There’s nothing worse than sitting and waiting when you know you’re about to be punished. Worse is when you know you deserve it and they don’t know the full extent of your crimes.
The headmaster’s office is quiet today — quieter than usual, at least. It’s the only part of the Institute that looks as though it belongs in the upper tunnels, which is ironic, since anyone who spends too much time in here isn’t likely to ever live up there.
I know I look pretty miserable. My nose has stopped bleeding, but I can still taste the bitterness of blood running down my throat. My knees are scuffed, my knuckles are bloody, and my usually sleek dark hair looks as though a rat has been living in it.
I’m seated across from Mrs. Keller, the headmaster’s secretary and my arch nemesis, who manages to answer her interface in a fake cheery voice that’s two octaves too high while shooting daggers at me with her eyes.
“Good morning! Headmaster Tate’s office. How may I help you?
“Mmhmm . . . Mmhmm . . .
“. . . of course, Lynda! That’s no problem at all. Sure, hon. I’ll let him know. O-kay . . . o-kay. Great. Buh-bye.”
Ugh. What a bitch.
The door swings open again, and a new guy shuffles in. He’s tall enough to throw shadows over entire city blocks and send small children running. At least he seems tall to me. And damn, he is sexy.
He’s older — around eighteen, probably — with dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and a broody scowl that’s probably hiding a megawatt smile. You know, your typical I’m-so-bad-but-I’m-hiding-my-sensitive-side guy who makes all girls swoon.
His shirt is untucked, and his tie has been yanked down in a deliberate effort to appear untidy. Or maybe someone used it to choke him earlier.
By the looks of this guy, it didn’t go well.
He’s got a shiner in the works on his left eye, which just makes him hotter. And when he glances over at me, it’s with an expression that says, “You should see the other guy.”
What can I say? I have a thing for bad boys.
Blushing furiously, I turn away and try to be discreet about spitting blood into the crumpled napkin I’m holding. Oh, that was hot. What an idiot.
I refuse to look at him as he sidles over to sit beside me, stretching out his long legs and crossing his arms over his chest.
Suddenly, the headmaster’s door flies open, and a pimply boy scurries out, looking as though he’s just been through the ringer. I hear typing and a groan as the headmaster reads whatever Miss Bitch wrote up about my visit.
“Har-per Ri-ley!” He yells. “Get in here now!”
The hottie sitting next to me looks vaguely impressed by Tate’s irate tone. I sigh loudly, get to my feet, and flounce my skirt before walking into the lion’s den.
Yeah, buddy. Enjoy the view.
Headmaster Tate is seated behind a ridiculously large desk that’s much too big for the room. He may have been an attractive man at one time, but years of dealing with bad kids with no parents has gradually chased away his thick head of chestnut hair and fixed his strong jaw into a permanent scowl.
He wears glasses and a crisp suit at all times to appear academic, though he and Mrs. Keller both got the short end of the stick as far as Information workers are concerned.
Instead of spending their time researching or reporting on compound news, they were shoved into the Institute — the bastard child of the compound’s education system.
“Have a seat,” Tate says tersely.
I move to close the door, but Tate stops me with a sharp “uh —”
“Leave the door open, Miss Riley. I sometimes fear for my life when I call you in here.”
I shrug and flop down in the comfortable fake-leather chair across from him, examining the ugly paisley print on his tie.
He sighs loudly, as though he’s trying to collect himself. “Miss Riley, I’m rarely surprised to find you on my docket, but I have to say that even I was shocked to read the reports flying around about you today.”
“I always wanted to be famous,” I say in my cheeriest voice.
Tate makes a funny spluttering noise, and I watch his face turn from red to purple behind those thick glasses. “You need to take this seriously, young lady. This behavior is completely unacceptable.”
“I know, sir.”
“You know? You know, and yet you keep winding up in my office. If fear of punishment isn’t motivation enough, Miss Riley, please remember that it is only under my recommendation that you will be allowed to pursue Systems in higher ed when you age out.”
That shuts me up. Tate would pull the higher-ed card on me. He knows I’m the only one in this godforsaken place who gives a shit about where I end up after the Institute.
I may not have been able to control getting stuck here in the first place, but I do have a say in the type of bid I get as an adult. Most people here will end up in a tier-three section like ExCon or Waste Management, but unlike most people here, I’m good with computers.
Tate seems oblivious to my fear, because he’s still talking. “You may be interested to know that Janine Suthers was taken to the medical ward this morning. She has a broken nose, a black eye, and two bruised ribs. What do you have to say for yourself?”
I know “yay me” is not what Tate wants to hear right now, but I have a dozen smart-ass remarks burning on my lips. I settle for the old “She deserved it.” Not my snappiest comeback, but at least it’s the truth.
“Miss Suthers deserved to be assaulted?”
“She’s lucky to be alive!” I snap, my temper bubbling up before I can stop it.
Tate’s gaze turns stormy. “You’re dancing with expulsion right now, Miss Riley. Compound bylaws state that you must be housed at the Institute, but there’s no rule that says we have to continue your education — especially if we feel as though you’re a threat to other students. How well do you think you’ll perform on the VocAps test without even finishing lower education?”
I roll my eyes. He knows he’s played the one card that can make me behave. I want to be in Systems too badly to jeopardize it.
“Tell me what happened. Please — make me understand. Convince me that I shouldn’t expel you.”
I sigh loudly. “It started last weekend at this party in Mica Shaw’s compartment.”
Tate’s mouth hardens into an even deeper scowl, but he doesn’t say anything.
I’m sure he’s pissed to hear about parties happening right under his nose, but there’s no way he’s surprised. You can’t throw a few dozen hormonal teenagers together with minimal adult supervision and expect them to behave.
“What happened at this party?” he asks in a disapproving tone. “Who was there?”
“Everybody . . . well, everyone we could fit in there.”
I cringe as I launch into the story of what happened that night, hoping this information won’t be used to justify an even greater punishment than the one I have coming.
What’s fucked up about this whole situation is that I didn’t even want to go to the party in the first place. Celdon had insisted. He’s the one who’s friends with Mica and Lucas — not me. But then again, I don’t have a lot of friends.
Mica and Lucas’s compartment is the designated location for dorm parties because it’s the farthest away from the guardians’ tunnel. There’s one guardian on call on the weekends, which is basically the equivalent of having zero adult supervision.
As soon as we walked into the party that night, I had to fight the urge to turn around and run away.
At least twenty students were packed into the tiny compartment, drinking, dancing, and laughing loudly. Somebody spilled a drink on me within five seconds, and I got a gross feeling in my stomach when Lucas sauntered up and put a possessive arm around me.
Lucas and I have never dated, but he’s always had this weird idea that I’m into him.
Celdon was instantly encircled by a knot of drunk people, and he grinned and tussled his messy blond hair in an endearing way that told me he was happy and a little self-conscious from all the attention. People are just drawn to Celdon, and it’s only because of him that I get invited to things.
Somebody handed me a drink, and Celdon yanked me into the circle so I’d feel included. I sort of blocked out the awkward period of sobriety where I tried to make small talk with my classmates.
And then, to my horror, Celdon and I were swept up into a sideline game of truth or dare. Normally, I’d be excited to hear other people’s embarrassing secrets, but not when I saw who was playing: Mica, a semi-popular guy who always tries too hard but is actually really sweet; Janine, a goody-goody bitch who everyone thinks is nice but isn’t; Stewart, a really gross jock who makes too many fart jokes; and me and Celdon.
The game started off tame enough — boring truths like first kisses and who people thought were hot.
It only took two rounds to wear out the truths. It was clear from the responses that Stewart and I were the only two people in the circle who’d actually ever done anything, so the game quickly evolved into a silly round of sexual one-upmanship.
First, Janine dared me to kiss Mica. Mica, being the sweetheart that he is, went furiously red and murmured that I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to. I had no qualms about kissing Mica. He’s a perfectly cute guy with really soft-looking lips, and I just had this strange urge to show Janine that she couldn’t rattle me.
Leaning seductively over our circle of drinks, I threw an icy look in Janine’s direction and planted a gentle kiss on Mica’s lips. He didn’t fight it, but he didn’t really kiss me back, either.
When I pulled away, he was blushing even harder and looked a little stunned. I laughed and gave him a playful shove.
Celdon raised his eyebrows and shook his head, fighting a laugh.
Next, it was Stewart’s turn. Being the gross dog he is, he dared Janine to do a round of “seven minutes in heaven” with Celdon. Her expression turned smug, and I rolled my eyes.
I would have bet money that Janine put Stewart up to it. It’s not a secret that she’s had a crush on Celdon for years.
The easy smile faded from Celdon’s face, and I felt a tug of sympathy as his expression turned dark. I knew he didn’t return Janine’s feelings, but it was more than that.
It was nothing Celdon would ever voice aloud, but as Janine flounced off toward the empty compartment next door, I just knew.
A few people who noticed them leaving the compartment wolf-whistled and cheered, but I couldn’t shake the sick feeling in my gut.
For the next seven minutes, our group reverted back to truths, which basically consisted of Stewart asking me and Mica a series of perverted questions. Mica also seemed subdued after Celdon and Janine’s exit, and I wondered briefly if he’d noticed the look on Celdon’s face, too.
When they finally returned, neither looked happy. In fact, Janine seemed pretty pissed, and by Celdon’s expression, you’d have thought he just fought off a mountain lion. It was clear that the game was over, and Janine made up some lame excuse to leave.
I wanted to ask Celdon what happened, but he was instantly engulfed by a knot of drunk people and was brought up to speed on their jokes. Everyone else seemed to have forgotten about seven minutes in heaven already, but I could tell he hadn’t.
The next day was Sunday, and I still hadn’t gotten a chance to ask Celdon about what had happened at the party. I had locked myself in my compartment to study for our compound history exam because my grades in that class were pretty abysmal.
We were studying the pre–Death Storm period, which wasn’t nearly as interesting as Death Storm itself. I couldn’t really see how history was relevant to getting a Systems bid, which meant that my motivation to memorize the dates of events leading up to the compound’s inhabitation was sorely lacking.
The next time I saw Celdon was in precalculus class. I avoided making eye contact with any of the kids already seated, but several still looked up and stared as I slid into the seat next to him.
Unlike the rest of our classes, which are full of Institute kids, I barely know anyone in precalculus. Celdon and I are both in the accelerated math program, which means we join the compound’s advanced lower-ed classes outside the Institute.
Half the kids in there are a year older than me, and even the ones who aren’t look at me with disdain.
Celdon, oblivious as usual, was grinning from ear to ear. Today was his day for assessment, which is Mr. Gentry’s word for public humiliation.
Every day, one unlucky individual is chosen to stand up in front of the class and solve a problem picked by another student, but Celdon didn’t mind.
He’s a genius, and assessment day was his chance to show off.
“Mr. Reynolds,” drawled Gentry in his bored, nasal-y voice. “Why don’t you dazzle us this morning with an assessment?”
Celdon’s smile grew even wider as he pushed out his chair and got to his feet. He crossed to the front of the room and stood next to the board, messing up his carelessly ruffled waves some more. Celdon always has this way of looking perfectly disheveled.
“And, let’s see . . . Mr. Dellwood. Think you can give Mr. Reynolds a run for his money?”
The feeling in my stomach instantly turned sour when I saw Paxton’s smirk out of the corner of my eye.
Paxton Dellwood is the biggest asshole in our year. He thinks he’s hot shit because he’s Third Gen, but it’s not as though the compound was his grandparents’ idea or anything. Paxton and I have always hated each other because he’s a prick, and I call him on it.
Sauntering up to the board, Paxton cocked his head at Celdon, a look of pure evil in his creepy eyes as he sized up the other boy.
When he turned to write out a ridiculous trigonometric equation in the air, it looked as though he could be Celdon’s much stockier evil twin.
He has the same blond hair, but he wears it meticulously styled with too much product in a preppy little swoop that accentuates his ratlike face. Everything about Paxton screams arrogance and entitlement.
He stepped away from the board, and the equation he wrote flashed up in red.
Celdon’s grin didn’t falter. He shot me a wink so fast I was sure nobody else even noticed and started solving. He finished quickly, and as soon as he circled his answer, the glowing equation changed from red to green.
Paxton’s face drained of color. Since Celdon managed to solve the problem, he got to give Paxton one in return. And as cocky as Paxton may be, even he knew he was way, way out of his league.
“Is that right?” Celdon asked innocently.
Seeing that he wasn’t going to witness any defeat from Celdon, Gentry had returned to his Sudoku puzzle and wasn’t paying attention.
“Yeah,” said Paxton, his sneer firmly back in place. “Wow. That was fast.”
There was a knowing undertone in his voice that immediately set off alarm bells in my head. I’d never seen Paxton take defeat so lightly, and I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“I guess you get to give me one now, huh?”
Celdon shot Paxton a bored look, but I could see the tension in his shoulders. Like me, he could tell something was amiss. “Looks that way.”
Paxton lowered his voice so that only the first few rows could hear. “You think you’re some kind of genius, don’t you?”
Celdon swallowed, bracing himself for the storm.
“But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened during your little ‘seven minutes in heaven’ game this weekend.”
Celdon went white, and I shot Paxton a deadly glare. I didn’t know where he was going with this, but I knew it couldn’t be good.
“Yeah,” he said in a fake tone of regret. “Janine told me what happened. I was slumming a little with her on Sunday after you guys . . .” His smirk grew wider. “What exactly did you guys do?”
Celdon’s ears and neck had started to get pink, and I felt the tension radiating from him.
“You know what Janine said?” Paxton asked. His voice was full of sick delight. “She said you didn’t want to do anything!”
Something snapped inside me, and I jumped to my feet. “Shut your damn mouth, Paxton!”
By then, several people in the rows behind us had noticed what was going on, and I heard Gentry clear his throat.
“Miss Riley, sit down! Mr. Reynolds, let’s move this along.”
Celdon jerked his head around to write out an equation, the back of his neck burning scarlet.
“So what happened, then?” Paxton probed, ignoring Gentry. “Did you just get cold feet or . . .”
All the air left my lungs. Celdon dropped his hand, his fingers curling into a fist. I couldn’t see his face. His half-written equation flickered on the board.
“That’s enough, Mr. Dellwood,” said Gentry, trying to regain the class’s attention.
Suddenly struck by a flash of fake clarity, Paxton’s eyes flashed with cruel mirth. “Oh, wait! You were probably wishing it had been Mica in that closet with you. Or, I guess . . . out of the closet.”
“Shut the fuck up, Paxton!” I yelled.
The room filled with excited murmurs, but I ignored all the eyes on me.
“Miss Riley!” Gentry shouted. “Detention! Mr. Dellwood, you are out of line!”
Paxton smiled lightly at Gentry, still hovering in Celdon’s personal space.
Celdon turned toward him, his arms shaking at his sides. He couldn’t hit Paxton — not in front of a teacher. He would have been kicked out of class for sure. Fighting with the general lower-ed students isn’t something Institute kids can get away with.
Instead, he just strode out of the room, leaving a smug-looking Paxton behind in his wake. But on his way out, I caught a glimpse of his face: red and twisted in humiliation, tears shining in the corners of his eyes.
The hum of chatter grew louder, and something inside me broke. I longed to wipe that stupid smirk off Paxton’s rat face and make Janine pay for throwing Celdon under the bus.
Without considering the fact that I’d already earned myself a detention, I grabbed my bag and ran out of the room after him.
Gentry yelled something at me, but I didn’t care enough to hear what it was. Celdon had already disappeared from the tunnel.
Walking toward the megalift in a daze, I stopped abruptly when I passed the English classroom. Positioned perfectly in my line of sight was Janine.
The teacher moved at the front of the room, and Janine caught a glimpse of my face. When she saw my expression, the color drained from her sharp cheekbones, and her big eyes widened.
Then, as though on cue, the bell rang. She took her time gathering up her things, but the kids around her were already jostling toward the door. I stepped aside to let them pass, getting a few strange looks from the non-Institute kids.
Finally, Janine emerged. She tried to arrange her face in an innocent expression, but I cut her off before she could open her mouth.
“You — fucking — bitch.”
“Harper, I —”
“What the hell is your problem?”
She whipped her stick-straight ponytail around, clearly uncomfortable that we had already attracted quite a few stares. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Like hell you don’t! I know you were skeezing around with Paxton Dellwood this weekend.”
Janine’s face turned from white to scarlet. I took a step toward her and jabbed a finger into her bony shoulder. “You and Paxton need to leave him alone.”
“Oh, whatever, Harper,” she crooned loudly. “It’s about time everyone knew the truth. He’s such a little liar.”
“It’s none of your goddamn business.”
Janine smiled and scrunched her nose, fake sympathy written all over her face. “I heard he tried to put the moves on Mica after I left, and Mica turned him down. It isn’t right. It’s pathetic.”
That’s when I lost it. In that moment, it didn’t matter that we’d gathered an audience or that there was a teacher standing just inside the room. My fist flew out on its own and connected with Janine’s perky little nose.
She made a noise somewhere between a gasp and a scream, cupping her hands over her face as blood splattered her white shirt.
I only had a moment to relish the look of pain on her face when her tiny hand reached up and snatched a fistful of my hair. Janine may have looked dainty with her Peter Pan collar and pleated skirt, but she was tough.
When she yanked, it felt as though she ripped a fistful of hair out of my scalp. Blinded by the pain, I leaned away and backhanded her across the face. That’s when she launched herself at me, knocking me to the floor and catching me right in the face with her elbow.
I tasted blood and heard the crowd yelling, and I was vaguely aware of the teacher running out of the classroom, looking harried. I rolled Janine over and punched her in the face, but she slapped me just as hard and bit down on my arm.
Part of me was impressed by her scrappiness. The other part could hardly believe I’d sunk to her level.
Janine’s ferocity seemed to escalate as the fight dragged on. She tore at my clothes and jabbed me in the sides, and she even got a pretty wicked right hook in before I pinned her down.
It only took a few minutes for the teacher to call in some reinforcements to pry us apart.
I was happy to see Janine looking much worse for the wear. Her nose was still gushing blood all over the front of her shirt, and I’d managed to turn her sleek brown hair into a tangled mess.
“Wait,” says Tate, squeezing the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “You told me the incident with Mr. Dellwood happened at the beginning of class. In fact, Mr. Gentry confirmed that he dismissed Mr. Dellwood soon after his little display. What happened in the middle?”
I try to arrange my face into a confused expression. I was so close to escaping with just a slap on the wrist. I never expected that Tate was sharp enough to find the flaw in my story.
“Miss Riley. Where did you go after you left Mr. Gentry’s class? The truth.”
I drag in a deep breath. I didn’t want to tell him this part because there’s no way I can get away with it once he knows.
“I was looking for Celdon . . . but . . .”
I squeeze my eyes shut. Just thinking about it gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had gone to look for Celdon before I ambushed Janine, but Paxton had gotten to him first.
While I’d gone right to look for him, Celdon had made a beeline for the computer lab, which was in the opposite direction.
By the time I made a loop around the lower-ed level, I could hear Paxton’s strangled voice echoing down the tunnel.
When I rounded the corner, the fear and anger hit me like a kick to the gut. Paxton was holding Celdon down near the out-of-order megalift, landing punch after punch after punch.
“Hey! Stop it!” I yelled, sprinting down the tunnel toward him.
Celdon wasn’t moving, and Paxton had a crazed gleam in his evil eyes.
“Say it, faggot!” Paxton snarled, swinging his fist back again. “Say it! Why don’t you just admit that you’re a fucking little —”
He never landed that last punch. Without thinking about the fact that he’s built like an overgrown pit bull or how much the floor would hurt, I threw myself at Paxton and tackled him to the ground.
We ended up in a tangled pile of limbs, and I felt a flare of satisfaction to see that Celdon had gotten a few good hits in. Paxton had a busted lip and a bloody nose, but that was nothing compared to the pain I hoped to inflict.
Blinded by rage, I threw out my fist as hard as I could and heard a satisfying crunch as it connected with Paxton’s nose.
“Harper!” Celdon yelled. His voice sounded very far away, but I was relieved nonetheless.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him scramble to his feet to try to pry me off of Paxton.
Paxton is much bigger — and I hadn’t hurt him badly — but the shock of being attacked by a girl had given me a slight edge.
Paxton threw a wild punch, but his aim was off, and it only grazed the side of my face.
Before he could land another hit, Celdon grabbed me awkwardly under the armpits, hauling me off Paxton with minimal difficulty. Paxton scrambled to his feet, squaring off against us in the deserted tunnel.
I stop talking, not sure how to proceed.
Tate pulls off his glasses and rubs his eyes tiredly. “What happened after Mr. Reynolds pulled you off of Mr. Dellwood?” he asks, looking as though he wishes I would just disappear from his office.
I swallow, brain working fast. “He ran off,” I say with a shrug.
“Yeah. He saw he was outnumbered, and he split.”
“Care to try again, Miss Riley? Mr. Dellwood has not been seen or heard from since early this afternoon.”
I give a big shrug. “I’m not his keeper. I don’t know where he is.”
Tate eyes me ruefully and replaces his glasses. “Very well. I want you to understand that brawling in the compound is absolutely intolerable. However, since you have cooperated, I’m only going to suspend you for fighting, and your guardian will be enforcing a strict curfew for you for the next month.”
“What about Paxton?” I splutter, simultaneously outraged and relieved that Tate has decided not to expel me — yet.
“Mr. Dellwood is not one of my charges. However, if he ever turns up, I’ll ensure he is punished accordingly. Of course, I’ll need to question Mr. Reynolds for his side of the story.”
I nod, just wanting to get out of here. “May I be excused?”
“I suppose so.”
I get up to leave, but Tate stops me. “Miss Riley. Please keep in mind that the next time you lose your temper, I’ll be forced to take more drastic action.”
A jolt of fear shoots through me, and I nod without looking at him. “Yes, sir.”
I flee Tate’s office and slam the door behind me, almost smacking into a hard, muscular chest coming right toward me.
Looking up, I’m surprised to see the guy from the waiting area staring down at me. His blue eyes are wary but impressed.
“Excuse me,” I say, tearing my eyes away and trying to push past him.
“You should have just told him, you know,” he says in a deep, smooth voice.
Apprehension shoots down my spine. I glance over at Mrs. Keller’s desk, but she’s already left for the day. The guy notices my hesitation, but I manage to keep my expression neutral. “Told him what?”
Of course he was eavesdropping. Now my escapades will probably be all over the school.
I guess I could live with that. It never hurts to be notorious.
“Maybe your ears aren’t working,” I say in an offhand voice. “I told him I attacked Paxton.”
A brief smirk ghosts across the guy’s face, and I realize in horror that he knows something Tate doesn’t. “You didn’t tell him what really happened, though, did you?”
My heart is pounding against my ribcage, and I have to fight to keep my breathing steady. I glare up at him, silently daring him to contradict me. He meets my gaze with unflinching boldness.
I guess I’m not as intimidating to someone three years older and a foot taller.
“I saw some Health and Rehab workers down by the busted megalift,” he says casually. “They were pulling Dellwood out of the lift shaft.”
My stomach drops, and I feel the hot fear spread through my extremities.
“They’re saying he was most likely pushed, but he’s not talking.”
I take a deep breath, fighting to keep my face blank. “Is he all right?”
The guy gives me a funny look. I’m not even sure what I want him to say. I want Paxton to hurt, but I never wanted to kill the guy. Pushing him into the empty shaft was mostly an accident.
When I saw him beating Celdon, I barreled into him just as I had told Tate, but we rolled — him crushing me at first and then clawing at my arms as he slipped over the edge and fell through the open doors.
After the thud, I heard him groaning, so I knew he was alive. But I didn’t stick around to help pull him out. Celdon and I got our story straight, and I ran off — which was when I stumbled across Janine.
“He fell almost two levels,” the guy says. “Broke his arm. And he might have a concussion.” He shrugs. “But he’ll live.”
I nod, not sure what to say. Clearly this guy has a finely tuned B.S. detector, and he knows. I’m actually surprised he hasn’t run into Tate’s office yelling that I tried to murder Paxton Dellwood, but maybe he’s just excited to meet a fellow criminal.
Shooting me an amused expression, he turns to head into Tate’s office, but then stops short.
He doesn’t turn around to look at me, but I know by his tone that his expression is deadly serious. “I’m sure Dellwood deserved it . . . whoever pushed him.”
“Yeah,” I say shakily. “He did.”
He glances over his shoulder, and I see the hint of a dazzling smile. “Take it easy, Harper.”
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