Chapter Fifty-Four – Interlude

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

He opened his eyes, and for the first time since he’d moved in found himself unsurprised that his room was empty. It had taken much longer than it should have. At this point, he had been sleeping in here longer than he had been sleeping in the room with the other two. He definitely was happy about that. He had been the one who’d chosen this, after all.

He groaned as he sat up, running a hand through his hair. It felt greasy. He probably needed a shower. He had probably been rolling around and sweating in his bed during the night. Nightmare? It could’ve been a nightmare, though he really didn’t have them in the first place. Things were changing, though. Things were definitely changing, among all the people in the Academy, and all the people in the City. There was no denying it. Anyone who tried to was idiotic. That, or they weren’t aware. And who was so dense that they weren’t able to see something was wrong, especially over the last few weeks? Certainly not anyone who he’d bother spending his time around. Which was— admittedly— most of the people here.

Why was he thinking so much about this stuff, anyway? He had stuff to do that was better than this depressing nonsense. Sessions to attend. Breakfast to eat. Throwing his blanket off himself, he trudged to the bathroom and flicked the light on, examining himself in the mirror. A dried line of drool ran down his chin and boogers encrusted his lower eyelids. He definitely needed a shower. He stripped himself of his pyjamas, stepped into the tub, and turned on the warm stream, letting the water rush over his head and face. Not having to share a bathroom was certainly one of the better perks that came with his decision.

Decisions. He’d made a lot of decisions over the past few weeks. The past few months, really. Some had been better than others. A frown crept up on his face and he struggled to push it away. Surely his decision to do this, to be alone, had been the best out of all of them. Honestly, he didn’t want to think of what he may have done otherwise. Like lash out, like he had done when he’d still had roommates. That event had led to the big blowout they had, which had led to… he shook his head, sending his hair swinging into his eyes. Grabbing the shampoo, he squirted it all over his scalp and scrubbed it around. Yes, it was his lashing out that had ultimately led to all of that. But it wasn’t really his fault, looking at it in the grand scheme of things. That situation had been started by other people, and culminated in him losing his patience over an understandable series of events. It wasn’t fully his fault.

Still, though. As much as he hated to admit it, as much as he didn’t want to, he did kind of regret it. He hadn’t wanted nor expected things to spiral out of control as quickly and suddenly as they had. Maybe he’d have been better off holding his tongue. Everyone else surely would have. As it was now, he had to live with the way things were— with him all alone, ruminating over his past decisions. With the thoughts weighing down on his mind. Knowing that Olive and Kendall probably resented him greatly, and that if he were still here, Peyton probably would, too.

Scout reached over and snapped off the shower flow. He stepped out onto the damp tile floor, wiping his hair out his face. The towel felt rough, almost abrasive as he dried himself off, but he ignored it. What was the point of being sensitive? He wasn’t going to be sensitive. He wasn’t going to be like Peyton, that bumbling dullard. Of all the mysteries in the world, why Kendall and Olive liked him so much had to be one of the bigger. He couldn’t take care of himself, constantly had to be babied. Maybe that was why they liked him so much. Too bad they didn’t even know if he was still alive, anymore. But that was their fault, was it not?

Scout pulled on his uniform and stepped out into the hallway, resisting the urge to yawn. The hallway had very few students in it. They were all sleeping more likely than not, unwilling to wake up until the morning bell forced them to. Well, he would get breakfast while it was still fresh and get to his session before anyone else. And he wouldn’t have to push his way through as many stragglers or trade shallow, vapid small talk with as many of his peers. There was nothing wrong with this situation, really. It was a win-win situation. They got sleep, he got stuff done.

He walked into the elevator, pressed the button to the first floor. Another student was rushing over from the other side of the hall, approaching fast. Scout pressed the button to close the doors. Tilting his head back, he sighed through his nose as the elevator began its descent. Maybe he would grab a sandwich, or an apple or something. Something that wouldn’t hinder his mobility, so he could walk to the Cassidy building as fast as possible. There was no way he was staying in the mess hall to eat. He’d known that since before he’d woken up, and he knew it now as the elevator doors opened and he walked out.

Scout actually had a pep in his step as he approached the double doors that led to the mess hall. Then he walked in for real, and felt it all evaporate in a second. At the other end of the hall, by the food line, there stood two people that he truly, honestly, did not feel like dealing with or even interacting with. Olive and Kendall. They were speaking to two other students, a boy and a girl, that he probably didn’t know the names of. Valen and Harper, or something ridiculous like that. He didn’t care, and he was sure that they didn’t, either. They were probably too busy planning out their grand revolution or whatever it was. Thank goodness he didn’t have to worry about that anymore.

But what was he supposed to do now? Scout glanced at the door, thought better of it, and walked toward the food line. He pointedly avoided looking at the others as he grabbed a peanut butter jelly sandwich, debating on whether or not he could carry a cup of juice all the way up to the higher floors of the Cassidy building without spilling it. He was thinking about swapping said juice for a cup of milk when he felt a pair of eyes burning into the side of his shirt. He turned to look. It was Kendall. They made eye contact for a split second before Scout looked away. He didn’t need anything to drink. He’d be fine. The bread gave under the pressure of his fingers as he walked to the exit. What was he feeling so nervous for?

He tore into his sandwich as he walked down the hallway, keeping his gaze straight ahead so to not make eye contact with anyone else. Already, he could imagine what Kendall and the others were saying about him. There goes Scout. There he goes, still all alone after ratting out on us and making Peyton disappear to who knows where. Curse that Scout. How hadn’t they gotten in trouble for that, anyway? How hadn’t he gotten in trouble for it?

Oh, yes, he knew. They had made it so they wouldn’t get in trouble, through some sort of miracle. He didn’t want to know how they’d went about doing that. Probably had themselves sitting on the official’s shoulders. Whatever. It wasn’t his problem anymore. It should have never been his problem; it had just become so due to some arbitrary circumstances that had made Peyton and Kendall his roommates. But now it wasn’t his problem anymore.

Scout walked out the student center building, through the courtyard, to the Cassidy building. He swallowed the last bite of his sandwich— maybe he should have gotten that glass of milk, after all— and stepped inside, going to the elevator. The morning bell rang just as he got in, but there were still three other students inside despite his earliness. At least they weren’t anyone he knew, this time. He pressed his shoulders against the back of the elevators and put on his best glowering face as one of them pressed the button to the fourth floor. This class he was going to was… ah, yes. Science. The one class that he’d used to have with Peyton. They still hadn’t moved his desk. They probably wouldn’t anytime soon.

The elevator stopped, and the door opened. Scout pushed himself out first, getting into the hallway before the others could. The hallway seemed to stretch on longer than it should have, even as he walked to the classroom. All the seats were empty, including the one to the right of Scout’s. Scout licked his bottom lip, nibbling a piece of dried skin off of it. Then he sat down and waited for the others to come in.

And come in they did. Scout didn’t look away from his desk as the students walked on one by one. He just wanted to get this class over with. He still had language work to finish. And he was pretty sure that it was due tomorrow. He didn’t have time for science. It was more than clear that he wouldn’t be following a career related to it by now. That was, of course, if he and the City even lasted that long for him to graduate.

He didn’t get much time to ruminate over it any longer. Mister Mallory walked in, and the students around him stopped their chatter and whispering. Scout sighed, propping his chin up in his hand. Another boring lesson. Maybe he would just zone out, like he always did. He had more important things to worry about and think about. Like why everyone suddenly seemed tense. He could feel it, even without looking at anyone— and even when he could do it he could see it clear on everyone’s face. Even Mister Mallory seemed tense. Well, that made sense, Scout was pretty sure, but what about the students? Did they know? Surely, if Olive had been spreading the word to others, then at least some of them had to have. He, admittedly, wasn’t quite sure what to think of that.

The lesson droned on and on. Scout could feel his patience slowly slipping away, even when he wasn’t paying attention. Occupying his fingers with a crumb of bread on his desk, he snuck glances at those sitting around him. All of them looked restless, bored, or worried. As restless, bored, and worried as he did. Maybe even more. Sessions in the Academy could be very grating on the nerves, sometimes. Lucky for them that they usually only had one per day. Or maybe that wasn’t much of a good thing. It gave other people too much of a chance to get into trouble.

After what felt like an incomprehensible amount of time, the bell signifying the end of dismissal rang. Scout was among the first to stand, stretching out his legs, arms, and neck as subtly as he could. Already there were students filling the hallway, going downstairs or upstairs or outside or whatever. Scout, in particular, was planning on going straight back to his room as soon as he could. Lunch? Lunch could wait. He wasn’t hungry, though he was thirsty— some of the peanut butter from his sandwich had caked itself onto the roof of his mouth, making it hard to swallow. But that was no big deal. He could always just drink water from the bathroom faucet.

He could still remember when he had to help Peyton get back to the student center. First-year students always tended to be like that— Scout had been a first-year student last year, but still… his point still stood. Surely he hadn’t been as useless as some of the students that walked around this place sometimes. But they would probably grow into their shoes in time, though. Hopefully.

Would Peyton have a chance of doing that, one of these days? Scout still didn’t really know what had happened to Peyton. As far as he knew, nobody did. Scout’s last memory of him had been him saying that he didn’t want to know why Olive and Kendall had been hiding such secrets from him. Scout, of course, had told him anyway, then announced that he wouldn’t be a part of Kendall’s and Olive’s plan for any longer, that he was going to get switched out as soon as possible so he would never have to deal with any of their foolishness again. Could have that played a part in why he had disappeared so suddenly? Scout had been interrogated after he’d requested a new room. He’d kept his head on and didn’t say anything the officials didn’t want to hear, and was therefore set free with nothing much more than a slap on the wrist. Maybe Peyton just hadn’t been able to keep his temper as well as he had. And because of it, he’d paid the consequences. But what was the consequence in the first place?

Scout shook away the thought as he walked to the exit of the classroom. On a whim, he looked back for a split second. Instantly, he felt the hairs on his nape stand on end. By the desk, the teacher— Mister Mallory— he was staring at him. And he didn’t exactly look pleased, either. Scout probably would have asked him what was the problem if a student hadn’t nudged his back, prompting him to go forward. With a grunt, he did. The goosebumps on his arms refused to go away. He shook his head as he walked into the hallway, shouldering past a cluster of students in his way. He just needed some rest. A nap, maybe. And some water.

The courtyard felt thick and muggy as he walked through it. There were too many students. Too many people. Or maybe he was just more rattled than he’d thought he was. He’d never been a people person to begin with, but with the combination of everything that had happened over the past few months… no. He just needed rest. A few hours’ nap would leave him feeling good as new. And if it didn’t, well— who was he trying to please besides himself?

He walked into the student center, used the elevator— there were only two other students in it, thank goodness— and rushed into the hallway once the doors opened to the fourth floor. The inside of his wrist tingled as he put it on the sensor, and the feeling didn’t dissipate even as the door opened up for him. With a sigh, he walked inside and let it slide shut behind him.

The room was empty. Empty, and quiet, too. Scout had never been one to deck out his room with gaudy decorations that he’d end up throwing out a week later, even back when he lived in Rosenvale. But even this felt too… blank for his liking. He scratched the back of his head and frowned. This had never, ever bothered him before. He was making issues where they didn’t exist.

Scout’s bed, still unmade from when he’d woken up that morning, coaxed him to come forward and flop down onto it, and forget all his thoughts. Scout did just that, before his dignity got the better of him and he sat back up. Rubbing his nose with the back of his hand, he looked to the closet. Where he had put his medication, right after he’d moved in. It was still there, to this very day.

Before he could think things through, he had gotten up from the bed and was standing by the ajar closet door. The crumpled paper bag was sitting forgotten on the top shelf. Standing on his tiptoes, he reached up and nudged it off the shelf, letting it fall into his hands. Then he walked back to his bed, unwrapping the top. Two needles were nestled near the bottom, as well as a container of chalky white pills. Were they even good anymore? It’d been so long since he’d last gotten new ones. And yet he hadn’t been penalized for not taking them. He wasn’t even sure if the officials even noticed. He wouldn’t be surprised if they hadn’t, or if they had but just didn’t care. He didn’t know which one would be more concerning.

His pointer and middle fingers twitched a little as he took out one of the needles. It was still green. No discoloration, no cloudiness. The viscosity even looked the same as it had all those days ago. Scout frowned, turning it over in his hands. Now that he really put some thought to it, unlike others he was sure, he didn’t know what the medication was even made out of. Hormones? Chemicals? Or, perhaps, could it even just be some sort of placebo that didn’t do anything? It was unlikely, but still possible. What he really wanted to know was what exactly the use of it was. For some reason, after he’d moved in here, he just hadn’t had the inclination to take it, and he didn’t feel like much had changed. Until now. Scout raised the needle to his mouth, plucking off the cap with his teeth.

The knock at the door almost made him choke on it. Gagging, he dropped the cap into his hand, put the needle into the bag, tossed the bag underneath the bed, and turned to the door, struggling to find his voice again. “Uh… who— who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

He didn’t say his name, but Scout recognized his voice immediately. He would recognize it any time of day. His heart jumped to his throat, and he swallowed it back down. “Oh,” he said. “Oh. Well, uh— what do you want? Do you want to come in?”

“If you would like me to.”

Scout sat there for a few seconds longer, internally debating on what he was supposed to do. Then he stood, smoothed out his hair, and walked to the door. It slid open. “Come in,” he said.

Kendall came in. He stood by the entrance for a while, looking around dispassionately. “Your room’s pretty plain looking,” he finally said.

“Uh. I know. I never bothered to decorate it. It never seemed important to me.”

“After you moved in?”

“Yeah. I don’t see the point of it. I’d just have to take it all down in a few months, anyway. Doesn’t make sense. The place speaks for itself, anyway.” He stared at the barren gray walls and the simple black furniture.

Kendall’s eyes burned into the side of his head. “All of his stuff is still in there, you know. They never came to pack them up, take it all away. And I’m not going to do it.”

“Hm.”

“Don’t you remember, Scout?”

Scout moved to look at him at last. “‘Course I do. It’s not like I have retroactive amnesia, or something.”

“That makes sense.”

Kendall didn’t say anything else. Scout frowned, feeling a vein pulsing in his temple. “Well? Did you come in here just to drill me on my stylistic choices, or what?”

“No. I came in here to see if you were alright.”

Scout blinked, feeling his annoyance melt away— but only slightly. “Oh. Wait, really?”

“Mm-hmm.” Kendall stepped forward, barely sparing Scout a glance. “I saw you downstairs during breakfast. You didn’t look all that happy.”

“What’s it matter to you?” Scout walked back to his bed and dropped down onto it, feeling the springs creak under his weight. “You don’t have to pretend that you’re my friend anymore. I’m not your roommate anymore. And I’d prefer if it stayed that way.”

“Just because you aren’t my roommate anymore doesn’t mean that I can’t be concerned for your wellbeing, Scout.” Kendall stepped forward, pausing at the foot of his bed. “Can I sit down?”

Scout swallowed. He looked away and scratched his cheek. Weird how he wanted to be so close after so long. And after they’d separated on such bad terms, no less. “Sure. Fine. Yeah, you can.”

Kendall sat down, and the mattress slouched under his weight. He folded his hands on his lap and stared out the window, pursing his lips. “You looked upset.”

He almost wanted to laugh at that. “You’ve told me that already.”

Kendall paused. “No, I didn’t,” he finally said. “I said you didn’t look happy. That’s different from being upset.”

“You’re being pedantic. Are you going to try and make a point, or what?”

Kendall sighed, the bed sheets wrinkling under his clenched fingers. “It’s okay if you’re not exactly happy, Scout. I don’t think any of us are happy right now. But you can’t be upset. Not right now.”

“Why? Because Olive says I can’t?”

Kendall didn’t say anything. That was more than enough of an answer for Scout. He crossed his arms and looked away, fully aware of how petulant and child-like he must’ve looked. “I don’t care what Olive thinks,” he said. “She’s the one that caused this whole mess in the first place. She’s the one that caused Peyton to be sent away— and for what? Why do you even look up to her so much?”

Kendall frowned, a crease forming in between his eyebrows. “Don’t talk about Peyton like that,” he said, and there was actually an edge to his voice. “Or Olive, either. She knows what she’s doing.”

“Clearly, she doesn’t.”

“She wouldn’t have sent him away if she didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”

Scout huffed through his nose, because it was all he could do to hide is incredulity. So that had been intentional, then? Making Peyton vanish into thin air after he threw a temper tantrum? Some friend she was. Kendall, too. He supposed he should’ve been glad he never really got along with any of them. The less people close to him that could mess up things for him and everyone else, the better.

Kendall started to talk again. “I know you don’t believe that she does, but— she does. She’s going to make things better for all of us. You haven’t been around her long enough to know that. But she will. You’ll see. She’ll bring Peyton back when everything is alright again. She just wanted to make sure that he was safe through it all, after what happened.”

Kendall’s voice had grown quieter. Reverent, almost. Scout snuck a glance at him. He was still staring into space, like a fool. Scout sighed. “You have a lot of faith in her,” he said. “Too much of it. Things are starting to fall apart.”

“How so? Can you give any concrete evidence of that?”

“Well— there was Peyton disappearing. After screaming at you and me, no less. And everyone… everyone seems… more scared. Like they know that something bad is going to happen.”

“That just sounds like paranoia to me.”

“How can you not be paranoid? It makes no sense not to be. So much bad stuff is happening. Things aren’t even working anymore— I haven’t even been taking my medication anymore. And I always have. If I tried that a few months ago then I would definitely end up being questioned by the officials.” He faltered, squeezing his hands against each other. “It’s just— it’s like things are just… hanging by a thread. Like the smallest disturbance will make everything go crazy.”

Kendall didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he put a hand on Scout’s shoulder, ignoring the way he stiffened underneath his touch. “You need to be optimistic, Scout,” he murmured. “A bad attitude is only going to end up making things worse. A lot worse.”

Scout wanted to pull away, knew that he really should have. But something stopped him. Kendall was actually talking to him. Actually seemed concerned for him, as selfish as the source of that concern was. That was what stopped him from completely giving in. He was probably going to end up regretting that “I know that being hopeful’s a good thing,” he said. “Usually. Don’t you think that it may be a little less of a good thing in this situation? Maybe it’ll just end up making things worse than they are?”

“I don’t think so.” Kendall squeezed his shoulder a little harder. “Why don’t you hang out with Olive for a little while? She’ll likely be able to reassure you better than I can.”

And just like that, Scout found the courage to finally move away. “Uh— no, thanks,” he said. “I think I’m good. You coming here to talk to me was enough.”

“Oh. Okay.” Kendall dropped his hand back into his lap. He flexed his fingers, frowning at them. “My wrist hurts,” he muttered, more to himself than to Scout.

Scout stared at him for a second. Then, on impulse, he rested his fingers on Kendall’s wrist, pressing down slightly. It did feel kind of warm. Maybe he was getting a fever. But that wasn’t the point, right now. “Hey,” he said. “Just because I don’t want to go see Olive doesn’t mean that I’m upset you came to see me. I just said that to you.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Scout lowered his head, lifting his fingers from Kendall’s wrist. “I appreciate you coming to check up on me, I guess. Maybe… maybe I’ve been lonelier than I thought I was.”

“Really.”

Scout nodded. He swallowed, a sour taste lingering in the back of his throat. “Yeah. I’ve— never had that many people who actually cared for me, I guess. Probably because I’m kind of a…” he trailed away. “I think people don’t usually understand me, the way I think. They think I’m not good enough for them, or something.” He paused, then laughed. “That’s why I got you and Peyton for roommates, I’m pretty sure. So the Academy could force me out of my shell some more.”

Kendall pulled his hand away, putting it on his lap. “I can see why you’d think that.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m glad that you can see that.” He paused. “Hey, look. I know that we— we kinda got off to a bad start. I know. I’m sorry. But— maybe things aren’t completely wrecked?” He rested his hand on Kendall’s exposed wrist, feeling how hot it was. “Maybe we can start over? Maybe we could try to… repair our relationship a little bit, you know?”

“How so?”

“You know what I mean. We should try to start over. We don’t even have to become roommates again or anything. I just…” a lump formed in his throat; he coughed a bit to clear it away. “I think we should just try to repair things a little bit. See if they go anywhere… better from there.” He wrapped his fingers around his wrist. “You get what I’m saying, don’t you? What do you say?”

Kendall looked down, his face unreadable. And then— as if he’d just had refuse spilled all over him— he wrenched his hand away, rising to his feet. “No. Not right now. Not when everything is still going on.”

Scout’s mouth dropped into a gape. “What— what do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.” Kendall barely spared him another glance as he went over to the door. “Peyton is still gone. I can’t forgive you for what you did to him until he comes back. I’m sure that you understand.”

Scout blinked up at him, at a loss for words. Then he clenched his fist. “But… I’m pretty sure you just told me Olive took him away so he could be safe.”

“Yes. Safe from the situation that you ultimately put him in.”

Scout shook his head, pushing himself off the mattress. “It wasn’t me. It was you. It was Peyton himself. If he hadn’t overreacted— if you hadn’t been doing all of this and keeping it from him in the first place— then maybe none of this would have been a problem. Peyton wouldn’t have been sent away. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now. This is your fault. And you’re denying me because of it?”

“Everything would have been alright if you hadn’t intervened. He wouldn’t have had to leave. Everything would be alright— as it should have been.” Kendall took a few steps to the door, opening it. He wiped the inside of his wrist on the thigh of his pants. “Maybe when he comes back, and I can make sure he’s alright. When I can help him, and be with him again. But until then? No. I’m sorry.”

He didn’t sound very sorry at all.

Scout watched him leave, at a loss for words. He got his voice back a minute too late. “Fine,” he snorted at the re-sealed door, then turned away. “Fine. Be like that. Wait for your precious little Peyton to come back! See if I care! See if he cares! He was always just Olive’s little doll anyway!”

Silence. Scout swallowed, clenching his fists and glaring at nothing as his voice fell into the empty air. His anger in his stomach died from a flare to a slow, constant simmer, leaving behind a growing pit. Then he was left wondering what he could do to get rid of it.

He stood there by his bed for a while longer, waiting until he felt calm enough, stable enough to move. Then he crouched down, pulling the bag out from under it. This had been a mistake. All of it had been a mistake. He shouldn’t have let himself be so vulnerable. That was stupid of him, and he wasn’t usually stupid. Unlike everyone else in this stupid place. But he’d gotten his rationality back. He knew what he had to do now.

Kneeling on the floor, ignoring the pain in his feet and knees, Scout took the open needle and pressed the tip of it against his wrist. Kendall had said his wrist was hurting. Probably because he was stupid enough to think forgoing such an important part of life was an okay thing to do. Well. Scout wouldn’t be that stupid. He wouldn’t go down that route. And he wouldn’t let himself get so soft just because of a little closeness ever again. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, steeling himself. In and out. Parallel to the wrist. Just like it had been taught to him his whole life.

He did everything right, but it still hurt.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Twenty-One

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

The wrist sensor quivered as he slammed his arm against it, and he squeezed through the door the second it opened enough to do so. While most of the students and staff were going outside, ready to make their way to their sessions, he was the one fighting his way into the building and through the hallway. There were so many people going down the stairs, yet none of them were who Peyton was looking for. He pushed his way up the staircase, ignoring the way his heart started to race and how his breath grew strained and ragged. He had to ignore it all. Scout and Kendall still had to be upstairs, in their room. They had to be. But they would leave if he wasn’t fast enough. He couldn’t allow them to leave— not until they had given him what he wanted.

By the time he’d reached the fourth floor, his lungs felt like they had been set on fire and his knees were shaking. No— his whole body was shaking. Was the trek up the stairs that hard? Or was it that he was just that upset? He paused at the top of the stairs for a moment to catch his breath, his rising frustrations only making his anger worse. He couldn’t stop. They would get away if he stopped. He couldn’t let that happen. He had to keep going.

The corridor seemed to stretch on forever, but that didn’t stop Peyton from racing through it. People stopped to look at him, but he ignored them as well as he could. Just like he tried to ignore the doubt needling at the back of his mind. There was no time for doubt. He was right— he had to be right. All three of them were hiding something important from him. There was no way that there wasn’t anything going on. Olive wouldn’t have acted the way she had if that’d been the case.

He tried to control his breathing as he approached the room, tried to still his trembling hands, but he couldn’t. It was now or never, then. The anger would go away soon, and with it, so would his strength to question Scout and Kendall.

He pressed his wrist hard against the sensor. The door slid open. He clenched his fists, took in a deep breath, and screamed. “I know what you guys are doing! Tell me why—”

His exhaustion-filled voice hitched in his throat. Kendall was standing right in front of the door, hand still held out like had just been about to leave the room. Slowly, he withdrew. His dark eyes, concerned and confused and oh so earnest, searched Peyton’s sweaty, burning face. “Peyton?” he asked. “I— you aren’t— what’s the matter?” He stepped forward, holding out his arm again.

Peyton jerked away. He opened his mouth and found that nothing came out. His cheeks burned hot, tears prickling in his eyes. The confidence he had been feeling just seconds before leached out of him. He turned away. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to barge in on you.”

“No, it’s alright.” A hand suddenly rested on his shoulder Peyton lurched away again. Kendall’s quiet intake of breath raked against his ears. He sounded so worried. No. That wasn’t right.  Why was he worried? “What’s the matter, Peyton?” he asked again.

Slowly, Peyton turned back around. Kendall had lowered his arm at least, but the thought of having to look him in the eye still burnt a hole in Peyton’s stomach. He coughed back a sob, his tongue heavy in his mouth. “I— n-n-nothing is the matter. I was just joking.”

“Peyton. Don’t lie.” That hand on his shoulder again. He pulled back, almost completely out the door now. Kendall let his arm drop, but he didn’t stop looking at him. Why wouldn’t he stop looking at him? “Peyton…” he started.  “Is this about the talk we had the other day? Because if it is, then I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I really didn’t. I just… wanted to make sure you were okay.” He fell silent for a moment. “You don’t seem okay now. Please, Peyton. I’m your friend. I want you to be happy again.”

Do you? Do you really?” He squeezed his eyes shut, his fingernails digging painfully into his arms. “If you really wanted me to be happy, then you wouldn’t keep secrets from me! You— you wouldn’t team up with Scout and Olive and try to make sure that I didn’t know anything about it! That’s not what friends are supposed to do, is it? Is it, Kendall?”

“What are you talking about?”

The bathroom door suddenly swung open. Peyton flinched violently, but Kendall had already turned around. Scout walked out into the room with a towel to his hair. He narrowed his eyes as he saw Peyton and Kendall, his feet grinding to a halt. “Uh. What’s going on?”

Peyton looked toward Scout and suddenly found his voice escaping him once again. His words came out reedy and strained, only getting more incoherent by the second. “I— I—” he swallowed, furiously scrubbing his hand against his eyes. “What— what are you guys hiding from me?” he blubbered out. “Why are you hiding secrets from me? I thought— I thought we were supposed to be friends!”

“Peyton, please. Come inside. You’re going to make a scene.” Kendall held a hand out to him, stepping forward. “I can— I’ll explain then, okay? Just come back into the room. Please.”

Peyton realized that he was standing in the hallway then, just outside the doorway. Anyone who happened to be walking by would see and hear exactly what was going on. He stepped back into the room, stiffening as the door clicked shut and sealed away the light from outside. He looked up to Kendall, clenching his jaw painfully. “Tell me now.”

Kendall opened his mouth, then closed it. He bit his bottom lip, staring down at the floor. “I— well, Peyton. You know, I… I really don’t like seeing you like this. I really don’t, trust me.” He inhaled shakily. “But… I don’t think I can really tell you anything detailed in good conscience. It doesn’t have anything to do with you personally, really. It just wouldn’t—”

“You lied?

“What?”

“You said that you were going to tell me, but now you’re not! You lied to me! Again!” Peyton jabbed a finger into Kendall’s face. “First you lie by keeping everything from me and pretending that nothing was wrong, and now you do this? Do you even consider me your friend at all?”

“Peyton, please.” Kendall held up his hands, taking a step back. “You have to be able to listen to reason. I know that it hurts, but it’s not your fault. It doesn’t even have anything to do with you, not really. But… but I can’t say anything without running the risk of getting into trouble. Of getting all of us into trouble— into trouble with the Academy itself. Can’t you understand that?”

“We’ve been friends for years now, Kendall! We’ve known each other for our entire lives! I deserve to know!”

“I can’t tell you anything, for goodness sake! Why do you refuse to realize that!?”

Peyton didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. He grit his teeth together, balling his hands into fists. There were tears in his eyes. He tried to blink them away. Some of them rolled down onto his cheeks. Flaring his nostrils, he took a step back, trying to find the right words to spit out, to scream, to find just the right words to describe the anger and despair and betrayal boiling through his veins at that very moment.

“You know what? I’m not doing this anymore.”

Everything he’d been thinking of sputtered away. Both he and Kendall looked over to Scout, watching him throw his towel down onto the floor. “Scout?” Kendall asked. “What—”

“You know exactly what I mean, Kendall. I’m not going to do this anymore. I refuse to. I’m not going to be a part of your and whatever-her-name-is stupid plan anymore. I didn’t even ask to be a part of it in the first place! I didn’t ask for any of it!” He turned to face Peyton, pointing a finger in his face. “And you. Do you really want to know what’s going on between your friends?”

Peyton shrunk away. He hastily shook his head. “N-no. I don’t want to. I changed my mind.”

Scout continued as if he hadn’t heard him, a sinister hybrid between a scowl and a sneer spreading across his face. “Your friend wanted us to keep everything from you. She told us not to tell you anything, and to treat you so nicely. She thought you were too much of a sensitive baby to handle it all if word ever did get out to you. But clearly, you’re not enough of a baby to just mind your own business.

“Olive hates the Academy. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. But she does. She told me that she wanted to improve it, whatever that means— I honestly don’t care what she meant. She’s never explained how, or why. She just dragged me into her stupid plan because you just so happened to be my roommate.” He kicked the towel. It flew across the room, landing at the foot of Kendall’s bed. His voice didn’t get any less venomous. “Well, not anymore. I can’t stand being around you two idiots for any longer. By the time today is over, I’m going to have new roommates. Or hopefully none at all. Wouldn’t want something like this happening to me again. I hope you all are happy.” He stormed to the door, violently pushing past Peyton as he did so. It opened, and he left. Kendall and Peyton were plunged into a long, harrowing silence.

It was difficult for Peyton to breathe. He brought his trembling hands to his chest, clutching his wrist painfully. A stinging moisture in his eyes blurred the dull colors of the room together. He opened his mouth, noticing how dry it had suddenly gotten. “I— Kendall, I—”

“Forget it. We’re going to be late.” The derision in Kendall’s voice was tangible. Peyton heard his footsteps, felt his warmth as he brushed by him. The door opened, and then it shut. Peyton was left alone.

Slowly, arduously, he turned to look at the door. The silver panel was almost uncomfortable to look at, almost as if he thought that someone would barge through it at any moment, just like he had. Scream at him, just like he had to Scout and Kendall. He swallowed the lump in his throat and wiped the tears away from his eyes. It didn’t help.

Covering his face with his sweaty hands, he stumbled to his bed and collapsed onto it, stifling his sobs as best as he could. They were right. This was all his fault. He should have just minded his business and let Kendall and Scout and Olive do whatever they were doing without intervening. Maybe they wouldn’t be his friends anymore, but at least they wouldn’t hate him. Not like they definitely had to now, because he had to go and mess up everything they had planned. He ruined everything he tried to get involved in, didn’t he? He was just that stupid.

His fingers trembled as he wiped the tears off his face. Blinking the blurriness from his eyes, he looked to the door again. He could hear the muted sounds of people walking past and talking to each other beyond it. That was right. Class was going to start soon. He had History 101, with Mister Beverly. The one class that he shared with Olive and Kendall. Fate was cruel like that, wasn’t it?

He brought his hands to his face again. It wasn’t like he could just refuse to show up. That would get him into more trouble than he was already in. But having to face Olive and Kendall again so soon… he could just try to ignore them, right? But Olive sat right in front of him, though. And Kendall was only a few seats away. He shook his head wildly and looked back up. No. He had to go. He could have misunderstood them, that was all. There was still time to apologize. They probably still wouldn’t want to be his friends, but… but he had to try. Beyond that, his unexcused absence in the class would definitely be noticed. Especially by an instructor as sharp-eyed and strict as Mister Beverly.

His legs felt like lead as he forced himself to stand from the bed and walk to the bathroom. He splashed cold water on his face, washing away all the tears he had smeared onto it. Wiping his sleeve over his face, he reluctantly walked to the door and out into the hallway. It was almost empty already. Class must have already started, or was about to. Peyton still had to walk all the way to the Cassidy building. He squeezed his eyes shut. It wouldn’t be that bad. It wouldn’t. But standing here to worry about it wouldn’t get him there any faster. Reluctantly, he lifted his feet off the floor and started his way down to the first floor.

~ * ~

The hallways in the Cassidy building were just as deserted as the hallways in the student center, but the thought of accidentally meeting the eyes of an odd passerby was enough to keep Peyton from looking up from the floor. Walking into the room to find the eyes of dozens of students staring at him would be terrible enough as it was. Each gaze would undoubtedly feel like an accusation against his skin, a condemnation of the wrongs that he’d committed. And he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. He shouldn’t have been able to. He deserved them all.

Despite his slow, almost dragging pace, he made it to the classroom door. The door was shut, hiding him from the people already inside. He could leave and everyone in the room would be none the wiser that he had been standing feet away from them just a few moments ago. He shuffled back an inch, heart rate rising. There was still time to return to his room, fall asleep and pretend that nothing had ever happened. He could think about what he was going to do later. He just couldn’t do this right now.

He started to turn around. And it was at that moment that the door decided to slide open.

“PRW-009. I’m happy to see you’ve finally come to join us.” Mister Beverly stood in the threshold, staring down at Peyton. His mismatched eyes scoured over his face casually. “Come inside, please. We’ve only just begun the lesson.”

Peyton’s jaw flapped open and shut uselessly for a few seconds before he could find the right thing to say. “O-oh. Okay. Um— thank you.” He bowed his head and hurried into the room. Even without looking at anyone, he could feel the countless pairs of eyes burning holes into his shirt and face. His teeth found his lip and he bit down, hard. The pain helped distract him from the growing pit in his chest as he looked around the room, at all the people staring at him. There were three empty desks, one of them his own. He walked over to it and slouched into the chair, tightly folding his hands together. All he had to do was stay inconspicuous. Nobody would bother him, then.

“Finally, you came! I thought you had gotten into trouble, or something!”

Peyton looked up as Olive twisted around to face him. “I— wh-what?”

“You heard me. I’m glad you finally decided to come.” She smiled broadly. “What took you so long, anyway?”

“B-but— we— this morning, I—”

“Don’t worry about that.” Olive waved her hand dismissively, that same grin still plastered over her face. “Everyone gets into arguments. That doesn’t mean I’m mad at you, Peyton.” She pursed her lips. “I hope you aren’t mad at me?”

Peyton hesitated. “N-no, I’m not mad at you,” he said at last, not quite sure if he was lying or not. “I was just upset earlier, that’s all. Not for any specific reason, or anything. I think— I think I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, you know?”

She laughed. “Don’t beat yourself up over it. We all have those days. We can talk more later, okay?” She gave him a thumbs up before turning back around to look at the screen.

“Y-yeah. Okay.” Peyton slumped down even further. His eyes flickered to the row in front of his, toward Kendall’s seat. He was sitting straight up, his posture rigid. He must have heard the words Olive had said to him. Was he trying not to react? Was he still angry?

Peyton looked away, biting his cheek. Maybe Olive wasn’t mad at him anymore, but Kendall most certainly had to be. And Scout? Scout had seemed furious at him. It wasn’t like it had been unwarranted, either. Peyton shouldn’t have barged in on them so thoughtlessly. He sank deeper into the chair, squeezing his eyes shut. What if he had gotten him into trouble? Scout had said he was going to request a change in rooms. What if the officials denied him that request, or worse— asked him why he had made such a request in the first place? Would he tattle on Peyton, and Kendall too? Tell them that they were hiding secrets? Peyton felt sweat beading on his brow. The troubles that would bring onto them… and it was all his fault.

Mister Beverly suddenly raised his voice. Peyton jerked to attention. What was he even talking about? Peyton couldn’t tell. His voice had become quieter again. Every few minutes, he would put his fingers to the side of his head and mouth a few words before he jumped right back into the lesson, which didn’t help things at all.

The droning went on for what seemed like forever. Peyton fluttered his eyes closed. The clicking of shoes on linoleum paused, and he snapped them back open. He had to pay attention, or at least act like he was. He sat up, twitched his fingers one by one. It would be bad if he didn’t pay attention, or was noticed by Mister Beverly for doing something wrong. A chill ran from the base of his head all the way down his spine, and he shuddered. Something bad would happen. He didn’t know exactly what, but something would.

Mister Beverly jabbed a finger at the board, looking out to the class. “And that’s precisely why the Department for Human Development and Behaviors was created. To ensure that each and every person living in the City remains healthy and happy, and to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again. Everything that they’ve done has been for the benefit of society. Everything that they continue to do.” He paused again. His lips twitched as if he wanted to whisper something, but what came out was an address to the class. “Are there any questions?”

Nobody said anything. Mister Beverly scanned over every student in the room. His bright blue eye almost seemed to flicker. “Very well, then.” He glanced back to the screen. “I see no need to hold you all here when we’re already finished with the lesson. There’s only a few minutes before this session ends, anyhow. You all are free to go.” Murmurs broke out between the students, and he started to speak again. “Don’t act so surprised. I simply misjudged how much I could fit into the time frame for today. Don’t think this will happen again anytime soon, however. We will most likely be working for the entire session, after this.”

He placed his fingertips on his temple again, furrowing his brow. “Go. Use the time I’ve given you to work on your written evaluation. It will be due the next time we see each other. Good day.” Without another word, he turned away from them, starting to pace again.

The muttering continued, bouncing off the walls in tiny lilts and hisses as everyone slid out of their desks and made their way to the door. That session had been strange… even beyond Peyton’s arriving late. Mister Beverly didn’t seem like the sort of instructor to stop a session just because. What had happened for him to make that decision so abruptly? He looked up to the front of the room, and then the front desks. Kendall was already standing. He threw on his knapsack and walked out the classroom without sparing Peyton even the smallest of glances. Peyton winced. Still mad, then. He shouldn’t have expected anything different.

“Peyton? Are you coming?”

He looked up. Olive was standing in front of him. “Well?” she asked.

“Yeah… I’m coming.” He nodded, scrambling to his feet. “Sorry. I still don’t feel too good.”

“It’s alright.” She put a hand on his back, guiding him out of the room. “It’s nice to walk around when there aren’t a bunch of people you have to fight through, right?”

Peyton tried to shift away from her touch. This was too much like the talk they had shared this morning. The talk they’d had before he’d overreacted about everything. “Mister Beverly…” he paused to look around, as if he were afraid the instructor was somehow still able to listen to him. “What he did— don’t you think that was strange?”

“Hm? You mean letting us out early? Maybe a little. I’ve never had that happen in any of my other sessions. But hey, there are exceptions to everything.” She shrugged. “Why? Is it bothering you?”

He shook his head hastily. “No, not really. I just thought it was a little weird, that was all.” He forced a smile onto his face. “Well— I think I should leave now. It’d be nice to reach the student center before everyone else. I’m still tired from waking up so early.”

“Oh, sure. I was going to take the stairs, if that’s alright with you. Let’s go.”

Peyton hesitated. “Actually, I— I think I want to walk alone this time. I need time to think. Quietly.”

Olive’s mouth fell open. “What? Why? You can think while you’re walking with me, can’t you? I won’t talk. I promise.”

“I guess I can, but— I really just need some time to myself. To think about stuff.” He faltered. “About… about what happened this morning, and stuff like that. You understand, don’t you?”

She frowned. “Peyton, I already told you that that wasn’t your fault. You don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

“I know I don’t. But I feel like I have to. I don’t— I’m not angry at you or anything. But…” He trailed off, shrugging feebly. “We can walk together another time. Maybe tomorrow morning.”

Olive still didn’t look wholly convinced. But she nodded anyway, not without some reluctance. “I guess so. Could we— can we eat lunch together, at least?”

“I already told you that I’m tired, Olive…”

She pouted, knitting her eyebrows together. “You don’t have to stay the whole time. You could go up to your room when you’re done eating. We should talk some more. I think you need it. You were really upset earlier. I think you’re still upset now.”

“I, um, appreciate the offer, but like I said, I’m really tired. And— and I really just want some time to myself. To think, that’s all.” He pulled away from her. “Maybe I’ll come down later. Or we could talk during dinner.”

Olive frowned, searching his face. Peyton thought that she would refuse to leave him be until she nodded at last. “Okay. I guess. But I’m holding you to that promise! We’ll meet up during dinnertime for sure!” She pointed a finger in his face, before she turned around and skipped to the end of the corridor.

Peyton stood there in the middle of the hallway for a moment, watching her go down the staircase. A frown found its way to his face. She was just so weird. Less than three hours ago she was in tears after he’d yelled at her, and now she was as chipper as ever. Like nothing had ever happened at all. Scout had said that she’d been keeping a secret from him, and she expressed no guilt about that, either. How could she just act like she always did with him, as if she hadn’t done something so mean?

He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. No. This line of thinking was what had gotten him into such a mess in the first place. He started to the elevator, brushing past a crowd of students as he did so. Had the bell rang? He hadn’t noticed.

Stepping into the elevator, he pressed himself into the corner and watched someone else press the button to the first floor. Maybe the elevator would beat Olive there. And Kendall and Scout, too. Peyton winced. He didn’t want to have to face Kendall or Scout and see how angry they still were with him. But he’d have to, eventually, no matter if he went to lunch with Olive or simply went straight up to his room. Hopefully their anger with him had worn off somewhat. Peyton didn’t know what he would do if it hadn’t.

The elevator ground to a stop, its doors sliding open. Peyton slipped out, making his way outside. The courtyard was filling with students already, but it wasn’t enough that Peyton couldn’t weave his way through them. He hurried to the student center, rushed inside and made his way to the end of the hallway.

Jumping into the elevator before anyone else had a chance to, he pressed the button to the fifth floor and attacked the one to shut the doors. Then he sighed, leaning against the wall. Anyone else who wanted to get to the upper floors could wait. Or take the stairs. He just had to get up to his room and relax, and think about what he was going to say to Kendall and Scout before they had a chance to yell at him again. Maybe he wouldn’t have to face Scout again at all. Maybe he’d already gotten new roommates. But then again, didn’t he have to pack all his things up before leaving? Peyton closed his eyes. Scout had said that he didn’t want anything to do with him anymore. He could just go up there and do whatever he had to do without so much as looking at him, right?

Peyton almost didn’t realize that the elevator door had opened, so lost he was in his thoughts. He stood up straight, hurried into the hallway and up to his room, and went inside once the sensor had accepted his wrist. Slipping his shoes off, he jumped into his bed and threw the covers over his head. He closed his eyes and forced his breathing to slow. If he could get to sleep fast enough, maybe he wouldn’t have to encounter Scout or Kendall at all.

That proved to be wishful thinking. Peyton recoiled at the sound of the door opening. Someone stepped into the room, and then paused. “Peyton.” Kendall’s voice, still clipped, still upset. “Peyton. Are you awake?”

Peyton considered lying still and quiet until Kendall gave up, did whatever he came to do, and left, but his presence was overbearing. Even underneath the blankets, Peyton could still feel his eyes on him. Gingerly, he shifted under the covers and peeked his head out. Kendall was standing at the entrance of the room. Peyton wrapped the blankets tighter around himself. “Yeah. I’m awake.”

“So I realized.” Kendall put his hands on his hips and looked around.

Peyton followed his gaze. “Did— did Scout come upstairs with you?”

“No. Why would he? It isn’t like we’re friends, not really.”

Peyton winced. Kendall and Scout had never really gotten along, but his outburst earlier must have made things so much worse between them. Was Kendall blaming him for that, too? “I know,” he said. “But— didn’t he say he was going to leave and get new roommates? Shouldn’t he be coming to pack his things up?”

Kendall shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not going to let it bother me. I wouldn’t let it bother you, either.”

“Oh.” Peyton could almost feel the silence that hung between them. “W-well. Okay.”

Neither of them spoke. Kendall walked to his bed. Peyton could hear him fixing the blankets and fluffing out the pillows. He rested his head on his arm, closing his eyes again to hold off the familiar sting that threatened them. Would Kendall ever forgive him? It seemed like Olive had, but Kendall still acted like he was mad. Peyton hadn’t meant to make him mad. He’d just been so angry, that was all. That was why he’d went about trying to figure out their plan in such a poor way.

He slowly opened his eyes. Kendall was sitting at the foot of his bed, looking down at his lap. There was a crease in between his eyebrows. He must have had a good reason to hide everything from him. Kendall knew how sensitive he could be. And maybe what Olive had said earlier was true— maybe he did end up making a big deal out of nothing. There was a chance that Peyton could have been overreacting about nothing at all.

“Hey, Peyton.” Kendall’s voice ripped him from his thoughts. “I’m going down to lunch now. You’re free to come, if you want.”

Peyton lowered his head. “Maybe later. I just— I need some time to think for a while.”

Silence. Peyton didn’t look up, not even as he heard Kendall stand from the bed, or when he heard the door open and shut. He buried his face into his pillow. Just a few weeks ago, he was happy. He had Mother, Father, Miss Campbell, his friends— he had familiarity and contentedness, all that he’d ever needed. Then the Academy had taken all of that away from him. Ever since the full first day here, after his first session with Mister Beverly, it felt like a dark cloud of gloominess hung over them all, and it only got darker and thicker with each passing day. It didn’t seem like it would ever end. Did it ever get any better?

He forced himself to sit up and lean against the headboard. Exhaustion attempted to pull his eyelids down, but his mind was running much too fast for him to go to sleep. It couldn’t get any better if he didn’t at least make an effort to see that it did. It couldn’t be possible that everyone here was rude like Scout, or traitors like Kendall and Olive. There had to be people who would be genuinely happy to make friends with him, right? And even if there wasn’t— there still had to be a silver lining to everything. He would be out of here in the next four years. It’d be a chance to refresh, to change himself for the better. That was a good thing, was it not?

No. It wasn’t. Four years was too long for him to wait. Lasting that long with the way things already were would be an impossible task. He had to try and make a change now. But where was he to start? He chewed at his bottom lip, looking to the door. Olive and Kendall, and Scout… he had never really apologized to them. They could have been mad at him for that, too. Especially Kendall. Maybe his invitation for Peyton to come down for lunch had been a missed opportunity to do that. Lunch had just started. There was still a chance to make amends with them. It’d be hard, but it would be worth it. He just wanted to be happy again. But he’d have to put that into his own hands.

His feet hit the floor. Steadying himself on the bed, he put his shoes on and stood up straight, staring at the door. All he had to do was walk through it and go down to the mess hall. It would be worth it. It just had to take a little courage. He lifted his foot and took a step forward.

There was a bang on the door.

He staggered back, falling back onto the bed as the sound thundered through the room three more times. Scrambling further back, almost hitting the wall, he hugged his knees to his chest and stared at the door. Silence. Then three more thumps, faster this time. More urgent.

“Peyton?! Peyton, are you in there? Open up! Now!”

That was Olive’s voice. His throat felt like it had been filled with concrete as he tried to speak. “Wh-why? What’s the matter?”

“Peyton, please.” Her voice was laced with desperation, he could hear that even through the thick metal door. “Please just open the door. It’s important.”

He didn’t move for a moment. He couldn’t— it felt like his joints had been cemented together. His heart was thrumming out of his chest. There was another sequence of bangs at the door, even louder now. Slowly, he unwound himself and got to his feet, his knees almost buckling underneath him as he staggered to the door. It slid open when he got close enough, revealing Olive standing at the opposite side of it.

She immediately seized his shoulders and yanked him closer to her. “Peyton, where’s Scout? Where is he?

His first instinct was to try and pull away. “I— what? I don’t— what’s the matter with you?” He raised a hand to try and pry her arm off of him.

He might as well have been fighting against a statue. She pulled his face even closer to hers. “Peyton, what did Scout say he was going to do this morning? What did you tell him?”

It took him a few seconds to think of the answer in the haze of Olive’s urgency. “I… I— um—” he paused, catching his breath— “I got into a fight with him this morning. Y-you know that I was mad, right? I was just really mad and— so I started yelling at him, at him and Kendall. And then— he got mad too, so then he said that he was—”

“What were you yelling at him about?”

He cringed, trying to pull away. “About what I got mad at you about. The— the secret thing! And th-then he got angry too, and said that he was leaving. F-forever. He said he was going to find another group of roommates to stay with!” He tried to take her arms away again. “Why? Why are you yelling at me?”

Olive’s eyes widened, her grip on his shoulders going slack. “Oh, no, Peyton, no. No. No! Why did you do that? Oh, god…” She pulled away and started pacing around, head swiveling around madly as if she were afraid they would be caught. “Peyton, you have to leave. Go somewhere else. You can’t stay here right now.”

Peyton tried to take a step back into his room, but her hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. He tried to shake it away, panic rising up his throat when that didn’t work. “L-let me go! Why do I have to leave?!”

Olive loosened her grip on his wrist ever so slightly, her other hand going to his cheek to center his head. “They’re calling for you downstairs, Peyton. Scout isn’t down there, either. He’s always down there during lunch. He must have tattled on you when he went to go and ask to be taken out of here. Told them what you told him. Maybe even more. And that probably got him into trouble.”

Her fingers pushed into his cheek, fingernails just starting to graze his flesh. She closed her eyes, took in a few deep breaths, then took her hand away from his face. “If they’re calling for you, that means that you’re gonna get in trouble too. That can’t happen.” She was breathing heavily, each exhale blowing hot air straight into Peyton’s face. “So you have to get away. They’ll be looking here next. Just— run downstairs. Go outside. Get away from this set of buildings— try to go nearer to the back of the Academy.”

Peyton was breathing hard, yet he was still lightheaded, a deep-seated fear building in his chest. “But— but where am I supposed to go then? What am I supposed to do after that?!”

I don’t know!

Her hand clamped painfully over his wrist, and she lowered her head. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t. I’m sorry. This is all my fault.” She looked back up at him, then wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve. “Please, just run. Stay at the grassy area right at the wall until tonight, at least. I’ll try to come and help then.” The pressure on his wrist disappeared. When Peyton didn’t move, she shoved him away from her. “Go. Run!”

Peyton ran.

The hallways were empty. That was a good thing. It should have been a good thing. It was, right? He turned the corner at the end of his wing, almost tripping as he did so. The elevator and staircase were at the very end of this corridor. Which one was he supposed to take? Which one was faster? He hesitated for a split second. Whichever one would be fastest for him once he finally got over there, he decided— whichever one it was, he would take that one.

His feet smacked painfully loud on the floor as he sprinted down the corridor. He could see the up button for the elevator flashing. Would it come up by the time he made it there? He dared to slow down by a small margin. The grind of the lift ascending to the floor was audible even through his heavy breathing and the blood rushing through his ears. He was almost there. It was almost there. It was a matter of seconds now.

The button stopped blinking. Peyton skid to a stop. The door slid open.

Peyton stepped back.

“Ah. Just the person I was looking for. Peyton Rory Williamson, is it not?”

He walked forward, completely unphased by the way Peyton heaved for air or the way he was trying to crush himself into the wall behind him. A thin smile spread across his lips as he extended an arm, clearly expecting a handshake. “Pleasure to see you. I’m Jordan Presley, the behavior counselor for all the students here at the Academy. Would you mind coming down to my office to answer a few questions?”

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Nineteen

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

Peyton cracked his eyes open and immediately wished he was still asleep. It was still dark out, the beginnings of a sunrise only just starting to peek through the curtains. He laid a hand on his sweaty forehead and winced, the now constant pulsing in his temples only intensifying as he put pressure on them. This was the fourth day in a row he’d slept so poorly. His body felt like it had never experienced being well rested in his life. Ever since he had come to the Academy, he was only feeling worse and worse with every passing day. His body and mind hurt. He wanted to go home. But he couldn’t, not for the next four years, at least. He was stuck here, whether he liked it or not.

His entire body cried out in dismay as he forced himself up into a sitting position. It would be impossible to go back to sleep with the thoughts running through his mind now, and even if it were, it’d be time to get up by the time he dozed off. He climbed out of bed and tiptoed to the window, pulling the curtains apart slightly. He squinted as his eyes adjusted to the extra light. The sunrise silhouetted the tall metal buildings of the research center, and the Outskirts behind them. Peyton stared at them, trying to replicate the overwhelmed emotion he had felt when he had first laid his eyes upon it all, but he couldn’t feel anything more than bitter reminiscence.

He sighed, dejectedly plopping his chin down into his hands. It wasn’t like he had been thrilled about coming here before, but now that he actually was here, it was like the concrete walls and lengthened roads separating the Academy from the rest of the world were nothing more than an imprisonment.

He tore his gaze away from the window, turning so that his back was to the sunrise. He didn’t want to look at it, any of it. Kendall and Scout were still fast asleep. Blankets tucked up to their chins, faces relaxed and unbothered, they laid there silently, their chests rising and falling at an even pace. They may as well have been mocking him. They were so happy keeping their secrets in the dark while leaving him to worry about them, worrying about if they even liked him anymore.

He clenched his fists, then shut his eyes and took in a few deep breaths. Surely they had to have reasons for keeping their plans from him. For all he knew, they could have been planning to surprise him with something cool. Or maybe there really wasn’t any secret at all. Maybe he had misinterpreted what they had been talking about the other night. But that didn’t make sense, either. The words spoken the other night couldn’t possibly be interpreted in a way that there wasn’t anything covert going on between Kendall and Scout. Weren’t they supposed to be friends? Didn’t they trust him? Peyton shook his head. They had to have a good reason for this. They had to. And if they didn’t— well, he was sure they could still be friends.

Peyton simply stood there for the next few minutes, watching the way their faces twitched and their fingers wiggled, like they were in the middle of vivid dreams. Perhaps they were. They looked so nice and peaceful sleeping like this, definitely nothing like how they had sounded during their argument. Peyton decided he would leave them alone.

He walked to the closet and pulled out his uniform, tugging it on. The crisp, clean fabric felt nice on his hot and clammy skin. He couldn’t remember when he’d last taken a shower, but that was alright. It wasn’t like anyone really got very close to him nowadays, anyhow. He snuck one last glance at Kendall and Scout before walking out the door.

The hallway was empty save for him, and completely silent. It must have been earlier than Peyton had thought it was. He paused in front of his door, looking around hesitantly. Would it be okay if he was out and about before anyone else was? He wasn’t doing anything wrong, not really. The bell would be ringing soon anyway. And— it would probably be in his best interest to eat breakfast and leave the mess hall before Scout and Kendall came down.

The sound of his shoes padding on the floor was much too loud for his liking— it felt like someone would hear him at any moment and then he’d end up being scrutinized for being up before anyone else was. He tried his best to ignore it as he entered the elevator and pressed the button to the first floor. There would definitely be at least a few people down there— and if there weren’t he could just press the button up to the fifth floor and go back to his room. And face Kendall and Scout when they woke up. Peyton squeezed his eyes shut as the lift began to descend. That didn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It could be a good opportunity to try and reconcile with them. But only if they were willing to, of course— if they decided to at least explain to him why they were keeping secrets. Then everything could have a chance of returning to normalcy again. The thought attempted to pull up the corners of his mouth into a small, hopeful smile. It didn’t quite succeed.

The elevator door opened, and Peyton stepped out. At the end of the corridor, the doors to the cafeteria stood fully open. That was a relief. He buried the thoughts of having to encounter Scout and Kendall in the back of his mind as he entered the hall. A cloying syrupy scent mingled with the light fruity tang that Peyton was already familiar with whenever it was breakfast time. Were pancakes on the menu today? He turned to the food line, started to walk toward it— and stopped midstep.

Olive was there. And she was talking to somebody— two somebodies, to be more specific. A boy and a girl. Who were they? He shuffled backward, wrapping his arms around himself. She probably wouldn’t like it if he went up there and interrupted their conversation. He silently watched them laugh and chat as they got their food, and suddenly found himself desperately needing to talk to Olive no matter what. He needed to spill all his problems and worries onto her, regardless of what her new friends would think of him. Gathering all the courage he could, he pushed through his racing heart and shallow breaths, and began to walk forward again.

Almost as if she sensed his approach, Olive turned around to face him when he was halfway across the hall. A bright smile crossed her face, and she shifted her plate to one arm to wave eagerly with the other. She didn’t stop waving until he was directly in front of her. “Hi, Peyton! Good morning!” Popping a strawberry into her mouth, she waved away the two students she had been talking to. “What brings you down here so early?”

Peyton shrugged, staring after the boy and the girl as they found their own table to sit at. “I couldn’t get back to sleep,” he said, simply. “Who are those people?”

“Just some friends of mine from my other classes. Let’s get you something to eat.” Olive wrapped an arm around his shoulder and guided him to the front of the food line. “What kept you from going back to sleep? A nightmare?”

“Other friends?” Peyton tried to crane his neck to look behind him. “I’ve never seen you hanging out with them before.”

She laughed. “You’re so silly, Peyton. We usually hang out in the actual classes.” She plucked up a plate from the pile and handed it to him. “Don’t you do that with your other friends, too?”

Peyton hugged the plate to his chest, not quite able to look her in the eye. “Well— I, uh…”

“Don’t worry about it.” She ladled out a handful of fruit from the serving container and motioned for Peyton to hold his plate out. “Now. Did you have a nightmare or something?”

“N-not really.” He watched as fruit, yogurt, and french toast were gradually piled onto his plate. “I guess there were too many thoughts rushing around in my head, or something.”

Olive filled a mug with hot water and dropped a tea bag into it. “Thoughts about what?”

He hesitated. “Well— I guess— I guess… th-thoughts about Kendall and Scout, I guess.”

She handed him the tea and took a step back, tilting her head at him curiously. “I see,” she finally said. “Why don’t we go and sit down?”

“Okay. I guess.” He snuck the shortest of glances toward the boy and the girl. Was she going to sit with them and try to pull him along? He sure hoped not.

Thankfully, she didn’t lead them over there, instead going toward one of the back corners of the room. Peyton followed her, slipping into the seat across from the one she chose. He picked at the food heaped in front of him. It smelled sweet and doughy, almost excessively so. Like the kitchen at his house always used to. He pushed the plate away.

“What’s the matter? You aren’t hungry?”

Peyton looked up. Olive had already demolished a quarter of her plate and was staring at him like she expected him to do the same.

He shrugged, looking down at his own food. “I guess I’m not.” Pulling the meal back toward himself, he stabbed a strawberry with his fork and pushed it into his mouth. Its tart flavor immediately made his mouth water, but his stomach revolted as he swallowed the fruit. “It tastes good,” he said.

“Good!” Olive popped a handful of blueberries into her mouth, chewing them loudly. Peyton winced. She didn’t seem to notice, leaning forward to scrutinize him instead. “So. What’s your deal with Kendall and Scout then, hm?”

He frowned, finding Olive’s face suddenly difficult to look into once again. “I bet you already know what the problem is.”

“I do?” Olive’s eyes widened, and she leant back, apparently dumbfounded. “I don’t think I do.”

Peyton poked at a blueberry. His voice was stuck in his throat. “They’re—” he swallowed— “they’re acting weird. They don’t want to spend time with me anymore. Not even Kendall. I know Scout didn’t really like me to begin with, but I thought Kendall did. Now he doesn’t even act like it. And I’m— I think they’re keeping secrets from me. I don’t even know why.”

Olive didn’t say anything. Peyton hesitantly glanced up at her. She was stirring her yogurt around, a contemplative look on her face. “They don’t want to spend time with you?” she asked. “I thought they were being nice to you now, Peyton. Even Scout. I know you said he was rude to you at lunch the other day, but hasn’t he improved since then?”

Peyton floundered as he tried to think of a way to answer. “I— well… I— I guess he stopped being so rude. But he doesn’t talk to me, really. I— I know he didn’t before, but— but still.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “He’s still acting weird.”

Olive dug her fork into her french toast. “What about Kendall? He told me that he tried to get you out of your room and eat with us. You said no, though. That doesn’t sound like not wanting to spend time with you to me. Does it to you?”

The beginnings of a lump started putting pressure on his chest. “N-no, but… but… he doesn’t act like he doesn’t like seeing me cooped up. If he really did want to see me happy why can’t he just tell me what’s going on with him and Scout?” He clenched his fists. “I just— it doesn’t make any sense!”

He felt fingertips brushing against his knuckles. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Peyton,” Olive said. “I just wanted to know what was making you think that way. I think Kendall really does want to see you happy, even if he is hiding a secret from you for some reason.”

Peyton felt his frustrations melt away with the sound of Olive’s soft voice. He opened his eyes and relaxed his hands. “I— I guess you might be right. But— why would they be keeping a secret from me? Kendall and Scout? It’s such a weird combination. Kendall hates Scout. I don’t understand it at all. And— and what could they be keeping a secret about in the first place? Are they secretly friends? Do— do both of them sit with you during lunch or something?”

Olive laughed. “No, only Kendall does. And I don’t think Kendall hates Scout, not really. They just don’t click very well. That’s normal for people, like how you don’t really click with Scout, either. It’s just life, y’know?”

“W-well… I guess so. But—”

“Finish up your breakfast,” Olive said suddenly. She took her hand off his and tore a chunk out of her slice of french toast. “I want to take you for a walk.”

“What? Why?”

“It’ll help you calm down. I feel like I’m watching a coiled up spring, looking at you.” She snorted, resting her chin in her hands. “I don’t like seeing you so uptight. The stress doesn’t suit you.”

He opened his mouth to give her a response, but found that none came to mind. A coy smile spread across Olive’s face, and she nudged the plate closer to him. The food, most of it now either too cold or too warm to be fully appetizing, stared back at him. He sighed heavily, and started the process of shoving it all down his throat.

The morning bell rang just as the last spoonful of yogurt passed through Peyton’s lips. He slouched back and winced, his stomach audibly gurgling. “I never want to eat anything sweet ever again in my life.”

“Oh, you’ll get over it.” Olive grabbed his wrist and dragged him to his feet. “Come on, let’s go on a walk.” Taking both of their plates up, she led him to the front of the mess hall and dunked them into the soapy bin. They walked out into the hallway, Olive licking her fingers clean. “I know how much you like sweets, Peyton. You’ll be asking if they’re serving muffins tomorrow morning by dinnertime today.”

Peyton pulled his hand from her grasp. “Stop making fun of me.”

“What? It’s true.” She popped her thumb out of her mouth. “It’s not a bad thing. I like sweet things, too. I’m sure you can tell.”

Peyton didn’t say anything. The cool morning air hit him directly in the face as Olive swung the doors open, giving him a swift burst of energy. The courtyard was nearly empty, save for a few early risers like them wandering about. It was almost surreal, seeing the Academy so calm. Whenever he was out and about, hundreds of other students and faculty were usually out and about as well, running and pushing and trying to get to their destinations before everyone else. He raised his head and let the breeze go through his hair, staring up at the pink sunrise. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to get up early more often.

“Nice, isn’t it?”

Olive’s voice broke through the peace. He glanced over at her. She, too, was watching the sky, a small smile playing on her lips. It wasn’t until she looked over at him that he realized he was staring. He jerked his head away, and nodded slowly. “Yeah. It really is nice.”

“Mm. I knew you would like it.” She fell silent for a while, the two of them simply strolling through the collection of buildings as if they didn’t have classes they had to go to in the next hour. “I usually wake up early just to walk around, before everyone else wakes up and goes to breakfast,” she continued. “It helps clear the mind and relax the body really well.”

Peyton nodded. “You’re right. Maybe I should do that, too.”

“You should!” She looked at him, her grin spreading across her face. “It’d be fun just walking around with you. We wouldn’t even have to talk or anything, it just— it would be fun walking together and spending time with each other every morning. We could get Kendall in on it, too! It’d be like how we used to walk to Miss Campbell’s classes every morning, right?”

Unease jabbed at his gut. “Y-yeah,” he managed to say.  “That would be nice.”

Olive pursed her lips. “You don’t sound like you think it’d be nice. Are you still bothered about Kendall?”

“Well… yeah. Of course I am.” He stared at his shoes. The weight in his chest and head was coming back. “I still don’t think he likes me. And I think he’s keeping a secret from me, with Scout. What could he tell Scout about that he couldn’t tell me? Doesn’t— doesn’t he trust me?”

Olive remained silent for so long that Peyton figured she was purposely ignoring him. Any words that he thought could coax something out of her suddenly seemed silly when he was about to say them, so he said nothing, either.

The two of them continued walking, hand in hand, watching the Academy slowly grow more alive with the rising sun. Peyton looked up from the ground. They had walked farther than he’d anticipated— they were at the tall buildings near the back. The group of buildings that made up the research center. For a moment, he stopped and simply stared up at them, at a loss for words. Seeing them from his dorm window didn’t do them justice. They had to be at least twenty times taller than him, cloaked with silver and onyx that reflected the sun in dazzling colors. What could be going on in them for the people working there to require such grandness? What secrets were they hiding from him and the rest of the world?

“Peyton?”

Olive’s voice urged him back into reality. Realizing that she was a ways from him, he ducked his head and hurried back up to her. “Sorry. I was just thinking.”

“Thinking?” She raised an eyebrow, then followed his gaze up to the buildings before them. “Ah. You like the view?”

“Y-yeah. It’s… cool. It’s nothing like Silverhill though, right?”

“You’re right. It’s not.” Olive nodded, face deep in thought. “Do you like Silverhill more than the Academy, Peyton?”

Olive’s smile was as calm as ever, but a needling question lingered behind her eyes. She wanted an answer, and a truthful one. Peyton swallowed nervously. “Of course I do,” he said. “Silverhill’s my home. Our home. The Academy’s just… it’s just school. I know we’re stuck here for the next few years, but… that doesn’t make it any better than Silverhill. We just have to learn and start our adulthood here, don’t we? And besides, I like the views in Silverhill better than here. With the mountains at the border and stuff.”

“You do have a point there. I guess what I should have asked was: do you like the Academy?” Olive’s eyes bored into his. “As an entity separate from Silverhill. Do you like it here, Peyton?”

“Wh-why are you asking?”

“Because you’re my friend. I want to know if there’s anything I can help you with. You know, to help make you and keep you happy. Isn’t that what friends are supposed to do?”

Peyton faltered, his hands wrapping around each other. “Y-You’re right… that is what friends are supposed to do.” Kendall had been trying to make him feel better before, probably… and he’d just brushed him off. He’d left his room early so he wouldn’t have to face him again. That wasn’t the way to treat his friends. But Kendall really wasn’t treating him well, either— he and Scout were the entire reason he was in such a bad mood in the first place, what with their secret-keeping and their distant attitudes. And Olive, too, barely ever talking to him ever since they’d come here in the first place. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t.

“Peyton? You’re shaking.”

He looked down. His arms were trembling, his fingers squeezing painfully against each other. Forcing them to quiet, he looked back to Olive and blinked the stinging in his eyes away. “Sorry. I just— I just got stuck in my thoughts again.” He shook his head, as if that would help clear it. “The Academy… it’s not that I don’t like it, but— but I don’t feel like I belong here. Nobody but you and Kendall really like me. There’s too many people and everything’s too impersonal and fast-paced for me to try and make new friends. And— and it’s just so busy and loud and everything that I don’t like. So… so I guess I actually don’t like it at all. It doesn’t suit me. I just can’t wait until we can leave. And things can go back to the way they used to be. You know?”

“I understand exactly what you’re saying.” Olive touched his elbow lightly. “The transition from Silverhill to here was hard on all of us. But you don’t have to worry, trust me. Everything’s going to be fine.”

Peyton pulled his arm away from her. An unusual apprehension prickled at him, agitation curdling in his stomach. “I know that. You don’t have to tell me that all the time. I’m just in a bad mood, that’s all. I know that everything’s gonna be okay. I do.”

Olive frowned. “W-well, that’s exactly why I’m trying to cheer you up, Peyton. I don’t like seeing you so sad and distant. I want to know what I can do to help you. I’m sorry that the Academy’s harshness kept me from doing that. But now that we’re almost all settled in, things can start to go back to the ways they used to be. It’s gonna be a good year. You’ll see.”

“We’ve just been saying the same thing over and over again.” Peyton shook his head, and started to walk faster. “I know all that. What I really want to know is why Kendall and Scout are keeping me in the dark with their secret.”

“How do you even know that they’re—”

“Because I do!” Peyton wrapped his arms around himself, swallowing his voice. “I— I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scream at you. But… but I know that they’re hiding something from me. I heard them talking about it the other night. They— they were talking to each other and they said that they didn’t choose to be dragged into something… some sort of mess. And then they were talking about me, like I’m a part of whatever they were talking about, even though I’m not. I don’t even know what they were talking about. Kendall was— he was saying that Scout had to stop being so rude to me, or else they would get in trouble. That doesn’t make sense. I bet that’s why they’re always acting so weird whenever I’m with them!” He dug his fingernails into his arms. “It isn’t fair, Olive. I deserve to know what they’re saying about me!”

“Peyton, please!” Olive reached out and grabbed his shoulders. “You’re overreacting. I’m sure you were looking too much into it, that’s all. Kendall and Scout are just naturally standoffish, you know that. They could have been talking about anything, not necessarily some sort of strange plan. Maybe Kendall just wanted Scout to stop bullying you.” The sides of her lips turned up slightly in a nervous smile, her eyes silently searching his face. “And maybe the trouble they were talking about was me giving them a stern talking to if I found out you were being bullied by them. There’s no need to go to a worse-case scenario. You have to stop worrying so much.”

“I— I’m not over— overreacting.” Peyton struggled to control his voice. He took Olive’s hands off his shoulders and took a step back. “I know they’re distant, but they’ve never acted like this before. Especially not Kendall.” He furrowed his brow, shuffling away from her again. “Why are you defending them so much, anyway? D-don’t you trust me?”

Olive’s mouth fell open for a split second before she reclaimed her composure. “Of course I do,” she said. “It’s just that— I think you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

Peyton didn’t say anything. He stared at her earnest face, the gears in his mind turning. Olive’s relationship with Kendall, Kendall’s insistence that Scout’s bullying wasn’t good for any of them, their being pulled into an unfavorable situation by an outside party… what else could Kendall have been talking about when he said that Scout’s punishment would be bigger than a talk from him if he continued his bad behavior? A talk from someone who commanded them, of course.

Peyton staggered back, his eyes widening. “You’re— you’re in on it too! I know it! I know you are! You’re the leader! How could you?”

Confusion flickered across Olive’s face before she held a hand out to him. “What? Peyton, no, please. I—”

“No!” He squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head violently. “No… I know it. It makes sense. The way you’re defending them so much, how you’re— you’re trying to say that there’s no secret to worry about. You’re trying to hide it from me, too! Don’t you— don’t you like me anymore? Can’t you just tell me what’s going on?”

“I’m not— I can’t—!”

What is it, Olive?” He leant closer to her, completely uncaring of the fact that people were noticing them and stopping to watch the commotion. “Tell me what it is. Tell me!

Olive stepped away from him, hands clutching tightly at the hem of her shirt. Tears were gathering in her eyes. “Peyton— I—” she turned away from him, covering her face. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, near inaudibly. She hurried away from Peyton without sparing him so much as a glance back.

He was left alone to stare after her retreating form. There was something crawling down his face. He reached up to brush it away and realized that it was a tear. Swallowing the mass that had grown in his throat, he looked around. There were students and staff alike stopped in their tracks to look at him, exchanging unnerved glances with one another. When they noticed Peyton was staring at them, they started to disperse, stubbornly avoiding eye contact with him.

Peyton felt the lump in his throat expand until he could barely breathe. Ducking his head so that his face was nearly parallel to the ground, he scurried away from the group, hands clutching tightly at his chest. Dark spots clouded his vision. His temples pulsed with agony. He rounded the corner of the nearest building and pressed against its wall, struggling to catch his breath. The stifling sensation slowly dissolved from his lungs, and he took in a deep breath. Rational thoughts returned to him as the air got to his brain. He put his hands on his knees, continuing to breath heavily. A strangled sob escaped his lips.

He knew it. He knew it. All of them were against him— Scout, Kendall, and Olive, of all people, the one person who had been his best friend for almost his entire life. It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense at all. Why were they mistreating him? What could they possibly be hiding from him? Were they planning on leaving him alone forever, not even granting him the interactions that at least came with being bullied? It wasn’t fair. He clutched his stomach and keeled over, a sob escaping his lips. Nobody here even liked him. He didn’t have friends anymore.

He knelt there for a while, weeping into his sleeve. By the time his tears had dried up, his throat was sore and his eyes were burning. If part of their plan was to stop being friends with him— and they’d succeeded in that— maybe they could tell him what the rest of their secrets were. It was the least they could do. If couldn’t be their friends anymore, he deserved at least an explanation as to why.

Peyton slowly dragged himself to his feet, leaning against the building for support. He hadn’t heard the bell signifying the end of breakfast yet. There was still time. Kendall and Scout could still be in the dorm. He would go over there, and then… well, he didn’t know exactly what he would do. But whatever he did do, it would end with him finally knowing the cause of what had brought him all of  this mental torment for all this time. He would make sure of it, no matter what he had to do or say for that to happen.

The renewed fire in his stomach gave him courage to step out from behind the building. Everybody mulling about now hadn’t seen what had occurred between him and Olive a few minutes ago. This was his chance. He sprinted away from the research center and back to the student buildings. No matter what, he wouldn’t let Kendall, Scout and Olive get away with this as easily as they had with everything else. He would make sure of that.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Eighteen – Interlude

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

Olive had always been a bit of an enigma. From her wild, overgrown mane of fire to the vivacious, ever-optimistic charisma she used on every single person she got her eyes on, her entire existence made children and adults alike look at her queerly— and more likely than not, she knew that they did. She most definitely knew, and yet it never seemed to bother her at all. Where did she get such brazen confidence from? It was simply baffling.

At the moment, Olive was sitting at her desk, playing with her pencil and a piece of crumpled notebook paper. She doodled aimlessly on the lines, eyes downcast, chin propped up in her other hand. She looked tired. And if she wasn’t tired, she was certainly missing Peyton. It had been a very abrupt transition, going from spending time with him every single day to only exchanging words with him a few times a week, if even that.

Strange. She was just so strange. Back in the districts, she favored Peyton’s company above all else, even when he clearly wanted to be left alone with his thoughts. In the times she was unable to be with him, she became quieter, more reserved. Almost sad, at least in comparison to her regular mood, anyway. It was to be expected that such an effect would only be intensified in an environment like the Academy, where students were distributed between different classes and different teachers instead of being with the same one every day.

But the real question was why she preferred Peyton, of all people, over every other person that showed interest in her— and with her looks and charm, there were certainly many of those to go around. What qualities did she see in him that others did not have? Why did she keep him to herself so much? And why was she so ready to go to such great lengths to keep him happy?

“Your test result, KMM-007.”

Ah, yes. His test results. He looked up at the instructor, more than a little miffed that she had interrupted his thoughts, but he made sure not to show it as he nodded and plucked the paper out of her hand. “Thank you.”

He unfolded the paper. Eighty-nine percent. He hadn’t studied well enough. Sighing, he rested the paper on the desk, then folded it again, tucking it between the sheets of his notebooks. He would do better next time.

There was a shuffling to his left. “Hey, Kendall.”

“Yeah?”

“What did you get on the test?”

“Eighty-nine.” Kendall propped his head on his hand, regarding Olive coolly. “You?”

“Oh. I got a ninety-two.”

Kendall clenched his jaw. “Good job.” He started flipping through his notebook mindlessly. “You’re probably at the top of the class.”

“Me? Oh, no, not me.” A tinkling laugh escaped from her lips. “I found this test pretty hard, actually. I was afraid I was going to get a really low score.”

“But you didn’t. You got a ninety-two, which I’m sure is one of the highest grades any of us got. There’s no need for you to be so modest, Olive.”

Olive shrugged. She twirled one of her curls on her finger as she cocked her head as Kendall, smiling lightly. “Your score isn’t bad either. Eighty-nine? That’s definitely at the top of the class, too. Don’t be disappointed.”

“I’m not disappointed, really.” He tucked his notebook underneath his arm and stood. “I just know that I could’ve done better.”

The bell rang. Other students rose from their desks, moving as one body toward the door and out into the hallway. Kendall waited until Olive had finished packing up to make his way to the exit.

The two of them crammed into the rush of students, pressing their bodies into the crowd and walking along with the tide. Out of all the parts of his busy schedule, Kendall hated this part the most. It was claustrophobic, being stuffed in with all these different people, all their smells and sounds. If it weren’t for Olive’s presence, he would have been in the process of pushing through the teeming mass to get up to his room as soon as possible.

Which reminded him. “Olive,” he said, grunting as a person nudged between them to get ahead, “I’m going to my room for a bit before lunch.” He saw the question on her face, and answered it before she could get it out. “I want to put my books away. It’s been bothersome, walking around with them all day. I won’t be long.”

“Actually, it’ll be okay if you take a little bit.” Olive rested a hand on his shoulder. “I wanted to know how Peyton is doing.”

Kendall’s chest tightened. Of course she did. She always did. Kendall ensured that his face remained carefully blank as he looked over her concerned expression. “Well, he’s doing alright, for the most part. He’s been a little… distant for the past few days, I suppose. I think it’s because he misses his parents. Or maybe he just misses hanging out with us. Like we used to.”

He scrutinized Olive’s expression for any sort of reaction— a flicker of regret, determination flashing in her eyes, anything. A broad smile spread across her face instead. “Tell him that everything’s going to be fine! We’ll be able to hang out with him soon enough, once we’re completely settled here. And his parents— he doesn’t have to worry about them. I’m sure that they’re doing just fine.” She nodded contemplatively, as if she were approving herself of her own words. “Everything’s gonna be okay,” she said again. “It’s going to be a good year. He’ll see.”

“Yeah. I guess you’re right.” An unanticipated rush of optimism made Kendall much more inclined to return the smile. “I’ll be sure to tell him that.”

“Thanks, Kendall.” She took her hand from his shoulder, her grin only growing bigger. “I’ll see you at lunch a little later, then! I’m gonna be sitting with Scout.”

His good mood vanished as suddenly as it had come. Somehow, though, he managed to keep his expression bright and sprightly as he waved at her. “Okay, then. See you later.”

Olive returned the wave, already making her way to the elevator. She at last turned away, and Kendall couldn’t maintain his feigned smile for any longer. It fell off his face, and he lowered his head to the ground as he walked to the staircase.

Scout. Of course. He shouldn’t have been so surprised that they were going to be sitting with him— he was a part of their little unofficial party, after all. But by no means did that mean that Kendall was going to be fond of him. He was sure that Olive wasn’t exactly in love with him, either, and Peyton definitely wasn’t. All three of them surely believed that Scout was an insufferable, pompous brat who either couldn’t or wouldn’t take other people’s feelings into account, although none of them had the guts to say it out loud. Lunch today would be interesting, that was for sure.

Kendall entered the staircase and jogged up the steps, dodging around the few people that were on it already. Maybe he would be able to convince Peyton to sit with them, today. It was odd how he always seemed to want to spend more time with them here, yet outright refuse to sit with them during one of the best times to do just that. Afraid of the crowds? Kendall couldn’t exactly blame him on that one. But it was still strange.

He sucked in his cheek as finally reached the fourth floor, swinging open the door. It still didn’t make much sense to him. Why did Olive not encourage him? Surely she would prefer to hang out with him more often too. Kendall snorted, the amusement not quite reaching his face completely. She probably had a reason, just like she had a reason for acting like Peyton was the best thing to have ever happened to her. She simply didn’t want to say.

The door to Kendall’s room opened as he put his wrist against the sensor. The first thing he noticed was Peyton. He by the windowsill. He didn’t react to Kendall’s appearance, merely staring out to the research center and the Outskirts beyond. Lost in his thoughts, as usual. How intriguing.

Kendall walked into the room, letting the door click shut behind him. Peyton didn’t respond. He brought his fist to his mouth and coughed noisily. That caught his attention. He whipped around, nearly falling over in his surprise. “O-oh,” he finally managed to stutter out, wide-eyed and flustered. Gingerly, he got to his feet and faced him, clasping his hands at his hips. “H-hi, Kendall.”

Kendall’s heart suddenly began to beat a lot faster. He decided not to say anything at first. He nodded instead, walking over to his bed and tucking his books into his duffle bag. Then he sat down on the bed, and finally turned his attention back to Peyton. The other boy didn’t return the stare, favoring the floor instead. His face was downcast, fingers curling and uncurling delicately over themselves. His soft lips parted lightly as if he wanted to say something. Nothing came from them. Kendall found the corners of his own mouth turning downward. Why wouldn’t he look at him? “Peyton,” he said. “Are you okay?”

Peyton acted as if Kendall had said nothing at all. Kendall frowned, and he got off the bed, preparing to step forward to ask the question again. Peyton suddenly raised his head, a small, frail smile gracing his face. “Yeah. I’m okay,” he said. Both his face and his smile fell. He looked up at Kendall through his ruffled blonde hair. “W-why do you ask?”

“You look— I don’t know. Sad.” Kendall bit the inside of his cheek. He had to choose his words carefully. “We’ve been noticing how distant you’ve been since we got here, Peyton. By ‘we,’ I mean me and Olive. You don’t spend time with us, like we used to. I guess part of that’s our fault, too. We all got a little distant. The rigor of the Academy got to us all. But we miss you now.”

Peyton didn’t say anything. Kendall swallowed the lump in his throat, his mouth dry as he started to speak again. “Remember how we always walked home from Miss Campbell’s every day? How we sat with each other, hung out outside of academics? You seemed happier then.”

He hadn’t been expecting such a look of misery to flash across Peyton’s face. What had he said to hit him in such a tender spot? “Neither of us are blaming you or anything,” he continued, hurriedly. “We just want to know if you’re okay.”

Peyton said nothing; his expression remained blank. Kendall frowned. “What happened at lunch the other day— I don’t think I ever really apologized for that. I feel like we— Olive and I, I mean— I feel like we did something or said something that hurt you then. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I just want to apologize. Neither Olive or I like seeing you so downcast. We would really love for you to come back. Try and relive the old days.” The old days. It had only been a month or so ago, if even that. It was like time passed by abnormally here in the Academy. “What do you say?”

Peyton at last moved his head to look up, and Kendall had to suppress a gasp. The look on his face was jarring— dark shadows hung under his eyes, and his lips were cemented into a permanent pout, red and bitten on his porcelain face. Kendall’s stomach lurched. What had happened to him? When had this happened? He should have kept a better eye on him— he was his roommate, for goodness sake. The Academy had put them together for a reason. He had been neglecting Peyton, it would be foolish to try and deny it. Kendall rose to his feet. That would end now. “Peyton. Answer me, please.”

“I- I—”

“Everything’s going to be okay from now on.” Kendall fought the urge to go up to him and shake his shoulders, try and push the point into his stubborn mind. Thinking about it made his insides flutter about uncomfortably, his cheeks growing warm. He struggled to control his voice. “Things are going to get better once we’re completely settled in. It’s going to be a good year. I promise.”

Peyton didn’t meet his gaze. He wrapped his arms around himself, like he were attempting to give himself a hug. “I’m fine, Kendall.” His voice was nearly inaudible. “I just haven’t been feeling well the past few days. That’s all. I think— I think I might be getting sick.” He brought a hand to the side of his head, wincing briefly. “I need some rest.”

Did he really think he was fooling anybody? Kendall sighed, his energy seeping out of him with his breath. He wrung his hands awkwardly. “Well… if you really do feel sick, then I hope you feel better soon. But the best way to recover from being ill is to get nutrients and fluids into your system.” He stepped away from his bed, backing up so he was near the door. “I’m not forcing you, but it really would help. And— maybe socializing some would help, too. Staying cooped up all alone like this can have more of an effect on your physical health than you may realize.”

Peyton didn’t move, didn’t even glance up from his shoes. Kendall frowned, feeling a pit in his rib cage. “Well, if you change your mind, I’ll be downstairs. You wouldn’t have to worry about Scout, if that’s what you’re so worried about. I’ll make sure he won’t bother you. I don’t think he’s even going to be sitting with Olive and me today.” Anything he thought would help change Peyton’s mind, truth or not, tumbled out of his mouth. Nothing did. He turned around, bowing his head. “I guess I’ll… I’ll see you later.”

The silence was broken only by the door sliding open. Kendall walked out, listening to it shut behind him. He walked to the elevator and stepped inside, silently pressing the button to the first floor.

The hallway was bustling with students, and the cafeteria was even worse. Kendall drew his body closer in on itself, shimmying through the crowd up to the serving line. He mindlessly picked up the first few servings he rested his hands on— some vegetables here, two slices of bread there. When his tray was sufficiently full, he turned around and surveyed the lines of tables before him. Olive’s florid mane stuck out to him immediately, though her eager waving surely helped a bit as well. Next to her sat a slouching, black-haired figure. Kendall clenched his jaw, but he stuck a neutral expression onto his face and walked to the back of the room, sliding into the seat next to Scout’s. “Hello.”

“Hi!” Olive swallowed a mouthful of food and leant forward, resting her elbows on the table. “How’s Peyton doing?”

“Ah— he’s… not doing great.” Kendall stirred the vegetables on his plate around, biting his lower lip. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He barely said anything when I was talking with him. And he looks terrible— like he hasn’t slept in days, or something.” He shook his head. “I told him he should come out and eat with us, but he refused. He said he was just feeling sick, but… I know that’s not true. He’s hiding something from us. I don’t know why.”

Olive sagged in her seat. “That’s not good. Really not good.” She sat back and put a fist to her lips, frowning pensively. “Things will need to change soon. They will change soon. They have to. I can feel it.”

Scout scoffed, not too quietly. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Olive. “Really? How can you tell?”

“I— I just can. And it just makes sense.” Olive frowned. “People are starting to see the light now. I know that. I’ve been talking to some of them, and they say the same things that we do. There’s going to be more in the future as more people realize everything.” She sighed, squeezing her eyes shut. Then she snapped them open, a bright smile spreading across her face. “We can’t just ignore this and try to run away. We need to face these problems head on. It’s going to take a while, but it’ll be worth it. I’m sure of it!”

Kendall nodded his head up and down. “Yeah. You’re right.” Scout remained silent.

“I’m glad you agree with me.” Olive flashed a bright smile at him. Kendall couldn’t help but smile back, feeling his nervousness melt away; even Scout seemed to loosen up a bit. She always did know how to sway other people’s emotions for the better. “We’re already going to bring more and more people into our cause,” she said. Things will definitely start to progress faster than before, I’m sure of that now. We just have to stay optimistic, okay? The future’s looking bright.”

Neither Kendall or Scout immediately answered her. Kendall looked down at his tray, pushing the untouched food around. It would be a lie if he said that he was as invested in this as Olive was. In fact, if he were to be completely honest, he probably wouldn’t care about it if it weren’t for her. But it was her. So he had to. “I’m excited to see what the future holds, then,” he said at last, a smile spreading across his face as well.

“Glad to hear it, Kendall.” The guile in Olive’s voice was obvious, even without looking at her face. “I didn’t mean to take time out of your lunch time, by the way. I won’t bother you two too much anymore.”

Kendall nodded. He finally brought a morsel of food up to his mouth, chewing it slowly, thoughtfully. The future had never really been anything he’d put much contemplation into, besides vague ideas of jobs he would be asked to take on, maybe whether or not he would decide to become a parent. Things he was sure everybody thought about, for the most part. How far ahead had Olive planned for her future? How far had Scout? And… how far had Peyton? What exactly did they have planned, for things that were years away from now? Dreams of being a parent, of starting a family? Olive clearly had very ambitious plans. Plans that she refused to reveal to him or Scout. Plans that Kendall wouldn’t be surprised to know involved Peyton.

He tried to hide his frown by gulping down his glass of water. That didn’t necessarily mean it was a bad thing. They cared about each other. If only Kendall had someone he could care about that much, someone who cared that much for him.

Suddenly, he found himself fiercely hoping that whatever Olive did have planned for them, it would work out well— better than well, in fact. It wouldn’t be surprising if it ended up not being in every single person’s interest— it could end up being downright bad for some certain people. That was to be expected, really. But did any of that really matter, if it meant Olive would make sure that Peyton was happy in the end?

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Fourteen

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

Peyton trudged through the hallway, his eyes trained firmly on his shoes so he could ignore the students rushing past him as best as he could. It was difficult, but paying attention to every one of them would be even more so. He’d learned from experience. Some of the students would bump into him or slam their shoulders against his as they hurried by, but few would stop to apologize. Now that the first few days of being at the Academy had passed, Peyton had stopped apologizing, too. It wasn’t like anyone heard, anyway— by the time he could manage to get the words out of his mouth, they were already halfway down the hallway, barely having noticed that he was there. What was the point of wasting all that effort? They would probably just think he was silly, anyway.

He shook his head, hurriedly pushing through a gathered mass of students to catch up to Scout. What the other students cared about him or how they treated him didn’t matter. They didn’t care about him, so why should he have cared about them? Olive and Kendall didn’t see him as another number that happened to be in his way. If they were the only two people here that liked him, then so be it. They were the only two students here who needed to accept him. He didn’t need anyone else to—

A faceful of fabric hit him dead on, interrupting his thoughts. Gagging, Peyton pulled away as he tried to get the taste of detergent and sweat out of his nose. He looked up, and instantly felt his face heat up as he realized Scout was scowling at him. His momentary confidence vanished as he tried to reassemble his thoughts. “I— s-sorry,” he murmured.  “I didn’t mean to— I was looking at the ground and I didn’t notice you’d stopped.”

Scout huffed, his frown deepening. “You can’t just not pay attention when you’re walking through the hallway, especially not during the passing period,” he said. “You’ll get somebody hurt.” He sighed and looked back in front of him, his shoulders sagging. “Anyway. We’re here.”

“Sorry…” Peyton glanced down at the ground then hurriedly looked back up, Scout’s abrasive words all too fresh in his mind. He followed him through the doorway, keeping his head down low. He’d already anticipated this not going as smoothly as he’d like— his first session without Olive or Kendall with him was bound to be rough— but he hadn’t expected his face to be warm and his eyes to be stinging so soon. Furiously, he scrubbed his face with the sleeve of his shirt, hiding his eyes behind his hair as he looked at the screens on the desk. His seat was near the front, as it always was. Slipping into the chair, Peyton placed the notepad he was carrying on the desk and looked up at the screen.

A heavy sigh came from his left, taking him out of his thoughts. He glanced over, and reflexively shrank back as he saw Scout dropping into the seat behind him. “O-oh,” he managed to say. “We— we sit next to each other, huh?”

“Clearly, we do.” Scout propped his head into his hands and stared bitterly into the blank space in front of him.

Peyton tried to scowl at him, but it sputtered away before it could really do anything. He looked away, feeling oddly guilty. It wasn’t like Scout’s behavior was unwarranted. Peyton wasn’t exactly pleased over this whole situation either. But at least he didn’t feel the need to brazenly display his annoyance in such a passive aggressive motion. Kendall was right. Scout really was something.

Peyton exhaled softly, toying with the sheets inside his notebook. He had to be positive, and think optimistically. This was science, what he’d been looking forward to since he’d ever learned about the Academy. He’d been booted up with the second year students because of how good he was with it. Why was he trying to make himself miserable? After this, he could tell Olive and Kendall what he’d been up to, and they could tell him what they had done in their language class over lunch. Then maybe they could hang out for a while or something. Yeah, that was what they could do. Today was going to be a good day. It was.

The Academy logo on the screen flashed away. There were footsteps by the door. Peyton sat up, watching intently as the door opened and the instructor walked in. The man glanced around at all the students, before he nodded appreciatively. His hair was dusted with silver that contrasted sharply with his dark skin. Peyton wasn’t sure if he’d seen anyone as old as him, before. How long had he’d been working here? Probably decades, at least…

“Welcome, everyone,” the man said, cutting off Peyton’s thoughts. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Mister Mallory, and I will be your instructor for the Intermediate Sciences class. I hope we will be able to look forward to an enjoyable and successful year together.” He turned around without another word and jumped right into the lesson.

For the first time in quite a long time, Peyton found himself actually invested in a science session. Here he was, actually learning stuff. It wasn’t often that he learned new information when it came to the subject, considering that he had read all the textbooks Miss Campbell had of it in her own classroom when he was about twelve or so. He’d scoured over the ones involving biology and the more organic sciences. Miss Campbell had often let him stay even after class had ended so he could finish a section.

The nostalgia hit him suddenly, strong and unbridled from his unpreparedness. He sunk down slightly in his chair, his eyes scanning listlessly over the board. Did she miss him? She had said that she would. There was a couple weeks’ more break for her before she started sessions with the rest of the students back in Silverhill. What if she forgot him then, with how busy she’d be? Peyton frowned. No, she would still miss him. She’d miss all of them— him and Kendall and Olive too. When he could go back and visit them once he left the Academy, Miss Campbell would welcome them with open arms. He’d expect nothing less. And Mother and Father would be happy to see him, too. Mother would probably start crying at how much her little son had grown up, Father would ask him what he was going to be doing now and somehow be completely satisfied with whatever answer Peyton had to give him, and—

A quiet cough pulled him from his reverie. Realizing that he was basically slouching, he pulled himself back up, looking to the source of the sound. Scout. Of course. The boy had his cheek leant against his left hand, and his eyes were looking in Peyton’s general direction. When he caught Peyton staring he looked away.

Peyton felt his cheeks blaze again, though he couldn’t tell if it was his embarrassment or his rising frustration. What was going on with him? Did he always act like this in sessions? Peyton wouldn’t know— this was his first one with him. Maybe he’d have to ask Kendall if he had noticed anything weird going on with him when he got the chance. As long as he wouldn’t tell. Kendall had always been able to talk to Scout easier than Peyton could. But Kendall was much closer to Peyton. He wouldn’t betray his trust like that, right?

The rest of the session went by smoothly. Despite the relentless thoughts swimming about in his mind, Peyton found it easy enough to focus on the things Mister Mallory was teaching. He almost found himself not wanting to leave. When the bell rang, however, he suddenly became quite aware of the growing hunger in his stomach. He had eaten a pretty light breakfast that morning, he had been so excited to come to the session and not to hold Scout up. He had to give Scout some credit.  It had been nice of him to wait instead of just going off by himself and leaving Peyton to find the room by himself, admittedly. He could be a little mean sometimes, but he did have his kind moments.

Peyton idled near the door, waiting for Scout to finish packing up. He glanced over at Mister Mallory, watching him acknowledge each of the students as they walked out into the hallway. His dark eyes caught Peyton’s own. He smiled briefly, before looking back at the people exiting.

Peyton felt his own lips curling into a bright smile. At least someone in this room liked him a little. The grin faded a bit as he saw Scout approach with his scuffed notebook clutched in his hand. He forced a nod at him. “Hi.”

“Yeah.” Scout nodded, examining Peyton’s face. “What are you smiling for?”

I’m not even allowed to smile around you now? He looked away. “N-Nothing.”

Scout didn’t react for a moment. He swiveled his head around, looking at Mister Mallory. Yet another scoff escaped him as he turned back to Peyton. “Whatever. Let’s just go.” He left the room without another word.

“Okay.” Peyton kept his gaze focused on the back of Scout’s shirt as he followed him through the hallways and into the elevator. They were in the Cassidy building, so it would take a few minutes to get to the mess hall. “Are you going right down to lunch, or are you going up to the dorm first?” Peyton whispered to Scout.

“Up to the dorm.” Scout spoke without any sort of regard to the volume of Peyton’s voice. Peyton cringed as the other people in the elevator got an earful of the conversation they were having. Scout didn’t seem to care, naturally. “Do you still need me to help you find the cafeteria?” he asked him.

“N-no!” Peyton struggled to keep his voice low. “I— I don’t. I just wanted to know. You don’t have to be so loud, you know.”

Scout shrugged nonchalantly, not seeming to care about the hushed whispers and giggles bouncing off the walls of the elevator. Peyton’s cheeks set on fire. He ran out of the lift once the doors were open wide enough, clenching his hands into fists. Forget Scout. He could get back to the mess hall by himself. Running the sleeve of his shirt across his eyes, he rushed toward the entrance and didn’t miss a beat as he was brought into the warm, student-filled courtyard. He kept his head bowed and his feet quick, hurrying through the shrinking crowd of people toward the student center. He pushed his wrist against the sensor at the entrance, stepping inside as the door opened for him. The hallway was still packed with people. It took a while for Peyton to push through them all to get to the cafeteria.

He looked around. Had Kendall and Olive not been able to get here yet? They always had lunch down here— really, Peyton should have come to the mess hall more often as well; it was technically against the rules not to if the privilege or an excuse had not been given— but it wasn’t like he was hurting anyone by staying in his room. Maybe he couldn’t find them because he wasn’t sure where they usually sat during lunch…

“Hi, Peyton.”

He whipped around, a half-hearted frown appearing on his face as he saw who it was. “You really have to stop sneaking up on me like that.”

Olive laughed. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to do it this time, really. I promise.” She tilted her head at him. “I thought you usually spent lunch up in your room. What brings you down here today?”

“I’m hungry today, I guess.” Peyton shrugged, rubbing his arm. “And— I wanted to talk to you guys. You and Kendall. Is he here, too?”

“Of course he is! He always sits with me during lunch. He didn’t tell you?”

Peyton faltered.  “N-no…”

“Well, I guess it’s not such a big deal. You two always hang out together in your room, I’m sure.” Olive shrugged, her smile only growing larger. “Anyway, let’s get something to eat, hmm?”

“Yeah. Okay.” He nodded, struggling to put a smile on his face. Silently, he followed Olive to the serving counter. He watched her delightfully scoop up a plateful of salad, words festering behind his lips. Why hadn’t Kendall told him that they usually sat together? Maybe he would have made more of an effort to come down if he knew… shaking the thoughts away, he grabbed the ladle in a container filled with what looked like soup. It was normal for groups of friends to hang out without everyone in said group present sometimes. He, Kendall and Olive sat together during breakfast and dinner as often as they could, even if all three of them didn’t stay for the entirety of the meal. That was more than enough. And hey, he was down here now, wasn’t he? They could all catch up on what they had been up to today. He just had to stop worrying so much.

With a renewed, half-forced pep in his step, Peyton followed Olive to a table at the side of the room. Kendall was already there, halfway through his own bowl of soup. He wiped his mouth and dipped his head as they sat down across from him. “Peyton. You decided to join us today.” He nodded at his tray. “The soup is good.”

“Oh, really? That’s good.” Peyton smiled softly, stirring the contents in his bowl around. Vegetables and chunks of what looked like beans floated around in it. He brought a spoonful of it to his lips and let it sit on his tongue for a moment before swallowing. “It— it’s a little spicy,” he said.

“Doesn’t taste too spicy to me.” Kendall shrugged, and swallowed another spoonful as if to prove his point. “What made you come down for lunch today, anyway?”

“I… I just wanted to talk to you and Olive, that’s all.”

“Don’t we do that every breakfast and dinner already?”

Peyton suddenly found himself very interested in his bowl of soup for some reason. “W-well, I wanted to talk to you guys during lunch too. Talk to you about your language class, and— and stuff. Is that wrong?”

Kendall shook his head. “No, it’s not,” he said.  “Language wasn’t really that interesting, anyway. Basically just a harder version of Miss Campbell’s lessons. Why? What do you want to know about it?”

“I thought it was pretty interesting, actually.” Olive smiled at Peyton through her mouthful of salad. “I met some new people, learned some new stuff. Fun things, you know. What about you?”

Peyton faltered. “I— well—” he trailed off, shrugging hesitantly. “It went well for me, too. You know how much I like science and stuff.”

“I do know.” Olive chuckled. “And how about Scout? Did he bring you to and from class well enough?”

“‘Uh— y-yeah. He did.” Peyton swallowed. “It was— nice, I guess.”

Olive tilted her head. “Really?”

“Y-yeah,” Peyton said again, uselessly. “I mean— he was pretty aloof, like he usually is. That’s not a problem, is it?”

“Tell me more.” Olive leant over, resting her chin on her folded hands. Across from her, Kendall stiffened.

“I— I don’t know what you want me to tell you, Olive…” he trailed off, playing with the collar of his shirt. It suddenly felt quite hot and stuffy in the mess hall. “Why is it so important, anyway?”

“I just want to make sure you’re alright, Peyton.”

Peyton swallowed thickly again, though he hadn’t taken another spoonful of soup in minutes. Kendall remained silent— uncomfortably so. Just a few days ago he would have jumped upon the opportunity to talk about Scout. What had happened between then and now? Weren’t they supposed to be friends, who told each other everything?

A sharp pain in his palm brought him back to reality. His fingernails were digging into his hands. Olive and Kendall were staring at him expectantly. He took his fingers away from his hand, rubbing them softly. “S-sorry.  Well, I guess he— I guess he was kind of rude. Um— ruder than he usually is, I guess.” He snuck a glance over to Kendall, whose face was carefully blank.  The white-knuckled grip on his spoon, however made it clear that he didn’t find the remark to be very funny.

Peyton suddenly found the words in his throat much more difficult to choke out. “W-we— we sit next to each other. In the class, I mean. I don’t think he was really happy about that. He— he didn’t try to hide it, you know? He usually tries a little bit to hide when he’s annoyed with me.” He sniffed. “And, uh— he embarrassed me on the elevator. He acted like I couldn’t find the cafeteria, or something.” He shrugged, drawing in his shoulders just a little more. “I don’t— I don’t know. W-What do you think, Olive?”

Olive stayed quiet. She curled her lip, playing with a strand of her hair. “Mm… I’m not sure! I guess you should try talking to him about it. Tell him that he hurt your feelings, and not to do it next time, or something. Tell him that I told you to do it, see how that works out for you.” She smiled. “What’ve you got to lose?”

“I— I don’t know…” Peyton looked down at his wringing hands. “Maybe he— he was just having a bad day. I don’t think it’s such a big deal.” He looked over to Kendall. “Right, Kendall? He hasn’t been acting that weird to you, has he?” As soon as the words left his mouth, Peyton found that he was much too invested in the answer Kendall would give. He wasn’t quite sure what sort of answer he and Olive would like, let alone what Kendall would actually say.

He didn’t say much. He shrugged, nervously flicking his tongue over his lip. His eyes refused to look anywhere but his thickening bowl of soup. “I— I’m not—” he started. “I guess so? Maybe?” He turned to frown at Peyton. “Why are we even talking about this, anyway?”

“I was just wondering…” Peyton swallowed the sour lump that had grown in his throat. “You know, I… m-maybe I should go back upstairs. I’m not really that hungry, anyway.”

Olive raised her hand. “Peyton—”

“It’s fine.” He stood, his seat scraping loudly against the floor. The look Olive gave him sent a jab of regret through his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut, before flashing them open again. “S-sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you. I just— I didn’t get a good night’s sleep last night.” He grabbed his half-empty bowl of soup. The spoon clattered around the inside of it as he took a step back. “I should take a nap. See you two later. I’ll be— I’ll be in a better mood then.”

Before either of them could get another word in, he pivoted around, hurrying off toward the front of the mess hall. Four accusing holes burned themselves into the back of his shirt as he tossed his bowl into the soapy basin, remembering a moment too late that he should have dumped the remaining soup into the trash. The tightness in his ribcage threatened to make its way up his throat after realizing that mistake.

He threw himself through the door, keeping his head low as he rushed toward the staircase. It was completely empty except for him— somehow that made him feel even worse. The thumping of his shoes against the carpet was painfully loud as he ran up the stairs, each thud echoing accusingly in his reeling head. He stopped right at the entrance to the fourth floor and looked behind him. Maybe… maybe he would feel better if he went back and apologized. If Olive and Kendall had thought that he was overly sensitive before, what were they think of him now?

Despite his burning regret, he somehow couldn’t find the strength to will his feet to carry him back down the stairs. He was just too tired. Yeah, that was it. He was too tired. Besides, Kendall would come up to the room soon enough. Surely Peyton would be able to apologize then, without the disadvantage of heated emotions rushing through him.

He gently pushed the door open and walked into the hallway. A couple of students were out and about. Peyton refused to look at any of them as he trudged toward his room. The sensor took his wrist, and the door slid open.

He barely found the strength to pull off his shoes before he collapsed onto his bed. Wrapping the top sheet over his body, he curled his knees to his chest and sighed. Maybe a little rest before dinnertime would do him good. It would give him time to clear his mind, and figure out what he would say to Olive and Kendall… and Scout, too. He screwed his eyes shut, pulling the covers closer to himself. He was working himself up over nothing. Scout was probably just in a bad mood— a worse mood than usual, at least. And Kendall… well. He was probably just in a bad mood, too. That was all it was, wasn’t it?

Peyton shook his head. He rolled to his other side, thoroughly wrapping the blanket around his body. Stop worrying so much about it. He was only making himself miserable. There would be time to handle this problem later on. For now, he had to get some rest. He buried his face into the blankets, sighing heavily. Everything would be okay in the end. If he continued repeating that to himself, then it would have to become true.

His eyes opened, and only then did he realize how heavy his eyelids felt. Exhaustion had been having a tendency of sneaking up on him ever since he had arrived at the Academy. That already felt like so long ago. It’d only been a few days. Would he get used to it, or would it start getting worse as time went by?

Peyton swallowed, feeling his throat burn as a lump traveled down it. Maybe he just wasn’t built for the Academy, for its driven culture and ambitious students. But he would have to stay here for the next four years, whether he wanted to or not. At least he had Olive and Kendall to help him through it.

Peyton huffed loudly and shut his eyes. He had to stop worrying so much about this. Sleep would make him feel better. Yeah, he had to get some sleep before dinnertime. Somehow, he managed to clear his mind enough to relax. He didn’t know just how long he tossed and turned in the bed, but eventually, his mind finally gave him the mercy of drifting off to sleep.

~ * ~

A hiss at the door shook Peyton awake. He opened his eyes, blinking crust away from the corners. His throat was dry, and his left temple was pulsing with pain. What time was it? It looked like it was dark outside. Had he slept through dinner? He sat up, looking to the door. “O-oh. Hi, Kendall. H-hi, Scout.” His voice sounded tired. He cleared his throat as subtly as he could, unwrapping the blankets from around his body. His shirt had ridden up. He hurried to pull it back down.

“Hi, Peyton.” Kendall didn’t look up at him. “You were sleeping when I came in here earlier. I was going to wake you up for dinner, but…” he trailed off, shrugging ruefully. “Did you have a nice nap?”

“I— yeah, I did,” Peyton lied, sneaking a glance at Scout. He was standing at his nightstand, occupied with something Peyton couldn’t see. “Don’t worry about dinner. I’m— not that hungry, really.”

Scout turned to frown in Peyton’s general direction. “Still doesn’t change the fact that you should have been down there. You’re lucky you haven’t been caught yet, with the amount of times you’ve skipped lunch and dinner.”

“Drop it, Scout.”

Peyton’s jaw dropped. Kendall’s half-hearted glare didn’t last long, but it was more than enough to get a reaction from Scout. His nostrils flared, and his hands curled into fists. What was he going to do? A pit of dread grew in Peyton’s stomach— but as suddenly as the anger had come to Scout, it melted away. He turned away from Kendall, muttering something about getting ready for bed, and stormed into the bathroom. He slammed the door so hard that the walls shook. Peyton and Kendall were plunged into a sudden, unpleasant silence.

“I’m… I’m sorry about that.” Kendall shook his head, walking over to his own bed. “He is just unbearable.”

Peyton’s teeth found his lower lip. He drew the blankets tightly around himself again. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to make you two get into an argument.”

“It’s not your fault.” Kendall took his pyjamas off the bed. He walked into the closet and shut the door behind him without another word.

Peyton was left alone again. He slowly peeled the blankets away from himself, only then noticing how sweaty and grimy he felt. Scout was in the bathroom, so he couldn’t take a shower. There was no reason not to put on his pyjamas now. It wasn’t like he was going anywhere anytime soon. His stomach, having only gotten a few spoonfuls of soup in the past couple of hours, was nagging him for food. He pushed the feeling down. He would just have to wait until morning to get something to eat, that was all.

Maybe Scout was right. Coming up every day after sessions to lay around and barely do anything couldn’t be very good, for him or anyone else. Starting tomorrow, he would try and make an effort to go out more. And talk to Kendall and Olive more. If they even wanted to talk to him, after he’d been so hostile.

He shook his head stubbornly, sliding off the bed. Of course they would still want to talk to him. Everyone had their bad days, didn’t they? It wasn’t even really his fault. It was Scout who had started this whole mess in the first place… Peyton hastily pulled his pyjamas on. Then he climbed back into bed, throwing the covers over himself. There was no way he would be able to get back to sleep so quickly— he had been sleeping since early afternoon, after all— but any ideas of other things he could be doing fell flat in his thoughts. Apologizing to either Scout or Kendall would be a bad idea, with the mood they had been put into. He could review the things they had gone over in sessions today… but he didn’t feel like doing that. He would lie down here until he fell asleep, that was all. He needed the rest.

The closet door clicked back open, and Peyton shut his eyes. Through the barrier of fabric he had enveloped himself in, he could hear Kendall walk out and sit on his own bed. The sound of paper rustling reverberated through the room, and then quiet whispering, like he was speaking to himself. What was he doing? Studying?

Peyton didn’t get time to think of an answer. The door to the bathroom opened. Scout’s feet slapped heavily on the carpet as he walked out. “Bathroom’s free,” he grunted.

Peyton wasn’t sure if Scout was talking to him or Kendall. Before he could decide whether or not to sit up and take the opportunity, a hushed, nearly inaudible voice stopped him.

“You really need to stop being so rude towards Peyton.” Kendall’s voice had a detectable strain to it, like he was struggling to keep quiet. “It isn’t good for us— for any of us.”

“I wasn’t trying to be.”

“Well, try harder, then.”

Scout barked out a laugh, many times louder than the voice he had been speaking in. Peyton flinched, but neither of them seemed to notice.  He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

“Try harder?” Scout’s words were quieter now, but laced with a vitriol that was impossible to miss. “You’re acting like I asked to be dragged into this whole mess. In case you weren’t aware: I wasn’t.”

“Try to be a little more quiet, will you?” Kendall sighed a sigh much more heavy and burdened than Peyton had ever heard from him before, quiet as it was. “I didn’t ask to be dragged into this, either. But this is the situation we’re in now. There’s nothing we can do now but make the best of it.” He fell silent for a moment. Peyton could hear him shuffling about with something on his bed. “If you jeopardize this, you’re going to get more than just a talk from me. You know that, don’t you? I hope you realize that.”

“‘Course I do. It’s not like either of you let me forget.” Scout snorted. “I’m going to bed. Don’t bother me anymore.” Footsteps, then blankets being thrown off a mattress. The bed frame creaked as Scout jumped onto the bed, and he spoke no more.

Peyton remained as quiet as he possibly could. He barely dared to breathe as he heard Kendall scoff, then walk into the bathroom. Had they thought he was sleeping? Was that why they were talking about— whatever they were talking about? Did they not want him to know about it? Peyton screwed his face up, his mind involuntarily connecting the dots as much as he tried to force them away. Scout’s sudden excessively aloof disposition, Kendall’s behavior at lunch… were they hiding something from him?

He winced. It made sense, now that he truly thought about it. It would explain Scout’s reluctance to even just be around him, and Kendall’s discomfort at being interrogated about it. Perhaps— Peyton’s heart clenched— perhaps even Olive was in on it all. Scout had said that neither of them let him forget. If Peyton didn’t even know what the situation was, who else could he be talking about? Who else did Kendall talk to besides him and Scout? Olive, of course.

Peyton cracked his eyes open, risking the shortest of glances at Scout. He was already buried under his blankets, which rose and fell softly with his breaths. What was he planning with his friends— what plan devised by them would involve Scout and not Peyton?

A perverse jealousy boiled in his stomach and traveled down his limbs, eventually coming to a mass in his head. Clenching his fists around his blanket, Peyton bit down hard on his lip to the point of drawing blood. They had been here at the Academy for only a fraction of a year and they were already being separated— and they didn’t even tell him why, or what for. But Scout of all people was worthy enough to be let in on the secret?

The bathroom door swung open. Peyton shrunk back without thinking, watching wide-eyed as Kendall walked back into the room. The movement caught Kendall’s attention, and he looked toward him. A painful second passed as he noticeably faltered. “Ah. You’re awake, Peyton.” More silence. Peyton whimpered.

The tension was broken as Kendall yawned, as if he were attempting to bring an end to the awkward lull. “Well, I’m pretty tired,” he said, stretching his arms above his head. “Talk to you in the morning, then. Good night.” He waved halfheartedly at Peyton and climbed into his bed.

Peyton wasn’t sure how long he laid there, but when the lights automatically switched off for the night, he was still wide awake. He could hear Scout’s and Kendall’s soft snores coming from their own respective beds. Somehow, that only served to make Peyton feel even more upset. Sure, part of his restlessness was likely from taking such a long nap beforehand, but the stress they had imposed on him definitely had to be a factor. How was it fair that they were allowed to sleep so peacefully, when he was stuck here with the thoughts they had stirred up? He shifted so he could stare at them both, at their peaceful faces and unworried figures. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t.

Maybe he was overthinking things. Maybe they had a good reason for hiding it— or maybe there wasn’t an “it” at all, and he had just taken what they had said the wrong way. Peyton rolled back over in his bed, shutting his eyes. Maybe that was all true… but the feeling that it wasn’t was unshakable. All three of them— Kendall, Scout, and Olive— were acting strange around him all of a sudden. There was no doubt that they were hiding something— that they were planning something. But what could they possibly be planning? It was the one question that begged to be answered, but Peyton couldn’t think of any plausible answers. There was a reason they were trying to hide this from him— why?

There was only one answer Peyton could think of, and it was so undesirable that it left a bitter taste in his mouth: maybe, just maybe, they simply didn’t care about him enough to tell him anymore.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Eight

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

Peyton opened his eyes, then snapped awake as an unfamiliar room stared back at him. He clutched the sheets to his chest and sat up, looking around. Just as his bewilderment began to contort into fear, his eyes darted to the corner of the room. A familiar figure rested in the bed there. Of course. He took in a shuddering breath, forcing his heart to slow down. He’d completely forgotten that he and Kendall had come to the Academy yesterday. It would take a few days to get used to waking up in this dark gray dormitory rather than his familiar, pastel-colored bedroom back in Silverhill.

Quietly, he slipped out of bed and tiptoed to the window, looking behind him all the while. Neither Kendall or Scout stirred, and he let himself relax. His fingers curled around the curtains and pulled it open a crack. Pink and yellow streaks backdropped the silver buildings in the distance, slowly giving way to the soft blue of early morning. Peyton would always prefer watching the sunrise back in his home district, he decided, but there was something striking about the day starting in the Academy that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Maybe it was because the sunrise represented the last few moments of peace and quiet before everyone spilled out of their sleeping quarters and got about their day.

Peyton sighed softly. Already he knew that the hard-pressed, impersonal environment the Academy touted would start to grind down on him within days. It already was, to be honest. He felt like all the small pleasures he had back in Silverhill were slipping through his fingers like grains of sand. Releasing his grip on the curtain, he turned around to stare at Kendall’s sleeping form. Would they ever be able to hang out like they used to before? With Olive? Would they ever be able to act like kids again, with no cares or worries about the future?

He didn’t get the time to think of an answer. A piercing ding sounded from above. He jumped, almost stumbling into the window. He hurried to his bed and jumped up onto it, drawing his knees to his chest. He watched Kendall and Scout stir in their beds through wide eyes.

Kendall sat up and rubbed his eyes, looking over to Peyton. He blinked blearily before raising his hand in a wave. “Good morning.”

“M-morning.” Peyton nodded into his knees. “Do you know what that noise was?”

“Probably an automatic alarm. It’s probably the most efficient way to wake hundreds of people up, yeah?” He stretched, yawning loudly. “Right, Scout?”

Scout threw his legs over the side of his bed and scratched his unruly black hair. “Mm-hmm,” he said at last, voice thick with sleep. “It rings every morning. There’s also an announcement that tells everyone that it’s time to go to sleep at bedtime. And then the lights go off automatically. It’ll probably be hard for you two to adjust to this from being in your districts for the past fourteen years. But you’ll get used to it.” He looked to Peyton and Kendall in turn, raising his eyebrows. “So, what am I supposed to be helping you two with today?”

“We wanted you to help us find where we’re supposed to go for our sessions.” Kendall slipped out of bed and picked the itinerary off his nightstand. “Says here that History 101 is in the Cassidy building, seventh floor. That’s where our first session is.” He moved the paper from his face. “Right, Peyton? You’re with me for History 101, right?”

“Yeah.” Peyton nodded. “We’re in that session together.” If they were lucky, maybe Olive would be there too. Peyton hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to her since they’d been registered, even though she promised that they would. He’d caught glimpses of her during the newcomer’s assembly and official tour, but had gotten nowhere close enough to catching her gaze, let alone to speaking with her. They had to cross paths eventually, right? The chance of her schedule not aligning with his in any way had to be super low. Not being able to talk to her again would be a disaster. She was half of the friends he had, here.

Kendall looked over to Scout, holding out his itinerary to him. “Yeah. Would you be able to show us where that is?”

Scout heaved himself out of bed and walked over to Kendall. Grabbing the paper out of his hands, he skimmed through it and nodded. “I could. It says it’s room number five on the seventh floor. That’s the big room. Your class is probably going to be big. That’s good, and also bad.” He handed the paper back to Kendall.

“Why is that bad?” Kendall brought the sheet to his chest and cocked his head to the side.

“You don’t get as much personal attention in a big class than a smaller class. That means that you don’t have to act like you’re working as much, but it also means that you might not be noticed if you’re having trouble. It’s a double edged sword, really.” Scout snorted, turning away. “But you two seem to be smart and well behaved, from what I’ve seen. I don’t think either of you will have much of a problem.”

“Ah.” Kendall nodded. “I’m going to take that as a compliment, even if I’m not sure it was intended to be one.”

“Fine by me.”

Peyton watched the exchange with his lips tightly sealed. Kendall could interact with different personalities so easily. If only he had the same gift. Unfolding his arms from his knees, he got up from the bed and walked up to Kendall and Scout. “If— if it’s a big session, that means that Olive might be there with us. Right?”

Kendall glanced at him. “I guess it does.”

“O-oh. That’s a good thing.” Peyton looked down, playing with his fingers. “You should meet her, Scout. She’s really nice.”

“Is she?” He shrugged. “If I see her around, I guess. What does she look like?”

Kendall snorted. “You can’t miss her. Wild red hair, freckles all over her face, only a little taller than Peyton. And she’ll probably be talking someone’s ear off whenever you see her.”

“Hm. Well, I’ll keep an eye out for her. Or maybe we’ll see her downstairs at breakfast.” He pointed his thumb at the door to the hallway. “Ready to go and eat now?”

“Yeah, sure.” Kendall folded the itinerary and rested it back on the bed stand. “You coming, Peyton?”

Peyton blinked. “But— shouldn’t we change out of our pyjamas first?”

“Of course,” Scout said, turning to the closet. “I’ll get dressed in the bathroom. You two can change out here.” Before Kendall and Peyton could get a word in, he’d already taken his uniform out the wardrobe. Walking into the bathroom, he clicked the door shut and locked it.

“Well, then.” Kendall pursed his lips. “I think the closet is big enough for one of us to get dressed in. Want to take it?”

“Sure. I can dress in the closet. W-want me to get your uniform for you?”

Kendall had already turned around to start unbuttoning his nightgown. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Peyton didn’t respond. He walked into the closet, taking the hanger holding Kendall’s outfit off the rod. Sliding the door so that only a sliver of light shone through, he held the uniform out into the bedroom. Only when it was plucked out of his hand did he pull away to grab his own uniform from the hanger. It was nothing fancy, simply a white button up with a black tie and black slacks, and black shoes. It was what everyone in the Academy was expected to wear, however, and he undressed and put it on without a second thought.

Scout looked Peyton up and down as he came out, then nodded. “You look fine to me. Did you take your medication?”

Peyton paused, retracing the memories of the morning. “I— I forgot to. But I’ll take it now. It’s in the paper bag on my nightstand, right?”

Scout nodded. “I’ll take mine now, too. Don’t forget yours, Kendall.”

Peyton went over to his nightstand, grabbing the small paper bag on it. He unfolded the top of it and peeked inside. Hesitantly, he took one of the syringes out and turned it over in his hand. It was noticeably bigger than the syringe he used back in Silverhill, and the fluid inside was a pale, transparent green instead of the milky solution he was used to. An involuntary shudder passed through him as he removed the plastic cap from the needle and pressed it against his forearm. In and out. He plunged the medication inside of him, shivering again. It was cold, and the larger, blunter needle was definitely more obtrusive than the syringe he used to use. But he grit his teeth and hid his discomfort, putting the needle into the small metal canister hiding in the bag.

He turned around to see that Kendall and Scout had already finished and were looking at him expectantly. He rubbed his left arm. “S-sorry for taking so long,” he said. “We can leave, now.”

Scout nodded. He walked through the automatic sliding door, Kendall and Peyton following wordlessly. The hallways danced on the edge of menacing now that there weren’t a bunch of people walking through them. The walls were stark white, the plainness broken only by the silver doors embedded into them, and the dark gray carpet underfoot absorbed their footsteps. A shiver fell upon Peyton despite himself, and he sped up to match his pace with Kendall’s. “The Academy is so big,” he murmured, desperate to get any sound into the corridor. “How did you get used to it, Scout? How long— how long did it take?”

Scout glanced at him before facing back forward. “It only took me a week or so. It may take you longer. I don’t know.”

“Oh.” Peyton fell silent. “W-well, I bet Kendall will get it faster than me. He’s really good with memory. Right, Kendall?”

Kendall smirked. “I guess. I’m sure you’ll be fine, Peyton. I’ll help you when I can.” He looked to Scout, watching him press the elevator button to the first floor. “Scout too, of course. Right?”

“Yeah,” Scout said. “Sure.”

The elevator door opened, and they stepped in. Peyton watched the floors pass them by, barely keeping himself from pressing his face and hands against the glass walls. Kendall voiced what he was thinking: “The technology here is incredible. Silverhill is so… simple compared to it.”

“You’ll get used to it.” Scout didn’t seem fazed as the elevator slowed to a stop and slid open. “Come on. You remember where the mess hall is from yesterday, don’t you?”

“I’m pretty sure I do,” Kendall said. “Want me to lead the way?”

Scout looked back to Kendall, narrowing his eyes. “That won’t be necessary, but thanks.” Without another word, he strutted out the elevator, leaving them to hurry after him.

The mess hall was only a few strides from the elevator and staircase. The doors swung open as they approached, and they were instantly enveloped in all the smells of the food and the chatter of over a hundred other students. Peyton paused for a moment, overwhelmed by it all, before he realized he was being left behind. He rushed to keep up.

The food serving counters were at the front of the mess hall. They lined up in front of it, picking up trays and bowls along the way. Peyton peeked into the compartments of food. There was oatmeal in one, sliced up fruit in another, nuts, yogurt… with a pang, he suddenly remembered Mother’s warm, homemade cinnamon-pumpkin muffins. His mouth watered, and he wiped his lips in embarrassment. What he’d give to have one of those muffins right now. Or even just to see her. She’d always smelled of sweet spices and baked fruit. Funny how he only appreciated these things after he’d already left.

“What are you getting, Peyton?”

He looked up to see Kendall staring at him. His tray was already loaded with fruits and nuts, and a handful of granola. Peyton looked back down at the counter, shrugging. “I dunno. I guess a bowl of oatmeal, and maybe some berries to put in it. And… and a cup of tea. Or juice, I guess. If there is any. Do you see any?”

“I think it’s over there.” Kendall pointed to the opposite end of the line. “I’ll get a cup for you and bring it to our table. Which do you want?”

Peyton hesitated for a quick second. “Tea, I guess. With three sugars. No— four sugars.”

Kendall raised an eyebrow, but he nodded and walked off, leaving Peyton on his own. Scout was nowhere to be found— even if he was around Peyton doubted he’d stick by him until he was finished getting his food. Ducking his head to his chest, he grabbed the ladle to the oatmeal. He just had to get his breakfast as quickly as possible and walk over to the table. Hopefully they’d chosen one close to the wall…

He filled his bowl to the brim with oatmeal and topped it off with blueberries and banana. He put the tray back on the stack where he had gotten it from and picked up a spoon. Walking away from the counter, he looked around the room. Where had Scout and Kendall gone to sit? There were over fifty tables crammed into the hall, with five times as many people sitting at them. Peyton brought the bowl closer to him, his movements growing more frantic. They had to be around here somewhere—

A hand suddenly clapped down onto his shoulder, yanking him out of his thoughts with a pathetic squeal. He whipped around, nearly dropping the oatmeal. “What— wait— Olive!”

“Oh, goodness— you should have heard the noise you made!” Olive let go of his shoulder. She tried to put on a straight face before she doubled over yet again. “Okay— I’m sorry— I’m sorry— really!”

Peyton scowled. “Okay, I get it. You scared me.” The annoyance he felt quickly faded away, giving way to excitement. “I didn’t know when I would be able to talk to you again! Are you getting breakfast too?”

“Well, yeah. Why else would I be down here?” She smiled brightly at him. “I see you got your own already. Are you down here all by yourself?”

“Oh, no. I’m down here with Kendall and Scout— he’s my roommate. Kendall is, too.” He started to look around again, furrowing his brow. “If only I could find where they went off to.”

Olive looked past his shoulder, then pointed. “I think they’re over there. Kendall is, at least. I don’t know what Scout’s supposed to look like.”

“Huh?” He twisted his torso around, looking to where Olive had specified. Sure enough, both Kendall and Scout were sitting at a table flush to the wall. Scout was almost finished scarfing down his food while Kendall sat with his hands folded, looking intently in Peyton and Olive’s direction. Peyton could feel heat rushing to his cheeks. All this time, they’d been right in front of him. Why was he so stupid?

Olive gently nudged his back. “Go on. I’ll be there in a second.”

“I— uh, alright.” Peyton began to trudge over to the table. Putting down his bowl, he slipped into the empty seat next to Kendall. His cup of tea was slid in front of him, and he took it into his hands. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Kendall popped an apple slice into his mouth. “Is Olive coming over?”

“Yeah. She said she’ll be here in a second. She’s getting her own breakfast.” Peyton stirred around his oatmeal and swallowed a spoonful, glancing over to Scout. “Olive is—she’s the girl I was talking to you about earlier.”

“Really?” Scout swallowed his last bite of food. “I guess I’ll stay so you can introduce her to me.”

“Y-yeah.” He smiled and nodded, stirring around the oatmeal again. “Kendall, do you think she might be in our History 101 class?”

“Maybe. You’ll have to ask.”

“I guess. Look, here she comes now.” He smiled as she approached. “Olive, this is Scout, Kendall’s and my roommate. Say hi.”

Olive cocked her head to the side, then raised her hand and waved enthusiastically. “Hello! Nice to meet you.”

Scout didn’t seem very interested as she sat down next to Peyton and tucked into her bowl of oatmeal. “Yeah, hi,” he said. “They wanted to know if you were in History 101 after this. Just thought I’d tell you since neither of them have mentioned it yet.”

“Oh! Yeah, I am!” She looked toward Kendall. “You’re in the Cassidy building? Room five on the seventh floor?”

“Mm-hmm.” Kendall nodded. “I guess we’ll be able to hang out with each other after all.”

Peyton could feel his lips curling up into a grin. How long had it been since he’d actually smiled a genuine smile? It felt like forever. “That’s great! We should sit together like we did back in Miss Campbell’s sessions. Could we, Olive?”

Scout cleared his throat, cutting off the beginning of Olive’s reply. “I hate to burst your bubble, but seats are usually assigned here at the Academy. And the desks here aren’t like the kiddy group tables back in the district sessions. They’re individual seats. The Academy is supposed to teach you how to become more independent. That’s just one of the many ways they go about it.”

Olive tilted her head at him. “I see,” she said at last. “Well, we could always hope that we end up seated close to each other. There’s no reason to be pessimistic, is there?”

Scout shrugged nonchalantly, picking his teeth. “I guess. Look, you guys know where the Cassidy building is, right? You can get to it by yourselves?”

“Uh. We probably could.” Kendall raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

Scout pushed his seat back. “Then I better get going. My session is pretty much at the opposite side of the Academy, and the breakfast period’s about to end. I don’t want to be late on the first day.” He stood up. “See you guys.”

“Wait,” Kendall said. “We don’t need to bring anything with us to the History class, do we?”

“No. It’s a lecture-based session. They’ll tell you if you need to bring anything in advance.” He walked away without another word.

Kendall watched him leave, then scoffed once he was out of earshot. “That was something. He’s… something.”

“He’s just eccentric, that’s all.” Olive pushed her empty oatmeal bowl away. “Do you think we should make our way to the Cassidy building now? We should try to be there early. See if there’s assigned seats and all, you know?”

“Alright.” Peyton shoveled the last of his oatmeal into his mouth, swallowing the mush quickly. “Y-you can lead the way. Either of you. I don’t remember where the Cassidy building is.”

“It’s okay. You’ll get it eventually.” Olive stood up and ruffled his hair. Before he could protest, she was already skipping off to the food line to drop off her dirty bowl. Kendall followed her right after.

Peyton fixed his hair with a pout. Grabbing his bowl, he rose from his seat and hurried to catch up. They dumped their things into the soapy tub before exiting the cafeteria, walking through the hallway, and leaving the building.

The air outside was thick and heavy, and left a moist feeling caked in the back of Peyton’s mouth. He didn’t complain, though— he felt content following Kendall and Olive as they strode through the tall maze of buildings. It reminded him of how they walked to Miss Campbell’s sessions back in the old days. The old days… it was less than half a week ago and he was already calling it the old days. Was the Academy changing him already? He wrapped his arms around himself, suddenly feeling cold despite the stuffy heat.

“See, Peyton? It’s this building over here.”

Peyton looked up at Olive’s voice, up toward the towering white building that they were approaching. “Oh. Yeah, I see. It’s really tall.”

“It’s only nine stories. The buildings at the edge of the Academy are taller. But you’re right that it’s probably one of the tallest buildings we can enter.” She turned around and smiled mischievously at him. “You’re not afraid of heights, are you?”

He scowled. “No. Our dormitory is on one of the highest floors. I wasn’t afraid at all, not even when I rode the elevator.”

“We’ll see! This session is on the seventh floor.” Olive skipped away, leaving Kendall and Peyton to hurry behind her. When they approached the entrance, she was the one to press her wrist against the sensor and open up the doors.

The three of them walked into the crisp-smelling, air-conditioned lobby and approached the elevators. Kendall pressed the “7” button, stepping back as the doors slid shut. The lift began to ascend with a jolt, the world dropping from below their feet. Peyton clenched his jaw and refused to look at Olive’s smirking face. He thought he was going to crack just as the elevator slowed, then stopped completely at the seventh floor. The doors opened, and Peyton was the first to exit, steadying himself on the wall. Maybe he actually was a little afraid of heights. Heights higher than four or five stories, at least.

He didn’t get much time to rest before Kendall and Olive approached. Standing up straight, he looked to Kendall. “Scout said we had to go to the fifth room,” he said. “Do you know where that is?”

Kendall fished his map out of his shirt pocket. “We walk up the hallway to the left and make a right turn around the corner from here. There’s only one door on that side of the floor, it looks like. Must be a big room.”

“My roommate did say it was a large class.” Olive was already on her way down the corridor. “Apparently there are some second-year students mixed in with the first-year students too. That’s what my roommate told me, anyway. Maybe she’s in this class.”

“Oh.” Peyton nodded slowly. “Did… did she say anything about assigned seats? Maybe you’re— you might be sitting with her, or something?”

“Nope. But we’re gonna be finding out in a second, aren’t we?” Olive walked up to the door, jumping back as it slid open automatically. “Looks like there’s no sensor for classroom doors. Guess that means come on in.” She sauntered through the doorway.

The room was huge— easily half the size of the cafeteria, maybe even a little bigger. Over a hundred desks with chairs attached to them were arranged neatly into rows, with little white screens at their upper left-hand corner. Everything was either silver or white. The walls and ceilings were white, the desks, the lights… at the front of the room was a huge screen display, that currently showed the Academy’s logo at the center. Under the logo was a line of black text: “Welcome students. Please look for your name and number on the desk screens”

“I guess that means that the seats were chosen for us beforehand.” Peyton walked to the front of the room and began scanning through the screens. “Olive, I found your seat.”

“I’m at the front of the room?” She bounded up to him and peeked over his shoulder. “OKZ-002. That is my code. Huh. Well, I guess this is it. Don’t worry, Peyton. Maybe you’ll sit close to me.”

“It doesn’t look like it.” Peyton walked through the row of desks, then stared at the one behind it. “Oh… look! I’m right behind you!”

“Really?” Olive leant over to look at his desk screen. “PRW-009.” She looked around the room. “Maybe they’re organized by number?”

“They are.” Kendall sat down in the last seat in Olive’s row. “I have 007 as my number. And look, I’m five seats away from you.”

Peyton looked at the desks to his right, then his left. “Oh… you’re right! That means that we’re all near each other! Isn’t that great?”

“Mm-hmm.” Olive looked to the doorway, chin perched on her fist. “Looks like some more people are coming in. We better not talk so loud anymore.”

“I guess.” Peyton sat back in his seat and snuck a glance at the doorway. Other students were beginning to trickle into the room, reading the board and looking for their desks. Peyton could recognize a few of them from the bus ride yesterday morning— those two talkative girls, for example. The session would definitely be starting soon. What would they even be learning about? In Miss Campbell’s class, history was always a brief part of their session. It was never thoroughly discussed the way language or science was. So what new things would the Academy be teaching them? Peyton looked to the board, which still showed the Academy logo. They’d be finding out in a few minutes, hopefully. He rested his hands on the desk, tapping his fingers against the surface. Just a little while to go.

At long last, when every student had found their seat, the Academy logo on the screen blipped away. A sudden static noise filled up the room, and every person  looked up at the sound. The door opened, and a man walked in. He was tall, thin, and olive-skinned, with a face that was only just beginning to betray his age. The most striking part about him, however, was his eyes. His left eye was a deep chestnut brown, while the right glinted a brilliant, icy blue. Peyton couldn’t help but wonder if they were real as he sat forward, forcing a smile onto his face as the man regarded each student in the room.

“Welcome to class, students.” The man’s voice, deep and lightly raspy, reverberated off the walls. There was a microphone near his cheek, Peyton noticed. “I’m seeing plenty of new faces— and a couple of old ones, too. I suppose I’ll introduce myself.” He put a hand to his chest, clearing his throat. “My name is Mister Beverly. I will be your instructor for City History Basics 101. I am looking forward to a successful year with you all.”

He turned around to the screen. That was all the introduction they were going to get? It seemed like it. Peyton leant forward, carefully intrigued.

The white screen flickered away to display a new image. A ripple of excitement surged through the audience as they all suddenly realized what it was.

“Let’s start from the very beginning,” Mister Beverly said. “Today, you all will be learning about the end of the Unspeakable Times.”

Peyton sat up, suddenly much more interested than he had been before. Miss Campbell had never spoken about the Unspeakable Times in any way— she had barely even mentioned it. It had always been something that wasn’t for them to know, something they didn’t need to worry about. And Peyton never had. Out of nowhere, he felt his heart rate increase. What would Mister Beverly be telling them? He rubbed the back of his head, staring at the sprawling landscape of towering buildings on the screen before him with a growing uncertainty.

Mister Beverly raised his hand, and the whispers around them dissipated. “I will not be going into much detail. Not even I know much about the Unspeakable Times. All I will be doing is giving a brief history of the very end and contrasting that era with the present day.”

The buildings on the screen flickered away, to an aerial view of the same area. There were people walking through the maze of structures, similar to how people did in the Academy, but on a much larger scale. They looked almost like insects, skittering this way and that way with no sense of direction. Peyton found it beautiful, in some sort of funny, exotic way.

“This is what life was like during the Unspeakable Times.” Mister Beverly looked at his audience’s reactions, his face inscrutable. “This was before things made a turn for the worse, for that matter. As you can see, things were large, complex… disorderly. And everyone lived like this. Millions, billions of people. No sign of green anywhere, like there is in our districts. Could you imagine that?” He regarded the class further, silently interrogating each one of them personally. Peyton shrunk back. The thought of being crowded and stifled by thousands of other bodies his entire life made him feel sick. How did the people living back then manage to deal with it?

“As you can probably guess, these conditions did not lead to a high-quality society. Humans are simply unable to thrive in environments such as that. The situation eventually came to a boiling point. Conflicts broke out every day, so many that none can truly be viewed as significantly better or worse than the others. There was never a reprieve in the maelstrom. It got worse and worse as time passed. Eventually, the population dwindled enough that the few who had the attributes to live through it all rose from the ruins. They knew that they could not allow anything like this to happen again.” Mister Beverly’s eyes glinted. “So they— we— took it upon ourselves to build a new society.

“The first City’s rudimentary council applied the good things about the old civilization—however few there were— and molded it into the nation we have today. As time has passed, and the population has grown, more Cities have spread across the world, so that we will not have a repeat of what happened a hundred years ago. We’ve adapted and morphed the humans’ lifestyle so that everyone can be as content and as untroubled as possible. And is that not what everyone wants? Happiness and a peace of mind?” Mister Beverly looked around, as if he were asking for anyone to try and disagree with him. His mismatched eyes suddenly stopped— on Peyton.

Peyton felt his throat dry up. He shrunk down into his seat, his lips trembling. His voice was thin and reedy as it escaped his clenched throat. “I— I—”

“GMW-103. You don’t seem to be very pleased. What’s the matter?”

GMW? Those weren’t his initials. Peyton felt his entire body relax, relief rushing through his muscles like an overflowing river. Mister Beverly hadn’t been looking at him— he’d been looking at somebody behind him. Without thinking, he twisted around. There was girl at the very back of the room, slouched in her chair. Her downcast eyes refused to look up at Mister Beverly, or anyone for that matter.

“GMW-103?”

She looked up at last, before her gaze went back to her lap. There were bags under her eyes, Peyton noticed, weighing down the rest of her face. She was… it looked like she was shaking. “Nothing,” she said at last, her voice almost inaudible.

“It must be something.” Mister Beverly’s voice was gentle, but an unmistakable glimmer of curiosity shone in his mismatched eyes. “Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts.”

The girl said nothing.

“Could it be that you disagree with the message I’ve just shared, GMW-103?”

Peyton involuntary winced as GMW-103 flinched, her eyes squinting shut. She opened and closed her mouth like a fish before words began to stutter out. “I— I didn’t—”

“Please, don’t try to deny it. I genuinely want to hear your thoughts.” Mister Beverly cocked his head to the side. “Please, take your time. We’re all waiting.”

Peyton rested his elbow on his desk, partially hiding his face in his hand. The secondhand embarrassment he felt for the girl was making him nauseous. He could see Kendall clenching at his scalp as he glared forward into nothing, his entire body tense. Olive gaped openly at the girl, her face pale. It was clear that no one was enjoying this. Please, say something to make him stop, Peyton thought. Just let us get on with the session in peace.

Almost as if she had heard his thoughts, the girl looked up. Her fingers trembled as she folded them and rested her hands on her desk. “W-what happened to all of those people back in the Unspeakable Times, Mister Beverly? How could that many people simply vanish just before the City was founded? It just doesn’t make any sense at all to me. Sir.”

The air fled from the room. Peyton held his breath. Looking at the girl was almost physically painful now. He turned back to his desk, resting his forehead on the cool metal surface.

“If you were paying attention, GMW-103, you would have heard me state that the chaos of the Unspeakable Times was responsible for the decline of the population. The overpopulation, as well as their lifestyle, led to the mayhem that preceded the era of the City.” Mister Beverly’s body looked tense as he searched her face. “Do you have any more questions for us?”

The girl didn’t respond for a minute. When she spoke again, her voice was hoarse, as if it were being forced up her throat and through her lips. “How did all those people disappear, Mister Beverly? What exactly happened to them? And who did it to them?”

Mister Beverly said nothing. Peyton peeked up at him from his desk; he could almost see the gears churning in his mind while he searched for a proper answer. “The condition of their living qualities caused them to wage war against one another,” he said at last. “That’s all you need to know. All any of you need to know.” He raised his hand to his ear and mouthed a few hushed words before bringing his attention to the back of the room again. “In the meantime, GMW-103, please step outside of the room for a moment. I believe you need a moment to take a breather.”

Peyton slowly turned his head around to look at the girl. She didn’t move at first. Her eyebrows were now knitted together as she stared at her desk. She didn’t look up at anyone or anything when she stood, nor when she drifted through the aisles between the desks. She passed by Peyton’s seat, and he could see that her face was flushed red behind the curtain of dark hair obscuring it. He could hear the soft whirring of the door as she approached it. Her footsteps echoed as she walked through the hallway, before the door shut again and sealed every sound coming from outside.

Nobody said anything for a full minute.

“Well, then.” Mister Beverly was the one to chase the leaden silence away. “That was interesting, to say the least. I suggest that you all try to disregard what just occurred. It’s normal for many to have misconceptions about the Unspeakable Times and the genesis of the City, considering the fact that it’s such an unfamiliar and cryptic subject for many of us. This is what this class is for— to bring an end to those misconceptions. There is no need for any of you to worry. Let’s return to the lesson, shall we?”

Mister Beverly turned back to the board and changed the screen, but Peyton barely noticed what was on it. Mister Beverly’s voice sounded muffled and wrong.

Peyton squeezed his eyes shut, swallowing the growth of discomfort that had swelled in the back of his throat. No. He couldn’t act like this, or else he would be asked to explain what he was thinking, too. Like the girl. Sitting up, Peyton reached under his desk to the one in front of him. The tips of his fingers brushed against Olive’s hand. Her hand eventually wrapped around his own, and his lips quivered. He looked to the front of the room, his vision unfocused as he listened to Mister Beverly’s voice drone on to the script of the lesson.

The girl didn’t come back.

~ * ~

Peyton had been staring up at the ceiling for the past ten minutes. Or about that long, anyway. He had been focusing on the faint, constant tick of the clock since he’d entered the bedroom: every sixty ticks, he would scratch off a minute in his mind. There was more than a small chance that he’d miscounted by a little— or by a lot— but that didn’t matter. Diverting his thoughts away from the events that had happened this morning was what mattered to him.

Turning onto his side, he drew his knees up to his chest. The bed felt stiff and lumpy underneath him. Scout and Kendall had went down to lunch without him, and at that moment he was happy for that as an involuntary whimper bubbled through his mouth. What was wrong with him? There was no need to be this distraught over what had happened. But something about it kept him from simply letting it move on from his mind. Something about that girl, her subdued resolution, her fate… he couldn’t take his mind off it. It was obvious that Mister Beverly had been unhappy with her conflicting views of the city. That was why he had sent her out of the session. What would happen to her now? Would she be questioned? Punished?

Would she be… lost?

Peyton shot up and furiously shook his head. Black spots mottled his vision at the sudden change in blood pressure, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t be thinking about that. He’d already promised himself that he’d forget that conversation between Mother and Father. He didn’t want that to be one of the last memories he had of them. There was no need to be so pessimistic. He had to think of something else. Something happier.

He shuffled off the bed. Standing on trembling legs, he walked over to the windowsill and leant against it, staring out. The sun gleaming off the metal buildings in the distance made his eyes water. Beyond even those, he could see the top of the forest— the Outskirts. The tips of the tangled foliage were visible above the wall, their bright green contrasting sharply with the silver and black of the City. Peyton cupped his chin in his hands. For a moment, he thought about what it would be like to go into the Outskirts. Yes, it was an untameable place unfit for human life, but even if it were just for a second, would it not be pleasant to feel the fresh air on his skin, the leaves brushing against his clothes? To taste the unsullied scent of grass, rain and soil?

A knocking on the door pulled him away from his daydreaming. He turned around and hesitantly stood, walking over to the exit. “C-come in,” he said, getting close enough for the door to open. When he saw who was standing behind it, he blinked, somewhat surprised. “Olive?”

“Yeah, it’s me.” Olive walked into the room, the door closing behind her. “Why didn’t you come downstairs for lunch? I snuck up some stuff for you.” She held up a bread roll and an apple. “Not a lot, but it was all I could get.”

Peyton delicately took the food from her open palms, only then noticing how empty his stomach felt. “Oh. Th-thanks, I guess.” He rested them on the windowsill, tearing a small piece off the bread as he sat back down. “What are you doing in here, anyway? Can’t you get in trouble if you’re caught?”

“What? Are you planning on tattling?” A smirk crossed over her face, before flickering away. “Really, though, don’t worry. I’m on the fourth floor, too, so I can make a quick escape if I need to. Plus, I don’t think Kendall or Scout would be the ones to get too angry if they found me in here. I came in here to talk to you, actually. Privately.”

Peyton frowned. “About what?” he asked, although he was sure he already knew the answer.

“About this morning.” She stepped back, sitting down on one of the beds— Scout’s bed. The freshly made sheets crumpled under her weight. If she noticed Peyton’s wince, she did nothing to show that acknowledgement. Instead, she sat there for an uncomfortable amount of seconds, searching his face with those deep green eyes of hers. “Are you okay?”

Peyton opened his mouth, then closed it. He didn’t want to talk about this. He didn’t even want to think about this. Why did she have to push this conversation on him now? “Y-yeah, I’m fine,” he said. “Why?”

Olive looked down at her feet. “What happened during class this morning… I feel like it affected you a lot. N-not that you were super clear about it or anything,” she hurried on to say. “But you were acting so jittery and you wanted to hold my hand after and… I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. I don’t want us to drift apart while we’re here. Talk to me, Peyton.”

Peyton stared at her, a visceral discomfort bubbling in his stomach. Olive didn’t usually act like this. She was supposed to be optimistic and happy, not vulnerable and apprehensive. The events of the morning must have affected her, too. The Academy was already starting to change them, wasn’t it?

He shrugged. “I— the girl— it just surprised me, that’s all.” He squeezed his eyes shut as he tried to reorganize his thoughts. “I didn’t expect the session to go like that. With the girl being sent out and everything. It was so different from Miss Campbell’s sessions, right?”

“I know.” Olive didn’t look up at him. “It was different.” She didn’t say anything else, the tense silence hanging between the two of them like a soaked cloth.

“W-well…” Peyton trailed off, looking helplessly at her. Every reassurance he could think up died on his lips before he could get it out. She was supposed to be the pillar for him, not the other way around. How was he supposed to go about this? “W-well, Olive, I don’t think you should worry too much about it. I’m fine, really. Plus, I wouldn’t do anything like that girl did to draw attention to myself. You know that already.” A weak smile crawled onto his face.

Olive suddenly stood and walked over to him. She rested her hands on his shoulders, making him look up into her face. “I know you won’t,”’ she said, voice filled with a newfound conviction. “Don’t do anything stupid like that, okay? Don’t be stupid. We’re gonna get through this together.” Her hands left his shoulders only to be wrapped around him in a swift, crushing hug.

Peyton hesitated, bringing his arms up to pat her back. Her hair smelled nice, like strawberries. When she pulled away, he noticed that her entire face was red. He drew away slightly. “Olive, a-are you okay?”

“Y-yeah. I’m fine.” She stepped back, hands behind her back. “I better get going now, Peyton. See you later. Don’t forget to eat that food I got you.” She took another step back, never breaking her gaze from him, before she pivoted around and walked through the door.

Peyton stared at the closed silver door for a moment, straining to hear Olive’s footsteps fading away. Why was she acting so weird all of a sudden? He shook his head. It was probably just Olive being Olive, that was all. Turning to the window, he looked back outside. Some stray clouds had covered the sun, bathing the Academy and Outskirts in a pale gray haze. He looked out, staring at the people below milling around underneath him. They all looked so tiny, like the people from the Unspeakable Times that Mister Beverly had showed on his screen. So tiny and insignificant.

Peyton clenched his eyes shut. When he opened them again, he focused his attentions on the bread and apple Olive had brought him. The piece of the roll he had torn off was still in his palm, he realized. Slowly, he brought the moist, smushed piece up to his mouth. It tasted bitter— or perhaps it was his thoughts jumbling up his senses. Pushing the rest of the roll away, he rested his elbows on the windowsill, bringing a trembling finger to his watering eyes. He wasn’t hungry.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Five

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Peyton adjusted his tie for the hundredth time, staring intently into the mirror. His shirt was much too stiff, the collar bit into the sides of his neck, and his newly washed and ironed black khakis chafed irritatingly against his legs. The shoes squeezing his feet warped his gait from an acceptably confident walk to a rather undignified limp. But he looked good, and that was all that mattered for today— giving off a good first impression.

In the reflection of the mirror, he could see Father push the door open and step inside. He turned around and forced a smile. “Hi… can you fix my tie for me, please?”

Father reached toward him, untying the garment and fixing it back up in seconds. “Is that better?”

Peyton nodded, fingering his now unrestricted neck. “Yeah. Thanks.” The corners of his lips trembled.

Father reached down and tucked an awry strand of hair behind Peyton’s ear. “Your mother and I are very proud of you. You know that, don’t you? We know you’ll do great at the Academy. Don’t worry.”

Peyton shrugged and looked away, the grin on his face melting away as fake grins usually did. “I know that, Father. I know you want me to do good, but—” Mother’s distressed cries and Father’s futile consolations from last night flared back to the surface. He squeezed his eyes shut instinctively. “S-sorry. I can’t help but be nervous. I’m not as nervous as yesterday, though. I think I’ll be okay.” He glanced up, making his face as pleasant as possible. “I’ll try to turn some of that nervousness into excitement for you and Mother. So you two don’t need to worry so much.”

“I appreciate that, Peyton.” Father rubbed his shoulder. “But don’t worry too much about us. Worry about your studies and making new friends, and having new experiences instead. We’ll be just fine here.”

Peyton couldn’t hide his wince. The idea that he would be away from his parents for more than a few hours, let alone a few years, for the first time in his life still made him feel odd. That feeling had only gotten worse since last night. “Well, I still plan on writing to you guys,” he said. “Once a week, at least. Will you write back?”

“Of course we will. And you’d better keep your promise or else we’ll come over there and force you to tell us what you’re doing in class all day.” Father nudged him gently.

Peyton couldn’t help but laugh. That would be impossible— the busses to the Academy only came once a year, and students were the only ones allowed on— but thinking of his parents going all that way just to talk to him about his day comforted him, somehow. “I will, I will. Don’t worry.” He paused. “Is… is Mother almost ready?”

“She’s supposed to be. Probably still applying her makeup, or something.” Father glanced at his watch. “We still have time. It’s only seven-forty. Still, though… Carmen!” he called. “We’re ready to go!”

“Sorry! I’m here!” Mother hurried into Peyton’s room as best as she could in her heels. Flipping her dark hair over her shoulder, she gave Peyton a big, lipstick-coated kiss on the cheek. “Does my dress look okay?”

“Your dress looks fine, Mother.” Peyton rubbed the maroon stain off his face. So much like her to put on such an extravagant getup just to watch a bus drive away. He couldn’t find himself able to get exasperated at her, though. “Can we leave now?”

Father grabbed the strap of the duffle bag, picking it up with a grunt. “I’ll get the door.” He walked out the bedroom.

Mother wrapped Peyton into a rib-crushing hug. “Let’s go, sweetie.”

Peyton hesitated. This was it— this was the last time he would be in this room, the last time he would step out of the house, and eventually the last time he would hug his parents, for a minimum of four years— and it would probably be longer than that, realistically. Once he got onto that bus, there would be no turning back. When Mother pulled away, he found himself grasping for her hand. When he found it he clutched it as if he would never let go. Mother silently wrapped her fingers around his own, and they walked out the bedroom, into the kitchen, and out the door together.

The weather outside fit Peyton’s mood aptly. Light gray clouds covered the sky, the sun a valiant pale dot shining through the thick veil. Peyton tucked his chin into his chest as he walked, eyes fixed intently on the cobblestone ground beneath him. Looking at all the surroundings that he’d grown up with for the past fourteen years would only end up making him more emotional. Already he felt like he would cry.

As they continued to walk, Peyton found himself slowing down, trying to savor it all for the last time. Neither Mother or Father objected to his loitering pace, not even when his newly polished shoes began to drag on the pavement. Mother was probably secretly grateful— she had tired of her heels twenty steps in and was now walking barefoot, holding her shoes in the hand not occupied with Peyton’s. Father had thrown the duffle bag over his shoulder, staring up to the sky to try and hide his early morning bleariness. No conversation happened between the three of them, but the silence was comfortable, peaceful. It almost felt normal, like they were walking down the road to catch the bus to Miss Campbell’s class. But no matter how slowly they walked, Peyton knew that they were going to reach their destination far too soon for his liking.

The bus stop was already occupied by five familiar faces. Peyton’s heart jumped in his chest as he recognized the person waving at him— “Miss Campbell!” He ran over and threw his arms around her. “I thought you weren’t going to come! Thank you for coming!”

“Of course I was going to come, Peyton. I told you I would yesterday, didn’t I?” She returned the hug, rubbing his back. “I see all of my students off to the Academy. There was no way I’d make an exception for you, Olive and Kendall.”

Peyton managed to drag himself away from her at last, stepping back to where his parents stood. Miss Campbell nodded at them and smiled lightly, as if she had just noticed them. Peyton’s gaze wandered off to the other four at the stop— Kendall’s parents, Kendall himself, and Olive in tow. They grinned and waved at him. Miss Campbell had come for them too, of course, but she had specifically said that she was coming to see him off yesterday. She had meant that, hadn’t she? He pushed down the growing twinge of jealousy. Of course she would saw all of her students off. She cared for all of them equally. He shouldn’t have expected her to behave any different toward him than the others.

“Peyton, are you okay?” Mother’s hand rested on his head. “You’re going to do great, sweetheart.”

Olive nodded. “She’s right, Peyton. Don’t be nervous! We’re gonna do just fine.”

“I’m fine, you guys.” Peyton felt his face grow warm from suddenly becoming the center of attention. “Are you okay, Mother?”

Mother stubbornly blinked away the tears gathering in her eyes. “I’m okay, honey. I’m just so proud of you.” Pulling him closer, she gave him another sloppy kiss on his cheek. “Don’t forget to write letters to us, okay?”

“I won’t, Mother.” He reached up to wipe the lipstick away, then paused. “I think I hear something.”

Father glanced at his watch. “Seven fifty-nine.” He shrugged the duffle bag off his shoulder. He set it on the ground. Peyton could only stare at it. This was it. This was really happening.

“It’s coming!” Kendall’s mother tore Peyton’s eyes away. “I can see it!”

He followed her finger to the point in the distance. Yes— a sleek, short black bus was coming down the street toward them, a stark contrast from the white pedestrian busses that usually went through the district. Peyton fumbled with his arms, trying to pick up his bag and hug Mother at the same time. He chose to get his bag first. Once it was lugged over his shoulder, he managed to give Mother a lopsided hug. “Bye, Mom…” he pushed his face into her chest. When he pulled away there were wet streaks on her pale dress, a burgundy stain smeared next to them. He was crying? No, this wasn’t the time for that.

He rubbed his cheeks and turned to Father. “Bye, Father. I’ll miss you.” He hugged him shortly, then pulled away. There wasn’t much time to waste. The bus was getting closer by the moment. “Bye, Miss Campbell.” He wrapped his arms around her ribcage and squeezed tightly. Miss Campbell hugged him back, resting her hand on the back of his head. When she finally released him, the bus was coming to a stop in front of them. Peyton backed away. “I’m gonna miss all of you.”

“We know, dear. We’ll miss you too. Now—” Mother raised her hand— “go! Don’t keep the bus waiting.”

Peyton took a few more steps back, taking in their faces for the last time. Then he forced himself to turn around. The bus had swung its doors open, and Kendall and Olive were already standing on the stairs, looking at him expectantly. He hurried up and jumped onto the steps, pulling the duffle bag back on his shoulder. Olive led the way through the aisle. Peyton followed her, staring at the polished metal floor of the bus. Only a few other kids were on the bus already, leaving empty spaces all over. He slipped into the seat Olive had chosen for them near the back. Kendall sat down after him, Peyton uncomfortably sandwiched between the two.

The doors slammed shut. Peyton was jolted backward as the bus began to pull away. “Now departing for district Cascadefalls: 5469 Blue Point Avenue,” the automatic voice stated.

Peyton leant forward, staring past Olive to the five figures outside the window. Slowly, he raised his hand and waved to them. He had no idea if they could see him— the windows appeared to be blacked out from the outside when he’d looked— but as the bus started to pick up speed, they lifted their arms and began to wave as well.

The bus was going the way it had come, and Peyton continued to stare after Mother, Father and Miss Campbell until they were only mere dots in the distance. He twisted back around and slouched as best as he could in his seat, all his energy fluttering out of him with a single sigh.

“It’s gonna be okay, Peyton.”

A hand rested on his own. Listlessly, he glanced up to stare at Olive. She smiled at him. “I told you not to worry,” she said. “Me and Kendall are going to be there for you no matter what, got that? We’ll get through this together.”

Peyton couldn’t find the energy to offer anything stronger than a small nod. Olive didn’t seem to mind, though. She let him face the front of the bus and stare out the windshield again, keeping her hand on his. The roads were barren save for their bus, and they cruised through the district quickly and smoothly. Peyton sat up slightly as they approached the Cascadefalls sign. They were about to leave Silverhill.

He looked behind him as they passed the border, his former home shrinking away with every second the bus continued to drive forward. This was actually happening. Every time he thought the finality of the situation couldn’t set in any deeper, it managed to prove him wrong. Slowly, he turned back around, slumping in his seat again. His eyes flickered up to Kendall. The boy’s lips cocked up in a tiny smile, but even he looked nervous as he resumed looking out the windows.

Arriving in Cascadefalls was like stepping into a whole new world. Instead of short, jaunty bright green foliage, there were towering trees covered with drooping fronds dotting the sides of the streets. They were called weeping willows, Peyton believed. The bus weaved through winding rows, passing small ponds and thin streams. The stops were quick and short, picking up all the other students coming to the Academy. A brooding boy with dark hair hung over his eyes at one stop, two perky girls whispering to each other at another. A kid clutching a notepad actually nodded and smiled at Peyton as he walked past. Peyton returned the smile, but it melted away as soon as he was no longer being watched.

This was going to be such a long drive. Rosenvale and Zephyrpoint would probably take half an hour each to get through, and then it was a two hour drive to the Academy after that. Why had they made it so isolated in the first place? Peyton pouted. He’d never ridden a bus for longer than thirty minutes before, and now he was expected to be thrown into such a long ride so suddenly.

Olive squeezed his hand. “Go to sleep if you’re bored. Or you can talk to me. I don’t mind.”

Peyton looked at her, then to his right. Kendall had seemed to take initiative a while ago and now had his head bowed, eyes peacefully shut. Napping would make the time go by faster, or at least make it seem like it was. But talking to Olive would give him some much needed comfort. Would she get annoyed at him if he began to vent all his emotions at her? He shrugged ruefully. “I— I don’t know what I want to do”.

Olive smiled. “I think you’re tired. Lay your head on my shoulder.”

“I— alright.” Slowly, he leant to the side, putting his chin on her shoulder. The physical contact was quite relaxing. A soft sigh escaped him, his body melting against hers.

Olive patted his shoulder. “That’s it. Just go to sleep now, okay?”

Peyton shrugged again. “I guess you’re right. I didn’t get a very good sleep last night.”

“Really? Want to talk about it?”

He shook his head. There wasn’t any need to concern her over it. Knowing her, she would talk about it for the entire ride. “It’s alright,” he said. “Wake me up when we get there, okay?”

“Sure.”

Despite the emotions boiling inside of him, Peyton felt a small smile grace his face. He shut his eyes. “Thanks, Olive.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Peyton didn’t respond. He’d almost forgotten how nice sleep felt without having to worry about headaches or bad thoughts. Might as well get a little shut-eye in now before they arrived at the Academy. Shifting his body so it was sitting closer to Olive, he let sleep overtake him.

~ * ~

He wasn’t sure what ultimately woke him up in the end— Olive’s gentle prodding, or the bus coming to a sudden, jerky stop— but the second his eyes cracked open, he knew that they wouldn’t be closing again. There was just so much to take in outside the windows, he couldn’t allow himself to miss a single second of it.

Lifting his head from Olive’s shoulder, he basically crawled across her to press his face against the glass. Busses identical to theirs, more than he had seen together in his entire life, were lined up next to theirs in neat little rows. Beyond them, buildings rose out of the ground— some only about twice as tall as the busses, others so tall that they appeared to touch the sky, nearly overwhelming Peyton with their extraordinary size. He could feel the hairs on his nape stand on end. This was the Academy. This was going to be his new home.

“Cool, huh?”

He looked back at Olive, suddenly remembering that he was bent halfway across her lap. “Yeah.” He pulled back and settled back down in his seat. “Sorry. I just— I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Olive laughed. “Don’t worry about it. It was pretty moving for most of us. Kendall even started tearing up. As much as he wants to deny it.”

“I did not.” Kendall scowled, lifting his bag from the floor and dropping it on his lap. “When are we getting out of here, anyway?”

“See what I mean?” She tittered again. “To answer your question, I’m not too sure. There’ll probably be an announcement over the speakers or something. That’ll tell us what to do.”

Peyton nodded. “Yeah. You’re right.” He picked up his own bag, fumbling with the strap. He glanced out the window again, at the black and silver buildings ten times his height. The initial blaze of excitement had died much too quickly, eaten away by the unshakable nervousness that had been growing within him over the last few days. “You guys are going to be staying with me, right?”

“We’ll be right by your side.” Olive patted his hand.

“Mm-hmm,” Kendall said. “Until we have to go off and do our own separate things, of course.”

Peyton nodded. He swallowed the lump in his throat. Yes, they’d have to disband eventually. He’d just have to find a way to cope with that… as difficult as it would be.

A light crackling drew their attentions to the ceiling. “Good day, new arrivals!” a tinny, cheerful voice sounded over a hidden speaker. “Congratulations on arriving here at last. Welcome to the Educational Academy for City Adolescents! As you know, you all will be living here for the next few years. Please take some time to get accustomed. You all have probably realized by now that this place is much more extravagant than the district you’ve come from. It can be intimidating, but by the end of today I assure you that you will be as comfortable as can be. To start, please exit the bus and line up into six columns as neatly as you can in front of them. Some of our officials and I will be there to greet you and help you get organized.”

The doors slowly hissed open. Outside the window, Peyton could see all the other busses opening up as well, children beginning to file out of them. They all had to be as nervous as him, right?

Olive stood up shakily, nudging Peyton. “C’mon, let’s go. There’s no time to waste.”

“Yeah. Sorry.” He rose to his feet, dragging his bag up with him. “Can we go, Kendall?”

“Just waiting for the aisle to clear up.”

“Oh.” Peyton stood on his tiptoes, staring past Kendall’s head to watch the last of the other students clamber through the bus and climb down the stairs. Once the bus was clear, Kendall left the seat, Olive and Peyton following closely behind him. The aisle seemed to stretch on forever to Peyton. Olive was behind him to give him a small prompting forward whenever he slowed. After what seemed like an eternity, they reached the exit. Kendall was the first to climb down, turning back to look up at Peyton and Olive. Peyton forced his feet to go on the stairs, one at a time. Stepping onto the ground at last allowed him to release the breath he hadn’t known he was holding.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Olive jumped down behind him. “Let’s get to the line and see what’s going on.” She bounded forward without warning, and Kendall and Peyton had to hurry to catch up to her. The crowd only grew denser as they advanced, and Peyton found himself having to squeeze between gaps to keep up, apologizing hastily to each student he pushed past. Olive didn’t seem to notice his struggle as she fought her way to the front of the throng. It felt like every eye in the place was trained on the three of them as Peyton forced himself through a cluster of students and staggered over to Olive, his head swiveling to take in the spectacle of towers before them.

“Come on,” Kendall said, tapping Peyton’s shoulder. “We have to get into the lines, now.” The rest of the crowd was drifting into neat columns in front of the busses.

Olive took Peyton’s hand into hers. “We should get into the same line.” She was already pulling him to the leftmost column, causing him to bump into more than a few students.

Peyton staggered into the spot behind Olive, almost crashing into the person standing behind him. “Sorry,” he muttered.

Whatever response the student had for him was drowned out by an excited commotion. Someone was approaching, Peyton realized, and he peered over Olive’s frizzy mane to get a better look. An adult, most likely in his late twenties or early thirties, his blonde hair cut short and styled neat, swept his keen eyes over the mass of students before him.  The smirk on his lips only grew with each new face he regarded. “Greetings, everyone! I am Jordan Presley— but please, call me Mister Presley.” His voice matched the one that they had heard on the bus. “I am the counselor and the head of student conduct and relations, and I will be helping you get acclimated to the Academy as much as possible today.”

He adjusted his tie and glanced over the students once more. “This area is close to the center of the Academy— it’s been unofficially declared to be our plaza, in fact. Our destination is the resident headquarters in the student center building. Luckily for you and your feet, that building is merely a few minutes’ walk from where we are at the moment.” He pointed behind him. “Once we’re there, we’ll work on getting all of you registered and ready to explore the Academy and all it has to offer. Those of you who will be sharing a room with an older student, there is a decent chance that they will be there to help show you around before the official tour at seventeen o’ clock. The rest of you will have me or another official as a guide, so worry not. Nobody will be left out today, I assure you.”

He grinned brightly. “If there are no questions, I will lead you to the student center now. Please remain in your lines as that will ensure that this process goes as smoothly as possible. Then we can get into the more interesting parts of our day.” Pivoting curtly on his heel, he began to strut away.

Olive looked over her shoulder and grinned at the students behind her. “Guess we’d better get going, then.” She did a little hop in place before following Mister Presley.

Peyton hesitated only for a brief moment. A light shove from behind prompted him forward. He craned his head back, taking in the new sights and scents of this unfamiliar new place. From what he could see from the corner of his eyes, nearly everyone else around him was doing the exact same thing. With every building they passed and nearby administrator they noticed, his apprehension grew. In a matter of minutes, he would officially become a bona fide member of the Academy. He would finally be getting his first taste of independence. He sped up just enough to rest his fingertips on the bag tossed over Olive’s shoulder. “Do you think we’re almost there?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” she whispered back. “It’s that silver building to the left, see?” She pointed to the relatively humble building Mister Presley appeared to be drifting toward. “Just a little longer to go. You excited?”

“I guess so. As excited as I can be, at least.”

“I keep on telling you that there’s no need to be nervous.” She chuckled quietly. “There’s gonna be people to help you around. Do you know if you have a roommate or not?”

“I— I’ve never checked.” Heat rushed to Peyton’s face. He’d never bothered to look at the envelope inside of his bag when it had been sent to him, and Mother and Father had never asked him about it. It had never crossed his mind what sort of information it could have had in it until now. “I’m so dumb.”

“Don’t worry about it too much, Peyton. I’m sure that the officials will tell you if you ask. Look, we’re getting ready to go in.” She began to slow down, eventually coming to a stop when Mister Presley turned around to face them once more. “Are we going in now?” she called out.

Mister Presley was apparently unfazed by the distasteful manner in which Olive asked her question. If anything, he seemed pleased. “Indeed, we are! I ask for you all to stay in your neat lines. There are six people at the table inside to assist you, so staying organized will help this go as smoothly and quickly as possible like I stated before. Once you are officially enrolled and given your papers, feel free to find your roommate as specified on your sheet or get close to one of our adult guides— either one is okay by us as long as you don’t overwhelm one single individual. Are we all good on that?”

A resounding “yes” came from the crowd, and he beamed. “Fantastic! Then feel free to follow me inside.” With a flourish, he pivoted around and walked to the glass double doors in the front of the building. He fumbled with something to the left, and with the faintest beep, the doors swung open.

There was more than enough room for all six rows to enter at the same time, but nobody acted like it. Olive rushed in at a near jog, and Peyton had to hurry to keep up with her. The inside of the room was quite simple— white all around, brightly lit by fluorescent lights dotting the ceiling. At the opposite end of the room, there was a long desk table where six people and dozens of paper piles sat. Apparently that was where they were supposed to go, because Olive bounded over to the leftmost person and waved eagerly at them.

The room was quickly filled with hushed conversations and the rustling of paper. Peyton strained to hear the exchange going on between Olive and the administrator. He couldn’t hear much, but what he could hear didn’t sound like anything special. Well, he had to be patient. He’d get to experience it for himself once it was his turn.

His turn came quicker than he had anticipated. After what couldn’t have been more than five minutes, Olive pulled away from the desk, now clutching several documents to her chest. She jerked her thumb to the side of the room as she turned to Peyton. “Meet me over there when you’re finished, okay?”

“Uh— okay.” He watched her walk away, leaving him by himself with the official— a middle-aged woman with brown hair and bright eyes. She looked almost like Mother. Peyton stepped forward when she beckoned for him to do so. “H-hello.”

“Good afternoon. Full name?”

“Um—” his mind went blank for an embarrassing few seconds. “Peyton. With an ‘e.’ Peyton Rory Williamson.”

The lady scribbled something down onto a clipboard and jabbed some letters into a small electric screen. “Peyton. Welcome to the Academy. Give me a moment to find your papers.” She flipped through the folders on the desk at an impressive speed before plucking one from the stack. “Here we go.” Thrusting it into his hand, she went back to the screen and tapped a few more things in. “That contains your room information, the itinerary for today, your weekly schedule, and other important things. Make sure you don’t lose it.”

“Okay. I will. I mean, I won’t.” He watched her continue fiddling with the screen, then frowned as she picked up a black, pen-sized rod from her side. “W-what is that for?”

“Hold out your left wrist, please.”

So he did.

The lady took his hand in hers before looking up at him. “Don’t worry, this won’t hurt any more than a pinch.” She pressed the tip of the rod against his wrist and pushed a button on the side. She was right— he barely felt anything at all as the tool clicked softly. There wasn’t even anything visible on his arm when she relinquished her hold on him. “It’s just a little thing everyone in the Academy gets when they come here,” the lady explained. “You’ll find scanners to the side of most of the doors. Press your wrist to it and it’ll open right up for you if you’re authorized to go in. Your dormitory, for example.”

Peyton nodded, cradling his hand. “Y-yeah. That makes sense.” Mister Presley must have been doing that when they had come in. The amount of new features and technologies this place had compared to Silverhill was so overwhelming. How was everyone else dealing with it? He glanced to the side of the room. Olive was already talking to a girl, an official or a student guide probably. His grip on his hand tightened. Olive had told him to meet him when he was finished. Would the girl she was talking to be mad at him if he went over there?

“Peyton?”

He looked back at the lady, biting his cheek. “Sorry.”

“It’s quite alright.” She looked in the direction Peyton had been staring at. “Looking for your friends?”

“Y-yeah.”

“I see. You have two roommates, you know that? Perhaps you’ll see one of them over there.”

“Really?”

“Mm-hmm.” She gestured to the manila folder clutched in his hand. “Their names should be on the first sheet you see when you open it. Try asking around to see if you can find either of them. It’s a good idea to get to know them as early as you can.”

Peyton brought the papers to his chest, almost taking a step back before he remembered where he was standing. “Okay. I guess I will. Thank you.” He shifted his weight from side to side. “Can I leave now?”

“Yes, yes, of course.” She smiled at him. “Go over there and meet some new people! The first day is supposed to be fun.”

“I guess… thanks again.” Now, what was the best way to maneuver around all these people? He exited the line to the left and walked up to the front wall behind the table. Maybe he could squeeze between it and the table, and get to the right side of the room where Olive was. Ducking his head down, he pushed his body in between the table and the wall and trudged forward, trying his best not to bump into any chairs or step on any haphazard pieces of paper on the floor. The tiny gap seemed to stretch on perpetually, but somehow, he finally reached the end.

After reclaiming his bearings, he raised his head and glanced around. Where had Olive went off to now? It was amazing how quickly even her distinctive hair could get lost in a sea of other heads. He continued scanning the crowd. There she was, near the right hand corner of the room. He began to walk forward, but his feet ground him to a stop as his eyes landed on the face next to hers. She was still talking to that girl. He stepped back, rooting himself in place. When would she be finished talking to her? He couldn’t just walk up to them. That would be rude. Was Kendall almost finished with his registration? He turned back to the table, standing up on tiptoes as he searched for him. It looked like the official was still speaking to him. Peyton scowled as he watched Kendall’s face light up with laughter, his hand held out to shake with the woman’s. He made it look so easy. Him and Olive.

Several more minutes passed. Kendall nodded at the woman once more before exiting the line, swiftly walking through the group of people to the opposite side of the room. Peyton tried to make sure his face looked as neutral as possible as Kendall approached. “Did it go okay?” he asked.

Kendall nodded, glancing down at his forms. “Have you found Scout yet?”

“S-Scout?”

He looked up. “We’re sharing a room with another student here, Peyton. His name is Scout. Scout Davis? Have you found him yet?”

“Oh.” Peyton shook his head. “Not yet.” He should have remembered to check his forms. He’d been reminded twice in the past hour, for goodness sakes. “But— but we can look for him now, right?”

Kendall sighed. “I guess we can.” He turned away from Peyton. “Let me go ask one of the staff if they know where he is.”

“Okay.” Peyton followed Kendall silently. Now that he thought about it, it wasn’t actually so bad that he got paired with Kendall instead of being the only one placed in a room with this stranger— Scout, it was. That would have been terrible. At least with Kendall, he had that familiarity to cling onto. How was Olive dealing with everything being so different? He looked over in her direction. She was still talking with that girl. Better than him, apparently.

He was jerked out of his thoughts when he nearly crashed right into Kendall. Stepping back, he readjusted his duffle bag and looked up sheepishly. “Sorry.”

“It’s alright.” Kendall glanced to Peyton for a moment, before gesturing to the person in front of them. “This is Scout. Scout, meet Peyton.”

The boy— Scout— brushed his hair out of his face and raised a hand. “Hello.”

Peyton forced himself to nod and smile. “Hi. I’m Peyton.”

“I figured as much.” Scout nodded, staring out to some point in the distance Peyton couldn’t pin down. “I read over your forms yesterday, before you came. The personality and mannerisms mentioned in matched you two perfectly. It wasn’t hard to find you.”

“Mm.” Kendall fished around in his folder for a moment before taking out a sheet, holding it up to Scout’s face. “You said that you would show us around before the assembly?”

Scout plucked the paper from Kendall’s hand and skimmed it over. “I guess I can,” he said at last. “Where do you want to go first?”

“I’d like to see our room, if that’s possible.” Kendall shrugged his sliding bag back onto his shoulder. “It feels like these get heavier the longer you carry them.”

“Y-yeah,” Peyton said. Now that Kendall had mentioned it, he could no longer ignore the strap biting into his shoulder. “And— and I’m pretty tired, too.”

Scout glanced over to him, his lip curling. “You can’t go to sleep yet. You need to go to the newcomer’s assembly a few hours from now.”

“Oh… oh, yeah. I guess I forgot.” He looked away and intertwined his fingers. “Sorry.”

Scout didn’t respond. Instead, he looked back to Kendall, handing back the paper given to him. “Just follow me. I guess I can point out all the buildings we pass on the way there. It isn’t a very long walk, though.”

“Sure.” Kendall gently nudged Peyton. “Come on.”

Somehow, Peyton managed to force his feet off the floor. It took forever to trudge through the hundred-odd people, yet at the same time, they reached the entrance much too soon for his liking. He hadn’t had the chance to… lifting his gaze from the floor, he glanced behind him. From the opposite side of the room, Olive was watching him. As their eyes met, she grinned and waved. Peyton raised his hand and waved back.

A subtle, but insistent cough from Kendall was the only thing that made him break eye contact. He turned away, squeezing his eyes shut. Maybe that was the last time he would ever have an interaction with Olive. Maybe they wouldn’t even have any sessions together, and she would be housed so far away from him that they wouldn’t even see each other ever again. Then he’d only have Kendall to talk to. And Kendall probably liked Scout more than him already.

Peyton bit his lip, ignoring the metallic tang on his tongue as he tried to keep the tears from bubbling over onto his cheeks. Neither of his companions seemed to notice. They only walked on, silently stepping past the threshold of the building and into the yawning, labyrinthine place that was now considered their new home.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter One

N e x t

He slackened his arm and pushed the needle into his wrist, depressing the plunger to let the liquid inside rush through his veins. Just as he did every morning and every night, he let a warm shiver pass through him, his eyes fluttering shut as the effects took hold almost instantly. The medication loosened his muscles and relaxed his mind, making his worries seem insignificant in the moment. It wouldn’t last long, though. It hadn’t been working very well to calm him down for quite a while now. How could it, when the event that would change his life forever was less than a day away?

He shook his head, dropping the needle back into the paper bag. There wasn’t time to think about that right now, and worrying would do him no good, either. Pushing himself to his feet, he hurried to the door and pulled it open. Mother was already at the entrance. Her hand was reaching for the doorknob, and she pulled back when he revealed himself from behind the door. “Oh. Good morning, Peyton,” she said. “I was just coming to get you for breakfast.”

Peyton walked out into the hallway, smoothing out his shirt. “I was just taking my medication. Sorry.”

“You don’t want to be late today, do you?”

He looked away. “I know, Mother. I’m sorry.”

“Mm-hmm.” Mother fell quiet for a moment, bringing them to an awkward silence. When she did start speaking again, her voice was quieter. “Your father’s still asleep, but I’m sure he’ll be awake soon. I made muffins for you all this morning.”

“Pumpkin?”

“Of course.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Sure enough, the hallway was thick with the sweet scent of nutmeg and cinnamon, and it only got stronger as Peyton approached the kitchen. Father would be sure to emerge from his bedroom at any moment from the smell, bedraggled and baggy-eyed, ready to give Peyton and Mother morning kisses before he devoured three muffins with a swig of orange juice to wash them down. It was so strange to think about how that wouldn’t be happening again— not for the next four years, at least.

“What’s the matter? Pumpkin muffins are your favorite, aren’t they?” Mother asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.

Peyton pulled away. He slipped into one of the four seats at the kitchen table. “You know what the problem is. I’m nervous about tomorrow. And… and today too, I guess.” He looked to the wall. The clock read 9:20. There wasn’t much time to eat before the bus arrived. “We have to do the speech today, remember?”

“There’s no reason to be nervous. Your father and I got through the speeches, and the Academy easily. Why should you be any different?” She slipped a muffin and a sliced apple in front of him. “Kendall and Olive will be there to help you if anything happens, too. There isn’t any need to worry.” He didn’t respond. She frowned. “Peyton?”

Peyton forced a smile onto his face. “I guess you’re right.” He swallowed the chunk of muffin half-chewed and stood up. “I have to go now. The bus will be coming soon.”

Mother grabbed the apple and thrust it into Peyton’s hands. “Take the fruit, at least. I don’t want you to be hungry.”

“Thank you, Mother. I’ll see you later.” He stepped forward, giving her a quick peck on the cheek. “Save some muffins for me before Dad eats them all, please.”

“Peyton—” Mother began, but Peyton was already by the door, swinging it open to allow the sweet, late-summer air to rush in. He swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat, and bounded down the steps before Mother could get another word in.

Of all five districts that made up the City, most people said that Silverhill had the best scenery. Peyton wasn’t the best person to ask about that— he had never been to any of the other districts, after all— but from what he’d seen in his fourteen years the view was very pretty. Lush trees and shrubs sculpted into perfect spheres dotted the entire area. Instead of the man made walls that enclosed the other four districts from the Outskirts, a towering gray line of rocky mountains replaced them, giving the district its namesake. The townsfolk were as proud of that as they were of their pastel-coloured bungalows and cottages. Peyton tried to savor it all as he walked down the cobblestone walkway. This was the last time he could do this, and it was important to make it count.

The bus eventually did come into view despite his deliberate pace. The double doors swung open with a hiss as he approached. Climbing up the steps, he pressed his thumb into the screen at the head of the seats. A green light flashed, and the doors shut behind him. He found a seat in the back and sat down just as the bus began to pull away, a tinny voice announcing, “Now departing for 3197 Chrysanthemum Lane: Miss Campbell’s Primary Learning School for Young Children.”

Most of the seats on the bus were empty. Those that weren’t empty were occupied by other children who attended primaries with him, none of them quite old enough for him to really befriend. Half of them still needed their parents to escort them around the town. Neither Olive or Kendall were on the bus— they lived closer to the school and could walk there together regularly.

Peyton pressed his cheek against the window and shoved pieces of the apple into his mouth. No other buses occupied the road yet, so he could see the neighborhood clearly. The brightly colored houses transitioned to brightly colored booths and boutiques the further they went. A pair of Seeker agents wound through and around them in what had to be their second or third patrol of the day by now. Donned in navy uniforms with large black birds perched on their shoulders, they nodded and waved at the bus as it passed by. The bus drove by a couple playing with their young child, two women conversing, a man tending to his flowers. Everything was so tranquil. So peaceful. Peyton frowned. Of what little he knew about the Academy, it would be nothing like peaceful, quiet Silverhill. How would he be able to cope?

There wasn’t much time to think about it. The bus began to slow, pulling up to its destination. It was always a short drive, even with Peyton’s home nearly on the edge of town. He would have been able to walk, if only he hadn’t been so late. Maybe he would walk home with Olive and Kendall today. He rose to his feet and hurried down the stairs, walking up to the peach bungalow that he had called his second home for the past nine years.

There were still people mulling about in the lobby. Class hadn’t started yet, thankfully. Peyton returned the waves thrown at him by the loitering students and parents before he entered the doorway near the back. About thirty children between the ages of five and fourteen sat in clusters of desks— older children in the back, younger in the front. Most of them were talking to each other in hushed tones, while others colored, read, or played with small toys. Olive’s big, frizzy red hair distinguished her from the others immediately— her enthusiastic wave helped too, of course. Kendall sat next to her as usual. Peyton felt the corners of his lips pulling upward.  He hurried to the back of the room, slipping into the empty seat across from Olive.

“Peyton!” Olive hopped forward, a grin spreading across her face. “Can you believe it? All we have to do is get through today, and then we’ll finally be going to the Academy! Can you even believe that it’s finally happening? Are you excited? What about the speech we’re giving today— are you excited about that, huh?”

“Y-yeah. I guess I am. For both things.” He shrugged, looking down at his folded hands. A small pile of note cards sat in the corner of the desk, and he reached to pick them up. “What are these?”

“They’re for the speech we’re giving.” Kendall sat up straighter in his seat. “We’ve been working on the memory notes. Remember?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Peyton tried to laugh as he flipped through the cards. Of course. They’d spent hours at his or Kendall’s house over the past few weeks, slaving over the two and a half minute long oral presentation. How had he forgotten?  He bit the inside of his cheek. “I remember…”

Olive reached over and patted his hand. “Don’t be nervous. You know that it’s all just generic stuff every other graduate’s said. We’ll be fine. And I’ll pick up the slack if you get all stuttery or anything.”

Peyton let the silent and you probably will dissolve between them. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right,” he said at last. “I’m just lucky to have you two here to help me. And I’m lucky that I won’t have to go to the Academy alone. It’d really suck to have to go by myself and not know anyone there. I don’t know how I’d be able to manage.”

“Shh.” Kendall brought a finger to his lips. He twisted around to look to the front of the room. Peyton raised his head, watching as Miss Campbell walked into the room. A flutter in his stomach tickled his lips and turned them upward against his will.

“Hello, class!” Miss Campbell clasped her hands at her waist, smiling brightly when everyone returned the greeting. “I’m sure you all know that today is a very special day. Yes, it’s the last day for us all, but it’s the very last day for three of our students.” Her gaze flickered to the back of the room. With it, about thirty other pairs of eyes followed. Peyton tried to hide his face.

“Today,” Miss Campbell continued, turning to the blackboard behind her, “is the last time Kendall, Olive, and Peyton will be here as students. This time tomorrow, they’ll be off to attend the Academy, ready to start the next part of their lives and be one step closer to becoming productive members of society.” She pulled away from the blackboard to show three names and a rather crude drawing of a set of buildings. “Why don’t we give them all a big round of applause?”

Clapping and cheers filled the room. Peyton’s cheeks burned. It wasn’t that big of an accomplishment, really. Everyone went to the Academy once they turned fourteen.

Miss Campbell continued, the applause dying down as her voice grew louder. “Those of you who have been with me in the past years know that the advancing students always deliver a speech to the others before they leave. Kendall, Olive, and Peyton have actually decided to collaborate on their speech, and deliver it together.” She nodded at them. “Come on up, you guys. Now class, please remember to be quiet and respectful. You all will be up there one day, in a few years— that includes you Francis, please do not stick your tongue out at them! You wouldn’t like that if you were the one giving the speech, now would you?”

Peyton tried his best to ignore the giggling that bubbled between the students. He rose with Kendall and Olive, running his fingers along the edge of his cue cards. The faster he could get this over with, the better. Walking to the front of the room, he turned to face the class, sandwiched between Olive and Kendall. Who was going to speak first? He looked down at his cards— there weren’t any numbers signifying the order in which they would be spoken.

He looked up. Olive was smiling at him encouragingly. Oh. He swallowed, his eyes sweeping over the expectant audience. “Um. Today— today I want to thank you all.” Which cue card was he supposed to use first? His hands shook as he fumbled through them. “I cannot even begin to describe how much you all have helped me— helped us— learn and grow as people for the past nine years,” he said. “We leave this place knowing that we couldn’t be any more prepared for this next step in our lives.” He paused to flip to the next card. “Each and every one of you, whether if you’re a fresh new face in the classroom or if you’ll be joining us at the Academy next year, have all had a positive impact on our education and— and our f-future.”

He trailed off, hastily skimming the cue card. Olive suddenly jumped in. “The three of us know full well that all of you will go on to do great things. You will excel here, in the Academy, and beyond, contributing to the success of our City and making it a better place to live. Don’t miss us while we’re gone, but rather take comfort and inspiration in the fact that we are one step closer to becoming productive members in this lovely world of ours.”

She stopped. Peyton could see her look over and nod at Kendall. Kendall took a tiny step forward, clearing his throat. “We would like to thank our parents and Miss Campbell for their bright spirits, intelligence, and encouraging nature most of all. Miss Campbell especially. If it hadn’t been for her, we might not be up here right now, just a day away from the next step of our lives. She has done much good for us and we are sure that she will continue to do great things in the future. I ask my fellow students to take full advantage of everything she teaches us, for it will surely help you out in the future.” He looked up and deftly folded his cue card in half. “Thank you for listening.”

Miss Campbell and the students burst into applause. “Very nice, you three,” Miss Campbell said. “I am so proud of you all. What they said is right, class. All of you have the same amount of potential, and I’m sure that each of you will go on to do amazing things once your time to advance comes. Now, why don’t you three return to your seats? I’ll talk some more about what exactly the Academy is for the rest of us.”

Peyton followed Olive and Kendall back to their desks. Sitting down in his chair, he stared down at his twitching fingers, listening to Miss Campbell wipe away their names to begin her lesson on the Academy. It was tradition— there was always a lesson on the Academy whenever students in the class moved on up. Every year for the past nine years, Peyton had listened to Miss Campbell’s lesson on the Academy. He could probably teach it verbatim by now. Thank goodness he didn’t have to, though. He would probably blow it. Just like he did with the stupid speech.

Miss Campbell began to scribble words on the blackboard. “The Academy, or secondaries as it is sometimes called, is where all children between the ages of fourteen and eighteen go to live and learn before they’re sent off to work in the City. It’s almost like living here in Silverhill, except most of the townspeople would be kids the same age as you all. Of course, there are adults there to teach and take care of the students, so don’t get any silly ideas!” She smiled at the giggling that passed through the room.

“The four years that the students spend at the Academy is spent undergoing a rigorous academic regimen to prepare them for the rest of their lives out in the City. What a student will be doing once they leave, of course, is decided by said student’s strengths and interests that they display while attending the Academy.” She turned to face the class once more. “What do you all wish to be chosen for once you enter the Academy? How about you, Peyton? Is there anything that you would want to do, more than anything else?”

Peyton jerked up. “M-Me?”

“Yes. What would you like to do when you’re grown up? What do you look forward to?”

He hesitated, voice faltering. Everyone was looking at him. Francis’s hand was placed in front of their mouth in what looked to be a snicker. Olive smiled brightly at him, and Miss Campbell tilted her head, patient but expectant.

Finally, he found the strength to open his mouth. “I— um— well… I think I want to be some sort of doctor, or— or a scientist, maybe. I guess I’ll be looking forward to all the science classes. To learn more about the things that we can’t really learn much about here. And it— it would be cool to do research, and help people when I graduate.”

Had that been the right thing to say? Apparently, it had been, because Miss Campbell’s warm smile only grew larger. “A doctor or scientist? A lovely choice, Peyton. I wanted to be a scientist when I was your age, but the Academy’s officials decided I would be better off as an educator instead. Now, I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I’m sure you’ll love whatever you are assigned to do, just like I do.” She turned back to the board and continued to write.

“Th-thank you, Miss Campbell.” Peyton slouched in his seat, his cheeks growing hot.  Was she being genuine with her praises? He couldn’t see anyone that the Academy taking him seriously if she didn’t. Olive and Kendall were already so much more confident and articulate. Peyton knew that they both wanted to work in the similar fields as he wanted to. What if they did better in the Academy? There would be so many more people their age there, many with similar interests and goals…. would Kendall and Olive abandon him if he ended up holding them back?

He squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head. Don’t think stuff like that. You’re being silly. The three of them had been friends since they had been born. Why would things be any different in the Academy?

As if hearing his thoughts, Olive glanced toward him. She tilted her head. “What’re you thinking about?”

“Oh— um, nothing, really. Just getting lost in my thoughts a little. That’s all.”

“Yeah, I understand.” She chuckled under her breath, then began to fidget in her seat. “I’m just so excited! Only a few hours to go, right?” She looked to the clock on the wall. “Twenty minutes to go until we’re out of this place forever.”

“Already?”

“Yeah. The last day is always just a little over an hour, don’t you remember?”

“Oh. Yeah. Of course I remember.” The clock read 10:40 already. It was almost scary how fast time was passing.

“Mm-hmm.” Olive leant back in her seat, teetering on the two back legs. “Want to walk home with me?”

“Oh— sure. I want to take everything in before we have to leave tomorrow.”

“One last good memory?” Olive leant forward again, the chair’s metal legs clunking back into place. She barely paid attention to the annoyed glances shot her way. “That’ll be nice. One last peaceful walk before we get thrown into all the chaos and hard work, hm?”

“Yeah. Y-yeah, that’s right.” He nodded. “Are you going to walk home with us too, Kendall?”

“I’m planning on it.” Kendall tapped his fingertips on the desk. “Can you two please talk a little more quietly, though? I’m trying to listen to the lesson.”

Olive pouted. “We’re already whispering. And the lesson isn’t anything you don’t already know, anyway.” Kendall didn’t respond, and Olive snorted. “Sometimes you can be so uptight.”

“He’s right, Olive. We don’t want to annoy anyone,” Peyton said.  “Let’s just quiet down until the lesson’s over.”

The chalk striking the blackboard punctuated Miss Campbell’s words. “I’m almost done now. Just hang tight for a moment.” She looked back to the class, that ever-present smile gracing her face. “The last thing I’d like to speak about is the facilities within the vicinity of the Academy. I don’t know much about them, but what I do know is that some important things do go on in there.” Her eyes rested upon Peyton, Kendall, and Olive. “This applies to you three most of all, so listen closely.

“Even though they’re situated in the middle of the Academy, those facilities are among the most prestigious places to work in the entire City. Only the best of the best are allowed to enter those buildings, let alone work there full time. Many secrets are held in those buildings.” Her face brightened. “Perhaps if you three work hard enough, you will be chosen to work in there after you graduate, or perhaps even visit during your time studying in the Academy. I know it would be a great honor for any of you to be given that privilege. Just a little bit of inspiration before I send you off.” She clasped her hands by her hips again. “Class is dismissed! If you’re planning on staying, please remember and respect the rules, as well as the toys. If not, I’ll see you all next month! Be sure to tell me all about your adventures over break when we get back.”

Kendall at last broke his impeccable posture to stretch. “That’s already one thing I don’t like about the Academy. Their lessons start just as the primary classes’s teaching time ends. We’re just thrown into everything the day after we arrive.”

Olive shrugged. “I guess the people in charge over there want us to adapt quickly.” She jumped to her feet. “Let’s go!”

“Wait just a moment, please.”

Olive pivoted around. “Oh. Hi there, Miss Campbell.”

“Hi, Olive.” Miss Campbell nodded at her. “I’d just like to have a quick chat with Peyton, if that’s okay? It won’t be long.”

“Me? Um, okay.” Peyton glanced back at Olive and Kendall. “I— um, you two can walk ahead, if you want. I can catch up later.” He watched them turn away, walking out into the lobby. Hopefully they wouldn’t go too far without him. He looked back to Miss Campbell, swallowing. “What— what’s the matter?”

“I just wanted to make sure that you’re alright, that’s all.” She brushed a strand of hair from her face, leaning down so they were face to face. “The days leading up to going to the Academy are stressful for everyone. Don’t think for a second that you’re embarrassing yourself, or that you’re inadequate in any way. Have you been taking your medication as you should?”

Peyton felt his throat constrict. “Of course I have, Miss Campbell. I’m sorry— usually I don’t act like that. It’s just— I was just—”

“Relax, Peyton.”  She rested a hand on his shoulder. “I remember how nervous I was for my first day. You can imagine how long ago that was. I was acting almost exactly like you, really. Maybe even worse. What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t feel bad about your nervousness— even if it’s unnecessary. I’m sure your friends feel the same way, even if they don’t show it as much as you do.”

Your first day couldn’t have been very long ago. You don’t look that old. The words died on Peyton’s lips as he looked up into her face, his cheeks suddenly warm. “I— okay. I understand. I’ll try to do better, so it won’t happen again. I— I mean, I know it won’t happen again, because this is my last day here, but— um—” he took in a deep breath. “I’ll try not to be nervous anymore, okay?”

Miss Campbell laughed. “Trust me, Peyton, there’s no need for you to be nervous. You’re one of the brightest children I’ve had the pleasure to teach.  I’m being one-hundred percent honest. I’m sure you’ll do great at the Academy.”

“W-wow. Really?” He swallowed, forcing away the blush he just knew was spreading on his face. “Thank you, Miss Campbell! I’ll do my best. I promise.”

“I’m sure you will.” She lifted her hand from his shoulder, allowing him to relax a little. “Are there any other worries you’d like to talk to me about?”

Peyton hesitated. There were a countless amount of questions flying through his head, too many for him to even flesh out properly. What was he supposed to ask? Dumbly, he opened his mouth, and words came tumbling out.  “The Academy— what was it really like for you? What did you do during those four years? And what happened after?”

The flicker of emotion flashed across Miss Campbell’s face so quickly that Peyton wasn’t able to decipher exactly what it was before it disappeared. “That’s for you to figure out on your own, silly,” she said. “Every person has to discover everything the Academy has to offer on their own. Trust me, you’ll be fine. Now—” she raised her hand and waved him away— “Kendall and Olive are waiting for you, aren’t they? You should go and catch up to them, and have a nice, peaceful walk on the last day.”

He stepped back, staring at Miss Campbell and her ever-smiling face. Eventually, he nodded. “Yeah. I should. Um— thank you for teaching me for all these years, Miss Campbell. I really appreciate it.”

Miss Campbell walked forward, closing the gap Peyton had created. Her arms stretched outward, and then they were suddenly wrapped around Peyton, and he could only stand there and try and control his breathing as his cheeks set ablaze. He managed to calm himself down enough to wind his own arms around her, but she was already pulling away by then. “You’re welcome,” she said. “I’ll try my best to come and see you off tomorrow, alright?”

“Okay. I’ll— I’ll see you tomorrow.” He stepped backward again, only tearing his eyes from her face when he forced his feet to turn him around. There were still students in the classroom and the lobby. Any one of them could have seen his exchange with Miss Campbell, he realized with a wince. At least he wouldn’t be around to see them judge him for it tomorrow.

He walked out into the lobby, then to the door, pushing it open. Kendall and Olive were waiting for him just outside. They smiled as he walked out of the building, Olive walking over to wrap an arm around his shoulder. “What did Miss Campbell want to talk to you about?”

Peyton shrugged, staring down at the cobblestone ground. “She just wanted to make sure I was okay. I was acting nervous, she said. I-I’m fine, though. She said she would come and see us off tomorrow.” He swallowed. “I— I’m going to miss her.”

Olive pulled him closer with a mischievous grin “We already know that you’re going to miss her. You make it so obvious. But don’t worry. I’m sure there’ll be other teachers at the Academy for you to—”

“No! Not this again!” He pushed her away, hoping his frustration wasn’t betrayed by the involuntary heat in his cheeks or the smile threatening to appear on his face. “I don’t— it isn’t— can’t we just go home, now? Please?”

Olive laughed. “Of course, of course. Let’s go, Kendall.”

She suddenly skipped away, and Peyton and Kendall had to hurry to catch up to her. Most of the other students and their parents had taken the bus, or had already walked far enough that the three of them had the road all to themselves.

It was quiet. The drone of the summer insects was only disturbed by Olive’s incessant chatter and Kendall’s occasional grunt or hum in response. Peyton tried to take it all it in for one last time. This was the last time he’d be able to ever do this again. The thought dampened his pleasant mood no matter how hard he tried to push it away. What had been going on with him in the past few days?

He craned his neck to look up to the sky. A pair of Seeker birds coasted lazily above him, their shiny black feathers a smudge on the otherwise light blue surface. Peyton shivered, a twinge of discomfort prickling the back of his head. This was the last day he’d be considered a child. He’d be getting his first taste of freedom less than twenty-four hours from now, his first taste of independence and freedom. He’d finally be able to experience just what the City truly was. So then why did he feel so uneasy?

N e x t