Valen was running full speed when she made it to Southbrook Academy the next morning. Taking in deep gulps of air, she doubled over and nearly fell to her knees in despair.
It was 6:55AM. The bus leaving for the train station had been scheduled to wait in the parking lot on the other side of the school, but there was zero chance it was still there. Mrs. Talbot had made it clear they couldn’t wait for longer than fifteen minutes, no matter what.
Of all the mornings to sleep in, she had to choose this one. It had taken her thirty seconds to jump out of bed, pull on her clothes, grab her bag, and run out into the frigid morning air. The sun had barely peeked over the rooftops. She thought if she could catch the bus to school, she might be able to make the trip.
Even seeing the vehicle’s taillights in the distance hadn’t made her despair. She wasn’t a fantastic athlete, but the adrenaline coursing through her body had her running faster than she thought possible. It wasn’t until after her sprint, huffing and puffing at the academy’s regal front doors, that she finally let her failure sink in.
Letting out a growl of frustration, Valen threw her bag to the ground.
It wasn’t fair!
Her phone had gone missing, so there had been no alarm to wake her up, no way to call a taxi to take her to the train station. She thought she’d put it on her nightstand before crawling into bed, but it was nowhere to be found.
Wiping away angry tears, she picked up the worn duffle bag and took the long way around the school until she saw the empty parking lot in the distance.
There was no helping her situation; she was going to miss the leadership retreat.
For a wild moment, she considered hitchhiking to the station. But the train left in fifteen minutes; even traveling at top speed, it would take longer than that to get there.
As the sun rose, its bright rays mocked her gloomy situation. She was about to give in to despair when she recognized a figure sitting on the parking lot curb. He was slouched over his book, so engrossed he didn’t notice her until she was standing right over him.
She was so shocked to see Sedge with his traveling bag she could think of no words of greeting. Was he supposed to go on the leadership retreat as well?
Then she remembered; he had become the captain of the swim team a couple weeks ago, which made him eligible to attend. That was why he’d started taking the early bus. Valen wasn't interested in hallway gossip, but she vaguely remembered other students saying the coach had given Sedge the responsibility because he thought it would convince his star athlete to attend morning practice.
His gamble had paid off.
“I woke up at 6:25,” she finally said, hating how lame she sounded.
Sedge glanced up from his book. He pulled out his phone and tapped the screen.
“It’s 7 now,” he observed without expression. He tucked his book into a jacket pocket, towering over her when he got to his feet.
Squaring her shoulders, she watched him tap his phone screen. When he returned the device to his pocket, pulled out his book, and started reading again, Valen decided she wasn’t interested in why he was late.
With a groan of self-loathing, she decided to drown her sorrows in a chocolate-strawberry milkshake at the twenty-four hour diner downtown. The library opened at 9AM. She was going to hate herself for months for missing the retreat, but that didn’t mean she had to waste time. There were national essay and science competitions she could enter. Coming in second or third would easily fill the portion of her application that the leadership retreat would have occupied.
The new plan cheered and energized her spirits, so she turned and began walking away.
“Taxi is on its way. We’ll only be a couple hours late.”
She wasn’t sure she’d heard Sedge correctly. Turning back, she finally allowed herself to study him. He was tall and lean like everyone else on the swim team. His gaze was intelligent, though usually veiled in a thin veneer of boredom.
When he turned the page of his slim paperback, his eyes narrowed and his eyebrows drew together in concern; a favoured character must have found themselves in perilous circumstances.
Valen had nearly forgotten what it was like to lose herself in a good story. She couldn’t remember the last time she read something for pleasure; everything had to be dissected, compared and contrasted, argued, disassembled, and then reassembled. No book was free from intellectual scrutiny.
She was envious of Sedge’s concerned expression. The play of emotions crossing his face was mesmerizing. His eyes darted over the yellowed pages, taking in the plot. The tension grew in his entire body, his eyes widened in shock, his mouth parted. Finally, he turned the page. A moment later, he let out a sigh of relief and his shoulders relaxed. A devilish smile turned into an amused smirk before he stopped reading to absorb that particular portion of the story.
When he was done, Sedge looked back at Valen. Caught staring, she felt her face grow hot with embarrassment. Before she could turn away, however, his normally cool expression softened. It was strange, but the warmth in his grey eyes captivated her.
She inexplicably felt as though they’d already enjoyed a million conversations.
But that was impossible.They had barely spoken since he’d entered Southbrook Academy. And yet… as they continued to gaze at one another… the world was slipping… just enough… to…
A loud honk brought her back to reality.
She tore her gaze from Sedge and blinked in confusion. A taxi had pulled up a few feet from where she was standing.
Before she could ask, Sedge made his way to the car and held the door open for her. “Next stop: train station.”
Shaking her head to clear it, Valen stared at the TARDIS blue vehicle in shock. He had mentioned a taxi, but it was clear he’d ordered it before she arrived. Sedge remained calm and collected. The warmth she’d seen was replaced with boredom as he waited for her to get in the car.
Valen clutched at her duffel bag and decided what she had experienced must have come from exhaustion. Life was far too interesting right now. She slid into the back seat of the taxi and pressed a hand to her forehead. She wasn’t feeling very well.
Sedge got in after her and gave the cab driver his destination. A moment later, they were on their way.
They both remained silent as the taxi pulled from the academy’s parking lot. The driver took the quickest route to the highway. From there, it was fifteen minutes to the next town.
Outside, the green fields were covered with mist and colourful spring flowers were just beginning to bloom. Rolling down her window, Valen took in the morning’s fresh scent. It was in that moment, observing the tranquility, she was thankful her phone was missing. Sneaking a quick glance at Sedge, she was surprised he hadn’t pulled out his book again. He was taking in the scenery as well, and Valen marvelled that her discomfort had vanished. It felt like she was sitting next to an old friend.
That thought alone made her jittery again.
Why did she suddenly feel so comfortable around him? When did the feeling even start? It was a mystery, to say the least, and not one she was willing to unravel.
When they arrived at the train station, Sedge paid the taxi driver. Valen offered him half the fare, but he shook his head.
“I knew you were coming on this retreat,” he said. Flashing her a guilty look, he cleared his throat. “When you didn’t leave the house to catch the bus, I should have known you had slept in. But I didn’t think of it until I heard Mrs. Talbot telling Mr. Lee that she was surprised you hadn’t shown. Everyone knows how excited you and Ivan were about it, so I feel pretty shitty for not thinking to wake you up.”
Valen’s mouth fell open in surprise.
It was disorienting to think that anyone in her school noticed her or Ivan; they’d decided they were invisible in the hallways. That peculiar insight, coupled with Sedge admitting he had stayed behind to wait for her, rendered her speechless. Lost in confusion, she allowed him to reach over and shoulder her duffel bag.
“Mrs. Talbot said we could exchange our tickets for a later time. We’re going to miss orientation, but we probably won’t be the only ones. It’ll be another two hours before we board.” He gestured towards the café inside the station. “Why don’t you grab breakfast while I go sort it out?”
Without a backward glance, Sedge disappeared into the station house.
Valen could find no reason not to follow his suggestion, so she crossed the platform toward the cozy-looking coffee house. It was empty, save for the bright-eyed, middle-aged barista who sprang from her stool to stand at the till.
“You from the academy?” she asked when Valen ordered a cheese croissant. “That was quite a ruckus this morning! Reminded me of the great migrations.”
Valen couldn’t help but laugh. The Southbrook students called orientation week, mid-winter vacation, and farewell week the ’great migrations’. During those hectic days, it looked like a massive herd of bison moving to and from the station. This town was a sleepy place, just like her home; anything more than ten people at a time was considered a commotion. There were only twenty students from Southbrook attending the leadership retreat, but it was a large enough group to cause a stir.
The lively woman heated the croissant in a mini-oven before handing it over the counter. “Missed your train?”
“Unfortunately.” Valen sighed. She wasn’t sure why, but she suddenly felt the need to confess her troubles. “Everything has been so bizarre lately. I had to move out of my house, my friend was hospitalized, and then I lost my phone. Everything was on my phone. It had my due dates, my extracurricular schedule, my studying apps, the articles I downloaded for a history report. But I rushed to get here without even looking for it!” Realizing she had lost her appetite, she picked at her croissant.
The barista gave her a kind look. “Tell you what, you sit down at a front table in the sun, and I’ll make you a delicious drink. No charge. Your friends bought so much from me earlier that I can be generous.”
Touched, Valen was about to accept the suggestion, but a strange tremor shook the entire café. Steadying herself on a chair, she listened to the mugs and bottles rattling on the counter and in the small fridge.
“What was that?”
“Hmm…?” Unconcerned, the barista looked up from the milk she was pouring into a metal pitcher. “What was what?”
“That shaking.” Mind whirling, Valen released the chair. “It felt like an earthquake.”
“Earthquake…? Are you feeling alright?” Eyebrows knit with concern, she put down the milk jug. “Do you feel like you’re going to faint?”
“I could have sworn…” Worried she really was starting to go insane, Valen trailed off.
Sedge entered the café and placed their bags near the sun-warmed table at the front of the room. Valen’s anxiety immediately trickled away. Bowing her head to the worried barista, she rushed over to sit with him.
“Did you feel it?” she asked.
“It’s getting cold out there; I should have brought a warmer jacket.” He blew on his hands and rubbed them together. “Feel what?”
“Nothing,” Valen muttered. With a worried sigh, she sat down in the sun, just like the kind barista had suggested. Looking out at the empty platform, she started chewing on her nails. “I’m just slowly losing it, that’s all.”
If Sedge was concerned, he didn’t show it. He took the seat across the table and pulled out his phone again. A couple of taps later, he was smiling to himself, completely lost in whatever he was doing.
The barista came over with a warm, frothy drink topped with whip cream, cinnamon, and chocolate that smelled like a small piece of heaven. She placed it down in front of Valen and looked at Sedge expectantly.
“You need to order something if you want to sit here with your friend,” she said with a welcoming smile. “I’ll meet you at the till.”
“Yeah, of course,” Sedge said without glancing up from his screen.
"I'll pay," Valen insisted, pulling a twenty dollar bill from her beat-up wallet. She held it out to him expectantly.
Sedge casually eyed the paper money. From the unimpressed look on his face, it looked like he was going to ignore it. But then, without meeting her earnest gaze, he whisked it out of her hand and made his way over to the counter.
Pleased he hadn't scorned her offer, Valen enjoyed her mystery drink. It was an interesting mixture of milk, black tea, vanilla, and a flavour she couldn’t easily identify. It was something spicy that left a pleasant tingling on her tongue. The heat from the beverage coupled with the morning sun on her face eased her tension. And, although she was only slightly aware of it, she relaxed completely when Sedge plunked the change on the table and sat back down with his order.
“You definitely don’t do anything half-way.” He’d finally put his phone away and was scrutinizing her fingernails, which would soon become open wounds if she kept gnawing on them. “Is Ivan going to be okay?”
“They think he’s doing better.” Valen ran her thumbs over the tips of her fingers and grimaced. She hadn’t realized she’d chewed them so much. “I got to talk to him last night.”
“That means he’s on the mend, right? They know what’s wrong?”
“Not a clue, I suspect.” Shrugging, Valen retrieved her money before turning her face to the sun to fully enjoy the warmth. She felt so satisfied, she let her eyes drift closed. Talking about Ivan brought up unpleasant emotions, and she wanted to turn her mind off completely.
Her eyes shot open. Turn her mind off completely?
She picked up her mug and eyed it suspiciously. Was there alcohol in this drink? Save for the time Ivan spiked her milkshake with vodka, she had never wanted to sink into oblivion. What was going on? She sniffed the drink; it didn’t smell like booze.
“The secret ingredient is black pepper!” The barista called merrily from the bar. “What do you think?”
“Um…” It was undeniably delicious. Valen didn’t believe the warm-hearted woman would risk her café just to serve her alcohol. “It’s amazing, thanks.”
“My pleasure!” She disappeared into the backroom with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Something just isn’t right,” Valen said under her breath.
Sedge’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “With the drink?”
Valen jumped a little when she heard his question. She’d nearly forgotten he was there. “What?”
“You were muttering to yourself.”
“Nothing. It’s nothing.”
The café began to shake again--this time far more violently.
“What’s with the shaking?” Valen grabbed onto the table to steady herself. Yet again, she heard the mugs and bottles rattling, but this time she heard cracking in the walls. When she glanced up, Sedge was watching her with a puzzled look on his face. He seemed oblivious to the mysterious quaking.
The world steadied and Valen was flooded with relief. Sedge leaned back in his chair as he considered her odd behaviour.
“Do you... need any medication?” he probed.
Desperate to slow her pounding heart, Valen drew in several deep breaths. If she could ignore the objects appearing in her closet, she could ignore this, too. With a gargantuan effort, she answered him in a calm tone. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Okay.” Obviously wishing he were somewhere else, Sedge cleared his throat. “Black pepper, huh? Is it really that good?”
Massaging her shaking hands anxiously, Valen laughed at his terrible attempt to change the subject. She looked up at the mundane ceiling and decided she wouldn’t allow anyone to see her so vulnerable again. If the café shook once more, she would pretend she’d had a dizzy spell and claim she was anemic; no one would ask questions.
“It’s amazing,” she finally responded. Feeling somewhat better after her resolution, she risked holding his wary gaze. “You should try it.”
“Alright.” He grabbed her mug and took a small sip. His eyes brightened, and he smiled at the surprising flavor. “You weren’t kidding.”
Valen’s mouth dropped open. “I-I meant that you should buy your own.”
“I promise you, I have all my inoculations.” He shot her a teasing glance; his quirked eyebrow dared her to join him in the joke. “Although I may have missed my cootie booster; I’ll have to ask my mom.”
“What are you, eight?” Despite her exasperated tone, Valen giggled. “Everyone knows you can’t get cooties after you turn nine.”
Without thinking, she lifted her mug and took another sip of the delicious brew.
“See that?” Sedge nodded at her drink, a playful sparkle in his eyes. “You must trust me.”
Yes, thought Valen, I do.
The realization shook her. Unable to break from his steady gaze, she found herself falling into the uncanny sensation that they had known each other for years. It was such a warm feeling, so remarkably safe; but it highlighted how lonely she was without Ivan.
Then again, she had been lonely her entire life. When Ivan disappeared into his illness, Valen had no one to talk to. It wasn’t just the lack of friends that plagued her, but her parents’ constant rejection. Most of her life, it had felt like they were looking right through her--as if she barely existed, or they wished she had never been born.
Normally, Valen would shake off morose feelings and turn her mind to studying. Learning was the best way to distract from her emotions.
Today, however, she was sitting across from Sedge.
“I’m not okay.”
The words slipped out so easily and hot tears followed.
Putting a hand over her mouth, she wiped at her wet cheeks with her sleeve. It was silly to be crying in front of him. He was basically a stranger; he couldn’t be feeling the same intimacy. Hers was obviously a construct of her distraught mind, a mind losing its grip on reality; it wouldn’t be long before she was strapped to a bed in the hospital, babbling and screeching while the doctors scrambled to find a diagnosis.
“No one expects you to be.” Sedge’s wise words were free of judgement and she erupted into more tears. “You sort of wander around in a bubble most of the time, but there’s no way you feel as calm as you look.”
Furiously rubbing her face, Valen looked outside once more. The sunlight had disappeared and white clouds were blotting out the sky. She didn’t dare look at Sedge again. He had now witnessed two of her emotional outbursts; how embarrassing.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, slowly regaining control. “I won’t bother you anymore.”
Eyes warm with empathy, Sedge leaned forward. “It’s no bother.”
But Valen had already made up her mind and silently watched thick snowflakes drift down from the sky. Sedge glanced in surprise at the spring snowstorm. After a moment, he retreated back to his book.
It was for the best. Valen had already resolved not to speak to him for the rest of their journey.