Hey guys :) Just wanted to let you know that I'll be studying for exams for the next two weeks, so the updates will most likely be achingly slow :( I apologize beforehand.

This chapter is where things start to get interesting, especially at the end :D I'm so excited for you to read it! So please R&R!

By the way, I wanted to know which guy you preferred so far :3 I tried to make every one a little different, so please let me know!

~Crimrose4all

Chapter 3

Alive For Seventeen Years

Even so, it has been calling the heavens to me…

Light burned after-images on my eyelids, creating erratic dots of different colours. I stirred, warm and comfortable in my bed, but what actually happened was my legs got all tangles up in the sheets, my arms were wound so tightly in my duvet that I looked like a mummy, and I had somehow managed to transform my blanket into a little hood. I had made myself a cocoon, and was now drowning in a sweaty, horrific sea of bed sheets and confusion.

So I rolled off my bed, only to thump on the floor with an 'oof'. I kicked all the blankets off, sighing. I'd have to make my bed, which I didn't really like doing. But I liked to keep things neat and tidy, so I had no one to blame but myself.

I steadily sat on my knees, squinting at the alarm clock stationed on my bedside table. Six a.m. Go figure.

Rubbing my eyes tenderly, I got the sudden feeling of a tingly chill run down my back, like I was being watched. I glanced out my window, where the sun was just peaking up over the horizon in a streak of purple, pink, and red. The house across the street definitely held some life in it, and I was suddenly very suspicious. Where there people spying on me? I highly doubted it, since there was nothing special to spy on, but I was paranoid all the same.

I forced myself to get up, then trudged into the bathroom that was attached to my room to go through the morning routine. I brushed my teeth thoroughly, straight and white without ever having braces, and it left my breath smelling cinnamon fresh. I yanked a hairbrush through my tangled platinum locks, wincing when I had to tear through knots. I decided to braid it, since today was a special day.

I grinned at my reflection. I was seventeen today.

But something about the scene felt wrong. I watched my eyebrows furrow in the mirror and leaned close. Something about a reflection seemed very haunting to me. Kind of… wrong. I sighed, giving up. Maybe I really was going crazy.

I quickly applied a thin line of black eyeliner, then some mascara. I didn't really need any cover-up or a foundation, so I could leave the bathroom with a sense of accomplishment.

Today was Wednesday, and every Tuesday and Thursday night my mom washed my school uniform. So I thumped down the stairs, my mouth stretching into a yawn.

Jason was already up, pouring himself a bowl of generic cereal. "'Morning," he muttered, probably still half –asleep.

"Good morning," I sang cheerfully, grabbing a pop tart from one of the mahogany cupboards. I shoved it into my mouth hungrily, and Jason rolled his eyes.

"Happy birthday," he said tiredly.

"Thank you!" I said, wrapping my arms around him in a tight hug. He let out an 'oof' because I squeezed the breath out of him. Then I bounced out of the kitchen to bolt downstairs into the basement, where the laundry room was stationed.

Sure enough, my uniform was hanging to dry on Mom's makeshift clothesline. I yanked it off, the close pins falling to the floor. I picked them up and plucked them into their designated basket, then bolted back upstairs.

Cecidit High's uniform consisted of a black blazer with white lining, a white blouse, red and black plaid skirt with a matching tie. It was pretty cute, as far as uniforms go, but it was prohibited to make alterations to it. Girls had to buy their own super-thick tights when winter rolled around, but otherwise just wore knee-socks.

I patted any wrinkles out of it, preparing for an awesome day. I wouldn't let anything get me down. Not when it was my birthday, and I was going to spend it with my best friends. That was really all I needed.

It was nearing seven when I was finished, so I decided to make myself a more filling breakfast. AKA, pancakes. Mmm, pancakes. Granted, I wasn't much of a cook or baker, but hey, it was edible.

As I bounced up and down in my seat while mowing down on pancakes, I couldn't help but feel that today was going to be a great day.

Z

"Happy birthday," Jesse said to me in a sing-song voice as I stepped outside. I grinned sheepishly, embarrassed. Snow was gracefully falling from the sky again today, peaceful and serene, making me even more confident about my seventeenth.

He wrapped his arms around me in a birthday hug, then lifted my off my feet briefly, like he always did when we were kids. "Thank you," I said, giggling. He set me down, and we began the short trek to school.

"How was your morning?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Uneventful, as usual. You?"

I grinned. "I woke up feeling great. Refreshed!" I exclaimed, stretching my arms high above me, ready for action. But I couldn't shake that feeling that I was forgetting something about last night, something important…

He chuckled. "I can't believe how cheery you are in the mornings."

"That's because the night has finally ended," I explained simply. I wasn't a big fan of the dark.

I could've sworn he blushed, but it was probably just the cold. "Did you ever meet the new neighbours?"

I shrugged. "No." But I had the sneaking suspicion they were spying on me. "Why? Got any info?"

He rolled his eyes. "You know my snoopy mom. She and Jez and Felice got together last night and wouldn't shut up. Apparently they moved here from England or something."

I whistled. "Fancy."

"Delightful," he nodded in a horrible British accent, making me laugh.

"There's also a lot of them," he continued. "Seems like a husband and a wife with five kids."

"Jesus," I muttered. "My parents can't even handle one."

"I know. And they come from money, too, hence living in this neighbourhood."

Sounds like quite the regal family. Maybe I was just being paranoid about the spying.

"Maybe we'll go to school with some of them," I offered. Jesse shrugged, like he didn't give a damn if they did or didn't.

We walked (or trudged) for a few minutes in comfortable silence, then we reached the top of the hill to see Cecidit High looking as bleak and unexciting as ever. Granted, the outside was made of brick with a large courtyard, making it actually appear like a small square castle, but once you've attended this school for a bit, it hardly seemed exciting. We were greeted with the usual wrought iron gates and excited chatter of students still lingering outside, smoking or texting. I wrinkled my nose at the smell of smoke.

Jesse and I stomped our boots as we entered the front door, since the janitor was really anal about at least trying to keep the place clean. The foyer was decked out in Christmas decorations and posters for the upcoming concert. The tan tiled floors were covered with slush and water, and I could see Janitor Stu fuming already.

Were scurried up to the second floor to get to our lockers. Mine was only a few steps away from my first period English class, right down the hallway from the stairwell. So I had a clear view of it, and it seemed there was a crowd gathered around it.

Oh, bloody hell.

As I gradually began to approach, the crowd turned around and grinned at me. It was the members of my dance team, including Dotty, our captain. They made way so I could see my locker. I let out a squeak of surprise.

It was decked out with streamers and balloons, and a big sign that read, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY VAL!" The teachers were not going to be happy about that. But I was. I was so happy I could've cried. No one had ever done something like this for me before, and to see so many people care for me and congratulate me was heart-warming. I thanked them from the bottom of my heart.

"I can't believe you guys did this," I gasped, finally coming up to my locker.

All thirteen of them trapped me in a group hug, shouting happy birthday. Everyone was here; Laryssa, Becky, Victoria, Sally, Michelle, Lotus, Cierra, Haileigh, Megan, Kimberly, Brooke, Caitlin, and of course, Dotty. It was rather suffocating.

"Whose birthday?" Shouted a group of guys walking past. I recognized them as the football players, and I internally rolled my eyes in disgust.

But Brooke, of course, was eager to have them talking to us, especially Patrick Carson, the quarterback and register hottie. "Valerie's!" She exclaimed, pointing at me. I could've cursed her name.

Patrick's mouth slowly lifted into a toothy grin. I was hardly attracted to a guy that was all biceps and abs and fabulous blonde hair, but his Australian accent even got me sometimes. I guess you could say most students know me pretty well from my dancing, martial arts, and exceptional grades, so Patrick took it upon himself to start chatting me up. I was barely civil with him.

"Happy birthday, Val!" He shouted, too loud for my liking. His teammates chuckled.

I grit my teeth together and forced myself to smile. "Thanks!" I called back, closing my eyes so they couldn't see how much they resembled knives boring into their skulls.

"Need me to come over there and give you a present?" He asked, grinning and waggling his eyebrows.

"I'm good," I hissed, composure breaking.

He shrugged as if to say it's your loss, then he and his buddies marched off, laughing too loudly the entire time. Ugh. I almost punched my locker, or went Hulk and tore it off its hinges. But I held myself back, taking deep, calming breaths. Guys were disgusting.

"Hey, Val," Brooke began excitedly, meeting my eyes with her sparkly blue ones. "Did you hear about the new transfer students?"

I suddenly got a very bad feeling. "Um, no."

All the members of the team apart from Dotty accomplished a collective swoon. "You should've seen the look on Patty's face when they walked in," Cierra gushed. "I saw a green-eyes monster!" I couldn't tell if it was a pun because Patrick really did have green eyes and seemed like a pretty big monster to me.

"Why?" I asked, more out of humouring them than actual curiosity.

Victoria, usually so light and flippant, looked more serious than I had ever seen her. "They were the definition of god-like hotness," she growled, like she was offended by my lack of knowledge. Then she looked past my head, then her eyes widened. She slapped Brooke's arm, then they continued a chain like that until they were all staring at something behind me simultaneously. Again with that bad feeling. Very slowly, I turned as well, wondering what they were looking at.

Oh.

It must've been one of the new students, 'cause I definitely would've remembered seeing him. He was incredibly buff, but managed to look good in the uniform of the black and red plaid tie, white dress shirt, black blazer with white lining, and black slacks. His face was made up of interesting angles, with sharp, wide green eyes and chocolate brown hair that dusted across his brow. His stride was easy yet purposeful, and he seemed to becoming right at us.

Huh. I wondered what a new student would want with us. Or maybe he was just trying to get to his class and we were just one big roadblock. But then I looked behind him slightly, and what I saw proved that he was indeed coming at us.

My mouth dropped open in horror.

Behind the big guy were Christian and Rhys, wearing our uniform and matching smirks.

AW HELL NO!

"Well, well, well," drawled Christian, stepping in front of the big guy to confront me. My team members (including Jesse and Dotty) seemed to be frozen stiff at his approach. "If it isn't Miss Kitty."

And there he went, easily getting under my skin again. "Don't call me that," I hissed, unable to be calm anymore.

"Then what should I call you?" He purred, leaning down to get in front of me face (nobody has any idea how much that pissed me off). His eyes even seemed to glint red in the ugly hall lights, but there was no shine to his hair. It was like a solid black, so dark that no light dare to touch it.

I quickly looked away, face on fire. "You know my name."

"Ah, but that's no fun," he chuckled. I didn't understand what was up with him. Yesterday he just seemed like a confused, irritated guy. But today he was radiating confidence, but it was a cold feeling. Like he thought everyone was below him.

The big guy and Rhys came up beside him. I scowled at all of them. "What are you doing here?"

"What's it look like?" Christian asked, gesturing down to his uniform. "We're going to your school now, Princess."

"That isn't okay either," I growled. All of the guys seemed surprised at me reaction to the nickname.

But Christian quickly shook it off and replaced the surprised expression with an infuriating smirk. "I believe you've met Rhys," he said, gesturing to him. He nodded at me politely, and he still seemed tired. Maybe he was just naturally that way.

"I did," I said suspiciously. "But how do you know that?"

"Oh, excuse me," he said, but it sounded mocking instead of polite. "Rhys is my twin brother." Of course he was. Of course he was! "And this is my older brother, Beck. He's a grade above us."

"Why did you guys suddenly transfer here near the end of a semester?" Jesse asked, standing behind me protectively.

Christian smiled, though it was cold and knowing. "Oh, you know. We just had a pretty sudden move."

The bad feeling… the bad feeling… stranger danger, stranger danger!

"Where to?" Jesse demanded.

"435 Crescent Road," Christian said, and he seemed to be secretly laughing.

NOOOOOOO!

It was THEM who moved across the street from me!

The feeling that I had earlier, about today being a great day? That was totally destroyed now. I wasn't the only one who was surprised (and, quite frankly, horrified). Everyone on the dance team knew my address, so they were staring at me collectively, especially Dotty. When I looked over at her she was grinning like a fool and mouthed, "Time to build a harem!" I mind beat her.

Jesse seemed really angry, surprisingly. Probably because he was being overprotective and saw Christian being a dick yesterday, and now he lived just down the street from him. I could sense a lot of high school drama in the future.

Taking me completely by surprise, Christian stepped beside me and slung an arm around my shoulders, making me seem so small in comparison. Now the dance team wasn't the only one watching; all the bystanders in the hall were staring at the scene, considering almost everyone knew of my blatant chauvinism. But here was a completely new guy, getting all up in my personal bubble like we were best buds.

"Let's try to get along, okay?" He chuckled. His breath ruffled my bangs, and it smelt like green apples (I died). I could also smell some spicy, addictive cologne on him, and I was disgusted with myself for practically melting into a puddle right then and there. His arm around my shoulder was warm, secure.

Completely befuddled, I shrugged out of his grip and stepped a few paces back. I tried with all my might to drain the blush that had crept into my cheeks. Dotty was practically exploding like a firework at my reaction. "Don't you have class to rush to?" I demanded, not wanting to even look at him anymore.

"We're standing right in front of it," he quipped sardonically, gesturing with a curt nod of his head to my English room. Fuck me.

My face flamed as I became incredibly embarrassed. There was another thing about men I hated; they have a way of making you feel humiliated. And there was something about Christian, something sinister that made him seem that much more intimidating. Though his smirk was teasing and superior, his eyes were cold, flat. Emotionless.

My own body betrayed me by aching for him. Something must have happened to him in his childhood or something to make him like this. Maybe he had a traumatic experience, just like me.

His brothers were still standing behind him silently, staring at this scene unfold before them. They made me even more nervous and embarrassed. I had had enough.

"Alright then," I said to Christian, turning to face my locker. "You'd better get to class then."

I felt his gaze tingle the back of my neck, menacing and superior. But then I could sense him shrug and he said, "Fine. See you around, Princess."

I hated that nickname with every fibre of my being.

"Come on guys," I said to my team, making shooing motions. "You don't want to be late. Thanks for decorating my locker; it means a lot to me."

"But, Val-"

"No buts," I said sternly, facing them and putting my hands on my hips. "I will see you all at lunch for an impromptu meeting. Alright?"

With reluctance, they all scattered to go to their respective classes. I turned back to my locker to strip off my coat and exchange my boots for my comfortable (but plain) loafers. Dotty was still hanging around, and I could tell what she wanted.

Once I had locked it up again, I turned to glare at her. "Don't say one word."

"I wasn't planning on it," she giggled, though her expression said it all.

"I hate people like him," Jesse spat. "Think they're better than everyone else."

"Well, we'll just have to get used to it," I muttered flatly, highly unamused. "He goes here now, and lives near us. We're going to be seeing a lot more of him."

Then, despite class not starting for another twenty minutes, I marched straight into English for some extra time to work on my World History project.

Z

"Dude, who the hell are you?" Demanded the blonde jock, coming up behind me. His presence seemed awfully menacing to others, but to me, he was just an insecure human who didn't know his place.

"What do you mean?" Asked Rhys, cocking his head to one side. Beck came up beside me, and he made the jock look like a cowering kitty.

"I mean," he began again, gulping down his fear of my elder brother. "You were talking to Valerie Feyrin like you knew her from somewhere. And she actually spoke back."

I quirked one black eyebrow. "I beg your pardon?"

One of his friends rolled their eyes. "As if you didn't know already. Valerie Feyrin is one of the most popular girls here… or she would be if she wasn't hating on all the guys."

It would've been an understatement to say that my brothers and I were surprised. Hating on all the guys? That was… unexpected.

"Since you're new here, let me give you the run down," said the blonde leader. "Valerie Feyrin and Dotty Garrett are the vice-captain and captain of the dance team, so you could say they get a seat at our lunch table. Dotty was the chick with the purple hair and hazel eyes, and she's not the brightest, but her hotness makes up for it."

"Though she's awfully good at spreading her honey," another one of his friends said. He nodded.

"She's Val's best friend, so you might want to get on her good side if you want Val to tolerate you. Though she's been dating this guy on and off, so hitting on her probably isn't a good plan.

"And then there's Val. She's made it pretty clear that she doesn't want a relationship with anybody." His eyes suddenly darkened, and he smirked at me. "Though I'm planning to change that. She's a martial arts nut, so she's really flexible."

"Ain't that the truth," his other buddy said. They let out a chorus of whistles.

I was barely registering this. Valerie was a martial arts nut? She actually did something with her life?

"Not only that," the jock continued. "But she's also one of the smartest people in our grade, so she's pretty much the whole deal. She's a total sweetie when it comes to girls and female teachers, but you can sense she's tense around guys."

"Maybe a bad breakup?" Beck whispered in my ear, his deep voice even managing to make the football jocks jump. I shrugged. It seemed plausible, considering the life her predecessor lead.

"But she's off-limits," the jock said suddenly, sneering at us. "Especially to noobs like you. I don't know what you pulled back there, managing to make her blush and all that jazz, but I'm telling you right now to back off before someone gets hurt."

He got all up in my face, and I only managed to look disinterested. It was taking all my will power not to put this dick in his place. The filthy mongrel.

"Thanks for the warning," a dark voice next to me suddenly chuckled. Beck and I glanced at each other and groaned. Here we go again.

Rhys stepped out from his place beside me and grabbed the jock by the collar of his shirt, grinning like the Mad Hatter. He looked pissed. Really pissed.

"You think you can tell us what to do? Like you're the boss of everything? Do you think you're fucking God? Is that what you're trying to tell us?" He was getting darker and darker with each sentence, and I feared that he was going to do something to get himself expelled again.

The jock was speechless. He actually seemed a bit afraid, even though my twin was much tinier than him when it came to stature. But I appreciated that he had some common sense within him; when you see a predator, run.

"Chill out, man," called one of his friends, stepping up to knock his arm aside. "He was just-"

"I know what he was doing!" Rhys hissed, baring his teeth. The jock shrank back. "And don't you touch me, you filthy scum, or I'll-"

"Time to go," said Beck suddenly, startling everyone. He picked up Rhys with one arm, hitched him over his shoulder, and began to walk away, Rhys protesting the whole time.

"Sorry 'bout that," I smirked at them. They all seemed intimidated, so I had to give my twin props. "He doesn't really have a filter. Just don't bother us, and we won't bother you." Though we were planning to steal his so-called target away from him.

I began strolling away from them, satisfied that we had instilled some well-deserved fear.

Valerie Feyrin was 'a total sweetie', huh. But barely tolerated talking to guys. They seemed like polar opposites. Feyria was never, ever kind to anyone, and she never even bothered with girls. She was the Queen of Promiscuous.

Some things just weren't making sense about all this. She was smart, kind, a fighter, and… not as disgusting as Feyria. How can they be so different? They are kind of the same person.

But with the way Valerie looked at me when I was close to her, well… she seemed so innocent. And she was blushing. They very thought of it almost made my face red. I never would've thought I would've gotten to see that. Her tiny body under my arm was shaking, and she smelled like freaking chocolate bananas. How was that even possible? It almost made her seem ready to eat.

I shook my head, trying to focus again on our task. I couldn't comprehend why she kept derailing me away from the plan. It's just… she kept taking me by surprise.

Slamming my locker door shut, I began walking back in the direction of my new English class. Remembering her expression when I told her we had first period together almost made me laugh. And that was a miracle within itself.

As I made my way down the empty hall, I whispered so myself, "I'll play with your little toy, Feyria. Until the day she burns in the depths of hell."

Z

"Let's talk about the routine," I began at lunch break, standing in front of the dance team, who all sat on bleachers in our large gymnasium.

"Uh, let's not," Brooke interjected sternly. "How about we talk about you and the lord of sexy, hmm?" All the other girls murmured in agreement. Dotty actually began to clap.

I shook my head. "There's nothing to tell. Just drop it." A disappointed chatter ran through all of them. "Anyway, I cannot perform at the Christmas concert because, well…" I held up my bandaged hand.

All of them let out a collective groan, and some even said "Again?" My lips slipped into a pout. I didn't get hurt that often.

"What are you going to do?" Becky asked, leaning on her elbows. "You're the vice-captain. We can't just perform a Christmas concert without you."

"You would be captain if you weren't a trouble magnet," Dotty pointed out.

"Nah, you're way better at it," I digressed. "Anyway, I don't have a clue what I'm going to do. I don't really need to be a part, do I?"

"You do," they all scolded at once, making me feel tiny and insignificant.

"I have an idea," Cierra began. We all listened closely. "We're dancing to Last Christmas the Glee version, right?" We all nodded. "Well… why doesn't Val just sing it while we dance to it?"

"No," I said immediately, crossing my arms to let them know I wasn't changing my mind.

"I think it's a great idea," the captain of our team said, earning a hefty glare from me. "What? It's not like there's anything else you could do. You have no one to blame but yourself."

"How'd you get that injury, anyway?" Lotus asked, flipping her strawberry blonde locks behind her.

Dotty snorted. "She was playing in traffic."

Every single one of them gave me a withering glance. They didn't even doubt it.

"I wasn't playing," I objected, putting my hands on my hips. "I was trying to save a cat."

"No doubt it was for something noble like that," Laryssa scoffed.

"Let's stop talking about this!" I yelled, making an echo spread around the gymnasium. "Besides, even if I was to sing- which I'm not- that song's a duet. In case none of you have noticed, we don't have any boys on our team." I was satisfied with my quick excuse, making a smirk settle on my face.

"Jesse can sing," Dotty suggested. The team began murmuring in agreement. I was losing this battle, and there was nothing I could do about it.

"The last time Jesse got up on stage, he blacked out and fell right off it!" I exclaimed, exasperated. "And that was eleven years ago!"

"Yeah, so he's probably gotten over it now," Victoria grunted. I was surprised she was agreeing with all this, considering Jesse landed on her when he fainted right off the stage.

I raised an eyebrow at all of them. "There's no way we can be ready in two days."

"We've already memorized the song," Kimberly murmured, soft spoken as usual. "It wouldn't be too hard to teach Jesse the words."

"Guys, this is ridiculous," I sighed. "We're showing off our dancing skills, not singing skills. I suck at it anyway."

"You're a lot better at singing than cooking."

"Hey. What I make is edible. How can you get your pudding if you don't eat your meat?"

"Exactly," Haileigh groaned, clearly tiring of my excuses. "Stop being picky. This is the best choice for all of us."

"We just have to tell the student council president about the change of plans," Caitlin said, like I had already agreed to everything.

All of us shuddered at once. "I don't even want to picture his reaction," I hissed. Though I had to admit, there wasn't really any other creative arguments I could come up with. Shit.

"I'll do what I have to," I groaned. "Just so I don't let you guys down." Though I really didn't want to.

They all cheered in unison. Some birthday. Unpleasant surprises just kept popping up one after another. The only thing that would make it worse is if I ended up bumping into the three brothers again.

Z

I should've kept my thoughts to my damn self.

Begrudgingly, I sat beside Jesse in my last period class, World History, with Christian's gaze tingling at the back of my neck. I was clearly on edge, my breath coming out in angry little bursts.

"Don't let him get to you," Jesse murmured in my ear. I shifted uncomfortably. I could practically feel that gaze harden into a glare. What was his problem? I apologized for crashing into him. I didn't do anything else… not that I knew of, anyway.

"Just think happy thoughts," Jesse suggested. "Like tonight. Dinner and a movie. Celebrating your seventeenth."

"Yeah, if my parents ended up remembering." I sounded pissed, though I didn't mean to be so gruff with him. He was just trying to help.

"Jason remembered this morning, didn't he? That's probably a good sign."

"I hope so."

"Okay, class!" Sang the Hummingbird, buzzing into the room, lively as usual. "By now I expect most of you to have chosen your occupation. Except for you, Christian Jasper." She directed her bright, knowing gaze to the back of the room. "Someone will have to explain the assignment to you."

Christian Jasper, huh? That name would most likely haunt my nightmares. Though it seemed to suit him, somehow. He looked like a Christian. But that may just be because that's automatically what my brain's pinning him as.

Wait. Why do I care, anyway? I shook my head furiously, trying not to let him worm his way into my thoughts and under my skin.

"Sure," he said to the Hummingbird, and she nodded at him.

"In light of the assignment," she continued, moving to stand behind her desk. She was wearing a multitude of colours again today, like ultramarine pants, a flowery red and orange shirt, and a pink pashmina. They seemed to contrast with her carrot-coloured hair. "Today will be a research period. I expect some of you to go to Resource, and some to stay here. Clear?" A murmured agreement from the class. She grinned. "Good. Get to work!"

"You going to Resource?" Jesse asked me.

I shook my head, pulling my research material from my bag. "Nah. I was just planning to stay here and make summary notes, basically."

"Mind if I use your books?"

"You're most welcome to."

An ear-piercing dragging sound made me grind my teeth together. I glanced back to see Dotty dragging her chair to our desk, then flop down on it once she was positioned in front of us. "Man, I hate this," she grumbled, examining her bright orange nails.

I shrugged. "I'm not a big fan, either, but you gotta do what you gotta do."

"Let's talk about tonight," she suggested, shoving my books aside. With exasperated patience, I placed my elbow on the desk and leaned my chin on my palm. "Are you sure you want to see Les Mis? I hear it's pretty depressing."

"It probably is," I agreed. "But I also hear that it's going to clean up."

"True, true," she murmured. "Do you have to work tonight?"

I considered. "I don't think so. I think Dad called in and told them about my injury." I flexed my bandaged hand in front of my face. It felt sort of numb right now, considering I took pain killers with my food. "I might have the holidays off."

"Good," she sighed. "I want to focus on our routine."

"I don't understand why you have to drag me into everything," Jesse groaned, leaning back in his chair. When we popped the idea to him at lunch, he just kind of froze. But after much arguing with Dotty and bartering with the other members, I begged him, and he agreed. Though reluctantly.

"Sorry," I murmured again.

He shook his head, brown hair falling in his eyes. "I'll do anything I can to help you out." He grinned at me, and I grinned back.

"Have you decided on your occupation yet?" I asked Dotty. And the eye roll made an appearance.

"I'd totally be a damsel in distress." Then she heaved a heavenly sigh. "And Ryan would be my knight in shining armour."

Jesse raised an eyebrow at me. I shrugged, a huge smile on my face. Just thinking about Ryan made Dotty all happy. I was really glad an awesome guy like him was there for Dotty, especially since she really only has us. It's not like her dad's ever really 'present' in his drunk stupor, and her mom walked out on them when she was eleven. That was around the time that we met.

"You'd be a stable boy," she said to Jesse, who discreetly chucked a pencil at her head. Before she could really react, she glanced behind him, smirked, and waggled her eyebrows.

Well, gee. I wonder who she's looking at. Whoever could it be?

"Looky looky, Val," she purred at me. I wouldn't look. Whatever it was, it had nothing to do with me.

…But unable to resist, I snuck a peek past the curtain of my bangs.

Of course there were numerous girls surrounding Christian's table, probably doing more than just explaining the assignment to him. Brooke was there, though I couldn't really blame her. But I couldn't help but feel betrayed.

I immediately looked away when Christian met my gaze, making me seem even more suspicious. Dammit, I shouldn't care what he does.

Jesse flicked my head with his forefinger and thumb, making it sting. "Get your mind out of the gutter."

"It isn't in the gutter; it's in the damn bath."

Dotty raised her eyebrows at us. "How did you two meet again?"

I huffed. "Jason threw my Barbie doll over the fence, and it flew over to Jesse's when he had just moved in. I was crying, and he retrieved it for me." He patted my head, which made me feel like a child.

She reached across the table and pinched my cheek. "You are so adorable."

I swat it away. "Just work on your damn project already."

For the rest of the period, Jesse and I worked in companionable silence, or tried to since Dotty would interrupt with the most random notions. Before we knew it, the bell signalling the end of the school day was trilling, and I heaved a sigh. I had barely gotten any work done.

As we collected our stuff and exited the classroom, Ryan was waiting outside with Dotty, and she ran into his waiting arms, giggling like a little girl. I smiled at the kissing couple before I began the trek to my locker. Our school was generally in the shape of a square, so it was easy to get around. World History wasn't too far from my locker, considering they were both on the second floor.

Along the way, I got a lot of congratulations from random yet familiar passerby, of which I all thanked. After a seemingly long journey, I reached my locker, and all I had to do was get my scarf, coat, and boots on, since I just transported my bag full of supplies everywhere with me for the sake of time.

I was just pulling on my boats when an enticing scent settled next to me. I recognized it immediately, and internally cussed.

"Thank goodness you're wearing tights," Christian observed, settled into a standing position next to me wearing a black leather jacket, which would hardly keep him warm in this weather. "If you weren't and happened to be bending over like this, you'd entrance young men from miles away."

I stood edgily, biting my bottom lip so I didn't say anything rude. "Can I help you with something?" I asked grumpily while I wrapped my scarf around my neck.

I noticed he was watching my process as I folded it into two parts, put them around my neck, then tucked one part in the crook of the other to sort of form a tie. He almost seemed… entranced. His mouth parted slightly, like he wanted to say something, but he shook his head and the infuriating smirk returned.

"Nothing important," he shrugged. "I figured we'd walk down together since we, you know, live so close now."

He always knew what to say to make me more on edge. But I really shouldn't globalize, since I barely knew the guy. "Shouldn't you stick with your brothers?"

Suddenly his expression transformed. He went from confident, nerve grinding Christian to the irritated guy I crashed into yesterday. "I would, if…"

I cocked my head to one side as I buttoned up my pea coat. "If what?"

He shook his head again, mussing his hair even more. I still didn't understand how it could be so dark that light didn't reflect off of it. But hey, everyone's different. And it looked so smooth…

I caught myself thinking about how attractive he was again, and I mentally slapped myself. Just because he was awesome looking on the outside doesn't mean he's pretty on the inside. It was like he was Beauty and the Beast, all wrapped up in one person.

Not wanting to wait for his answer, I began marching towards the staircase. But he still followed behind, and I considered swan diving out the window just so I didn't have to stand beside him. Which was weird. I had never felt so much malice towards someone before. It was like some part of me hated his guts already, even though we just met. But I have never truly hated someone before, except for maybe that man.

But in a way, the only way I ever met him was because I was stupid and petty. I should never have been so selfish… than none of that would've ever happened…

My expression briefly slipped out of its mask of security into a shattered look. I quickly snapped myself out of it. What's done is done. I couldn't change the past, so I should focus on changing the future.

I hadn't realized Christian was unabashedly staring at me until I glanced up at him. His dark eyebrows were drawn dawn, like I was a code he was trying to crack.

My patience was rapidly decreasing. "Problem?" I demanded.

He shrugged his broad shoulders. "You're just weird."

We had just stepped outside and a blast of frigid air immediately blew around us, making my hair whip around in its braid, right into his face. I resisted letting out a bubble of laughter. "I'm weird? I apologized to you, and haven't bothered with you since, and yet you still-"

"Yes, you're weird," he cut me off. I had the sudden urge to wrap my fingers around his neck and start rattling his head back and forth until it fell off.

We had reached the iron gates just then, where his brothers awaited him and Dotty awaited me with Jesse. Both parties seemed surprised that we came out of the school together, tangled in a heated argument.

He stood with his brothers while I stood with my friends. I stationed myself across from him and pointed a threatening finger at his chest. "Look here-"

I was cut off yet again by an insanely flamboyant voice calling, "Oh, Chrissy!"

Christian visibly tensed with a horrified expression. His brothers were mirror images. I was very confused. What could make all of them react like this…?

I slowly turned my head to the hill leading up to the school, and I understood. My arm fell completely slack to my side.

A man, maybe in his early twenties, was frolicking up the hill, waving his hand like a princess being drawn in a carriage. As if that wasn't weird enough, his hair was long and resembled a silver waterfall, and the sunlight made it shine like titanium. But that wasn't all. He was wearing purple pants and a pink, fur, leopard print coat that fell to his calves.

I had never seen a tranny before… how did he know Christian?

"I just knew you would wait for me!" He squealed as he finally settled in front of us. His voice sounded like a man's, but then… it didn't. I couldn't wrap my head around it.

He must've noticed me staring, because he turned his golden-eyed gaze to me, and he smiled elegantly. "Ah, you must be Miss Valerie," he sighed contentedly, taking my black gloved hand in his red gloved one. He pressed it to his lips, though I think the stretch of fabric between us ruined the effect. "I've heard so much about you."

I raised my eyebrows. "Um… have you now." Was I scared? I didn't think do. Maybe just a bit freaked out…

He raised his right back. I had to admit that he had a charmingly handsome face, like that of a prince's. "Oh, yes. Ever since your little run-in with them yesterday, Christian and Rhys have been unable to stop talking about you."

I directed my (horrified) gaze at them. "Really." I turned back to him, trying to muster up a smile and failing. "And you are…?"

"Oh, please forgive me," he pleaded, both with his voice and his eyes. "I am their older and much more graceful brother, Renard." He smiled warmly at me, though there was something… assessing, about his golden eyes. "Please take care of my brothers from now on."

"Uh, sure," I muttered, completely at a loss. This was another one of their brothers? No wonder Christian was so averse to walking home with them. Their brother was… um, special.

He finally released my hand from his gentle grasp, and pressed his against his face and sighed. "There was already arrangements for me to walk them home," he groaned. His face slipped into a feminine pout. "But Chrissy just wouldn't have it. Apparently, he changed his mind!" He tried to leap into Christian's arms (imagine my surprise when I saw that he was at least a head taller than him), but Christian immediately put a hand right in his brother's face, pushing him away.

"Or maybe not," Renard mumbled against his younger brother's grip. Christian let him go, disgust distorting his perfect features. "He knows he can't resist my brotherly love forever…"

"Time to go," Beck suddenly said, surprising me. He grabbed his older brother by the collar of his (bizarre) coat and began dragging him away, Rhys trailing behind. Renard began laughing merrily (even his laughter was effeminate… it sounded like 'ohohoho').

"It was a pleasure, Miss Valerie!" He called back to me, blowing a kiss. I was frozen in place. "I do hope we'll meet again soon!" The retreating figures of the brothers soon disappeared behind the cover of the snowy hill.

Only Christian remained, his jaw clenched and looking ready to bust nails. I didn't want to antagonize him right now, especially after what just happened.

Even so, a snort of laughter burst from my lips.

"It isn't funny," Christian growled, which of course made me laugh even harder. That was the most hilarious thing I had seen in a while. It was amazing how different brothers could be… though that seemed very extreme.

Eventually, I could barely even laugh any more, and I could feel my face turn beet red from the lack of oxygen. Christian was glaring down at me, shaking his head.

"Despite how small you look right now," he hissed. "You're actually very heavy."

Aaaaand there he went, stabbing me in the back again. My laughter ceased instantly. "I already apologized. It's not like I crashed into you on purpose."

He was so silent I considered just walking away with my friends, who were still staring after the brothers in horror. Just as I was about to retrieve them, Christian murmured, "You didn't crash into me."

I was confused instantly. "Um, I distinctly remember being on top of you." Damn, that sounded like an innuendo.

He raked a hand through his black hair, white against black. "That did happen," he admitted. "But not because you crashed into me."

I cocked my head to one side. "Why, then?"

He looked away, his jaw working. "If I hadn't cushioned your fall, you would've hit your head pretty badly, and would've gotten more bandages than that." He pointed down at my damaged hand. I hadn't realized he'd noticed. "So I saw you about to go down, and… I caught you."

My expression softened and all my stone walls broke down instantly. He saved me from hurting myself even more? Then why was he so grumpy? It could've been my imagination, but right now he almost looked… sheepish.

"Oh," I said slowly, like I was speaking for the first time. "Um… thank you?"

He waved his hand dismissively. "It doesn't matter. I'm going home." It could've been from the cold, but his face seemed awfully red.

I smiled tenderly at his slowly disappearing form. Maybe he wasn't all bad if he saved a stupid girl that had only saved the life of a small kitten.

"Val?" Dotty asked suddenly, scaring me. I hadn't noticed that she'd come up beside me. "You're blushing."

I put my hands over my cheeks, making me seem even more suspicious. "Am not."

She immediately started giggling in pure joy. "And the spontaneous combustion of emotion strikes again!"

Jesse was right beside her, his gaze hard and threatening. "Let's go. We don't want to be late." He set off down the hill, expecting us to follow.

Dotty began walking with us since she was coming over to my place, but I trailed behind, thinking. I felt bad for misjudging Christian. Maybe he was actually one of those guys who was all tough on the inside, but a total softie on the inside.

I remembered the first time I saw his eyes, the childlike innocence within them. I grinned at nothing. I didn't exactly understand why, but… my day suddenly seemed a lot brighter.

Z

"You disgrace me!" Dotty hissed as we exited the theater into the dark evening, snow falling softly from the sky. She shoved a tissue in my face. "Wipe your smudges with this!"

I took it gratefully, wet it with my tongue, then began dabbing the area surrounding my eyes to remove the dark smears that had developed there during our viewing of Les Misérables. "You were crying, too," I reminded her, sniffling.

"But not as much as you! Sheesh, Val, you were bawling your eyes out."

I didn't dare deny it. During the whole movie, I could barely stop crying for a second, especially when Anne Hathaway had to become a prostitute to help pay for her daughter. Jesse had to hold my hand tightly so I didn't run out of the theater. I think I ruined other people's viewing experience, but that movie struck a cord with me on an emotional level.

We had Jesse's truck tonight, parked just outside of the Cineplex, and we all climbed in its cold metallic walls. I blew my nose so snot didn't dribble out of it. We were heading straight home, since they had taken me to the Mexicali Roses attached to the theater to open gifts (a bunch of coupons for free hair dye at our favourite salon from Dotty, and a gorgeous glittery snowflake necklace from Jesse). I was grateful for that; it was a long day and I was tired. Especially after that movie made me miserable (get it?).

Jesse dropped Dotty off first, and I got out of the back to exchange a quick hug. She said happy birthday once more, smiled her best friend smile at me, then bounded back into her apartment. I hefted myself into the front seat, and glanced at my reflection in the passenger mirror. I grimaced.

"You don't look that bad," Jesse lied. I rolled my eyes with a grin. He smiled back and pulled off the side of the road to start towards our places.

He likes driving in silence, so I didn't strike up much of a conversation. I was also silently mulling over my viewing experience. I lost it and was controlled by hiccupping sobs when that little boy was shot to death and the investigator placed his medal on his chest. That reminded me so much of Alice. I probably wouldn't be able to watch that again. But when I looked past all that, it was an amazing film. I would definitely give it five stars and an Oscar.

Before I knew it, Jesse bumped the Chevy into his driveway. I shook my head, trying to concentrate on saying goodbye 'till tomorrow. I smiled at him.

"Thanks for the awesome birthday," I sang, truly happy that I had such amazing friends to do all this for me.

He smiled back. "No problem. I'd do anything to make you happy." I didn't like it when he said stuff like that; it made it sound like I was binding him to me, when in reality I wanted him to fall in love like that boy in the movie and chase that girl until he could finally be with her.

"I'll see you tomorrow," I said, grabbing the truck handle. Before I could pull it open, Jesse reached across the center console and grabbed my wrist, stopping me from moving.

I met his gaze. Something seemed up with him all of a sudden. His teeth were clenched together and he was staring at the truck's leather seats like he was trying to say something.

"Yes?" I asked, apparently taking him by surprise.

"Um." He took his hand back and scratched his head awkwardly. His hand was shaking. "Listen, Val, there's something I've been wanting to tell you for a while."

I smiled, willing to listen. "What is it?"

Apparently I said something wrong, because his face fell. He shook his head, though he looked incredibly disappointed. "Just that maybe we should drive to school in the winter. You look so cold in the morning."

For some reason, I felt like that wasn't what he wanted to say. My brow furrowed in concern. I would've asked what he really wanted to tell me, but I knew that with Jesse, talking about things like that would only worsen his mood.

So I softened my expression and said, "Okay. Should I meet you here tomorrow."

He sighed. "Sure."

I sat in the truck a moment more, giving him one last chance to say what was on his mind. Instead, he unbuckled his seatbelt, and stretched over to me to give me a peck on the cheek. "Happy birthday," he whispered.

I smiled at him again, used to the show of affection he always used to perform when we were kids. "Thanks," I said, climbing out of the truck. I only heard him get out when I was out of sight.

The walk to my house was short and uneventful. The snow had stopped falling, so I could see completely clearly. I glanced across the street. The Jasper's had their lights on, and I could see someone bustling around in the living room.

I looked away, feeling creeper-ish. I had reached my house, and climbed the steel stairs to open the front door.

"Home," I called into the kitchen, where Mom was stationed yet again.

"Oh, Val," she sighed. "Perfect timing. Could you grab me the extra serving plates from the basement? I don't have enough up here."

A tiny stab of hope speared through me. Maybe she had remembered today after all. But when I entered the kitchen, dinner seemed completely normal. She seemed completely normal. The house was completely normal.

My chest felt suffocated with disappointed. She had forgotten again. I shouldn't have expected anything different; it would be out of character for her and Dad to remember, anyway. But I still couldn't help but feel sad that they didn't remember the day their first daughter was born.

"Sure," I grumbled, opening the door to the dank basement and thumping down the stairs.

I flicked on a light, though it wasn't really bright. I glanced up. The bulb was burning out. I heaved a sigh. I'd probably end up having to change it.

Glancing around, I wondered where she kept the extra serving plates. Maybe in the spare room? I shuffled around slightly until I found the room where we kept all our extra junk. There were numerous knick knacks in there: my old dolls, Jason's Nintendo, some old albums, a broken mirror… ah, serving plates. I began to pick my way through the mess, being careful not to step on any shards of glass.

Just as I picked up two big, white serving plates, the bulb burnt out, and I lost my only means of light. I groaned. Great. I'd have to feel around to get out.

The light from the kitchen shone done through to doorway, providing some slight illumination. I could see the broken mirror a tad, able to define crack from crack. This scene felt so eerie, almost like there was a murderer or something waiting to pounce on me. I chuckled, though it was humourless.

As I stared at my broken reflection in the mirror, thinking about how to approach this problem, I could've sworn I saw something flicker inside of it.

I froze.

Words suddenly weaved into my head, flowing together like puffs of steam.

The world beyond the looking glass… Don't be afraid of your reflection… Come, closer to your destiny…

Oh-kay, time to start heading upstairs. Things were getting weird. I think I've been watching too many late-night horror movies with Dotty.

Something dark moved in the broken reflection.

My hands were trembling. I shouldn't be afraid; things like ghosts didn't really exist. That's why they made movies about them. I felt like I should remember something… something from last night…

I quickly whirled towards the staircase before things got even creepier.

Then I stopped dead, my eyes as wide as saucers.

Something was watching me between the cracks of the wooden stairs, calculating and heart-stopping. I knew because I could clearly define two slanted eyes, and they were the colour of oozing embers. I was so scared I couldn't move.

Your reflection is calling…

The predator seemed to slither out from the darkness of the staircase, moving with a hissing sound. I couldn't breathe. It wasn't just that I was afraid to, I was unable to. It`s like my heart, pounding a thousand miles a second in fear, had made my body stop functioning properly.

In the rectangle of light coming from the top of the stairs, I could see the creature in front of me, clear as day. It was a giant, black, snake, forked tongue flicking in and out of its mouth. Bat wings the size of my arms were twitching behind its back, like it was itching for something. Its eyes had thin pupils, not even almond shaped slits. Just two black vertical lines.

It gradually began hissing, and I felt like the shadows were swallowing me. Fear seemed to be the only thing I could feel in that instant. The snake's scales were moving, like thousands of tiny black bugs were crawling on top of each other on it. Except for the wisps of black that seemed to flicker off its body like flames.

The Darkness will reel you in…

The broken looking glass…

Your broken self…

Your reflection will reveal all…

My reflection.

Like someone flipped a switch on robot Valerie, I remembered the dream from last night. My reflection warning me about the darkness. Staring at the giant menace before me, my body got out of shock mode and I dropped the plates to the floor. They exploded in shards of cheap china.

Noticing my sudden movement, the snake didn't hiss; it roared, like a dragon.

Panicked, frightened bursts of breath kept erupting from my mouth. I tried to run, though there was nowhere to go. I just had to get away. I had no doubt in my mind that this thing would hurt me.

Its body was so long that it simply flopped its top half in front of me, blocking any means of hopeless escape. I had to do something. The need to survive was kicking in, making me determined to somehow get upstairs. Maybe if I could jump over its tail…

Like sensing my thoughts, the snake darted with movement the speed of light and suddenly had me wrapped in its dark grasp, squeezing the breath out of me, like I did to Jason just this morning. I yelped in pain, trying to kick, punch, something to get away. But it was futile. This thing was four times my size and had me like a mouse in a trap.

Its head was suddenly right in front of my face, its orange eyes boring into mine. Its forked tongue flicked out, sniffing my face. Then, before I could really register what was happening, its mouth practically unhinged to reveal rows and rows of teeth, jagged like broken glass.

It sunk every last one of them into my shoulder. I screamed in pure agony. It seemed to be pumping something into me, and whatever it was, it made my blood ignite, and every last bit of me felt like I was burning, burning to death… like being thrown into a crackling campfire and held down by some invisible weight…

My consciousness seemed to be shoving heavily on me, making me see stars. I was going to die, and I didn't understand why. I had never done anything. I'd never even seen something like this before. On top of pain, I felt frustration, sorrow, devastation. I had so much I wanted to do…

My breath raged out in some sort of cry. I wasn't finished yet. I had to live.

For Alice.

Some sort of insanely bright light began to erupt from my chest, being squeezed by the snake. It hissed and hurriedly tried to unwrap itself from me. But it was too slow. Everything was enveloped by some sort of white light, and the snake seemed to be shocked by a large mass of lightning. Nothing was left of it but smoldering ash.

I was left to lay on the floor, my breath coming out in short, ragged bursts. The shadows seemed to press on me from all sides, making me close my eyes. It hurt to do anything. My body was still on fire, and I was writhing in pain on my supposedly cold basement floor.

Then, like a giant blanket, darkness completely enveloped me, and I couldn't feel, see, hear anything anymore. Everything was gone.