“Oh, that’s an old paper.” Brendan began. “Not one from Aiden’s collection, is it?” He approached me in the corridor, smiling faintly, gesturing towards the newspaper I was still clutching in my hand.
“Is it that obvious?” I raised an eyebrow.
Returning his hands to his pockets, Brendan exhaled heavily. He seemed stressed. “The guy has a grudge against me for some reason. He’s seen me hanging around a couple of his friends and hates it. He didn’t say anything too bad about me, did he?”
I shook my head. “Just some weird conspiracy theories that I don’t intend to take seriously.” Just the implication that Brendan might be involved in organised crime was laughable. “Anyway, don’t you have lessons to go to?”
“Yeah, I’m in your history class.” He joined my side, “And you’re going the wrong way.” He turned me around and pointed to the sign reading ‘Humanities’.
I nodded, as if I’d known that all along. “How do you know what class I’m in?”
“You’ve been walking around holding your timetable in front of your face most of the time. It was hard not to read it.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Well, maybe if someone had told me where classroom E5 was…” Brendan tried to laugh, but he seemed upset. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.
“I’m sorry for being weird and unapproachable.” He began. “I tend to keep people at a distance because I have a habit of lashing out and messing things up.” Seeing the smile fall from my face, he frowned. “And now I’ve darkened the tone, haven’t I?”
“No, not at all…” I trailed off. I’d only been surprised because I understood exactly what he meant. After what had happened at home, there had been times when I’d been tempted to do the same. I’d wondered if it would be easier if I didn’t have friends – that way, there was no risk of me hurting them. “Does that make me the first person you’ve properly spoken to in a while?”
“Pretty much.” He admitted, “I don’t even have a roommate now. Mostly I just sit in my dorm and, I dunno, read mostly.”
“Read?” My attention piqued. “What sort of books?”
Brendan laughed. “I would try to impress you with my knowledge of classical literature, but maybe I should just admit now that I’m nothing more a massive fantasy geek.”
“Thank goodness for that, the only famous stuff I’ve read is what we’ve studied in English. We should exchange books sometime.” I was about to plunge into a discussion about Lord of the Rings and Discworld, when our conversation was interrupted.
“Are you two joined at the hip?” Bridget’s voice sliced through the noise of the crowd.
Brendan tensed up and stopped. “Is it really your concern?” He asked, turning his head to where Bridget leant against the wall, Alice standing at her side.
Here they go again, I thought.
“I don’t know what your game is, but you don’t give a damn about anyone except for yourself.” Bridget moved in close. Their bodies became statues and their eyes locked. Tension radiated from them both, so strongly that I could almost taste it. “Don’t trust him, Jet.”
Her warning was so ridiculous that I laughed. “Considering how little trust you have in me, I think it’s fair that I take Brendan’s word over yours.”
In a frighteningly stern voice, Alice interrupted. “I think it’s about time that we all went to class.” She reached over, and gently rested her hand on Bridget’s arm. Bridget flinched. She held her stare with Brendan for a few more moments, before cursing under her breath and walking away.
When Brendan left in the direction of our classroom, I followed. Alice whispered something in my ear as we crossed paths. “There’s sense in what Bridget said.” She warned. “Brendan is not to be trusted. He is bad news. Although he’s not a danger alone, he’s loyal to the wrong people. You will save yourself a lot of pain if you stay well away from him.”
I was silent for a moment, thinking. Quiet settled as the corridors emptied.
“If Brendan’s a bad person, I need to find that out for myself. So far, he’s the only person who’s been open and honest with me, and I can’t ignore that. I won’t stay away from him just because you ask me to.” to
Sensing that I couldn’t be persuaded, Alice wilted with disappointment. “Alright.” She resigned. “But, if you ever do get in trouble, don’t be afraid to come and talk to us about it.”
I didn’t really see why she thought I would go to them with a problem, when she and Bridget refused to come to me. Friendship was a two-way street, after all.
It was during my last lesson that my good mood ebbed away and the uneasy feeling began. Beginning as a small feeling of unrest in the pit of my stomach, it nagged at the edge of my mind. I could feel the stress crawling through my body, tensing my limbs.
I sat alone. I persevered with the work I’d been set, ignoring the classroom of strangers that surrounded me. Drumming my fingers, I waited impatiently for the lesson to end. The hands on the clock seemed to slow the more I looked at them. As I struggled to concentrate on his words, the teacher’s voice became monotone background noise inside my head.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the sky outside darken a little. It was late October now, and I assumed that it was because winter was approaching, and the days were getting shorter. Then, I reconsidered. It wasn’t even three in the afternoon. The sky shouldn’t have shown any signs of changing until four. Maybe the sun had gone in, but I found myself doubtful. With these overcast skies, the sun had been behind clouds all day. My gut began to churn a little, and I felt unexplainably nervous. Fiddling with my pencil, I frowned, distracted by the strangeness.
Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by a presence. Someone was outside. Someone was everywhere. I gasped, and the pair sitting on the row in front turned around to stare at me.
I felt the stranger outside restricting my airways and suffocating me. I could hardly breathe from the pressure, the force pressing down on my lungs. My entire body went cold, as if my blood had stopped flowing. Throbbing in my ears, my heart rate picked up pace, beating harder and faster. My hands became clammy and heavy, as if someone had tied weights to them. I felt my eyelids shutting and fought to keep them open. What vision I had was blurry and grey. The world span around me. Limbs became unresponsive, hanging numb by my sides. My head span, swirling round and losing all sense of direction.
My two classmates went back to facing forward, ignoring my strange behaviour. Nobody else had noticed. Everyone carried on their work, seemingly unaffected. I couldn’t understand how they could just sit and bear something like this. Did they not know? Could they not feel it?
I forced my paralysed legs to move, and I stood, shakily and unsteadily. I kept my hands firmly on the table, supporting my weight. I turned slowly, craning my stiff neck towards the window.
Someone was there. A tall, slender figure, leaning against a tree in the corner of the grounds. His head was turned to the sky, as if he was marvelling what lay above him. His knees were bent, and he leaned over to one side slightly, making his body look crooked and lop-sided. Dangling arms were suspended from his sloping shoulders, covered by a long coat that spilled out below his knees. Dark brown hair fell choppily over his face in layers, and some strands stuck out at strange angles. His face was unclear from this distance, but in my head I could feel the twisted grin spread across his face. His silent laughs echoed in my ears. My temples throbbed, fear freezing my heart and hammering the inside of my skull.
“Jet, why are you standing up?” I was pulled from my trance. I blinked a few times as I found myself back in reality. For a moment, I allowed myself to think that everything had just been a figment of my imagination. I breathed out slowly, relaxing. Everyone was looking.
Shakily, I sat back down. I hadn’t escaped it. The presence still gnawed at the back of my mind. As I took my seat, I thought I saw someone run from the building; but with the teacher’s eyes on me I didn’t dare to look back.
Sitting at a table alone, Bridget toyed with her pen, sending it spinning back and forth as she caught it between her fingers. She looked up sleepily towards her maths teacher, waiting impatiently for him to move on and teach something a little more challenging. Glancing around, she watched her classmates working diligently, while she sat there, having finished the work ten minutes ago.
That was the moment that she became aware of whispers from behind her. They were probably talking about nothing of interest, but she was bored and there weren’t any other forms of entertainment available. Slowly and subtly, she leant back on her chair, moving into hearing range so she could listen in on their conversation.
“Have you seen that guy hanging around outside?” A boy murmured into the ear of his partner. “He’s creepy as hell.”
His partner giggled, before covering her mouth to avoid attracting attention to herself. “I don’t think they let random people through the gates. Are you sure he doesn’t work here?” She asked.
“No idea. I really don’t like the look of him.” Bridget’s found herself sneaking a glance out of the window to see who they were talking about.
Immediately, she recognised the face; although she wished she hadn’t. A coldness in her insides sent shivers through her body. Icy rage tightened around her chest.
“No way.” She snarled, under her breath, feeling her frustration rising. She clenched her shaking fists. It was certainly no surprise that he’d manage to slither his way onto school grounds- the question was why.
Slamming one hand on the table, Bridget pushed herself up and ran from the room, closing the door behind her before the teacher could utter a word, leaving her bag and belongings on the desk. She skidded around the corner, following the corridor.
The door snapped shut behind her, as Bridget stepped out into the open air.
Spotting her arrival, Red rubbed his hands together in delight like she was some sort of light entertainment. She despised the fact that he could patronize her like he did, before even saying a word.
Outside, the only thing that separated them was the open field, stretching from the school buildings to the trees that lined the edge of the grounds. Bridget was suddenly overcome with the need to keep her distance. She approached cautiously, glaring. By coming here, he had overstepped a line. She would make sure he wouldn’t get away with it.
“Two questions. First, what are you doing here?” Bridget shouted above the sound of the wind. Stopping a few feet away from him, she held her chin in the air and stared him down. “And secondly, how many Treaty terms do you intend to break?”
“Oh, don’t be such a worrier, Bridget…” His voice was thick and sickly. “I’m just sightseeing.” He grinned, satisfied by his choice of words.
It was proving difficult to ignore the voice in the back of her mind, telling her she was way out of her depth. How could one man provoke such fear in her? “You’ve not gone unnoticed. You can’t just turn up on school grounds and walk around as you please. It’s trespassing.” She could barely believe his nerve. An adult, of his kind, walking openly onto the grounds of a school; a school where peace could be shattered at any moment. The smallest of triggers could send the whole system into chaos. He didn’t have a viable reason to take such a risk.
“Oh, please,” He smirked to himself, “If it was anyone else but me, you would leave them to their own devices. You need to let go of your grudge, Bridget. It’s unhealthy.”
Bridget stared at him in disbelief, barely containing her anger. “Are you, of all people, seriously trying to give me a lecture about having a healthy mind?” His only association with this place was Brendan’s mentorship. He was a serious threat, and as one of the highest authorities in this school, she had to make him go. “Leave. Right now.” She demanded.
“No thanks.” He laughed. “What do you intend to do? You know who I am, Bridget, we’ve met before, if only briefly. And, after your training, you can’t deny that you know the extent of my power. The amount of papers your organisation has filed on me is almost flattering. You should know that you won’t be able to do so much as raise a finger against me.”
“I don’t know, I’m full of surprises.” Bridget grinned, but she knew it was a ridiculous bluff.
“I’m sure you are.” He looked at her in mock pity. “But, I really don’t think that’s going to be enough.” Red took a step forward and closed the distance between the two of them in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, he was only a few inches away from her. Claustrophobia closed in. Red’s close proximity made the breath catch in Bridget’s throat. She focused on inhaling and exhaling, trying to stop herself from panicking. Just looking at him made her want to get out. Run away. Return to the safety of the school. Strength and determination scattered as she reached for it. She felt her confidence slowly begin to dissolve. “Are you sure you want to start a fight?” He asked her. “Think sensibly. You’re moderately intelligent. I could kill you, right here, right now. Are you sure you want to throw away your life like that?”
Bridget felt herself shrinking before him. Her shoulders slumped, and her head turned to the floor.
What was happening to her? In a few brief seconds, Red had completely demoralized her. She was giving up. Backing down. Where had all the anger, all the resolve she had arrived with disappeared to? Her teeth mashed down on her lip in frustration, and she forced back tears. She couldn’t afford to make herself look even more pathetic.
“I didn’t think so.” He squeezed her shoulder in pretend sympathy. She flinched as the pressure of his fingertips sent pain flickering down her arms. “Back to school then?” He suggested, failing to hide the victorious tone in his voice.
Defeat dragging her down, Bridget stumbled away. She turned her head over her shoulder, to look back at him.
“This isn’t over.” She had intended to sound strong and resilient, but as she spoke her voice cracked.
“On the contrary, Miss Wilde- I think this is very much over.” He waved her away, before walking off in the direction of another block of classrooms.
"One day, Red…” She raised her voice again and Red looked disinterestedly back over his shoulder. “One day, someone will bring you down. It might be me, or it might be someone else entirely – but, let me promise you, we will find somebody strong enough." She hissed.
"Goodbye, Bridget." He replied, simply.
When the person in the grounds disappeared, the end of the day arrived quickly, and I decided to push the whole issue to the back of my mind. I had no idea who the man was, or where he went. I couldn’t explain why I reacted the way I did, but I didn’t really want to think about it right now. It was finally Friday, and the weekend certainly wasn’t time to be worrying about things like that.
As I ventured up the corridor towards my dorm, with every intention of making peace with Bridget and Alice, I was overcome with the feeling that something was wrong. I approached the door, and listened for a moment. The room strangely silent. Lightly, I tested the handle, and found it unlocked. Someone was definitely inside. Tentatively, I opened door and peered in. The lights were dim, and the window was open slightly. A chilling winter draft swirled through the room.
“Are you not cold?” I asked, turning to where Bridget sat in the middle of the floor, hurriedly pulling on her boots and tightening the laces. She gave me no reply.
I sighed, heavily. Looked like I wasn’t getting anything out of her this evening. Turning the dimmer switch slightly, I brightened the light, before walking around to the window. I pulled it shut, and closed the latch, shutting out the biting winter air. I refused to sit here in sub-zero temperatures.
Bridget stood soundlessly, and pushed past me towards a chest of drawers at the side of the room. She pulled out one of the drawers slowly, and lifted a white canvas jacket from inside. She threw it over her shoulders, and zipped it. Printed across the back was a strange symbol; a circle that spanned her shoulders, with a winged arrow in the centre. I wondered if it was some sort of fashionable brand here in Bellona.
Opening up my school bag, I found the reams of worksheets and mock exam questions I’d been given. Starting the syllabus a month later than everyone else had turned out to be a real issue, and I had a lot of catching up to do. Plus, there were still all the baseline tests that I had to pass.
“Is there somewhere quiet in this school where I can get all my work done?” I asked, not really expecting to get an answer from Bridget.
She looked back at me blankly. “There’s a library just beyond the English classrooms.”
“Thanks.” Picking up the papers, a pencil case, my phone, and my headphones in case I needed a little motivational music, I headed for the door.
“Jet.” Bridget stopped me. “Outside of lessons, I’m not going to be at school much over the next few weeks. Thought I should let you know.”
“Uh… okay.” It seemed odd that she would feel obliged to tell me any of her business. “Where are you going?” I asked, as Bridget gathered her keys and various other belongings and shoved them into her pockets.
She hesitated for a moment, as if trying to decide how much she should tell me. “I want to devote more time to my combat training. There’s somewhere with facilities open all hours, and I’m going to ask if I can take advantage of that.”
“Why do you need to train more than you already do? You’re strong enough as it is…” I mused.
Bridget laughed dryly, shaking her head. “There are people out there that even I can’t hold a torch to. There’s only one way to protect what is dear to you, and that’s to be stronger than everyone else. Which I’m not. Not yet.”
I had no idea where this was all coming from. Not only was this the first time that Bridget had spoken to me like a human being, but it might’ve been the first time I’d heard something resembling her laugh. For whatever reason, she wasn’t acting like her usual self. Everything about her attitude was wrong and I didn’t know what to make of it. “Who on Earth can you not hold a torch to?” It made me wonder if she’d been threatened by somebody, or worse.
“Look after Alice while I’m gone, won’t you?” She continued, ignoring my question. “I’ll be at Genesis Heart for a few hours every day, but I don’t want her to get into any trouble without me there to back her up.”
I smiled, faintly, but I didn’t really see how someone as helpless as me could protect someone as capable as Alice.
“Who am I kidding?” Bridget began again, as if she’d heard my thoughts. “Alice can take care of herself.” Bridget smiled, but it failed to reach her eyes; eyes that were nothing more than solid emerald, hard as stone, hiding what lay beneath. I couldn’t even begin to guess what she was thinking.
Bridget’s head flicked towards the front of the room. Her eyes locked on the door, and she frowned. “Shit,” She muttered, a hint of sarcasm to her voice. “There’s a terrible stench in here. Someone must have left some garbage outside, feel like clearing it up?”
“Some garbage?” I asked, confused, but Bridget only nodded in the direction of the entrance. Cautiously, I pushed open the door and looked out, to find Brendan waiting in the corridor, hand poised to knock.
“Hey.” He lowered his hand and I noticed the pile of books under his free arm. “Are you busy?” He spoke to me, but his eyes were fixed on where Bridget stood, listening from behind. The two of them froze still for a moment, exchanging dark glares.
“Don’t worry.” Bridget interrupted. “I’m on my way out.” She weaved her way around us both, making sure to give Brendan a wide birth. She disappeared towards the stairs.
Brendan made sure she was out of earshot, before turning his attention to me. “Since we were talking about reading, I brought some stuff from my dorm.”
“Oh, that’s really sweet. Thank you.” When I’d suggested that we should exchange books, I hadn’t expected him to take me seriously. I really wasn’t used to people doing nice things for me these days. “I was thinking of heading to the library, actually,” I added, gesturing to the work in my hand. “Want to come along and talk books?”
He nodded, enthusiastically. “Sure thing.”