Just another day.


The difference between this day and any other was that he was starting school in a new place, with new classes, and with new people. Most of whom, unfortunately, were vermin.


Dare Drache heaved a disgusted sigh and looked around the thronging hallway. Nasty little humans crowded around him on all sides, or would have if he hadn't been leaning against a locker. He sneered as some human girl jostled him with her locker door and she jumped back when he snarled. Throwing one last startled glance over her shoulder, she hurried away.


"Scare easily, don't they?"


Contempt swelled through the boy's voice. It held a tinge of raspiness Dare knew girls supposedly found attractive and an arrogance that could only be Nightworld. Startled, he looked up.


"Byron Redfern," the boy said, sticking his hand out.


Dare stared at the appendage for a few moments before grasping it firmly, though he was unfamiliar with the gesture. The boy -- the vampire -- had unruly hair the color of damp sand and eyes that whirled in a cesspool of color. As he watched, soft violet rolled into a smudged green. His features, like any vampire's, were chiseled and perfect.


Byron's features suddenly narrowed in suspicion. "You're not human, are you?" he demanded.


The disgust sweeping over Dare's face answered that question clearly.  "Are you?"


The vampire appeared momentarily horrified. "'Course not." He fell silent while a group of twittering humans surged past them, beaming besottedly, and glared at Dare. "D'you usually make friends with that line? Calling them vermin?"


"I've never had the opportunity to accidentally insult someone before," Dare said coolly. "Where I come from, this would be a buffet."


Byron perked up. "You're from an enclave?" He jerked his head, indicating that Dare should follow, and started down the hall.


"I prefer to call it civilization," Dare said. He fell into step beside him before he realized he didn't know *why* he was following him. "Where are you going?"


"Lunch," Byron replied promptly. He rolled his eyes -- now a misty blue -- in derision. "All this rich, delicious blood and they try to feed us the city rat population. Disgusting. D'you have a name?"




Narrowly avoiding some human who was in the process of dropping everything he carried in the middle of the hallway, Byron regarded him curiously. "Dare what?"


"Drache." He grimaced as someone rammed into his side. "Why are we going to the cafeteria again?"


Byron shrugged. "Told Lindsay and Meera I'd be there."


"Who are Lindsay and Meera?"


"Snacks," Byron admitted with a quick grin. "They're not the most colorful box of crayons, but they have their uses. An easy food source being one. Easy being another."


They turned down a corridor, at the end of which stood a set of metal double doors, open to accommodate the steady stream of students. They were painted a depressing green, like you might see at the bottom of a clogged drain. A matching stripe trailed unevenly along the height of the walls. Several layers of dull and dirty white (or Dare would guess that had been the color once) laid underneath that stripe, producing an atmosphere any student would benefit to learn in.


Nasty vermin, he thought again, loathe to accidentally touch any of them. What had his parents gotten him into? They'd sent him attend a school full of *humans* and to live with a great aunt who was as batty as she was old. He'd been here for forty-eight hours and already he hated it. His sharp golden gaze raked over the whirling, contorting throng of humans. He was stuck here for a year. A full, lamentable year.


At least now he'd found someone else from the Nightworld. Maybe it wouldn't be *that* bad.


"Human?" he asked.


They passed through the wide doors. "Of course." Byron stopped behind a long line of people who apparently waited for their turn at the trough. "I don't feed from anyone else. Might notice."


Raising an arrogant eyebrow, Dare asked, "And these girls don't?"


"Not if I don't smear their make-up, they don't." He moved forward absently. "How did you get the name Dare? D'your parents gamble?"


"It's short for Darius. How did you get the name Byron? Don't you lamia usually have hippy names?"


He grimaced. "My real name's Agnew. Never use it." Then realization struck. "If you came from an enclave, how d'you know about hippies?"


Dare glanced at him, then glared at the nearly unmoving line. He didn't see the point, when neither of them were going to eat anyway. "Just because I grew up on an enclave doesn't mean I've never been off it."


"Suppose not," Byron agreed, then scowled. "Lunch'll be over before we make it to the table. Come on."


That said, he started for the front of the line. Not one student said a word as they passed by. Girls simply sighed wistfully; the guys nodded in respect.


"Shit," Byron muttered and stopped, slipping behind a frightfully tall boy. "Adrien," he acknowledged. 


"Byron." Adrien responded, then turned back to the attractive blond he was talking to.


Keeping his voice lowered so that only Dare could hear -- and only then because of his superior senses -- Byron murmured, "Adrien Harman. Senior. Stay on his good side."




"Don't know they are."


"They?" Dare looked covertly at the blond next to Adrien.


Byron followed his stare and nodded. "Name's Raquel. His sister."


Dare's interest flared. The girl had long, platinum blond hair hanging straight as a stick to her waist and deep violet eyes to match her brother's. Unlike him, she was tiny and petite, coming maybe to just above his elbow. She was slender like a model and had the figure to match. She might not know she was Nightworld, but in Dare's books, that made her fair game.


"I wouldn't," Byron muttered, recognizing the glint in Dare's bright gold eyes. "Very protective, Adrien is. And strange things happen when he gets pissed off."


He started to respond when someone stumbled into him. Nasty, stupid vermin -- Dare was tempted to let her fall flat on her face, but didn't want to put forth the effort to step over her. With a sigh, he steadied her.


That should have been the end of it, but -- much to Dare's dismay -- when his skin touched hers, it burned. She gasped, a sound he echoed mentally.


They jerked away from each other, Dare's breathing harsh and accusatory, hers simply rapid and startled. Gold eyes met hazel, emotion roiling between them.


"Tierney?" Raquel's voice was concerned and had the same effect as a bucket of icy water.




With her attention turned to Adrien's sister, Dare could step back and allow himself to be appalled.


"Hideous, isn't she?" Byron whispered.


Dare could only nod silently and pick up a tray. In front of him, Raquel and Tierney each handed Adrien loose change or what looked to be dollar bills, or more aptly, whatever came out of their pockets first.


"What do you want?" he asked them, while trying to arrange the money into some semblance of order. He slipped the change into his pocket.


"Apple," Raquel replied sweetly. She stood on her tiptoes to plant a sisterly kiss on his cheek. "You're a doll, Aid."


"Same," Tierney agreed, "and a Coke. Thanks!"


They hurried off to find a seat, leaving Adrien shaking his head behind them. Tierney didn't acknowledge Dare again. "Nice," he heard him mutter.


He glanced at the lengthy line, picking up a sandwich off the counter. Laughing at the two girls, or Dare could only assume that's what he was laughing at, he slipped out of his place, walking easily to the section containing fruit. He picked up two apples, one green and one red, then sauntered to the front of the line. Students moved silently out of the way.  Balancing the apples in one hand, he reached down to pick up two soft drinks.


"Will that be all today, Adrien?" the lady at the cash register asked.


Adrien nodded. He paid for the food and went to join the two girls.


"Don't understand why he hangs out with her," Byron said finally, once Adrien was out of earshot. He shuddered. "Couldn't stand to look at her myself."


"Who, that girl?"


Byron nodded. "Name's Tierney Anderson. She and Raquel've been friends forever. Treats her like a sister, Adrien does. I suppose you grow immune to it after awhile."


Dare laughed, shoving what had happened when he touched her into the deepest recesses of his mind. If he ignored it, maybe it would go away. "I'm not blind yet."


Although, he admitted silently, it had been a close call. He reached down to pick up a sandwich he was only going to throw away anyway. With a sound of disgust, he slapped it on the tray.


"'Yet' is the key word," Byron muttered, echoing his thoughts aloud almost absently. "I've seen Picassos prettier than she is and a lot more normal, too."


"I happen to like Picasso," he pointed out briefly, watching as fear leapt in Byron's eyes before he quickly banked it. Interesting. "I've seen more hideous girls on the streets, though not many, and my eyesight is still fine. How do you explain that?"


"None of them were Tierney Anderson. I've seen dogs take one look and run," Byron shuddered. He picked up something green and indefinable from the counter.


Dare sneered. "That wouldn't surprise me."


Byron nodded his agreement, seemingly unaware that he was agreeing with himself. He set something else on his tray, something Dare didn't want to think about or guess what it was. He briefly wondered how they could get away with feeding this slop to the students. As an analogy, a trough wasn't far off the mark.


"Still, don't get near her if you can help it," Byron warned. "Don't trust her any more than the other Nightworlders here. Dangerous, she is."


Dare paused in picking up what he hoped was orange juice, though from the markings on the carton, he couldn't tell. "She's Nightworld?"


"Witch," Byron replied, shrugging, "and a powerful one at that. She's another reason not to cross Adrien Harman. If he doesn't accidentally get you, she will, only it won't be an accident."


An insolent smile curled Dare's sculpted mouth. "I doubt she's anything to worry about."


Disbelievingly, Byron blinked twice, wondering how this newcomer could dismiss her so easily. "You're a braver man than I," he muttered.


"Because she doesn't scare me?" he guessed.


"Not even after you saw her," Byron affirmed, shuddering. He handed the lady at the register a couple of crumbled bills, indicating with a wave of his hand that he was paying for both his and Dare's. "Don't suppose you thought to bring money."




Byron walked off without collecting his change. "There're Lindsay and Meera. Girl beside them is Teresa."


He pointed vaguely in the direction they were headed. Dare glanced around the crowded cafeteria, trying to pinpoint the girls. In the crowd of people, he didn't notice anyone spectacular Byron might be indicating, but he did notice Tierney sitting with Adrien, Raquel, and some other blond guy.


He scowled, eyes narrowed, willing her to look up so he could clearly express his opinion of her and what he was afraid might be the soulmate connection. Goddess help her if it was, because he would do anything in his power to make sure they got rid of it. And if he couldn't, maybe he'd just get rid of her.


"Don't stare." Byron grabbed his arm, propelling him in the direction of the three girls and, additionally, into a chair. "See? Your vision's already deteriorating. I warned you, don't forget."


Dare refrained from pointing out that he easily could have avoided any and all stationary objects, had Byron not steered him straight into it. They stopped in front of the crowded table, Byron gesturing absently at one of the few empty chairs. An auburn-haired girl smiled vacantly up at him and scooted over to make room.


Dare sat, as did Byron.


"Meera. Lindsay. Teresa. This is Dare. He's new."


He pointed to each girl as he said her name, then finally nodded at Dare. The first girl he'd introduced, or Dare guessed that's what you would call it, was obviously of Indian descent. Large almond shaped eyes indicated this quite clearly, as did the oval shape of her face and her slightly wide nose. She had straight black hair and skin the color of tanned leather, if not the matching skin texture.


The second girl was fair-skinned, with slightly curling black hair and perfectly arched eyebrows. Dare wondered if she practiced that disgusting habit of plucking them. His sister had tried that once after a trip to the human world, and still screamed at the sight of tweezers. He'd learned quickly to assure her they looked much better in their natural state, as listening to her became nerve-wracking after the first several seconds. Lindsay's eyes were dark and caked with make-up. Under all that goo, she might have been pretty. He couldn't tell.


The third and final girl sat next to him, occasionally flicking her auburn hair in a way that was supposed to be flirtatious. She glanced at him every so often. He didn't like the look simmering in her crystal blue eyes, so pale and clear they couldn't possibly be real.


~Contacts~ Byron confirmed, noticing his scrutiny.


He nodded slightly. The girl was pretty and might be useful, but he didn't want to encourage her. Sometimes vermin got insane delusions of grandeur. He'd hate for her to be one of them.


Right now she was fingering her milk carton, picking it up every so often and shaking it to judge the amount of liquid left. Her eyes flicking to meet his once more, she raised the carton to her lips and finished whatever was left.


"Your name is Dare?" she asked coyly. She set the milk carton back on her tray and waited for his answer.


He nodded, ignoring her proffered hand. He'd put up with it from Byron, because he was Nightworld, but he refused to touch vermin without a damned good reason. "Dare Drache," he confirmed.


"Nice to meet you," she said, dropping her hand. He thought he might have seen hurt flash over her face, but as she was vermin, he didn't really care. "Do you think you could do me a *huge* favor?"


He started to refuse, but Byron kicked him under the table. ~Don't want to look for new lunch,~ he admonished. ~Won't hurt you to be nice to them.~


~They're *vermin*,~ Dare shot back.


Byron's eyes whirled to a guileless hazel. ~And they taste so *good*.~


Dare sighed. "What do you need?" he asked reluctantly. As painful as this was, Byron was the one acceptable Nightworlder he'd found at this hellhole so far. Contrary to what he said, it *might* hurt, but it wouldn't kill him.


She simpered and he gritted his teeth, considering how her internal organs would taste. "Could you get me another milk?"


He nodded, standing abruptly. Byron tossed him a dollar. "It's on me, Tay," he declared generously.


Dare rolled his eyes and picked up the money. "I'll be right back." He walked toward the front of the cafeteria, which had cleared out considerably.


"Don't want the change," Byron called after him.


He made some indistinct gesture in response. Lindsay should be fetching *him* milk, not the other way around. She was, after all, the lower class species here. If humans could even be considered a species. He wasn't sure. He didn't care if things weren't the same on the outside; he'd *never* had to wait on vermin before. This was *not* going to become a habit, even if these girls were Byron's choice meal.


He didn't see Tierney coming from the opposite direction until it was too late, and by then, he'd already crashed into her. Their bare skin brushed, just a fleeting contact that slammed his world askew. He caught a transient image of bold colors clashing in a harmonious mélange.


He blinked, suddenly realizing he stood in the middle of the cafeteria, his wits deserting him completely. Her face swam before him.


She stared back calmly, as though he was merely someone vaguely irritating who should not be in her way. "Excuse me," she murmured, her voice as cool and as distant as a frigid winter wind.


He stepped aside automatically, watching as she glided past him without a second thought. Not even a startled second glance. She simply glided away, her expression unconcerned and unaware, completely unruffled by the brief interaction.


Angry, he followed her. "It doesn't mean anything."


"I didn't say it did."


Her disregard angered him further. "It's a fluke," he hissed, stopping beside her to snatch up a milk carton for Lindsay. "We are *not* soulmates."


"Is that what that was?" She reached for a carton of milk as well, still not looking at him. She shrugged and, grabbing two bowls of chocolate ice cream off the shelf, she set them on trays, which she balanced easily.  She walked over to the register, paying the lady behind the counter. The lady dropped the change into her outstretched palm. "Thanks, Mrs. Daniels." Her attention turned back to Dare. "If we're not, there's nothing to worry about, is there?"


She walked away with a tight smile.


He handed the lady Byron's money and stalked after her. "Just don't think it means anything." His gaze swept over her harshly and cruelly. "I could never be a match for someone as hideous as you."


Instead of giving her a chance to reply, he strode away.


Her mouth hanging open, she watched him go. What an *ass*! As if looks had anything to do with it! She clamped down on the rage and hurt pouring through her. It really wasn't worth getting upset over. Just avoid him. But she couldn't keep her eyes from straying to where he sat with Byron Redfern and his Meals-on-Wheels crowd. Though today, they might be on stilts.


Tierney couldn't really say she cared, or that she paid attention.


She walked back to her table slowly, wrestling her temper under control. Taking a deep breath, she closed the distance, dropping heavily onto her chair. She handed the milk to Raquel. "Where did Adrien go?"


"He needed to find out about practice or something," Raquel answered dismissively. She broke the seal on the milk carton gratefully. "Thanks, Tier. You know how much Mrs. Daniels hates me."


"Maybe you should consider paying that twenty dollars worth of credit you owe her," Tierney suggested mildly. "I have this strange feeling she'd be a lot nicer after."


The third person at the table, Adrien's best friend Julien, snorted. "She tried to close Adrien's hand in the cash register once when he dropped an extra quarter. I doubt it."


Tierney was silent, contemplating this, then she laughed. "Well, it's worth a try. Eventually you're going to have to buy your own lunch." She reached for her soda, which Adrien had managed to abscond with before he'd disappeared.


"Maybe," she sighed, glaring half-heartedly at the woman. Then her shoulders slumped and she fell back against her chair. She took a sip of milk, chewing on her lower lip. "I might be able to get the money from Mom if she's in a good mood."


Julien stabbed at a green bean on his tray, considering it carefully before putting it in his mouth and swallowing. "Good luck," he said.


Dipping her spoon into her ice cream, Raquel took a healthy bite. She swallowed thoughtfully. "Where *is* Adrien, anyway?"


"You don't want to know," Julien answered, staring calmly over her shoulder. He looked mildly sympathetic.


Both Tierney and Raquel swung around to face that direction, and groaned. "He's done for," Raquel predicted. "They'll never let him out of their clutches now."


As the two girls watched, Meera reached out to grasp Adrien's arm while Lindsay coyly scooted her chair to block any other path of escape. Teresa was chattering mindlessly at Raquel's older brother.  Byron and the new boy seemed to be ignoring the whole situation.


They turned back to Julien. "Please," Raquel started.


Tierney finished the sentence, desperation and mock worry curling through her voice. "Save him!"


With a long-suffering sigh, Julien stood to comply.





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