Chapter Twenty-Four

Start from the beginning

Coming back to Huntington Beach after the funeral had been a breath of fresh air. Dakota was everywhere in Columbus, but nowhere at the same time. She was the emptiness in their old house and the missing link in the chain when he was with their old friends. In Huntington Beach, she was nowhere—but he saw her in Eliza Beth, often when he least expected it. He had seen her whenever the girl smiled; he had seen her in the glint of Eliza Beth's eyes. It had almost been easy to believe that she wasn't really gone.

But now Eliza Beth was gone, too.

The hole in his chest left by Dakota's departure had reappeared with an intensity that Lysander had not expected. He could ignore it when there were others around to keep him company, but there was no doing it late at night when he was on his own. Every night since Eliza Beth's betrayal, he had curled in on himself in an attempt to hold the pieces together while that empty space threatened to consume him. He'd bitten down on his pillow to keep Zack and Georgia from hearing him cry, but there was no hiding his eyes every morning. He knew they could see the red in them.

'It was,' he said. There was no point in denying it. 'But I'm okay now.'

Ms Lowe considered him for a moment.

'If you ever feel like you need to talk to somebody,' she said, 'you know the school provides a free counselling service. Alternatively, you can come and talk to me. My door is always open.'

'Thank you. But really, I'm fine.'

'Just keep it in mind. You may go, Mr Maverick.'

He didn't wait around for her to change her mind.

True to his word, Jack was waiting right outside the classroom, and the two boys fell into step easily. He only asked once what their English teacher had wanted, and didn't ask again when Lysander said that it was nothing. Jack was a good friend—he knew when to push and when to hold back, and this was one of those times when Lysander really didn't want to talk about it. The last thing he needed right now was to talk about his shitty week again.

And then they stepped outside, and his shitty week was staring him in the face.

Everywhere he looked there were eyes on him—filled with disgust, with pity. He had no idea what could have made word of his break-up with Eliza Beth so interesting to the freshman science nerds or the senior debate team, but both turned to give him the mix of looks that he had come to despise as he passed them. He made a point of ignoring them, but Jack shifted uncomfortably under the weight of their stares. Even if they weren't directed at him, he hated the attention.

'You'd think that most of the school wouldn't care,' he said as they pressed on. 'It's weird, man.'

'It's annoying. I wish they'd mind their own businesses.'

There was one group in particular that Lysander would have liked to mind their own business, so he wasn't surprised when life decided to throw them right into his path.

The moment he saw the smirk on Ethan Masters's face, he was tempted to turn and head back inside. But he knew it would do no good—if Ethan Masters wanted to pester you, he would do it. There was nothing you could do but stand and face him.

'Maverick!' the boy cried. 'Just the man we've been looking for!'

Lysander didn't doubt this for a moment. It seemed that Masters and his gang had no other interest than their one great love of stepping on the downtrodden. They were always on the search for somebody to ridicule, and who happened to be their two favourite targets? Of course: Jack Avery and Lysander Maverick, Faggot and the Defender.

They weren't very creative, but what they lacked in brains they most certainly made up in brawn.

Masters was looking for a fight. He always was, and this was one of those days where Lysander was almost willing to take him up on the offer. But he would not take the bait, he told himself. He would not sink to the level of this moron and his idiot friends. He would take whatever they threw at him and move along. That was the right thing to do.

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