"Though This Be Madness..."

My first week at Verona Academy, one of the most prestigious schools in the country known for its intense business course, is beginning with the unlikely occurrence of a fight involving my cousin and another boy over an ex-girlfriend and some homosexual accusations. Granted, it's a fight between two members of families whose huge corporations never rest over trying to win over the other, for, I'll admit it, the businesses that our two families run aren't just little dinky bars on the side of the street.

No, our families own the world.

Or, more specifically, each of our families own half. My cousin Tyler and I are the two oldest male heirs in line to becoming the next owners of Cauliff Co., a business which owns companies in everything from jewellery to movie production - you name it, and the Cauliff group is more likely than not to be involved. The boy who Tyler is fervently yelling at is none other than Benny Monroe, whose uncle owns Monroe Ltd., the only other corporation to even come close to being our rivals. It's a hell of a sight: both boys are near eighteen years of age, tall and well-built, bodies trained from years and years of sports and physical training, yet if I look closely it's easy to tell only Tyler seems interested in fighting. Benny just dodges Tyler's shoves in quick agile steps as profanities spill from my cousin's mouth.

'Benny, you low, stupid, god-forsaken asshole,' Tyler yells. 'What did you tell her, huh? What did you tell Jennifer?'

Jennifer is the afore-mentioned ex-girlfriend, and, from what I understand, the last in a string Tyler had steadily worked through during summer vacation.

I know that Tyler and Benny had been very tight friends at the beginning of their first year at Verona Academy, and I know that they'd had a huge, unexpected falling out, cause unknown, nearing the end of the school year and had rarely been seen with each other since. Each of Tyler's girlfriends had dropped him for his much more impressive ex-buddy, and to be honest, it's not much of a surprise. Tyler is your typical hot, every-school-has-one athlete with the sandy-blonde hair and the blue eyes and the boyish looks and the athletic body, but Benny...

Give me a moment to breathe.

Benny is one in a billion. He has the tall, dark, handsome looks that runs in the Monroe family, and I'm not even exaggerating. Benny's father and uncles (whom I've seen plenty of in newspapers and business magazines) - and apparently, Benny's younger cousin Robert - are all sexy, charming, drop-dead-gorgeous gentlemen that look like they belong in Hollywood playing some sort of 1970s black-and-white movie about Italian Mafia or something. One of those guys who play the hero of the story and never fails, regardless of how crappy his acting is, to be the heartthrob of the decade. Scratch that. The heartthrob of the century. So, I'm not entirely surprised that even Tyler's groupies get bored with him and decide to go with Benny.

Benny himself has the signature olive skin of the Monroe family and short, black hair which is messily tousled in a dark arrangement on his head, an adorable yet bad-boy look which suits him beautifully. His white school shirt stretches over his broad shoulders and I can't help but ogle at his body - it's fucking delicious, lean and muscular - I think the word is rangy - not a hint of fat on any part of him at all. The shirt's top button is undone and I get glimpses at collarbone and pectorals from between his tie, strung around his neck. I continue to stare until I'm shaken from my fantasies when Tyler shouts at him again, accusing him for taking his ex, although it's not true in the slightest. Benny merely goes about doing whatever he does whilst the girls flock to him by the dozen.

The thing that surprises me most, is that Benny never goes out with any of them. Maybe it's that little bit of respect, or moral obligations for his previous-best-friend, or maybe he just isn't interested in any of them. Whatever the case, he never fails to turn them down, quietly and politely. But Tyler still can't take it. He takes a solid swing which doesn't come close to landing as Benny's muscled arms blocks it with ease, and something that seems like laze - boredom.

'You told her something, didn't you,' Tyler hisses. He's a bit panicky now, but something I can't pinpoint seems to be off. He swings again. 'Fucking asshole.'

So I lied a little bit before. There are no homosexual accusations in the fight, or rather, there is a surprising lack of. There's some underlying aura underneath all this, like there's a back story that nobody knows about. Something happened between them before summer vacation, something big, and the thought gets me thinking.

They're circling each other slowly within the make-shift boxing ring formed by the onlooking students, who begin chants of Fight! fight! that gradually crescendo and hasten into frenzied yells. Neither have taken a hit yet, for Benny is yet to throw a punch and Tyler's blows are neutralised by swift, precise blocks. Tyler, however, isn't giving up without a fight of some sort, and I cringe to think what would happen if Benny even bothers to try - even with Tyler's athletic build, he's most certainly no match for Benny.

Tyler throws a hook.

Benny doesn't flinch, bringing his arm up quickly. He's the quiet type, which somehow makes him even more attractive though it's a bit useless in an exam-crazed, single-sex school like Verona. There's a shout from behind me and Benny swiftly brings his arm around, gripping Tyler and suppressing him against his body, immobilising him. It's an ironic technique - to keep your opponent from attacking further you hold him against you, and I suppose it works well since Benny's a good two or three inches taller than Tyler. The shouts of the excited group which has formed rapidly sometime since the beginning of the fight suddenly quiet and they disperse as I see the Principal approach us.

The Principal has a long name, which is both difficult to spell, impossible to pronounce and its origins unknown. None of us, not even the teachers bother with his name, so he's referred to mainly as 'Principal' or, for the extremely lazy (which is just about everyone), just 'Prince'. He doesn't seem to mind, since he's relatively young for a principal, an age most of us would estimate to be around early- to mid-thirties. Prince has the look that suggests that he was really good-looking when he was slightly younger, spoilt only by faint lines of age on his otherwise handsome face. His body is still athletic, and he walks towards us with the purpose and power of a principal.

'What's going on here?' Prince shouts, and he gives each of us a stern look. 'What's this all about?'

I shake my head and back off, indicating that I haven't been involved, but I don't want to go too far off since I don't know the school well, so if anything I'd rather stick with Tyler for at least a couple of weeks.

I see Benny whisper something to Tyler, his lips barely moving, but the effect is great. Tyler freezes and pales, trembling as Benny releases him and I run to him before he collapses, which is a terrifying for a guy who's a little over six feet in height. Tyler waves me off and mutters an apology.

Prince glares once more. 'I hope to see no more of this, Monroe, Cauliff, Cauliff,' he says, giving each of us a nod in succession, his last one landing on me. 'Especially you, Julian. Let's not start off on the wrong foot, shall we? I don't want to see you do anything that will harm the excellent results you produced in the entrance exams. I'll see you at the welcome assembly.'

The three of us nod dumbly and scatter before he can talk again, and I stick to Tyler, watching as Benny's sexy figure runs off to his old friends near the school buildings. Verona is an old school, with the brick buildings and open fields, though it's a relatively small school. Regardless, it's pristinely neat, with nothing out of place with perfect linoleum floors and creamy-white walls, something that reminds me vaguely of a hospital. Tyler and I aimlessly wander around and he gives me the unofficial tour which is mainly him pointing to a room and naming what class he had in it last year, accounting to a total of six rooms, the cafeteria and the bathrooms amongst the hundred in the school. He doesn't even know where the library is, but I figure I'll learn soon enough.

We end up near the main school hall with nothing to do for about a half hour before the welcome assembly at ten o'clock, and we sit in general silence. I want to say something, but I'm not quite sure how to word the question. Tyler and I aren't the closest pair of cousins in the world, but we get along fine if we're ever together. We've learned to be polite and tolerate each other as when we'd been younger we were generally put together. Tyler looks up and notices my hesitation and he knows it's about the fight before.

He says, 'What is it?' and I blink.

'Er- what did he say to you?' I mumble. I'd assumed it was something quite harsh - Tyler isn't really the type to be affected by insults.

He looks away and shakes his head furiously, and I can see his face redden just the slightest bit. 'Nothing. He didn't say anything.'

Neither of us believe that but I don't say anything more about it. However, I'm too tempted and I end up asking, 'What happened between you guys?' and Tyler's whole body stiffens.

'Nothing,' he growls.

I look at him, and he glances up at me.

'Nothing happened,' he repeats. 'Will you just drop it?'

I bite my lip but nod slowly, and our silence is interrupted by a slow trickle of students steadily increasing to a continuous stream as they file into the hall for the welcome assembly. I don't even notice when Tyler stands and leaves me, so I file in with the other students and take a seat beside a cheeky-looking red-headed boy. I take the time to take a quick look around the large, dark room. Like the rest of the school, the auditorium is beautiful, as if recently renovated, with black walls and row after row of relatively comfortable seats. The stage is set with a stand and microphone, and several chairs behind which are occupied by teachers, most likely the deputy principals, or something equally important.

Within a few minutes the Principal is on stage, tapping lightly on the microphone, whose screeches and feedback instantly hushes the audience.

The assembly itself is nothing special. It simply consists of the Principal welcoming first year students and new teachers, welcoming second year students back to school and announcing that he looks forward to the new school year, blah blah blah. He goes through simple rules and uniform regulations, what are off-bounds and places and people to go to for any other information or enquiries. He gives a strict note that any fighting on school grounds or in school uniforms outside of school will lead to expulsion or at least suspension and I note this carefully, although I seriously don't plan on getting anywhere near a fight for the rest of the year. I need a perfect reputation. Per-fect. Nothing less.

It's near the end of the assembly when I sit up, paying special attention. I smile. Verona Academy is similar to a finishing school, consisting of two years, the equivalent to the last two years of high school, and both years require a student to pass an entrance exam before they can attend Verona. The scores are ranked, and the list of the top ten students are always on display on the bulletin boards around school. Every time exams are taken, the list is updated and the fresh ranks are displayed. Although it's my first year in Verona, I was accepted into the second year because of my high exam scores, and I have no doubts I shall be number one.

I need number one, for a simple reason. In the final exams at the end of the year the student who finishes top in Verona receives an instant full scholarship to Harvard, and although it's not spoken of and nor is it official, everyone knows about it. I intend to get number one. I'm getting that scholarship.

Prince begins his announcement of obligatory congratulations for the students for being accepted into Verona, and he begins to announce the top ten students on the list. He carefully mentions that it's not in any particular order, but we know. We all know that the order matters, from worst to best. From nothing to The One, literally. He begins with first years, who aren't as exciting as none of them have been heard of, but as he begins the list of second year students there are excited whispers.

Redhead gives me a nudge. 'It'll be Benny this year, I know it,' to which the boy on his other side nods in agreement. 'I know everyone here,' he adds proudly, 'or at least all the second-years. Never seen you before. First year here?'

I hesitate. Technically I'm a second year student of Verona, but otherwise - I nod, and he grins.

'Congrats for getting in. Tough exam, wasn't it?' he blathers on, oblivious to my not giving a shit. My fingers itch. I've always been annoyed at incessant babbling but I try to calm myself down. 'You'll like it here, if you're smart. You're nothing if you're not on The List, and that's impossible to get into.'

I smile. I'm going to prove him wrong. I sit back contentedly as Prince reads the first of the ten names. With each name there's a stir and occasional gasps. I've never heard of any of them before, but Redhead seems to know them all. He gives off hisses to his friends, noting how the students had all dropped a rank or two, and occasionally an opinion after every name called and I smirk to myself. The sixth name, indicating fifth place, is called.

'Paul Henderson-Meyers...'

'He's smart, but he doesn't really show it,' Redhead notes. 'He'd one of the good-looking jock types. You'd never guess he was fifth.'

'...Sam Rivers...'

'Kid's an overachiever,' he says to me, scoffing. 'Used to be eighth, worked shit hard to get that fourth this year. He wanted first, but we all do, don't we?'

I nod and smile.

'...Benjamin Monroe...'

There are loud murmurs throughout the entire hall and teachers stand to quiet them, which doesn't work so well.

'Holy shit!' Redhead coughs. He and the kid on his other side are chattering loudly. The conversations grow even louder and I even see some of the teachers are discussing this. 'Benny's only third? Who're the lucky bastards that beat him?'

'...Julian Cauliff...'

My heart stops.

What? No. That's not right. I'm only second? That's not right. That's impossible. There is no fucking way in hell that anyone could beat my score. The Principal's lying. He's got something wrong. There's something wrong with the list. I don't notice as I claw my seat. I'm literally hanging on the end of it. It's a joke right? I almost laugh out loud and I try to calculate the possibilities. They were shitting me. There is no fucking way that anyone could have beaten my score. Out of six hundred points I'd scored five hundred and ninety-eight points. It was so near to perfect. It's... they're not... who was the fucking asshole who -

Redhead gives me an odd look. 'You okay? You look like you're going to kill someone.' I ignore him and he shrugs. 'I've never heard of this Cauliff guy either... It's not Tyler, is it? Is he Tyler's brother? He's either a genius or lucky, but whoever's first is - '

'... and finally, Robert Monroe.'

There's yet another whispered uproar amongst the students, and I'm shocked myself. From what I'd heard, Benny's younger cousin wasn't in Verona last year, so it meant he should start as a first year at Verona - the bastard had managed to weed his way into second year and take my place as first.

I hate him. I hate him I hate him I hate him. I hate this Robert Monroe and I will hunt him down and fucking kill him. I will beat the fucking crap out of him. I don't even know him, other than that he is the fucking son of the oldest Monroe guy and he's fucking next up for the fucking Monroe company and that he's the fucking genius of the fucking school. Fuck him. Fuck him and his handsome and his rich family. I hate him. I fucking hate him.

Redhead looks at me. 'You sure you're alright?'

I take a deep breath, holding air in my lungs like a drag on a cigarette and I slowly exhale, trying to calm my thoughts before trying to smile at Redhead, but it feels more like a grimace on my face. 'Yes,' I say, 'I'm perfectly fine.'

He doesn't bother looking at me again, which is a good thing because I reckon if he opened his mouth one more time I would have punched him so hard he'd have to turn around to look forward. Mercifully, the assembly ends not long after and I get up and walk out to beat the rush of students.

For the rest of the day before we go home I'm meant to be at some orientation thing to get to know the school grounds more. Tyler says he'll wait for me at the school gates until I'm done with it since the second years get to go home straight after they'd claimed their lockers. Fuck orientation. Because of that I'll be getting the leftover lockers, surely the ones at the bottom near the grosser corners of the halls. Fuck.

I'm ushered to the front of the school like a sheep in a paddock. There are teachers and second-year students that separate us into groups and take us around the school, and I blatantly ignore everything anyone says to me, until we get near a bulletin board. Inside the hallways of the school I use another large group of guys to sneak closer to the board and I read the List, inwardly hoping that they'd made some mistake, something, anything to prove that I am, in fact, number one.

The first words I see on the List are ROBERT MONROE, printed neatly at the top of the page, followed closely by my own name, JULIAN CAULIFF, and it takes every last bit of myself to prevent from grabbing the paper from the wall and tearing it clean off. Who the fucking fuck is fucking Robert Monroe? Alright, so I know who he is, I just want to know who he is, so I can tear his fucking head off and claim my first. I sound like a spoiled shit-ass brat right now but I don't care. That shit-face is going to pay.

From my peripheral vision I see all the first-year students staring at me as if I'd kicked down the wall, especially one guy who seems to be openly amused by my lack of positive emotions but screw him. He's probably the kid who got first in his year. No need to look down at stupid little me, then.

Someone calls out my name and I remember that I'm still part of the stupid orientation group. I seethe one more time at the paper before I turn and storm my way into the group, and the rest of the first-years give me the space I need. The teacher looks as if he's considering whether or not to say something but he decides against it, moving on to the next area of the school. I still don't pay attention for the rest of the time and I'm slightly surprised when the tour ends, but I find I've calmed down a bit as I slide into the passenger seat of Tyler's car. I grumble more as I'm reminded I can't drive - yet another point to add to my uselessness. Even Tyler seems afraid to talk to me, gripping the wheel and avoiding my gaze. He drops me off at home in silence.

I go straight to my bedroom, sliding my phone from my pocket. I smile, instantly feeling better from the text message I'd received sometime earlier - it's from Susan. Don't get me wrong, she's not my girlfriend. If anything, she could be my mother. Susan was my maid-slash-governess when I was younger, and the only person who seems to be nice to me. My family is strict; my father, being the head of the Cauliff empire cannot stand mistakes, and my mother generally does not like handling young children, which I guess is why they hired Susan, who'd also taken care of my older sisters when they'd been younger.

I love Susan. I love her like she's my own mother. I only have vague recollections of her, since she'd left when I'd turned five years old, and I haven't seen her since. From my memories, Susan was pretty, with curling brown-blonde hair, loving and caring, and whilst my family demanded perfection she was kind and encouraging all of the time. Sometimes I wish Susan was my real mother.

The only reason why we're able to talk now was purely by accident. When I was about three I'd heard her hum while preparing my bath water and I'd thought she had the most wonderful voice in the world (which I realise now is nowhere near true) and I'd demanded that she teach me a song. She couldn't remember the words to anything so she'd made up a floaty little tune and set to it a string of numbers I'd first at thought was random, but years later I'd realised it was her phone number, and amazingly, she still had it then. We'd started talking and we've never stopped, although we haven't physically seen each other since she'd left.

I confide with Susan all the time. She knows everything about me, more than my real parents, more than my sisters or Tyler. She knows exactly when she's can text me so that I can reply instantly, and when I'll be busy doing homework or somewhere else. She knows exactly what to say when I'm down, or when I need a bit of a nudge forward. Her texts are always short but full of smileys, and this one says How was your first day at Verona? :) to which I truthfully answer, I wish I'd gotten first but I came second in exams. Susan likes me to use full sentences, so I've learned to type everything out for her. It's not bothersome, rather, I became accustomed to it.

Her reply comes instantly. Second is great! I'm proud of you anyway. You've done your best :) and I feel the slightest bit better already, but only for a moment. I don't intend to back down for anyone. Especially not for a member of the Monroe family.

Chapter One END