Chapter 15: Cross fire
Monday put a spring to my step that surprised even me. It might be the fact that I finished all my over-the-weekend homework perfectly.
Nah, who was I kidding? I always did my over-the-weekend homework a hundred percent perfectly but I never felt a lightness like this ever before. There was even a slight smile on my face as I entered the main lobby.
I never got to analyze more this strange giddiness in my chest as a cold breeze followed me in, making me freeze in my tracks. I knew it. This was all too good to be true. I could feel it in my bones that something bad was going to happen.
It was then that I heard it.
Yells and screams and clangs of metal. The lockers.
For some reason, I ignored common sense and ran towards the lockers-filled hallway instead of rerouting my path to get to class ASAP.
It was the girls who were screaming. The boys were hollering and clearly enjoying whatever it was in the center. A fight?
Somehow, that idea made me shiver and cringe.
It seemed like I was right judging from the terrible things the boys were yelling. Girls were crying and hugging each other. Leo McKiernan was gathering bets. He caught me staring at him, and before I could look away, he smirked at me and saluted.
Loud, shrill blasts of a couple of whistles shut up the whole hallway, and I felt myself being thrown to different directions as the people scrambled away from the scene. I struggled to stay upright and push through to get a glimpse of...
My heart skipped a beat and I let out a gasp as the crowd parted to reveal two tangled mass of bodies on the floor.
I knew it.
Well, technically, I didn't. But I... sort of did. Ugh. This was so hard to explain.
That familiar burning, flash of anger in James' dark blue eyes was directed at Cedric, whose massive arm had James' head in a headlock. I couldn't tell if my heart had stopped or if it went on super hyperdrive.
"Damn you, Weston!" James sputtered and gritted his teeth as he tried to free himself.
Cedric chortled. His lips were torn and bloodied. The bruises he had received from last week still hadn't healed and he had already added a bit more today! He raised a fist to beat down on James' red face.
A scream got stuck in my throat just as the whole Phys. Ed. Department lunged down at them and stopped further attempts to inflict injury.
I was gaping at the empty spot on the floor where they fought, until someone tugged my wrist and eventually pulled me away. It took a moment for me to look, and almost choked when I did. Boy, this day sure had a lot of surprises.
"Snap out of it, you idiot," Liz hissed at me. "You almost blew your chance at Harvard right there and then!"
The shock flowed slower than usual. I could only nod without fully processing her words. It took more than a while before I shrieked, "What do you mean I almost blew my chance at Harvard?"
But Liz was already gone.
And I was already in the middle of first period.
"Claire," Mr. Gray sighed exasperatedly, "solve the problem on the board please."
I sighed. At least it wasn't detention.
"Liz," I called out to her at the end of first period.
My roommate swished her long, shiny red hair as she turned to me. Her eyebrows quirked, and her eyes narrowed.
I winced and took a step back. Great, she didn't want to discuss anything with me in public. I had so many questions that my head felt like it was either going to explode or split into two. It now looked like I'll get zero explanations unless I approach either James or Cedric. I wasn't very willing to take on that option just yet.
She rolled her eyes and turned back to Tamara Jones and continued talking about their weekend hook-ups while sauntering away.
The whispers around me were becoming unbearable, and I itched from all the stares and glares. As usual, I was the last to know about some crucial bit of information. I turned around to make eye contact on these people who think they could just make me uncomfortable on a whim. As expected, they all ducked and turned back to their businesses (or at least pretended to). And then I spotted Colin shoving books in his locker.
No harm in trying.
"Colin," I breathed out.
Colin jumped and stared at me with wide eyes. "Claire!"
"You have to help—"
I was cut off by the sound of the bell for second period. Damn it.
"Sorry, Claire," Colin said as he slammed his locker shut. I held back feelings of disappointment.
"Stay away from James and Cedric," he urgently whispered as he walked past me. He looked back at me and discreetly shot an apologetic smile.
I sighed and rushed to my own class.
I followed Colin's advice and evaded James and Cedric. It wasn't that hard. It looked as if they did not want to be near me either. I knew it was a bit thick of me to think that I was the reason behind this morning's incident, but I couldn't help it. James had already attacked Cedric last Friday. Before that, Cedric had used me to provoke James.
I thought everything had been cool and settled. I feared I was wrong.
Of course, it didn't help that everyone made me feel as if I were a culprit.
I slowly munched my tuna turnover as I mulled over this issue. I swallowed just as the door of the comfort room swung open. The clacking of heels told me there were about three girls who entered. Goosebumps erupted on my skin when I heard the sharp click of the lock on the door.
I had hung an "Out of Order" sign on the door of this cubicle I was staying in. I should be safe.
"It's probably not the girl," I heard one of them say. I held back a groan. Cassie Parker.
"I agree. We saw the news raving over the Weston deal. They jumped to number one all of a sudden."
So it was business-related.
"Everyone knows that the rankings are fickle. Like a see-saw," I heard Serena Fitzgerald say. "But they've never physically fought over that. No, never. I'm sure of this."
Yeah. An obsessive stalker like her would have the data to support that claim. My admiration for Cedric never went that far, I realized. I never went through his life. Or his issues. I knew nothing except that my heart would skip a beat whenever he passed me by.
James' and Cedric's interactions with each other before I became "involved" with both of them were something I never cared about.
"They never fought about that directly. But everyone knows they tend to find a reason to fight with each other when the rankings switch. It's a long shot, yeah, but it does happen," argued Cassie.
"Or maybe it's because of homecoming," Dana Butler suggested.
Silence followed that, curiously. The tension in the comfort room rose to astronomical levels for some reason.
What the hell is it with homecoming? James hinted something before, when we talked in his car last Saturday.
Then Cassie spoke up, breaking it.
"Liz Hastings said—"
"Liz Hastings," Serena interrupted harshly, "has questionable loyalties. Things would have been easier if she allowed the Miller girl to get dragged in with the fight this morning."
Remind me to let Liz copy my chemistry homework later.
"She's being fresh with both Cedric and James. Kind only to the girl when they're around."
"A turncoat. We cut all ties with Liz Hastings. We're loyal to James no matter what."
The rest murmured their assent.
"The rest of the people are getting divided now, though."
All of them sighed.
It was true. People were calling this the war of the century. The wannabe gangsters thought it a version of Bloods versus Crips. The techies likened it to the Microsoft-Apple rivalry. More accurate perhaps, the "nerds" pegged it as Dreyson's version of the War of the Roses.
You see, an issue like this was different from ones usually encountered in normal high schools. I understood the fact that the outcome of Weston's and Sterling's war would impact not just the social hierarchy at Dreyson, but family relations as well. Literally, my classmates' futures depended on who they sided with. It was not mere teenage over exaggeration. It was a fact of their lives.
"Assholes, the lot of them. They don't know the meaning of gratitude. What has Cedric Weston done for them?"
"Well, to be fair, he was the one who made school rules a bit more relaxed—"
"Dana!" They chorused in anger.
"Three fan clubs for Weston have risen. Three against three. We know the delinquents are always the first to go. Are your ladies loyal?"
Nobody made a sound for a moment. Then they all sighed.
"They must be punished."
"True," Cassie sighed. "Nobody gets out just like that."
The three girls murmured some more gossip and shared tips to punish their minions who have "turned." Meanwhile, I pondered my situation silently as I munched on my turnover.
I could now see why Colin would not want me to be near either Sterling or Weston. People would think that I had chosen a side if I were spotted with either of them. And that would be bad for me if war was indeed going to erupt.
The door shut close, as the girls finally exited. I finished my lunch and prepared to do some advance reading for AP Government when suddenly, my phone vibrated.
"Hello," I answered, as I grappled with the heavy book I was holding.
"Hey. Where are you?"
My blood froze.
"Cedric?" I whispered. No use. My voice bounced inside the empty comfort room. I might as well have screamed. It would be dangerous if someone came in now.
"Come over to the music room."
Red flag. "Why?"
"I want to hang out with a friend." I could totally imagine him shrugging while saying that.
"I'll come if—"
I heard the soft click before I could finish my sentence.
I'll come if you'll explain to me what happened this morning.
Looks like I would have to go up and ask in person. I shook my head and growled as I began packing up.
What the actual frack...?
I gritted my teeth, willing myself not to be alarmed by what I saw.
Their cheer was deafening, and it felt awkward, standing there as the fully packed music room greeted me. The known delinquents of the school, the self-entitled "outcasts," the wallflowers, and some other people I did not care to classify anymore welcomed me as if I were their champion.
Cedric, who was seated by the grand piano, beamed at me and motioned for me to come over.
"I thought we were meeting alone?" That came out harsher. Oops.
Cedric smirked. "Ooh. Jealous?"
I hated this side of him. It had a James-y edge that stung my nerves. I blushed and looked away. I was jealous, actually. The music room was our place. No one else was supposed to get in here.
"So you're building your own army," I stated snidely. "It's true then? You're going to war with Sterling?"
Cedric only looked amused. "There's no war, Claire." He reached for a magazine on top of the grand piano and handed it to me. It was already open to a page dedicated to the current plight of the Sterlings.
"The Beginning of the End?" I read the headline out loud. It seemed that James' family had been facing quite a few scandals recently, and a bomb was being set in the Senate.
The next page featured a family photo of the Sterlings. Only two people were smiling warmly: James' dad, and his beautiful, doe-eyed older sister, the one they call Luisa.
Before I could scrutinize the photo some more, Cedric swiped the magazine away and closed it.
"Whatever. I'm leaving," I declared and rolled my eyes. He pulled my wrist, stopping me. I tried pulling away, even though I knew it was futile. Stupid, mutant, extra-large hands with their delicate, candle-shaped fingers.
"And where would you go?"
"Somewhere," I replied nonchalantly.
"Why? What for? You already have such great friends around you." Damn, why did I sound so bitter?
A corner of Cedric's mouth quirked upwards and he shrugged. Then he began playing some somber melody that I was not familiar with, suddenly ignoring me completely. I expected him to stop after a few notes, but he didn't. He continued playing that exquisitely mournful, heartbreaking piece. I should have left in disgust right there and then but I found myself captivated by the way his brows were knitted together. The downward arc his lips made and the sad, haunting look his eyes suddenly possessed intrigued me. I've seen him become a slave to the music he was playing, but not quite the way he was being at that moment.
I only left when the bell rang, ending lunch period. By the time I got out of the room, word had spread that I was supporting Cedric Weston.
As a poor person, supporting one over the other was supposed to have no consequence. What can a puny person like me do? I neither have financial backing that could damage anyone, nor do I have considerable clout to influence a game-changing scenario.
But I forgot the little fact that I was a VolCorps member. I was a puny person directly serving the Student Council. The Student Council... ergo the Student Council President. I was clearly not safe with rumors swirling about that I had already "ran to Cedric's embrace."
(Yeah, I know. Cheesy much.)
So that was how it was. Now I was standing before Stanley Higgins, suffering his hateful gaze while he sipped his Darjeeling tea.
"I wonder what he saw in you," he muttered lowly, angrily.
He saw me as a toy to play with when bored. Not my words, mind you. He really did say that to my face when I had the mind to ask him why he suddenly cut my braided hair.
"Because I wanted to. Because I can. You're just a toy, Miller. A toy to entertain me when I'm bored."
"He could have any girl in the world, and he chose you. Why is that, Claire Miller? What do you have that the others don't?"
My lips parted in shock. How would you answer a question like that? I watched him warily as he slowly stood from his seat and strode over towards me. I clenched my fists as Stanley circled me like a vulture would a dying bison.
James just wanted some sort of game. He was lying. Everyone fell for it. He wasn't in love with me. Never was. You guys fell for it.
Well, how do you explain that to a person who worships James Sterling?
"A person of your standing... Getting in the VolCorps. How wonderful, isn't it? How convenient to be the girlfriend of the President."
I opened my mouth to protest against what he was implying. But I held my tongue, shocked as I was. Stanley had just indirectly revealed that James had a hand in my getting in the VolCorps. I thought my guidance counsellor was just being extra helpful!
I yelped in fear when Stanley suddenly lunged at me and took hold of my collar. He manipulated me to face him. I grasped his wrists to protect myself. His crazy eyes were moving erratically as he glared straight into my eyes. I felt the familiar, dull pounding of fear as it grabbed hold of my heart. I couldn't even open my mouth to scream.
"And here you go tramping towards Cedric Weston," he spat, sprinkling me with saliva. "Just because he suddenly became richer! Oh, how dare you... How dare you, Miss Miller. You fucking whor—"
The next second, I had dropped to the floor, grasping my throat and massaging it. I sputtered and coughed and just breathed in as much air as I could. I heard some muffled-sounding shouts and the bang of the heavy door shutting close. I wanted to run away but I couldn't. I was shaking all over.
I suddenly felt huge, calloused, warm hands on my wrist and I squeaked while trying to crawl away.
"Claire, it's okay," someone reassured me His voice sounded as if he were a mile away but he was close. Very close.
Close enough to actually wrap his strong, muscle-y arms around me and enveloping me in warmth that was both rock-solid and as comfortable as a five hundred thread count pillow.
I was blushing really hard when I dared look up.
And horror of horrors.
"Claire," James looked down at me, his eyes looking panicked. His brow was sweaty. "Are you okay?"
I gulped at least a dozen times before the mysterious lump in my throat went away and I finally found my voice again. I tore my eyes away from his and looked around the empty Student Council office. I uneasily pushed him away.
I decided to take control of our conversation. "Stanley. Where...?"
"I sent him away." His voice suddenly became rough, and dangerous.
"Why can't you have peace-loving minions, Sterling?" I asked while trying to get up. My voice was hoarse. Shockingly and disgustingly, I missed the warmth of his embrace. There was a wickedly, painful sensation in my chest. My skin was crawling with goosebumps. It felt like my whole body was afflicted with cramps. (Well, actually, just the parts where James had touched me. But all the same, the electrifying sensation was too intense that I couldn't accurately map it out on my body.)
And I was still blushing like mad.
I was so not okay.
"You were supposed to come directly to me," he said gently enough but I still felt like he was scolding me. I glared at him.
I winced at how worried he looked.
"Well, Stanley probably thought I was an assassin sent by Cedric Weston to off you so he pulled me in here."
James sighed and scratched the back of his head. A habit that, I suddenly realized, he only performed in my presence.
"Just to be clear, I'm not an assassin out to off you," I attempted at humor while raising both my hands. I didn't know why I was trying to get him to loosen up. I guess that worried stance of his was making me anxious as well.
I unexpectedly felt a surge of joy when James cast me a sidelong glance and smiled a bit awkwardly.
"I would have killed you a long time ago, and Cedric Weston would not have anything to do with it," I added with a scoff.
"But you didn't kill me," he pointed out. James lips curled into a smile that was weirdly pleasing to see.
I snorted. "I'm not stupid. It's not as if I would be able to join my father in prison."
Oops. Touchy subject.
I tossed my chin up in the air. "I thought you knew that I wanted to go to Harvard. Can't get in there if I murdered you. I'd be spending life in prison if not the death penalty."
"But my family's enemies will get you out," he muttered darkly, and barely enough for me to hear. He had a wry smile on, like he was morbidly amused with the idea.
"Enemies like the Westons?"
James snapped his eyes towards me, and regarded me for a couple of seconds before slowly and carefully replying, "Probably."
I frowned. "Did you call me here to grab me to your side?"
He pondered for a bit, his blue eyes seemed like it was watching something a mile away. Slowly, he got my bag off the floor and handed it to me. He stood close, and moved closer still.
"In a way, yes," he murmured. His hand came up to brush a lock of hair away from my face.
I forgot how to breathe.
I gulped and stepped back. Suddenly aware of what he was doing, suddenly scared of what he was trying to do.
"I don't want to get in the cross fire of your stupid money war with Weston, Sterling," I angrily and firmly shot at him.
His gaze hardened, and he sighed before licking his lower lip. I looked away. Curious, how that simple thing suddenly made me jittery.
"It was never our intention to do so."
"You better make it clear to your peons to lay off me then."
James nodded. "I will."
"It might be safer if both of you stay away from me," I suggested, echoing Colin's advice.
"You think so?" He sounded sceptical. "It would be safer if I were around you—"
I shook my head vigorously at the thought. "No. Both of you must not be near me. Just... just ignore me. It's better than people guessing whether I'm siding with you or Cedric."
He rolled his eyes. "They're not guessing. Everyone thinks you're on Cedric's side already."
"Even I think so," he griped, crossing his arms across his broad chest.
That's true. If there was anyone to side with, I'd go with Cedric.
I sighed exasperatedly. "I'll be asking Cedric to stay away from me too, you know?"
He still looked uneasy with the plan but eventually nodded.
The bell rang, signalling the end of club hour. It was time to get out of the school building or else we'll get stuck in here.
I made a move for the door.
"Claire," he called out to me. I raised an eyebrow.
"Y-You have my number. Put me on speed dial. J-Just in case."
I giggled nervously. "You're scaring me, Sterling."
Seriously. It was scaring me. Everything suddenly felt like serious business. And I guess it was. A stupid peon might be waiting to kill me in the shadows for all I know.
"It's only temporary. I'll make sure of it," he said with such conviction that it made me smile. For real.
"I apologize, Claire," he added solemnly. "It seems my faults with you will never cease."
I was honestly taken aback by that.
The guilt in his eyes was almost palpable.
I stared at him for what seemed like an eternity. I noted how, suddenly, it seemed like there was nothing offensive about him anymore. Suddenly, it felt like... he was a friend.
James Sterling. A friend.
I thought I'd never see the day.
"Thank you," I blurted out.
Gosh, I must be glowing right now. Geez, did he have to look so shocked?
"F-for... For saving me and..." I grimaced. "And for worrying," The word was too... I dunno. It felt too unusual on my tongue that I couldn't suppress a shudder. "For considering my... For considering an innocent person's well-being," I corrected myself.
I took a deep breath and walked out of the room.
Before I closed the heavy oak door, though, I took one last peek at James. I didn't know why. I just did.
I saw him grinning stupidly at the window. The golden, late afternoon sunlight illuminated his face perfectly. His cheeks were probably as red as mine, if not more.
Somehow, seeing that made me feel something akin to fear. The feeling was worse than when Stanley tried to strangle me. It slammed me like a tidal wave, and I felt like I was drowning. It was inexplicable. Irrational. I didn't even want to think this through. I was afraid of what this feeling might be.
I turned and ran all the way to the dormitory.
A/N: Yey. :D Better late than never, yes?
Thank you so much to everyone who stuck with this story. I'm sorry I can't update as regularly as other writers here on FP. :( I do my best, though.