Southbrook Academy Book 1: Valen

By KJ Southworth All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Romance

Friends

The train ride home was uneventful.

Despite Valen’s strange actions, Ophelia was determined to support her new friend. She sat with her on the train and pulled out studying materials. Though she was exhausted, Valen didn’t have the heart to reject the comforting offer.

It was easier to lose herself in biochemistry and astrophysics--in Ophelia’s earnest competition--than it was to dissect her mental troubles. On occasion, she listened to Sedge, David, and Fabiola discuss less serious matters. They sat across the aisle, periodically erupting into laughter. When she caught Sedge’s eye, she offered him a grateful smile. He replied with a warm one of his own, and her heart skipped a beat.

Last night, she had finally managed to treat him decently. He accepted her flimsy explanation for her panicked run through the forest and gently suggested they return to the hotel; he even went so far as to carry her on his back because she had forgotten her boots. Being so close to him, her chest pressed to his back, had filled her with ease. She could still feel his warmth as he trudged through the snow.

And she knew he would not breathe a word of her behaviour to the others. She didn’t know if she deserved his kindness, but she accepted his help without suspicion.

Sedge rode the bus back to their rented rooms with her in comfortable silence. It wasn’t late, but they were both exhausted. Before they parted ways in the corridor of the old house, Valen reached over and took Sedge’s hand. She couldn’t quite meet his gaze, but she was determined to finally apologize.

“I’m... going to get help.” She stared at his chest as she searched for the right words. “There’s no excuse for how rude I’ve been, but I want you to know… it’s because I feel safe around you. That’s not something I know how to trust. So, anyway… sorry for that. I’m going to book an appointment with someone to get help for whatever’s happening to me.”

Sedge remained silent, but she could feel him studying her. Heat built between their joined fingers, and Valen felt herself blushing. It was so intimate, holding someone’s hand, and she had taken his without thought.

She let go and quickly turned away. “Thanks for everything.”

If he called after her, she didn’t hear. She was too embarrassed to turn around anyway. Quickly unlocking her door, she burst into her room, closed the door and leaned against it.

“I’m such a mess,” she whispered. Squeezing her eyes shut, she gently hit her head against the barrier between her and Sedge.


Later that afternoon, she found her phone. It had fallen in between the mattress and the wall. Setting it up to charge, she unpacked the last of her belongings. She dressed in her most comfortable sweats and mentally prepared herself for researching local psychiatrists.

Refusing to be intimidated, she relied heavily on her unfailing common sense to pull her through this latest trial. She told herself that, after what she experienced at the hotel, there was no more room for fear or denial. It was either look for help or slowly drown. Even with her sensible thoughts, however, she could not stop her hands from shaking.

Money would be her first problem. Depending on price, the last of her inheritance would probably only cover a few weeks of therapy.

As she pulled out the last of her textbooks from her bag, she realized the old phone that had terrified her the other night was nowhere to be found. When she thought about its reappearance, she stumbled onto an important insight: Ophelia had heard it ringing, and Sedge had taken it and read the screen.

She swallowed hard.

It's not an hallucination; the damned thing is real.

Cursing her stupidity, Valen hurried toward Sedge’s room in the attic. It was Sunday afternoon; the other tenants were outside, enjoying the spring weather and unable to hear the ruckus she made as she sprinted up the creaking staircase. When she reached his door, however, she hesitated.

Others could see and touch her reappearing belongings. What did that mean?

Sedge opened his door before she could form any other thoughts. He was dressed in his workout clothes, holding the obsolete phone in his hand. Taken by surprise, Valen wasn’t prepared for the staggering impact his affectionate smile had on her. She grabbed hold of the railing so she wouldn’t take a step back and fall down the stairs.

He studied her with his fascinating, grey eyes. “Coming in?”

“I… don’t know.” Mouth agape, Valen wasn't able to ignore the tremor of awareness that shot up her spine. For the first time, she noticed Sedge’s effortless masculinity–and found it far too distracting. Lost in his captivating gaze, she forgot why she had rushed here in the first place. “If you’re...leaving to go workout I can come back later.”

“My plans are always up for debate.” He looked over his shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Ophelia?”

“Absolutely. Always. That’s what you get for being an underachiever.” Ophelia answered from inside his room. Sedge took a step back so that Valen could see her speaking through his laptop screen. In the background, Fabiola jumped on a bed to the beat of an upbeat pop song. “Valen, you guys should come to the dorms. I’ve been trying to get Sedge to come, but he’s brooding and being intense again. If you make the trip, he’ll probably follow.”

Without thought, Valen stepped into Sedge’s tidy room.

Valen!” Fabiola called to them. “Don’t make us come to you. I need interviews with people who were in the storm with me. Prepare yourselves.”

“Don’t listen to them.” Sedge flopped down on his bed. “They’re both high. They just want us to grab snacks on our way over.”

Cheezies!” Fabiola yelled and fell somewhere off-camera. After a loud crash, Ophelia pointed, giggling uncontrollably before a colourful sock struck her in the face. Another desperate cry for sustenance rang out from Fabiola. “Cheezies!”

“Order a pizza,” Sedge called back.

“Is Fab okay?” Valen stifled a laugh as she sat on the chair in front of the laptop. A long-dormant part of her wanted to rush over and join in the fun. She wasn’t a drinker, nor was she into drugs, but her heart was eager for intimacy. “Be careful or the dorm monitor might check on you.”

Fabiola and Ophelia were no longer listening.

They laid on the bed, Fabiola clutching her head while Ophelia pretended to perform CPR. Their room was so colourful; the walls were covered in posters and artwork, their clothes flung haphazardly over furniture and on the floor. An unfamiliar emotion hummed in Valen’s chest. After a moment of silent contemplation, she realized it was envy; the more she watched the two zany girls, the more she understood her feelings. Her schedule left little room for leisure, especially now, with so many unknowns circling her like vultures.

“They’ve forgotten we’re here,” Sedge said. He laughed, got up, and logged off his computer. The brush of his chest against her shoulder made Valen blush. He stood up and arched an eyebrow. “They’ll con David into getting their snacks when they realize I hung up. Pheelee was right, though. If you want to go, I’ll escort you there.”

“Ever the gentlemen,” Valen teased awkwardly. She was flattered he would offer his company when it was obvious he had no interest in going. Unable to meet his gaze, she turned back toward his desk and studied a small stack of yellowed paperbacks. “I’m not sure I would be good company for them.”

“Let’s hang out here then,” he suggested.

Valen’s eyes widened at his casual invitation. Her logical side argued that Sedge was too much of a distraction. Moreover, she wasn’t comfortable with all the confusing emotions that surged through her; there were too many tasks at hand for her to yearn for a romantic relationship.

But she didn’t want to leave.

Staring unseeingly at his books, she bit her lip in excitement. The sense of warm safety wrapped itself around her once more.

This time, however, she surrendered. “I...think I would prefer that.”

“Great. But I’m not so sure you should give me the ‘gentleman’ title. I did steal your phone, after all.”

Valen’s feeling of safety crumbled to dust. Whipping around at the mention of the object that brought her here in the first place, she glared at the offending device. Sedge’s embarrassed expression turned to genuine concern.

“I put it in my pocket last night and forgot about it.” He carefully handed it to her. Taking the phone in her hands, she traced the pattern she had carved into it as Sedge eased himself onto the foot of his bed. He cleared his throat nervously. “It won’t ring again. I took the battery out.”

“Did you?” Her voice sounded distant. Tears of frustration gathered in her eyes. “...thank you.”

She couldn’t stop staring at the tiny, delicate swirls. As always, they seemed to waft across the polished surface. The rest of the world fell away; if the phone was real, it stood to reason the rest of the items were as well.

What does it all mean?

“That’s an interesting pattern.” Sedge’s calming voice cut into her trance. “Did you design it yourself?”

“This?” She held up the phone, showcasing the carving. “It’s just a doodle. I used to draw it all the time.”

“Really.” He seemed to drink in the information. “I wasn’t sure if you had copied it or not. If you had, I wanted to know the artist so I could check out their other stuff.”

Shaking her head, Valen offered Sedge a wan smile. “I used to draw all the time before I was accepted into Southbrook. For whatever reason, I decorated my phone with it.”

“The same design, over and over? It never changed at all?” Genuinely interested, Sedge motioned to the phone, asking if he could take another look at the pattern. She hesitated, but eventually placed it in his outstretched hand. “It’s pretty complex.”

“It probably did change over time.” In all honesty, Valen didn’t think it had, but that seemed impossible. It was intricate, and she had been drawing it for over a decade. “It’s been a while since I’ve worked on anything.”

“Too bad. You obviously have talent.”

“Not enough to get me into Southbrook.” Valen felt herself relax as she shrugged off the compliment. “For that, I had to sacrifice every spare moment to study. I had to beat the other local students that took the entrance exam. Well, Ivan beat me by two points, but they have to take two local students every few years.”

“Wow.” Sedge looked a little sheepish. “My, uhh... mom only had to send an email to get me in.”

“Don’t feel bad for being born into privilege.” She giggled at his embarrassment. “I’m not jealous. It’s important for me to work hard. It will be my way to make a difference in this world. In fact, working hard is about all I can do.”

Sedge, who had gone back to studying the carving, looked up at her. Their gazes locked.

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard that,” he whispered. His gaze grew more intense. For some reason, his scrutiny didn’t make Valen uncomfortable. Instead, she welcomed it. It felt like he was searching her eyes for something important that she knew he would find. “Do you remember your dreams?”

“Um…that question came out of nowhere.” The spell was broken. She laughed nervously and leaned back in her chair. But she felt a surge of courage, so she answered. “Never. I’m not sure I dream.”

Her answer seemed to satisfy him. Taking a deep breath, he shook off his inner discord and offered her a heartfelt smile. “I think we need to take you out.”

“Excuse me?”

“Last night was crazy. First, we got caught in that freak blizzard. You said you trashed this phone years ago and it followed you." He held it up for emphasis. “And there was that way you were pushed, like something was attacking you. I don’t pretend to understand what’s happening--not yet anyway--but I’m guessing you think you’re losing it.”

Valen flinched at his insight. Immediately, she felt herself shutting down. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“Yeah, I get that better than you know.”

Shocked, she held his empathetic gaze. All she could manage was a bewildered grunt.

“Trust me, you need to have some fun. For now, let’s forget anything weird happened at the retreat and just go out.”

Disarmed, Valen heard herself agree. A few moments later, she was leaving the house in her sweats, walking next to someone she wanted to ask a million questions.


Southbrook Academy was one of the town’s economic pillars.

Bored and wealthy students were always eager to spend their money in the quaint shops and restaurants. Years ago, the mayor had decided to ban cars from the picturesque downtown, making the roads free for pedestrians to mill about and browse. Almost everyone descended upon these quiet streets on the weekends, and this Sunday was no different.

Valen and Sedge strolled carelessly with the crowd, enjoying the musicians and artists eager to earn their supper. Without any discussion, they turned into a narrow alley and entered the Black Dog.

The popular diner was packed, but Sedge recognized a few swim team members. They called his name and motioned him over to their booth. When they realized that Valen had come with him they quickly reorganized themselves so that she could sit as well. Eric, by far the tallest person she had ever met, slid out and grabbed a chair from a nearby table, allowing Sedge and Valen to sit next to each other. A boy with a shaved head and a girl with deep red hair sat on the other side. Valen was sure she had seen them in the hallways but couldn’t recall their names.

“How do you like our advanced English course?” the redhead asked. Her amber eyes sparkled with curiosity as she looked from Valen to Sedge. “I’m pretty much dying of boredom reading Dickens.”

Her initial shyness gone, Valen brightened at the topic of conversation. “You hate it too?”

“Not hate, I just can’t wait to discuss Richard Wright, Cao Xuequin, and Jhumpa Lahiri.”

“I’m not really a fan of fiction,” Valen admitted. “I preferred the philosophers and the modern essays.”

“I really enjoyed Ibn Khaldun!”

“You going to eat the rest, Jess?” Eric interrupted, eyeing her uneaten food hungrily. Without waiting for an answer, he reached toward the fries. “Where’s the ketchup?”

“You know I only order fries because you’ll want them,” Jess droned, rolling her eyes. She pushed her plate toward him and playfully nudged the boy next to her. “Feel free to have some too, Cal.”

“No, thank you.” Cal wore a look of pure disgust as Eric wiped grease from his hands. “This place needs a fresh salad bar and gluten free options.”

“Why do you even follow us here?” Eric asked between mouthfuls. He took a long swig from his extra-large soda. “All you ever do is complain. I think the cook sends out the food extra-greasy just to see that look on your face.”

“You only ever say you’re headed downtown so I come along to see what’s up. I follow you into this diner to raise the average IQ level at your table.”

The rest of the table erupted into laughter.

Unsure if she should join in, Valen studied Cal’s dark expression. When he relaxed and started to chuckle, she decided it was okay to smile.

“Aren’t you going to step in, Sedge?” Eric gestured toward Cal as he gasped for breath. “I think the captain needs to demonstrate his infinite power here.”

“Nah, you absolutely deserved that one,” Sedge ruled through his laughter.

Jess clutched her sides. “Sure, but did I?”

“I have no jurisdiction,” Sedge replied when he had calmed down. “You’re the captain of the girl’s team. Gather up the sisterhood and plot revenge.”

“That’s way too much effort.” She grinned at Valen. “Cal isn’t usually this grumpy.”

“Yes, I am.” Cal yawned. Stretching his arms, he brought his elbow down gently on top of Jess’ head. “I happen to love Dickens.”

“Is that what started this? Please!”

Jess launched into her own views on the author and turned to Valen for support. Eager for an intellectual match-up, Valen joined right in. No matter how they made their case, however, Cal had a counter-argument that only spurred the debate further. But the girls refused to give in. Passionately spurning 19th Century Victorian values bound them closer; by the fifth round, Valen was considering her ally as a friend.

At some point, a waitress delivered Valen’s favourite chocolate-strawberry milkshake and Reuben sandwich to the table. She was so involved with the conversation, she didn’t think to question their appearance. As she nibbled on the side of sliced cucumbers in lieu of fries, she handed Sedge the hot sauce for his scrambled eggs. When he gave it back, she passed him the salt and pepper. He then handed her a napkin to spread over her lap and squeezed ketchup on the side of her plate. It wasn’t until Valen opened a packet of marmalade for Sedge’s toast that she realized the others were staring at them.

“Wow,” Eric remarked, leaning back in his chair. “It’s like a watching a dance.”

Cal nodded. “How long have you two been dating?”

“Excuse me?” Valen felt her cheeks blaze with heat. It was then she realized her body was flush against Sedge’s; she quickly moved away.

Sedge cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in the booth. “We only got to know each other this weekend. We’re not dating.”

“Yeah, right.” Jess’ eyes twinkled with mischief. “Why hide it? Sedge ordered for you, and you’re opening his marmalade for him.”

Valen looked down at the half-open packet in her hand. She’d barely been conscious she was holding it. Unable to understand what she was doing, she realized Sedge had the same look of confusion on his face. He looked at the ketchup, the hot sauce, the napkin, and the food he had ordered for her without having asked.

“This is pretty strange,” he acknowledged slowly. “But we aren’t together.”

“Cool! So it’s a psychic connection!” Jess exclaimed with a flourish. “My sister always knows when I’m thinking about her and gives me a call.”

“My grandpa claims he can feel when my dead aunt is in the room with us,” Eric said. “Her old room door opens when he greets her. I’ve actually seen it happen.”

“You’re both idiots,” Cal said. “There’s no proof that any of that stuff exists. These two are just bad liars that have obviously been dating for a long time.”

Jess, Eric, and Cal launched into another debate, but Valen and Sedge were too stunned to join in.

I don’t believe in psychic phenomenon, either, Valen thought as Cal savagely defended his opinion. She looked over at Sedge who was deep in thought.

“You like marmalade?” She offered him the packet. He thanked her and took it. “How did you know what to order for me?”

He shrugged. “I just… did.”

“Everything just keeps getting weirder,” she said under her breath.

Unable to continue eating, she pushed her plate away. Eric pounced on it. Despite the continued unwelcome surprises, Valen laughed at his eagerness. When he looked longingly at her milkshake, she promised to let him have the last half. In truth, she was surprised she felt so calm.

It’s crazy, she thought, wishing she had an explanation. Why do I feel so safe with Sedge?

“I don’t think I could handle another minute in here,” Cal announced, stretching. “Care to hit the streets?” He had to buy something for his brother’s birthday, and a group of students majoring in music at the academy were supposed to play on the steps of the library. Having no intention of returning to her room, Valen agreed to come along. After everyone paid their bills, the group wandered outside.

The rest of the afternoon drifted along peacefully.

Valen allowed herself to bask in the interesting conversations while enjoying the warm spring sun on her face. She discovered that Jess and Eric had entered Southbrook Academy on scholarship. Jess was a gifted mathematician while Eric was a talented artist. Along with Cal, they were immersed in the student life and encouraged Valen to visit the art gallery, horse stables, theater, gardens, and to join a social club. Because she had been so focused on her goals the past three years, Valen had blinded herself to the stimulating environment that Southbrook Academy offered its students.

When she joked that all she needed was a quiet corner in the library, Jess made a face and promised to introduce her to Sport, her favourite horse in the stables.

Sedge and Valen spent the entire afternoon practically glued at the hip; it was a compulsion to stay close to each other. When the sun began to set, they watched the string quartet play on the library steps. Valen nearly leaned into him. When she looked down she saw how his fingers gravitated towards hers.

Eventually, she gave in and took his arm.

He stood a little taller and fixed her with a searching look. Content to surrender, Valen responded by putting her head on his shoulder. Her heart glowed with excitement and happiness when he didn’t shrug her off. With a deep sigh of satisfaction, she relaxed into him. There seemed little reason to fight the impulse when they both gained so much satisfaction from small acts of trust.

Basking in their growing intimacy, Valen barely felt the small tug from behind on her shirt. The safe little bubble around her popped and she turned to find Jess grinning ear to ear.

“Pretty awesome conquest, Valen,” she whispered. “Just thought I’d warn you: there’re about fifty people here from school that have taken photos of you guys together.”

Valen’s mouth fell open. “Why would they care?”

“The academy’s a small world.” She shrugged and gestured to Sedge. “He’s really popular! There are lots of people with their eye on him; it’s big news if he has a girlfriend.”

Sedge’s phone buzzed endlessly. He took it out from his pocket and tapped the screen a couple of times. A moment later, his eyes grew wide with astonishment. Glancing around the crowd, he noticed the other students from the academy, and his expression darkened.

“You mind if we head back?” he asked Valen. “I’m not in the mood for gossip.”

Annoyed with the unwanted attention, she readily agreed. Cal and Eric nodded their goodbyes and let Sedge know they would see him at practice in the morning. With a sympathetic smile, Jess took Valen’s number before they left.

The stirring notes of the quartet swelled into the chilly evening air. Once again, Valen took hold of Sedge’s hand as they escaped the crowd. A couple of girls giggled when they walked by, and Valen glowered in response to their intrusive stares. She honestly didn’t know how to define her relationship with Sedge, but it didn’t mean she wanted others doing it for her.

“I’m really sorry about that,” he confessed when they could no longer hear the music. Valen gave his hand a reassuring squeeze as he handed her his phone. “Pheelee and Fab gave me a heads up.”

She examined the dozens of pictures of them at the concert plastered on an academy-focused gossip site. One of their fellow students, Jay Campbell, was the mastermind behind the site. It was supposed to be an anonymous place where Southbrook students could reach each other in times of need, but Jay had quickly turned it into a garbage dump for rumours and bullying.

Beneath the first photo were some less-than-gratifying comments:

ok ummm… ew?

Dull Valen with Sedge?

is that boy CRAZY?!?!!! O_o jfc he could do way better!!!!!!!

She swallows. Just sayin’.

(*_*) Hey Sedge…... mind if i borrow her for 2 minutes…... lol

In under twenty minutes, there were already over fifty nasty and lewd comments.

“Anonymous idiots trying to impress other anonymous idiots,” Valen muttered. She grimaced in disgust as she handed Sedge’s phone back. “Can it get more pathetic?”

“Not really,” he replied. He gazed at her with silent concern. His phone buzzed a few more times, and he smiled as he looked at the screen. “Fab says she’s going to print something in the paper about cyber-bullying; Pheelee says she’s fighting with someone on the gossip site right now. And David wants to know if we’re okay.”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m really irritated,” Valen began. The past six months had been nothing but problem after problem. This latest incident was just the icing on the cake. Beyond exasperated, she felt that indomitable part of herself rising to the surface. “Why do these guys have to go out of their way to prove their own stupidity? Are they that bored? They’re only doing it because they can get away with it; that’s the worst part, you know. Their cowardice.”

Sedge nodded apologetically. “I honestly didn’t know anyone paid this much attention to my life.”

“Don’t feel badly about other people being morons. It doesn’t suit you.” Valen hated to acknowledge how deep the cruel comments had cut; they were just a small addition to everything out of her control. “You said you understood me when I said… I felt like I was going crazy. But…my phone isn’t the only thing from my past that has popped up recently.”

They stopped walking.

The air was thick with tension, and yet again Valen found she couldn’t meet his eyes. She knew he was waiting for her to continue, but she wasn’t sure she could finish her confession.

Perhaps she had already said too much.

But Sedge made it easier for her. “About two months before I transferred to Southbrook, I started having... visions. If I’m even allowed to call them that; some might call them hallucinations. To me, it was very real, and very terrifying.”

Valen finally allowed herself to meet Sedge’s evocative gaze. Her long-suppressed emotions surged forward, searching madly for safe harbour in Sedge’s words.

“There were days when nothing would happen,” he continued. “I would forget, and life just kept moving. But then something--a word, a touch, a smell--would launch me right back in. I was lucky to never really show many signs of what was happening in my head. Only my mom suspected.”

“What was happening?” Valen held his hand tightly, imploring him to solve the riddle for her. “Did it ever make sense?”

He seemed to look right through her for a moment.

Then he blinked a few times. In the span of a heartbeat, his usually laidback character transformed, leaving an almost sinister counterpart. Pinning her with a dark look, he pulled her closer. She did not resist. Ophelia had spoken of Sedge’s sudden mood changes, how he quickly moved from carefree to complicated.

Despite the ominous look in his eyes, Valen still felt safe.

“Just like you, I don’t like to talk about it much.”

“You brought it up,” she countered in a near whisper. She held his gaze, daring him to answer her question. “Are you still trying to understand what’s happening to you?”

“I came to Southbrook Academy to figure it out.”

Valen stiffened at his words. She never expected his answer to strike such a profound chord.

He looked down at their joined hands, his expression softening. “I haven’t decided if I made the right move yet.”

“What did you think you’d find?” She was almost afraid to ask, but her curiosity was stronger than her misgivings. “What led you here?”

She leaned in further, earnestly imploring him to trust her. She would let him in and tell him her own story if he would only lead the way. As they studied each other in the chilly, night air, he almost looked like he might answer.

But with a ring of his phone, the moment was lost.

They both turned away. The night air was making them shiver, so they started walking towards home again.

Valen shook her head in confusion. What am I doing? I barely know him, why do I want to confide in him?

Sedge smiled lightly at his phone’s bright screen. Swiping his thumb across its surface, he brought it to his ear.

Brilliant timing, Mom.” He listened intently. “...You’re right. If I don’t want calls I should just turn the phone off. I didn’t mean I wasn’t happy to hear from you.”

Sedge’s smile grew as he continued to speak with his mother. They were obviously good friends.

Whereas my crappy parents haven’t called me in months, she thought. One obligatory phone call after I move and then…nothing.

The worst part was she hadn’t even questioned the neglect. Watching Sedge react wholeheartedly to his mother’s call made her realize how different they really were. Dismayed, she looked down at their hands, still clasped together in unspoken affection. Sedge must have noticed the expression on her face, because his tone changed.

“Listen. Can I call you back? I’m sorta in the middle of something.” He listened again and laughed. “Yes, it does involve a girl, but that’s all you’re getting.”

Valen felt herself blushing, suddenly grateful for the darkness. When Sedge hung up, she offered him an awkward smile. She wasn’t sure she wanted to sort out whatever was happening between them at this exact moment.

“I don’t think my mom and I have ever had a meaningful conversation,” she said, searching for a distraction. “What’s your secret?”

“I don’t know.” Sedge shrugged. “Just lucky, I guess. I used to hate my parents, but things changed. Your mom not easy to get along with?”

She burst into bitter laughter. “That’s an understatement. I’m pretty sure she and my dad forgot I existed a few days after I left their house. They haven’t called or seen me since I moved out.”

“Wow.” Sedge shook his head in bewilderment. “Not once?”

“They got a hold of me to let me know I had forgotten a few things.” Valen had thought she was done feeling the pain, but it slowly resurfaced. She took a deep breath. “I’m just going to sort it all out with a therapist once I’ve become super wealthy and important.”

He grinned. “You know, I actually believe you when you say that. I guess you’ve been taking care of yourself for a long time.”

“I’m not the only one in the world with parent issues,” she said. “I don’t want to dwell on it until I have to.”

“You know why Ophelia is working so hard to get her grades up?”

“She didn’t specify.”

“Her parents will only let her go to medical school if she makes the top three in academics. They’ve got her life completely planned out for her.”

Valen was truly confused. “What’s wrong with becoming a doctor?”

“It doesn’t fit with their image. Fab has nearly the same problem. She isn’t taking off to Iceland because she wants to. Her grandmother lives there and is insisting her only granddaughter come learn how to be a ’lady.’ She can bring down companies with a phone call, so her parents are making Fab go. She’ll have to stay for three years.”

“Like a sort of sacrificial princess?” Valen hated the thought of dramatic, energetic, inquisitive Fabiola being caged for so long. “It’s like a modern-day version of a family giving a maiden to a dragon to stop it from burning the village.”

“That’s a good way to put it,” Sedge replied earnestly, “and probably exactly how she feels. Thankfully, my family isn’t old money like theirs; we aren’t anywhere near the high society page. There aren’t as many expectations.”

“I suddenly feel like I have it easy,” Valen admitted. She was reeling from everything Sedge had told her. “No pressure…except for what I do to myself.”

“Absent parents are just as harsh.” Sedge’s mood had grown dark again, as if he understood her situation entirely. “Feel free to be as messed up as you need to be.”

They were approaching their home. Sedge released her hand before they reached the front door; their landlady had been explicit with relationships in the lease. His mood didn’t lighten as they entered the old, creaking mansion.

“If you still want me to answer your questions about my visions,” Sedge said before they parted ways in the hallway, “we can continue tomorrow. Mind if I walk with you to the bus stop?”

Valen contemplated his offer. Before everything had been turned upside-down, she would have walked with Ivan. He would have climbed through her bedroom window and camped out on her bed until it was time to go. With an intuitive shiver, Valen wondered if those days were over.

How would Ivan feel when he was released from the hospital? Would he think she had replaced him, or would he accept that Sedge was a part of her life? No matter the case, she had to speak with him. Maybe she could head out to the hospital for a visit. But even if Ivan was concerned about the change, Valen knew she wanted Sedge in her life.

She would have to sort it out when the time came.

“That would be nice,” she finally answered. “But I can’t wait if you aren’t ready.”

An amused smile spread across his face. “I’ll make sure I’m up. See you in the morning.”

He turned to go upstairs, Valen continued on to her room. As she made to insert the key in the flimsy lock, she realized her door was open and the lights were on. In her rush to Sedge’s room earlier, it hadn’t occurred to her to lock up. Proceeding with caution, she entered the room and realized someone was stretched out on her bed.

“Aiko?” Confused, she stepped toward the figure. As though waking from a trance, Ivan opened his eyes and slowly turned toward her. “Oh my god, you’re back!”

Seeing her friend lying on her bed—rumpled and relaxed like he had been before his sickness—made the trials of the past few weeks melt away. Soaring with happiness, Valen nearly jumped onto the bed with him. She wanted to be enveloped in his arms, to press her face against his chest, and forget the past few weeks had ever happened.

His suspicious glare, however, glued her feet to the floor.

“What have you been up to this weekend?” Ivan held up his phone, showcasing a picture of Sedge holding her hand as they walked through the downtown crowd. He shot her a nasty look. “Make any new friends?”

His resentful tone made Valen bristle. “Why ask the question if you think you already know the answer?”

“I take it a lot of things happened at the retreat.” Ivan’s lips curled in distaste. “I’ve been texting you ever since they let me out of the hospital two days ago; looks like you were too busy to bother reading them.”

Valen glanced at her phone charging on her bedside table. She’d been so preoccupied with mentally preparing to find a therapist she hadn’t touched her phone. A guilty flush crept across her face; she hadn’t even thought to check on Ivan until a few moments ago.

She was a terrible friend.

“I’m sorry…” Valen crossed her arms over her stomach and chewed on her bottom lip. “You’re right. A lot happened in the past few days.”

Ivan immediately softened when she apologized. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he studied her as though he was seeing her for the first time in months.

Unnerved at his ravenous stare, Valen shifted from one foot to the other. His gaze felt too intimate; it bordered on sensual. She took a step backward, toward her closet, and flinched when he got to his feet. She wasn’t quite sure how, but he seemed to take up more space than before. As he approached her, he took large, powerful steps—a far cry from the light-footed, nervous movements that had previously defined his walk.

Every nerve in Valen’s body told her to run, but her loyalty overruled her instincts. This was Ivan, her confidant and her friend. He wouldn’t hurt her.

He was barely a foot away when she put her hand up and asked him to stop with her eyes. When he did, she smiled in relief. Relaxing a little, she caught and held his questioning gaze. What did he expect from her?

He took her hand and examined her raw fingertips with deep concern. “What’ve you been doing to yourself?”

Valen shook her head, unable to reply. In truth, she hadn’t chewed them since she and Sedge had gotten closer, but she couldn’t tell him that. Uncomfortable with the way he was lovingly holding her fingers, she fought the urge to pull her hand away.

There was a quiet knock on her door. She hadn’t closed it, so it gently swung open. When Sedge sauntered in, holding her obsolete phone in his hand, his eyes glimmered with curiosity. He looked first to her and then to Ivan before landing on her again.

A smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes spread over his face. “Everything okay, Valen?”

Ivan shot him a menacing look. “What are you doing here?”

“Just returning something,” Sedge replied. He held up the phone and tossed it on the bed. Still smiling, he faced Valen’s guest and squared his shoulders, making it clear he wasn’t leaving. “You’re Ivan, right? We’ve never actually met.”

“Does it matter?”

Mouth dropping open in shock, Valen shook her head in disbelief. “Aiko…are you sure you should be out of the hospital?”

“They discharged me,” Ivan replied, though he was glaring at Sedge. His unblinking, predatory stare made Valen’s skin prickle with goosebumps. “They have no idea what happened and they’ll never know, but I’m perfectly healthy.”

“Okay.” Tears of frustration gathered in Valen’s eyes. “It’s good they haven’t found anything to be concerned about...”

The tension in the room rose steadily, but she wasn’t sure how to lighten the mood. In the heavy silence, Sedge and Ivan sized each other up as though they had a long-standing enmity. Yet again, Valen found herself questioning what she was seeing. She knew they’d never had a conversation before tonight; Ivan would have told her if he had a problem with anyone.

“You’re here,” Ivan finally said. His mouth twisted into a wicked smile. Dropping Valen’s hand, he pushed his sleeves up to his elbows as though preparing for a fight. The rash that had heralded his sickness was nearly gone but had left a faint imprint. “How convenient; you’ve saved me the trouble of hunting you down.”

“Aiko, what is the matter with you?” Valen couldn’t watch any longer. Stepping between them, she shot Sedge a confused look before facing her best friend. “What are you talking about? Hunting? Are you listening to yourself?”

“Your new friend here knows exactly what I’m talking about.” He nodded at Sedge before taking a threatening step toward him. “You can’t trust him.”

“What is going on?” Agitated, Valen put her hands on Ivan’s chest, preventing him from moving any further. She had never seen him so aggressive. “Stop it! Sedge has been living here for over three months and you’ve barely glanced at each other. What could he have possibly done in the last few days to make you so angry? And don’t tell me this is because of a few photos people posted on a crappy student rumour site.”

Her words fell on deaf ears; neither looked away from the other. Valen could only assume Sedge was holding his ground because he was silent behind her. Looking up at her close friend’s hostile expression, she felt her heart break. It didn’t matter what the doctors said; the sickness had changed his brain, and the mild young man she had once known was gone.

There wasn’t the smallest trace of her Aiko anymore.

“You need to go,” she whispered. His dismissal finally brought Ivan’s gaze back to her. Tears threatened to spill down Valen’s cheeks. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know you anymore.”

His bewildered expression cut her to the quick. He looked so lost and vulnerable. As though reeling from a physical blow, he took a step back.

“I’ll figure this out,” he vowed, his brow knit with determination. He reached out a hand, but a moment later, his arm dropped in defeat. “But you have to stay away from Sedge, okay? Until I figure out how to undo everything, just…don’t trust either of us.”

He glanced at Sedge again, this time with a look of such distrust that Valen felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Before she could ask him what he meant, Ivan opened her window and carefully slipped outside. With a final earnest look, he disappeared into the night.

Wiping the tears from her face Valen turned back towards Sedge. He looked puzzled.

“I honestly have no idea what he was talking about,” he claimed.

“He’s just confused,” Valen explained. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she picked up her phone. “Please, don’t take it personally. The sickness must have rewired his mind…maybe. I should call his mom.”

“Hey, just take a moment,” Sedge encouraged. Sitting on her bed, he motioned for her to join him. “It’s okay to be upset.”

His compassionate words brought tears to Valen’s eyes. With a small whimper, she leaned into his warmth. A gentle embrace enveloped her, and she lost herself in her sorrow. She honestly didn’t think she could cope anymore. What had happened to Ivan? What was happening to her? Everything was falling apart, and she felt like she was the one to blame.

When her body stopped shaking, Sedge brushed her hair away from her face. The tenderness of the gesture made her lean into his hand. His face was so close to hers, his fingers resting lightly on her cheek; yet again, she marvelled at how close they had become in such a short amount of time. A sudden wave of exhaustion hit her, and keeping her eyes open was too difficult a chore.

Sedge smiled at her fluttering eyelids. “Get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

Valen nodded as he stood. Turning over to face the wall, she listened to the sound of him checking her window was locked before he turned off the lights and left her room. His footsteps faded down the hallway, and she was alone.

Just for tonight, she decided, I’ll give in to the bizarre.

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