Breaking Family Ties

By Negative Cation

Chapter Four ; Planning (lab)

Anna climbed into the backseat of the car, giving me a small, apologetic smile. "I didn't realize Mac was going to get you to drive us. Sorry."

I waved a hand at her and smiled. "Don't worry. He's persuasive. And I don't really mind." Not true, but whatever. I needed this girl's help; I couldn't afford to show I wasn't happy.

Anna lived almost as far away from my house as it was possible to get without leaving the school catchments area, so we had a longish drive ahead of us (by that I mean about 15 minutes). Still, I wasn't sure it was long enough to broach the subject of the day off school.

Mac didn't hesitate, however. Not that I had really expected him to.

"Jack needs your help." He told Anna, twisting around in his seat so he could look at her.

Anne looked curious. "Really? My help?" She sounded a little incredulous too, and I nearly snorted, except that I completely understood. I still couldn't believe we were trying this.

"Yeah, your help." Mac made it sound like a fact, not an answer, and Anna obviously decided not to press the matter.

Instead, she smiled. "What can I do?"

Mac launched into an explanation of my problem, and as he was describing it a sick feeling settled in my stomach. It was stupid, but I hadn't stopped to consider the implications of telling Anna before. And now I was worrying that she might not be safe. After all, what did I know about her? Even if Mac trusted her, and I trusted his opinion, I should still have made sure myself. I groaned quietly at my own idiocy, and Mac turned to look at me, but kept talking.

The story finished, Anna studied the back of my head for a while before speaking. I knew this for two reasons – first, because I could practically feel her eyes boring into my head, and secondly because I kept glancing at her in the rear-view mirror to see how she was reacting.

Throughout Mac's speech, her face had been carefully blank – though maybe I had just been too distracted to look carefully enough to see an expression. Now, she was biting her lower lip thoughtfully, her head tipped to one side and a small frown creasing her forehead. She looked like she was studying a difficult maths question, and it made me feel uncomfortable.

Finally she shifted her gaze back to Mac. "So what do you need me to do?"

"Go with her."

Anna eyes widened, though she didn't look shocked. "How would that help?"

Mac considered this for a moment, as if he wasn't sure he'd heard right. "Like I said, we need to convince the pack her absence is legit."

Anna laughed. "Yeah, I heard that part. But how does me going with her help? Won't it just be two of us missing then?"

"We'll say you were sick and Jack took you home."

"Why wouldn't you take me home? Or one of my friends?"

I shot Mac an amused look. Exactly what I had said. So I wasn't the only one who viewed this plan as flawed. Mac didn't seem at all concerned though.

"I'll say I threatened to take you home and the only way I wasn't going to go was if Jack took you. And she wouldn't let me take you because I need to catch up with work." Anna snorted, and Mac looked vaguely insulted.

"Well, at least it wouldn't be entirely lies then – you do need to catch up with work."

Mac shot her a semi-amused glare, but nodded. "So you see, it would work. And they wouldn't have to call any of the Family, and they wouldn't bother calling you."

"Well what about my friends?"

Mac looked confused. "What about them?"

Anna rolled her eyes. "Well, they'll wonder why I'm missing, and they'll call my house to check I'm okay."

"Tell them you're sick in school, and that you're going to go home and sleep it off. And you'll see them the next day." I finally chipped into the conversation. After all, it was because of me that we were going through this.

Anna seemed to consider it. "Yeah, I suppose that would work. But what about my teachers?"

Mac looked at me quickly, but we were now right outside school and I was trying to find a parking spot. "Jack'll take care of that. She'll tell them the truth, that's all. You're both good students, so I doubt anyone would mind."

Anna nodded, as if that wasn't a problem. "Okay then." She turned to me as I finished parking and smiled warmly. "I've always wanted to visit. I was going to get my parents to take me up over the winter holidays, but this way I'll save them the trouble." With that she hopped out of the car and wandered off towards the school, leaving Mac and me staring after her.

He turned to me, hurriedly stepping out of the car himself. "I told you she'd be okay with it."

I opened my mouth to say something, but he was already gone, skipping off after Anna (yes, actually skipping. My cousin is a strange boy). I watched them disappear inside the school gates then shook my head in amusement. I was still a little nervous about the whole thing, and about trusting Anna – I couldn't get my head around her. Ah well, it was a solution, and I was ready to try just about anything. As long as I didn't end up like Ryan…

Even though I'd had to drive across the district to pick up Anna and look for a parking space when we arrived at school, I was earlier than usual, so I took my time wandering to my locker. I glanced at each of the people I passed on my way, not really expecting much, but a few smiled or murmured hellos.

Other than the pack, I didn't really know anyone in school. I recognised faces – could name almost everyone, but only because it felt wrong to not be able to – but I rarely spoke to anyone. There were exceptions of course, people I worked with in class, and now Anna, but there weren't many of them. Maria, a shy, Pakistani girl who always worked with me in biology, nerdy Greg who was usually my chemistry lab partner. Tara, who I'd done my TOK (that's theory of knowledge, a sort of philosophy for beginners) and French orals with. Linda with whom I played badminton in gym class in lower sixth. A few of the kids from choir. But that was it really. I ate with the pack, I went out with the pack (though not often), and when I wasn't with them I was alone, in the library or in the music department.

Music – I can't say I'm a huge music person. I'd never sing alone or anything, and I can't play any instruments, but I've been in the choir since I started high school, and I enjoy it. The choir teacher, Mr. Bridle, asked me to sing a solo in the Christmas concert (which no one would come to watch anyway) and he didn't mind me turning up to listen to the CD and practise when I had nothing better to do.

I was tempted to head there now. My first class of the day was double chemistry, which meant I would have to work with Damien. If I went to the music department, maybe I could just not go to class at all. Except then I'd fail the practical and I couldn't really afford that.

I pulled my books out of my locker and tried to walk slowly to the chemistry labs, but walking slowly wasn't something I usually did and it took me less than a minute to arrive. The lab was still locked, because the school maintained that no one was allowed in the labs without a teacher around, even the sixth formers.

I slumped to the ground and searched in my bag for something to read. My hand closed around the letter and I pulled it out. For a moment I was puzzled, forgetting I had slipped it back in my bag so I could show Mr. Grace. I stared at it, not bothering to open it because I knew it off by heart by now, even the names of my interviewers.

When I had sent the applications in – just over a month earlier, but it seemed longer – I had known that it wouldn't be simple. But I hadn't realised just how much trouble the whole thing was likely to get me into. And now I was dragging Anna into it, and I couldn't even be sure I could trust her.

I groaned quietly and leaned my head back against the wall behind me, closing my eyes against the world. Well, at least the whole university-Anna-interview mess was distracting me from my other problem.

My surroundings suddenly got slightly darker, as if a shadow had passed over my face. I ignored it for as long as I could, but it became increasingly evident that someone was staring at me. So I opened my eyes.

And two amused, dark brown eyes stared back at me.

I nearly jumped, and as it was jerked my head up from the wall so quickly it started spinning. Damien laughed sardonically and I glared at him.

"Trouble, princess?"

"Nothing you need to know about." I muttered, stuffing the letter back into my bag and rising to my feet. His eyes were still amused, and I could tell he was almost smiling.

My actions must have caught his attention, or he'd already noticed it when I was feigning sleep, because he motioned towards my bag.

"You got one too? Shame, I thought it would be an excellent way to escape you and your little gang."

I frowned, confused, and it took a few seconds to register that he was referring to the letter. It was a struggle not to let my astonishment show.

Instead, I bit the inside of my lip hard and replied as coolly as I could, "You got an interview. That's a surprise. They really aren't kidding when they say they interview 90 of their applicants."

He was silent, and I couldn't read his expression, but then he shook his head and the corner of his mouth twitched. "No, they aren't. But don't worry, I'm sure they'll drop you like a hot potato when they meet you."

With that, he turned and walked into the lab, ignoring Mr. Noels, who had just opened the door for us. It was all I could do to keep my expression neutral as I followed him inside, murmuring a 'good morning' to our teacher.

We were doing the lab this morning, and Mr. Noels had obviously spent a good half an hour before class started organising the equipment. Each bench had a basket on it containing the equipment requested by each pair. I was about to reluctantly follow Damien to the back of the room, when Mr. Noels spoke.

"The equipment and materials you asked for are on the bench at the front, Damien." I could have sworn he winked at me when he said it, and I suppressed the smile of glee that was threatening to break onto my face.

Damien didn't say anything, or seem particularly perturbed as he turned around and walked back to the front where I had set down my bag and was beginning to unpack the basket. I caught a look in his eyes as he glanced at me that was somewhere between annoyance and anger.

A petty kind of victory, but it felt like a victory all the same.

"At least I'm not a pity case." I whispered to him as he reached over to pull out the Bunsen burner and plug it into the gas tap. "My grades are up to scratch, whereas yours…" I let it trail off. No need to exaggerate.

"What do you know about my grades?" He asked without looking up.

I shrugged. "Oh, I've never seen your grades – " which wasn't true, because he was in my English class too, and I had seen the mark book by accident when I was helping our teacher tidy up one evening, " – but I'm in enough of your classes to know what your work ethic is like."

"Maybe I just don't need to slave over my books to get the grades I need, unlike you." I resisted pulling a face at him. I wasn't going to be that childish.

The rest of the class were slowly filtering in by now, and Mr. Noels was calling to us to start our experiments so we had plenty of time to finish. We spent the next ten minutes in complete silence as we set up our experiment. In fact, we didn't speak again until everything was completely ready and the power pack was chugging away happily (we were doing an electrolysis of copper sulphate – don't ask).

Then Damien shifted in his seat so that he was staring straight at me. I tried to ignore him, but his steady gaze unsettled me, so I finally looked straight back at him and snapped "what?"

"Oh, not much. Just that you look troubled." I narrowed my eyes.

"What would you care."

He shrugged. "I don't. I was just wondering if maybe my perspicacious words had finally ruffled the princess's feathers."

I bit the inside of my lip, willing myself to keep my voice low. "Don't flatter yourself. It would take someone a lot more important than you to ruffle me. And given that you obviously have very little comprehension of your subject matter, I wasn't even bothering to listen."

"Sure you where." He grinned at me, but his eyes were hard. "You looked furious. You might think you're good at schooling your expression to neutrality, but I'm not as stupid as most of the people around. And your eyes are very expressive."

I didn't know what to say to that, but I didn't dare turn away from him. I held his gaze until his eyes regained their amused twinkle.

"See, right now you're struggling to decide whether you like that I noticed that much or hate that you're so easy to read."

It was my turn to laugh. "Like I said, don't flatter yourself. You might think you can read me but there's plenty you don't know. And you never will."

He shrugged. "Sure. But that's life. You, I can read like a book."

The girl at the bench next to us laughed at something Mr. Noels said and I turned towards them, glad to have an excuse to direct my attention somewhere other than Damien Rhys' dark eyes. Our chemistry teacher was recounting how he had tried to smuggle pieces of glass back to England from Africa when he was young, mistaking them for diamonds. It was a story I had heard before, but I half-listened again.

The problem was, I felt like Damien had read me well. And it bothered me.

Mr. Noels glanced up at me and smiled, and then the timer on our stop watch went off and we spent ten minutes drying things out, weighing them and putting them back together. Then we sunk into silence again.

We repeated the same pattern twice more in silence, and then I looked up and noticed Mr. Noels wandering towards our bench. He had a pensive look on his face, one that I knew meant he was grading us on something. So I elbowed Damien.

He grunted softly and looked around at me.

"Play nice." He looked at me as if I had been speaking gibberish. "Mr. Noels is coming. We're being graded on personal skills. So play nice."

"You want me to engage in small talk with you?"

I rolled my eyes. "No, I just don't want him to think we aren't getting along."

Damien laughed shortly. "Oh, I don't think he'd ever believe we were. Come on – the Ice princess from the perfect family and big scary me? Nah, no one'd believe that."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "Look, asshole," I struggled to keep my voice low so that we wouldn't be overheard, "whatever misconceptions you have about me and my family, keep them to yourself. I need good grades to get out of here, and I am not letting you ruin my chances just because you're a selfish, stuck up –"

"Are you sure that's what the balance said?" He cut me off suddenly and I nearly snapped at him until I realised Mr. Noels was standing behind us, listening. "Because it would mean that we gained more than we lost, which shouldn't be possible."

I swallowed my anger for the time being and pretended to study my notes, although I'd already been through this in my head when I had taken the measurements. "Yes, I'm sure. It must just be experimental error."

We continued like this whilst Mr. Noels stood behind us, until the timer on the stopwatch went off again and we hurried through the drying and weighing routine again. Luckily, by the time we had finished that the class was practically over, so we just tidied up our equipment in silence.

I stuffed my lab book and pens back into my bag and was about to leave when Damien grabbed my wrist and pulled me back onto my seat. I looked at him, expecting him to give me some indication as to why he wouldn't let me go, but he wasn't looking at me.

I considered trying to pull away from him, but that would only have drawn attention to us, something I didn't particularly want. Instead, I sat quietly as the room emptied and Mr. Noels disappeared into the room next door to replace the chemicals we'd been using. Then I pulled my wrist from Damien's grasp.

"What do you want?"

"I don't know who you think you are. You and that 'pack' of yours think you have the run of the school, just because your parents are rich or powerful or whatever. I'd like to know what you think you need to escape." His eyes were hard and his voice a deep growl. I was almost scared, would have been if I hadn't been so sure and commotion would have brought Mr. Noels back into the room in an instant.

"And I'd like you to mind your own business." I hissed back. "Power and wealth aren't everything, you know."

He gave a short laugh. "Sure. Because you'd manage without either? Don't think I don't know your type." I raised my head defiantly, about to demand to know what 'my type' was, but he didn't give me time. "Just stay out of my way, alright? And stop pretending you're a victim in anything. It makes me sick."

With that, he rose abruptly and walked out of the room. I took a deep breath, trying to gather my thoughts. I was furious that he had thought he could speak to me like that, that he had dared to assume he knew anything about me, but I was hurt too. For some reason, I didn't want him to be angry with me, or to hate me, and I just couldn't reconcile my own anger to that.

I heard Mr. Noels clattering around in the side room, so I made a quick get away. I didn't want him asking why I was still there. Instead, I hurried towards my next class, glad that it was French and that no one would expect me to participate in anything. I needed to calm down.

The rest of the day passed quickly enough. Mac and I didn't mention the interview again, and I didn't see Anna at all. I had two more classes with Damien but we ignored each other – not that that led to anything different from usual. We didn't normally talk in class.

I had a rehearsal after school, and drove home late, but when I had finally managed to park and get home, neither my parents nor my brother were in the house. Dad would still be at work, and Mum was probably visiting one of her friends. I had no idea where Dave was, but it didn't bother me. He was old enough to look after himself, after all.

I considered going upstairs to finish my homework, which was what I usually did, but the absence of human activity downstairs would have disturbed me. Instead, I wandered into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of juice and locate a snack of some kind.

Just as I was fishing a biscuit out of the biscuit tin, the doorbell rang. I frowned. Were my parents – or Dave, for that matter – expecting visitors? The bell rang again and I sighed and put my biscuit down on the kitchen counter next to my juice, then walked to the door and opened it.

A ragged-looking, light brown-haired boy was standing there. He looked like he hadn't slept properly in days, so clear were the black bags under his eyes. His eyes themselves seemed kind of glazed over, and I wasn't entirely sure he could see me properly. He had a horrible purple bruise on one cheek too, and I was sure there were more hidden beneath his clothes. I couldn't help but gasp at his worn out appearance.


A/N; Yay, a cliff hanger! ;-) What has happened to cousin Ryan? What will Jack's Dad say when he gets home. Is Anna trustworthy?... Find out next time.

Actually, next time might not be for a while. I have three weeks before my final exams start, so I should (theoretically) be busy studying in that time. And today and tomorrow I will be in the UK for a university interview, so I won't have anytime to write. Indeed, I felt I had to post this before I went, which is why I'm sitting at the computer typing when I should be packing my bag or, at the very least, sleeping (because I didn't get home until 3 this morning). Anyway, I got it up, so that's good.

And there we go, plenty of Damien and the lab...happy Val?