After around twenty minutes of searching for Axel, I finally gave up. If he wanted, needed, to be alone, I would never find him. Not until he wanted me to, at least. I was still slightly shocked from when he had yelled at me. He'd never yelled at me before. Not once.
"Why aren't you in class?"
I whipped round, my heart racing. During lessons, the halls were normally like a graveyard: eerily quiet and unsettlingly calm.
"Uhh…" I trailed off. The girl was small, young, maybe six or seven years old. She had a round face, pink lips, and blue eyes. But it was her hair and clothes that seemed just slightly unusual. She wore a mustard yellow felt skirt over pink and grey tights, and small brown shoes. Underneath a blue cotton cardigan, she wore a pink polo shirt. Her thin, pale brown hair was parted exactly down the centre of her scalp, and flowed neatly down to her shoulders. Her fringe was just as perfect, forming a dead straight line across her eyebrows. A white headband separated the fringe from the rest of her hair. Under her left arm she held a thin book which had scraps of paper protruding from it at all angles, and she had a small satchel bag slung across her body.
In conclusion, she was weird and she freaked me out.
"I'm Alma," she said, and held out her hand. I shook it awkwardly. "I know who you are," the girl continued matter-of-factly, without giving me time to speak. "You're Matilda Lightly. I know all about you."
It scared me a little, how she was suddenly there with this information.
"Who are you?" I asked, hoping for an explanation.
"I'm Alma," she repeated, looking at me steadily, unsmiling, betraying no emotion.
"No, but I mean-"
"I know what you mean." Alma interrupted, silencing me. Then, changing the subject completely, told me, "I know where Axel is."
"Don't you want to know where he is?"
"Oh," she opened her satchel and, without needing to look, took out a small Me to You bear and held it out. "You lost this."
I slowly took it from her. One of the ears was out of place, and had been stitched messily into its place with bright yellow thread. She was right. I had lost this, about a month ago. It was a gift Axel had given me for our one-year anniversary.
"Thanks," I said quietly. She nodded and sat down, gesturing for me to do the same. I did. "How old are you?"
"You're too mature to be seven."
"No I'm not. You're too immature to be fifteen." As she said this, she took out a bunch of paper from her folder and spread it out in front of her. It was all blank. "This is Axel, yes?"
Silently, she pointed to the first piece of paper, on which the picture of Axel I had taken most recently had appeared.
"Yeah," I said. "Where do you get this stuff from?"
She ignored me and held up a picture of Axel, Ewan, Toni and I. We looked very young. Very, very young. It must have been the first picture ever taken of us together like that.
"Your friends," Alma stated. I just nodded. She collected up the paper and slipped it back into her folder. "Your boyfriend is behind you."
I looked over my shoulder – she was right. Axel looked stressed, and I already knew he wasn't planning on telling me why. A small crowd of people now inhabited the corridors, filling them with the general sound if chatter. This was the third floor, though, so there were never many people on it.
Ax caught sight of me and started to walk a little faster. He helped me up when he reached where I was sitting.
"Why were you on the floor?" he asked.
"I was…" I started, but then I noticed that the strange little girl was halfway down the corridor, and she melted easily into the larger gathering of teenagers coming up here to learn stuff like mind control, and the manipulation of emotion. In my mind, I knew there was no way she could have got up and walked that far in that small amount of time, but it didn't bother me for the moment. "It doesn't matter. Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Instantly, the sense that he was lying reached me. I shook it away. However, looking more closely, I could see the shadow of tearstains on his cheeks where he'd tried to smudge them away. And the rims of his eyes were slightly pinker than usual. "Are you?"
"Yeah," I nodded. "I was looking for you."
We were silent for a few seconds.
I said, "Are you sure you're OK?"
"I'm fine," he repeated, and then sighed. "I'm sorry I yelled at you."
"That's all right. I should've just left it," I looked down awkwardly.
A smile flickered across his face. "Come here," he said quietly. He pulled me into a warm hug, which I returned happily. Axel leant down to kiss me, so I obliged by standing on my toes and wrapping my arms around his neck so that he could press his lips to mine. His hands slipped down to my waist, and one of mine found his hair…
And I pushed him away.
Our breathing had quickened slightly, and Axel was smiling his small, cute, almost-there smile that always stayed.
"Sorry," he whispered.
"I pushed it."
"Does it matter?"
"Could do," he shrugged and took my hand as he led me to our next lesson, which he probably found out by reading people's minds. "I don't read – I hear."
"Yeah, just like you see the words on those books you vowed you'd never touch. But you're not reading them," I grinned.
"Exactly," he laughed. I liked him more when he was like this. When he was happy and not all depressed and feeling like he couldn't be bothered with life.
Axel sighed heavily, but didn't say anything, so I put my barriers up.
"It's true, though. I do like you better when you're not being depressed," I muttered.
"Yeah, I know."
Great. I'd set him off just by thinking about it. Uhhngh. He let go of my hand and ran his through his hair. And did I ask him 'what's up?' like I normally would? No. No, I did not. Because I knew he'd either try to tell me it didn't matter, lie, or avoid answering completely.
As we walked along, I thought about how I was going to get him to open up. Checking every five seconds that I wasn't thinking too clearly, just in case I let my barriers slip again. Pastoral care was definitely out of the question. Nagging him would just stress him out more. Guilt tripping… well, I had nothing to make him feel guilty about, and it was unfair anyway. All the options had problems, so after I glanced up at him again just as he shoved his right hand through his straw-like hair, I settled for just asking like I'd first thought.
"It doesn't matter," he said.
"It does to me," I told him truthfully. "I don't like it when you're stressed." I caught his gaze, as he deliberately tried to avoid it, and held it. We stopped walking.
He shifted uncomfortably. "Not right now."
"Please, Tilly," he sighed. "Later, I promise."
I gave up. His use of his nickname for me, a promise, and the look he was giving me was the perfect combination for making me crumble.
"All right," I whispered. Axel smiled and kissed the top of my head.
"See? I told you they'd make up quickly," Toni grinned at Ewan as they walked up to us. "Hey!"
"Hi," we responded simultaneously.
"You've been crying," Toni noticed immediately, directing her words at Axel. "What's wrong?"
Ax shook his head and she shrugged.
Then, Steven appeared next to us. "You're not going to gain anything by standing in the doorway." He said. "Toni, I need you for the demonstration today."
"Kay," she followed him behind the curtain so he could show her what to do. As they walked away, I noticed he was careful to maintain a distance of about half a metre away from her. Maybe it was just a case of personal space – a serious case of personal space.
Axel, Ewan and I went and sat on three of the blue plastic chairs.
"All right," Steven's voice was magnified slightly. "Today's demonstration is about the problems caused by tractus res, or movement occurrences. These can be bad, but normally they're nothing to worry about. So, with the help of my lovely assistant, here's what could happen."
Toni walked onto the makeshift stage. "OK," she said, the natural performer that she was. "So the first one is delayed travel, which is my problem. Say you want to travel to… standing on that stool over there which Steven just helpfully put out," a few people laughed. "Right, you've decided to stand on that stool and can't be bothered to walk." She screwed her eyes shut and clenched her fists at her sides.
"However, if your destination changes, like this," Steven continued for her, moving the stool. At that moment, Toni disappeared, but didn't reappear. "Delayed, remember?" he commented on our confused faces. "Ewan," he gestured for Ewan to stand where the stool had just been. Ewan obeyed, and Toni appeared in his arms. He put her down expertly, like he was completely used to it.
"Oh," Toni said, fantastically. She was good at that.
"Hey," Ewan smiled at her.
"Hi," they kissed.
There was a chorus of "Ooooh," and a couple of wolf-whistles.
"All right, next is clashing destinations." Steven described as Ewan came back to his seat and Antonia walked to the other end of the stage. "So, without further ado," he snapped his fingers and Toni screwed up her eyes and fists, and they both disappeared at the same time. Toni turned up in the exact centre, but Steven didn't show up at all.
"This is what happens when more than one person intends to get to exactly the same place at exactly the same time. Obviously, only one person can get there. And those who don't get there can end up absolutely anywhere they've been before. You have no control over it." She strolled over to the store cupboard, where a knock had just sounded from, and opened the door.
"Now, this room has an enchantment so I couldn't leave it magically." Steven brushed off his shirt and the walked back to the stage together. "But the point is that you could go to absolutely anywhere you know. And, unfortunately, that could mean to other countries. But that's an extreme rarity."
"And," Toni added. "Don't believe the rumours. There is no such thing as body morphing or body switching."
"Unless you're doing transfiguration," Steven put in. "Right, go practice. Don't worry; you won't get hurt unless your friends think it's funny."
Toni and Steven then joined Ax, Ewan and I.