO!"
They arrived just as Maye hit the ground, legs akimbo with Arista disappearing through a door at the end of the corridor. Like slow-motion, Amber stood watching the door silently swing as Maye gaped after Arista. Then she seemed to come around, snapping her head towards them and Amber fumbled for Ian's sleeve at the look of pure hatred on the other woman's face. She stared at them, eyes wide and glassy with shock.
"That was assault." Maye's voice was stilted as if she were telling herself what happened. Dusting herself off, Maye stood slowly and straightened her shoulders. "Miss Belyaev just assaulted me."
Fear settled like a heavy stone in Amber's stomach as comprehension dawned. "No, if anyone was assaulting someone, it was you. I heard her tell you to let go."
"She sounded scared," Ian said, his stout body trembling as if holding himself back. She tightened her grip on him to make sure he wouldn't lunge at Maye.
"I did no such thing." Maye didn't even bother looking them, her attention locked on the hall where Arista had disappeared. "She pushed me to the ground, struck out at me in violence."
"She wouldn't do that. You did something to her." Her words were too fast, her body shaking as adrenaline rushed through it. "What did you do her?"
"Miss Benson, this is none of your concern. Perhaps if you stopped sticking your nose into other people's business and concentrated on your own issues"—her gaze dropped to Amber's waist—"you'd serve yourself much better."
"What is going on here?"
Amber jumped then whirled to find Judy Tate approaching, arms full of books. She scanned the scene and immediately straightened, sensing something important had occurred. Relief coursed through Amber's body. A teacher that was trusted and respected. Judy would listen to them. She'd make sure Maye didn't twist things.
"Mrs Tate—" Amber began.
"Judy, I have to report a student for assault."
Judy's eyes darted to Amber and Ian, a small furrow appearing between her brows as she slowly shook her head. Amber felt the sharp stab of panic, her stomach twisting into a jittery knot. The horrible lasagne threatened to rise.
"Who assaulted who?"
"That's not what happened. You're lying!"
"Miss Benson," Maye barked, eyes beginning to water as she sniffed delicately. "I will not tell you again. You were not here when it happened, you did not see it. I was assaulted by Arista Belyaev who then fled the scene."
Judy tentatively approached and pressed her lips into a thin line as she took in Maye's wrinkled outfit and dishevelled appearance. "Tell me what happened. From the beginning"
Struggling to compose herself, Maye wrung her hands together. "I was asking Miss Arista Belyaev to accompany me to my office as I'm conducting an investigation into the incident that occurred in my computer lab. As I approached her, merely to ask her a few questions, she shoved me to the floor and ran off."
"That's not what happened."
Judy closed her eyes and held up her finger for silence. "Before we go further, I think we need to take statements. Dickinson will have to be informed. Ms Maye, please return to your office, Amber and Ian you can come with me as witnesses."
"They didn't witness anything. They came after Miss Belyaev had run away. I'm afraid that it has become quite clear that Arista Belyaev pulled the prank and after this, there will be no other alternative but to expel her."
"Expel her? Arista didn't do anything." The world was twisting out from under her and she couldn't seem to find her balance. This was all wrong. Maye was lying. Twisting things to fit her own delusions.
"She assaulted a teacher, that in itself cannot be condoned. And obviously she did it because she didn't want to her part in the prank to be discovered." Turning to Judy, Maye tugged at the cuffs of her jacket. "Fetch her and find out the truth. You'll see I'm right. She cannot be allowed to—"
"Arista didn't do the prank. I did it. It was me." Amber rose to her full height, lifted her chin and met the gazes of her teachers squarely. "Investigation over."
Ian hissed out a breath and she elbowed him to keep his mouth shut. She didn't need him saying anything that could derail this plan. She could take Maye on. Arista couldn't. Not right now.
"Ohoho, I knew it! I knew it!" Maye's face lit up with malicious glee. "I knew one of you were behind it."
"She did not do it," Judy snapped, glowering furiously at Amber.
Smug, Maye rocked back on her heels and straightened her jacket. "She confessed. We have no choice but to take this to Dickinson."
Closing her eyes in resignation, Judy stepped forward. "Ian, go back to your dorm. Amber, you will come with me and we will get this settled."
"Get that Belyaev girl, get all of them. They were all in on it. That's how the "octopussies" roll, isn't it?"
"Maye, your bias is showing," Judy snarled, baring her teeth in an unfriendly smile as she began to guide Amber down the corridor.
"I'm only seeking the truth."
Amber took a stilted step forward before the adrenaline fled, leaving her cold and shaking inside. Horror filled her as she realised what she'd just done. She jerked out of Judy's grasp and grabbed Ian's clammy hand, clutching it tightly, forcing his shocked eyes to meet hers. "Get Nicolai," she whispered.
He twisted his fingers through hers and leaned close. "You idiot. What are you doing?"
"Just get Nicolai. If I get suspended it won't be as bad as someone on the team getting punished. You have a game tomorrow. Just go, Ian!" Yanking her hand from his grip, she stepped away from Ian, hearing his shoes squeak against the tiled floor as he spun on his heels and raced down the corridor. She blew out a shaky breath and hung her head. She just hoped that Nicolai could help, otherwise she'd just doomed herself.
An update that happened within the same year? I know. I'm equally surprised but things are getting exciting.
If you enjoyed, please review. I love to hear your thoughts.