The academy introducti.., p.3
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       Introductions, p.3

           C. L. Stone
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I dreamed about fire in a house I didn’t recognize. I was running to find a door, knowing someone was chasing me but I couldn’t see his face. I didn’t want him to find me. I didn’t want to burn.

  My eyes popped open the next morning when sunlight managed to filter through the sheet I had over my head. I worried I would drool or something and Kota would laugh. There was a chill and I pulled the blanket over my head. I pushed the corner up an inch to peek out. I didn’t want to get up if he was still trying to sleep.

  I wondered how awkward he must have felt having a strange girl sleep in his bed.

  Kota wasn’t there. Neither was the pull out bed. How early did he wake up in the mornings? Usually I was a very light sleeper, so it surprised me he could get up without me hearing him. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I rolled onto my back, covering myself with the blanket fully and waited. I didn’t want to get up and poke around without him. That is clever of me, I thought. Too scared to get up when he’s here. Terrified when he isn’t.

  Time passed for so long I thought maybe he’d forgotten about me. I turned on my side to face the wall, trying to will myself to relax and just get up and face whatever was downstairs. I was just getting myself to sit up, when the sound of a door opening broke the silence, followed by thudding at the stairs.

  I fell back onto the bed, and pulled the blanket over my head to cover my face, trying to feign sleep. I wasn’t sure why I did that, but it seemed like a safe thing to do to pretend to wake up while he was nearby.

  After the thudding ended on the stairs, there was only silence. What happened? I held my breath underneath the blanket. My ears strained to hear any sound. Was he being quiet to let me sleep? My heart thudded against my chest, loud, and I wondered if I would hear him at all. Should I get up now? Was he doing something? I was tempted to take a peek, only I wasn’t sure if he’d notice.

  “Hey Kota!” A male voice called out, clearly trying to be loud on purpose. There was something striking in the voice though. Smooth. The baritone was like a familiar singer but I couldn’t remember the name. “Still sleeping? What’s wrong with you?”

  A body landed so hard on top of me that I felt the air in my lungs escape, robbing me of enough oxygen to cry out. Legs fell over mine, someone’s frame sat on top of me and hands sought out my wrists under the blanket. I managed to let a muffled grunt escape, but with the way he held my arms, my face was stuffed with blanket and I couldn’t twist myself free.

  “Are you getting up or what?” The voice said, the baritone playful. “The world is spinning on without you.”

  “Victor.” Kota’s voice came from the other side of the room. I hadn’t heard him come up.

  The person on top of me froze and then let go of my arms. The blanket was yanked away. My arm jerked in quick reaction, shielding myself from the sudden onslaught of light and from the stranger sitting on top of me.

  “Who...” Victor never finished his statement. His mouth hung open.

  His brown eyes were wide, big, and it was the first time I’d thought the term “fire in his eyes” ever actually fit a face. The intensity would have made me blush in any normal situation, but as I was in a bed and he had just landed on me, I was glowing with heat. His head flinched back in confusion and I was just as dumbstruck. His body was slighter than Kota’s and he looked like he was the same age we were. His hair was a softer brown, reaching to the nape of his neck in gentle waves, brushed back away from his eyes.

  “Victor, this is Sang.”

  Victor blinked at me repeatedly. “Uh...” He moved off the bed and stood up. He wore a crisp white long-sleeved shirt, the top button undone to reveal the start of his collarbone. He wore neat black slacks. His near formal attire surprised me, but he appeared comfortable in what he was wearing, like he wore it nearly every day. At his neck hung a silver chain with a round silver medallion with some symbol I didn’t recognize. His face was angular. His hips were slimmer than Kota’s and his fingers were long and lean. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I mean, in his bed?”

  “She slept here.” Kota held a smile on his face and wore a calming expression, as if this was perfectly normal. He was wearing Levi jeans and a light blue Polo shirt with a collar, the buttons done up all the way to the top.

  Victor spun on him, his hands shooting out, palms up. “Are you kidding me?”

  “Don’t get weird. And don’t tell my mom. I don’t think she’ll understand.”

  “But why is she...”

  Suddenly a voice called up from the base of the stairs. “Kota? Do I hear Victor up there?”

  Before Kota could reply, there were footsteps coming up. I panicked, wondering if I should jump from the bed.

  Kota took one look at Victor and they both reacted at the same time. Kota headed to the stairwell, standing at the top. Victor came to the bed, pushed me back so I was lying down and covered me with the blanket. He positioned himself in front of me, sprawled out. I couldn’t see him from under the blanket, but I could feel his body near mine and it caused me to blush.

  I did my best to make myself as small as possible.

  “Yes, we’re up here,” Kota said.

  “Hi, Victor.”


  “I thought you boys could come down for breakfast. It’s almost ready.”

  “Mom,” Kota said. “Is it okay if I let Sang stay for breakfast, too?”

  “Sure. Who’s Sang?”

  “She’s the girl from next door. The family that just moved in.”

  “Oh...” Pause. “Where is she?”

  “In the bathroom.”

  “She came in with me,” Victor added.

  “Sounds good. Have her come down. I made eggs.”

  The sound of footsteps on the stairs trailed away. In a flash, Victor hopped up and pulled the blanket away from me. When he did, he looked me over and tilted his head. “Are you wearing...”

  “Yes,” Kota said, and then blew a breath of air from his lips. “I’ll explain later. She needs to hurry and get dressed.”

  Victor got out of the way to allow me to stand. Victor was a half a head taller than me. When I stood, he didn’t hesitate to examine me again. I imagined that with bed hair and my groggy face, that I was pretty ugly.

  Kota moved to the bathroom, opening the door and flicking the light on. “Does your bag have clean clothes?” he asked me.

  I nodded to him.

  “Get dressed and come down stairs when you’re ready.” He crossed the room and grabbed Victor by the arm. “Let’s go.”

  “But...” Victor raked fingers through his hair, his fire eyes blazing with curiosity. When Kota yanked at his arm, he turned away. He looked back again when he was at the stairs going down, but said nothing more and soon disappeared.

  I jumped for my book bag and ran for the bathroom. My heart pounded. Victor was just as handsome as Kota. He moved quickly to cover for me. How strange that a complete stranger, who knew less about me than Kota, was helping me.

  People were not all murderers.


  I managed to do a quick job of washing my face and brushing my hair. I twisted my hair up, pulling it back into a clip at the back of my head, the locks of dirty blond hair falling from it tickling my neck. It was the way I always wore my hair, to keep it out of my face. I changed into a gray pleated skirt that was a little short, but was great for the warmer weather of the south. I had a soft button up blouse that matched it. I wanted to look nice to meet Kota’s mom. I was lucky I had packed a couple of extra things into my bag besides shorts.

  I felt sore and checked my hip. There was a dark purple bruise about the size of my palm at my side where I’d fallen. I’d have to remember to adjust my top and not show it. I didn’t want Kota to feel bad again about what happened last night. Besides, it was pretty ugly. My shoes and clothes that I wore last night weren’t in the tub where I left them. I was barefoot. How would I explain that?

  I sighed and hurried downstairs. If I stayed too long,
his mom would think I was weird.

  At the base of the stairs, the rich aromas of fried eggs, bacon and buttered toast hit my nose. The dining room at the end of the hall had a small round table with five chairs near it; one was a mismatched office chair that Kota sat in. There was an empty space next to him and Victor on the other side. The other two chairs were occupied by a woman who looked to be in her late forties and a younger girl with glasses.

  “Hello!” The older woman spotted me first and stood up, reaching out a hand. Her eyes were green like Kota’s and her brown hair was tied into a bun at the back of her head. There were soft wrinkles at her eyes. She was almost my height. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Erica.”

  I smiled, blushing and reached to touch her hand delicately with my own.

  I thought that would be it, but she took a firm grasp of my hand and gave it a good squeeze. “I haven’t met your parents yet.”

  “We’re still kind of settling in.” She seemed so nice and I was scared she’d actually stop by my parents’ house. I wanted to warn her that my mom probably wouldn’t want to talk to her. There was only the hope that maybe she would forget.

  “This is my daughter and Dakota’s sister, Jessica.” She pointed to the girl next to her. The girl was almost exactly like her mother, except shorter and with much lighter hair. Her expression was placid and she wore pink rimmed glasses. She nodded to me, almost shyly.

  “Hi,” I said. I blinked at the name Dakota and then realized she must have meant Kota. It struck me as funny, but I liked how he shortened it.

  “Have a seat,” Erica said. She motioned to the chair next to Kota and Victor.

  The whole time we were talking, the guys fixed their eyes on me. Was my outfit bad? Maybe it was too much. I couldn’t tell. The moment I sat down, Kota reached for the scrambled egg bowl and scooped a large spoonful on to my plate. Victor had the bacon platter and dropped a couple of slices next to the eggs.

  “Orange juice?” Erica offered.

  I smiled and nodded. I went to reach for it but Kota got to it first and held it above my cup.

  “Say when.”

  I didn’t notice that he had already started pouring. I quickly told him when it was enough and he recapped the bottle and put it back on the table.

  I picked up my fork and knife, wondering if they were going to also cut my bacon into pieces. When I ate with my parents and my sister, it was pretty much a fend-for-yourself type of situation.

  For a time, the table was quiet as everyone was eating, and it gave me a chance to notice some small things. Victor picked at his plate, eating the edge of his eggs and the chewy parts of his bacon. Kota cut his bacon into even pieces right from the start, with a formal poise that left me feeling uncivilized next to him. Jessica ate toast only. Erica was the only one who seemed to eat normally; her eyes were happy as she watched everyone at the table enjoying the meal.

  “So how did you meet my son? And Victor?” Erica said. She had looked excitedly at the three of us the entire time, as if waiting for the right moment to ask this question.

  I felt my mouth open slightly, my lips moved but the right answers didn’t come to me.

  “I met her yesterday,” Kota said quickly.

  “I only bumped into her today,” Victor said, spearing a piece of bacon with his fork and the fire in his eyes lit up as he focused on me in an amused way. “Kind of surprised me, to be honest.”

  I blushed.

  “Will you be going to their school?” Erica asked.

  “Yup,” Kota said. “She’s in the same grade as us.”

  Erica’s eyes flew from her son to Victor and back at me. “You’ve got such a lovely voice, Sang,” she said, a small smile on her lips and lightly scolding tone. “And that ventriloquism thing you do is amazing. A real talent.”

  Kota and Victor both tinged red at the cheeks.

  “You know how guys are,” I said, offering a grin and a playful tone. “Give them two minutes, they think they know everything,” I quipped.

  Victor dropped his fork, gawking.

  Kota laughed so hard his eyes shut and his hand went to his stomach.

  Erica brightened. “Smart girl.” She drummed her knuckles on the table and then stood, picking up her own dish. “Keep an eye on this one, Kota. She’s got your number.”

  “Not yet, she doesn’t,” Kota said under his breath. His mother had turned away by then, but I heard it. He turned his face to me and winked. The reflection from the light caught in his glasses, giving him such a strange look, that I couldn’t help but giggle.

  When the rest of us finished, I attempted to help to clear the table, but Erica shooed us outside. “Don’t waste the day. Go enjoy yourselves.” She beamed a smile at me, looking so happy, I couldn’t refuse.

  Jessica headed off to another part of the house. Kota, Victor and I went outside. There was a hint of the chill left from the rain, but the sun was warming things up quickly. Small pools of water collected in spots in the yard. The concrete of the driveway was dry though and warmed my feet. I did like walking around barefoot outside but next to the guys who had on full socks and shoes, I felt like a bum.

  Kota’s dog was tethered to a lead at the back of the house. Now in the daylight, I laughed at seeing it was a Golden Retriever. Last night, it had felt like a horse. As soon as he saw us, he padded over, crossing the concrete drive to greet us. I ducked behind Kota, so he wouldn’t jump on me again.

  Kota spread out an arm, stopping Max with a palm held out in front of him. “No. Sit. You did enough damage already.”

  The dog obeyed, giving only the smallest of whines and then sinking down to a sitting position.

  Victor looked at my bandaged hand. “So, that was from Max?”

  I nodded. “It wasn’t his fault. He just surprised me and I hit the pavement.”

  Victor looked sympathetic. Now thinking about the wound, my good hand moved to shield the bandages from the sun shining on it. It felt a little itchy. A gray BMW was parked in the driveway behind the brown sedan in the corner. I didn’t know cars, but the BMW looked brand new.

  “All right, out with it,” Victor said. His arms crossed his chest and he looked firmly at the both of us. “I’ve been playing along all morning. I’d like to know what kind of trouble I’m digging myself into.”

  I glanced at Kota, but Kota gave no sign of hesitation. “She was out late walking home when Max broke the lead and... well... I couldn’t just let her go home bleeding.”

  My heart fluttered, but I nodded, agreeing with him. “I was out so late that sneaking back in would have meant more trouble at my house.”

  “It just kind of happened,” Kota followed up.

  Victor looked back and forth at the two of us, as if trying to decide something. The fire in his eyes settled on me. The intensity was turned up so much, that it caused me to shiver and look away.

  “Give her a break, Vic,” Kota said. His body moved in front of me again, creating a block between the two of us. I looked around Kota’s shoulder. Victor’s eyes locked with mine. I wasn’t sure what exchanged between us, but somehow Victor seemed to understand that whatever it was I wasn’t telling him now, it was embarrassing, and maybe if we weren’t complete strangers, I’d talk about it later.

  “Okay,” Victor said. He shrugged and then stuffed his hands into the pockets of his slacks. He nodded toward the BMW. “Well, I came over to take Kota to the mall. Are you going with us?”

  Going out with them? To a mall? Could I get away with it? I wanted to go, but I also didn’t want to intrude on plans already made. Would my parents send my sister to look for me and discover I wasn’t around? No. Since we’d moved in, they hardly noticed when I left or came back. They got used to me walking around in the woods. I just needed to be careful. Still, as the guys looked at me and waited for an answer, I felt nervous about going out with them. Would they see me as the third wheel?

  “Maybe we can put that off for a few hours,” Kota said, I suppose s
ensing my hesitation.

  “No.” I shook my head, bending down to pet Max, who had been patiently sitting at Kota’s feet. As soon as I started petting him, he rolled back to expose his belly for me to scratch. It also gave me a good deterrent to think of an excuse. “It’s okay. You guys go. I’ve got things to do. I wouldn’t want to slow you two down.” I did want to go, though. I felt silly for wanting to, but I’d never had the opportunity before. Why did I have to be so shy and scared? I wished I could be normal.

  Kota crouched next to me, his head turned toward my face. “Do you want to go?”

  I shrugged, trying to look casual about it. “It probably doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t be allowed anyway.” Crap. I hadn’t meant to let that slip out.

  Out of my peripheral vision, I could sense they were doing that thing again: exchanging looks. Their silent communication amazed me. I wanted to ask how long they knew each other, but just being around them, it felt like they were almost brothers.

  “What if we went and asked?” Victor put his hands on his hips. “I mean, we’re not ax murderers.”

  I couldn’t help but smile at his words. His fire eyes sparked at what must have been a strange expression in that moment. “It’s complicated. My mom would just say no right off. It won’t matter who asks.”

  “We could try,” Kota said.

  I twisted my mouth, coming up with a plan. If I wasn’t going to deter them from taking me with them, I wasn’t about to let them into the lion’s den to face off my parents. “If you really want me to go, give me a few minutes,” I said.

  “What are you going to do?” Kota asked, his head tilted and looking puzzled.

  “She’s going to lie, dummy,” Victor said, the corner of his mouth moving down.

  Kota frowned, standing up and rubbing at his chin. I noticed his nails were well manicured. “Really, it’s no big deal if we go talk to them.”

  “I think it’s better if I just make a quick appearance and then don’t mention I’m going. They won’t notice I’m missing for a few hours.”

  They shared another look and then Victor shrugged and turned back to me. “We’ll wait.”

  I stood up and looked at both of them, edging away before turning to walk down the road. Would they really wait for me? Would I come back here and find them gone? I felt pathetic, wanting so bad to try to be cool so they would like me. I didn’t know anyone and here were two guys... incredibly cute guys taking some sort of interest in someone like me. It felt unreal. I was average looking, I thought. I was a shy person. They didn’t have a reason to be interested. They’d been so nice so far, though. I didn’t want to ruin it yet.

  “Wait,” Kota said, coming up behind me. I turned and he was pointing to the house. “I forgot. Your shoes are inside.”

  I waved my hand in the air between us. “Oh yeah. And my bag.”

  He closed the space between us, bringing his face close to mine and whispering to me. “Is it okay for you to bring your bag home? Will they ask questions? Should I go get it?”

  I smiled. Why did I feel so warmly fuzzy? Is this what having friends feels like? My expression must have been strange to read to Victor, who stood back at his car, leaning against it, his arms crossed over his chest. He looked puzzled, but kept his lips pursed.

  “There’s some back stairs at my house. As long as my sister doesn’t take an interest, it should be okay.”

  He nodded and turned to Victor. “Just grabbing her stuff,” he said. Kota crossed the drive to the garage and disappeared inside.

  Victor’s fire eyes smoldered at me, as I followed Kota back into his house. My heart thumped against my breast the entire time. I had friends. Was it always this easy for people and I just never took the risk or had the opportunity? Anxiety threaded through me. How badly I wanted to not let this connection be severed. At the same time, it felt surreal. Maybe I was just imagining it and they were just being nice, but come tomorrow, they’d get bored and forget about me.

  Would I ever feel comfortable being around other people?


  Five minutes later, I had dropped off my bag into my closet, grabbed a pair of sandals, and ran back outside. My dad was already at work. My mom was in her bedroom, and my sister was nowhere to be found.

  No one in my family really gave me much notice unless they knew for sure I was with someone they didn't know. I was well known for exploring the woods and this neighborhood was surrounded by a wooded area that went on for quite a distance. The only warning my parents had told me when we first moved into the neighborhood was to not get lost and to not talk to anyone.

  I had been right. Just leaving was better than asking. My only worry was someone might spot me getting into the car with the boys.

  I exited the house through the side door that opened up to the large double-sided garage. Out in the driveway sat the BMW. I bit my lower lip and made a dash for the car.

  Kota got out of the front passenger side. He held the door open for me, looking toward the house. “What did you say to them?”

  “Nothing,” I said quickly and hopped into the car, slipping into the smooth leather seat, feeling the coolness of the material on my thighs. The interior did smell brand new.

  Kota looked over the top of the car, studying the house. In silence, I pleaded with him. Just get in and let’s go, I thought. It’ll be fine unless someone spots us. I knew they really couldn’t understand why I needed to sneak out. If they tried to ask my parents or forced the issue, this friendship between us would be over before it ever got a chance.

  His eyes swept over the two-story gray home. There was a wide concrete porch out front, a two-car garage on the outside, a screened-in porch in the back, and a separate shed toward the end of the driveway. The yard was at least an acre. It was a little bigger than the rest of the homes in the neighborhood, but not overly so. I wondered what he thought of a girl who would live in such a place and yet dashed off in the middle of the night. I assumed he probably thought I was a complete brat, unhappy with not getting my own way. I wanted to tell him how untrue that was. The house was big, but it was hollow. A prison that my mother felt was protection, but kept me from being a normal teenager for years.

  He turned away from the house at last and climbed into the back seat. The breath I’d been holding escaped from between my lips. In the back of my mind, I knew someday I’d have to explain my family to Kota if I wanted to remain friends with him. He was smart and would catch on. Would he tell Victor or other kids at school how strange I was? Would they refuse to have anything to do with me if they knew the truth?

  Victor put the car into reverse. My eyes locked directly on the house, and I could only hope I wouldn’t be spotted. I couldn't explain to my parents what this was. There was no way to prove to my mother that Kota and Victor weren’t going to rape me or force heroin into my system. Of course, I didn’t have proof, but I’d always known most people weren’t really like that. Not everyone in the world was evil, like my mother told me nearly every day for over fifteen years. No matter what, my family could never know about Kota and Victor. When I had time to get the boys to like me better, I’d try to explain it to them.

  Was it silly wanting someone to like me so much as much as I wanted Kota and Victor to like me? It was the first time I ever had friends. It felt so important now, something that last night wasn’t even on my mind.

  No matter what, I had to keep this separation, putting up a wall between my family life and my private life outside of the house.


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