The conversation with Jihn had been both uneventful and uninformative. Other than a brief flicker of shock at Tierney’s newly acquired appearance -- unlike with everyone else, the spell hadn’t affected her memories -- Jihn’s only reaction had been amusement at Dare’s predicament. Worse, it really was a predicament. After seeing the way people had treated him in the hallway, Tierney could only assume he’d realized what had happened.
And more specifically, who was at fault.
All Tierney knew at this point was that something had gone wrong. She walked around with a big, fat question mark hanging over everything she did or said, as preoccupied as a lion faced with only a porcupine as potential lunch. Calculus was only three periods away. Lunch, however, which was next, could be easily avoided. Something Tierney had every intention of doing.
Dare had already wandered toward the cafeteria with Byron and the Collective. She’d seen him looking for her, scanning the hallway diligently. A shame he didn’t know what to look for, wasn’t it? Besides, she’d spent the time between the change of classes hidden in a shadowed doorway. While she knew she couldn’t hide forever, a confrontation was not on her list of things to do.
She was supposed to be *enjoying* today, her first day as someone beautiful, popular, and wanted. She was supposed to be reveling in Dare’s attention and shyly accepting his apologies. She was supposed to be doing anything but cowering behind potted plants and water fountains to make sure she wasn’t caught.
Sighing, even her discouragement unable to mar the newfound perfection of her face, she walked slowly to her locker. She hadn’t seen Raquel yet, which was both surprising and oddly disturbing. Tierney had the sneaking suspicion that Harington had held her after class to discuss her dubious efforts on her essay.
Lost in thought, she undid the combination lock and fought her locker open. As she absently placed her textbook on one of the shelves, someone grabbed her from behind.
It wasn’t like when Jihn had grabbed her in the middle of the hallway, dragging her into an empty classroom, nor was it like anything she was used to. Whoever grabbed her was being *flirty*, fingers whispering over her ribs like the sun’s sultry kiss on a hot summer day.
Tierney was stunned.
All these thoughts slipped through her mind even before she had a chance to turn and see who it was. When she finally did, the situation became that much stranger. Julien was grinning down at her, closer than she was comfortable having him. Perhaps she should give him a lesson on personal space. Although with Julien, unlike with Dare, her lesson wouldn’t include a martial arts demonstration.
Still, that didn’t stop her from shrinking away from him, however unintentional that action might be. Some small part of her wanted to lean into him, laughing and flirting. But then that other part of her -- the part that warned her Raquel might be right -- shouted for her to remember Dare and what she’d done.
“Hey, Julien,” she said, knowing her voice was guarded, but somehow unable to force more enthusiasm into the tones. Things had been getting increasingly stranger with him over the last few weeks, so she knew it wasn’t her sudden change of appearance that prompted his odd behavior.
But she still couldn’t allow herself to believe Raquel’s theory.
His smile faded just a little. “Hey, Tier. Ready to walk to lunch?”
And what was his sudden obsession with walking her everywhere? They’d been going to the same school for three years; she could find the cafeteria without a tour guide. Really, just because she was a girl didn’t mean her sense of direction was *that* bad.
Her voice trailed off, watching as his expression turned to one of concern. She hadn’t even said anything yet! Smiling wanly, she took a step to the side, in the direction of the library. So much for not running away. She *hated* that Raquel had planted that suspicion in her head, hated that it sprang to life every time she was near him. And she especially hated that she was uncertain of how she felt herself.
He raised his hand to touch her casually on the shoulder, and felt her flinch under his fingers. His hand fell back to his side. “Tierney, is something wrong?”
She sighed deeply. “I’m just tired. That’s all. Oh, and I didn’t get any of my work done last night because I was sick.”
“Well, come to lunch and get some food. Everything will look better then.” He winked at her, his dimples crinkling into deep creases on the sides of his mouth.
The offer would have been horribly tempting, if not for two problems. First, there was the possibility that she would run into Dare. And second, she would have to endure Raquel’s knowing smirk if she walked into the cafeteria with Julien. She was better off disappearing into the library where it was quiet. Maybe she’d even get some work done, although she doubted it.
It was much more likely that she’d spend the entire period worrying that Raquel was right and about what was going to happen with Dare.
She shook her head. “I think I’m going to go study in the library.”
“If you’ve been sick, skipping a meal isn’t going to make you feel better,” he pointed out stubbornly. He reached out to shut her locker, which she had neglected to do, spinning the combination lock so no one could break in. When she shifted uncertainly, he raised an eyebrow. “Come on, Tierney.”
Think about Dare, her brain reminded her, not about giving into Julien. He and Adrien always have been good at convincing you to do things you don’t want to do. If you go into the cafeteria, Dare will cause a scene -- that being the best case scenario -- and Adrien and Julien will have a field day with him. You’re safer in the library. Dare probably doesn’t even know where that *is*.
“Library,” she repeated firmly.
His face fell for a moment, then he shrugged. “I can tell when I’m not wanted,” he said lightly, but she could still hear the hurt in his voice. The corners of his mouth tilted slightly, but no emotion reached his eyes. “I guess I’ll see you later.”
He turned to go.
Goddess, what am I doing? she wondered, her expression and her voice pained. Maybe he caught the hesitation in her voice. Maybe he heard the apology. Whatever it was, he stopped, turning back to face her. His tall, lanky frame was silhouetted cleanly against the shimmering light at the end of the hallway, his tee shirt clinging to the curve of his muscles and his jeans draping over the long length of his legs. A small frisson of awareness washed over her.
With his hands shoved deep into his pockets, the smooth planes of his face carefully blank, he looked... curiously vulnerable. Julien and Adrien always seemed so much older, so much worldlier. But in reality, they were only a year older than she. And no matter how invincible they seemed, they could be hurt just as easily if you knew how to push their buttons.
Julien’s expression echoed the trauma of war.
She bit her lower lip, wondering how to smooth the situation over. She didn’t want to be trite and she didn’t know how to react to him like this, mostly because she had nothing to base prior experience on. Granted, Julien had never exactly treated her like he did Raquel, but... Not sure how to explain it to herself, she simply gave up.
“Did you still want to come over tonight?”
For a moment she really thought he was going to refuse, but then he shrugged. “Yeah, I’ll be over.”
She didn’t want him to be able to weasel his way out of it, especially not after the way she’d ignored him last night. Something was different, slightly off kilter, and she positively hated whatever it was. That fear that Raquel might be right deepened every second.
*Damn* her for ever bringing it up.
He wore unconcern like a bulletproof vest, but Tierney knew it was a much flimsier shield. He removed a hand from his pocket, running it over the short spikes of his pale blonde hair. “I don’t know. Seven?”
“I’ll be there,” she said quietly.
The slightest hint of a smile played around the corners of his eyes, his mouth curving almost unnoticeably. “So will I,” he responded, and the smile widened.
Apparently appeased, he turned to wander in the direction of the cafeteria. Tierney collapsed back against one of the lockers, the lock slamming into her back. She didn’t even notice it.
It had to be her imagination. When someone suggests something to you, it gets stuck so far in your mind it’s impossible to get rid of, especially when the suggestion isn’t an unpleasant one. And Raquel’s insinuation was anchored into hers like superglue. Even worse, the tentacles of her own suspicion were creeping down and rooting themselves firmly into her brain.
She should probably just ignore it. No sense in jumping to conclusions, after all. Besides, what about Dare?
Taking a deep breath, she moved away from the locker in the direction of the library. She’d lied to Julien about studying, but hell, lying was becoming her favorite hobby. What was one more time?
A voice suddenly disrupted her thoughts.
“What are you doing out of class?”
Oh, great. Caught in the hall by a hall monitor without a pass. Not exactly grounds for detention unless you were a repeat offender, which -- thanks to Raquel and her propensity for being late -- Tierney was. If she got lucky, she might be able to talk him out of it.
“I’m sorry,” she said contritely, swiveling to face him. “My teacher kept me after class and I forgot to get a slip. I was on my way to the library.”
She recognized him, even though she couldn’t remember his name. Drew? Derek? It was something like that. He was on the football team with Adrien and Julien, of that she was certain, but they didn’t run in the same circles. She might have seen him at Adrien’s house a few times.
Right now he stared at her like he was seeing her for the first time, which was probably the truth. No one had paid much attention to her before this morning, except to gape in horror or to use her as a form of personal amusement. Anyone on a sports team with Adrien knew better than to do either, so most of them simply didn’t acknowledge her at all.
“You’re Tierney, right?” he asked, ignoring her excuse.
He wasn’t unattractive, but the way he was staring at her made her uncomfortable. She felt like a piece of meat! Still, she nodded, albeit warily.
“Here, I’ll walk you to the library so you don’t get stopped by someone else.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but he looked determined to escort her despite any arguments she might raise. Deciding to save her breath, she silently fell into step beside him. Why couldn’t he just write her a pass and let her leave? She had no desire to make small talk.
“So what are you going to the library for?” he asked conversationally, breaking the silence. His gaze clung intently to her face, something voracious shining in his brown eyes.
Her noncommittal answer didn’t deter him. “Oh, yeah? What are you studying?”
She trained her eyes on the end of the hall, where the door of the library stood open. Thank the goddess her locker wasn’t far from the library. She really just wanted to be alone to think.
Drew or Derek or whatever his name was didn’t take the hint. Despite the “not interested” bulletins she posted with every spoken word, he wasn’t giving up. “Hey, Tier,” she cringed at the casual use of her nickname, “do you have a date to the prom?”
Relief flooded through her. Thank the goddess for Julien, who -- with all his ambiguity -- had already asked her. At last she had an excuse. Gently, she said, “I’ve already got a date. I’m going with Julien D’Angelo.”
His face fell. “Oh, right. I think I heard that.”
Well, if you heard it, why did you ask? she wondered, somewhat exasperated. Really, guys could be so stupid. “Sorry.”
He shrugged it off, backing away from her so quickly she felt like a leper, never mind like a piece of meat. “I didn’t know you were dating.”
But he was already gone. Open-mouthed, she watched him race down the hall. He didn’t even turn back to look at her. How *weird*. Shaking her head, she continued into the library.
This wasn’t what she had expected from today at *all*.
Lindsay, Meera, and Teresa were ignoring him.
He had to give them credit; they were being subtle about it. No specific comments addressed to him, but when Byron brought him into the conversation, they at least acknowledged him. He wasn’t sure if he should feel grateful or punished. After all, their chosen topic of conversation tended to border on coma-inducing.
Besides, it gave him time to think and to focus his attention on watching for Tierney. Ten minutes into the lunch period, yet she still hadn’t made it to the cafeteria. If he had to guess, he’d say she was avoiding him. She had to know his reaction wouldn’t be pleasant.
He was jolted from his solitary thoughts by Byron’s voice.
“Dare? What d’you think?”
Blinking slowly, he pushed the last haze of his thoughts away. “About what?”
Lindsay glared and tossed her hair haughtily over her shoulder, apparently offended by his lack of attention, regardless of the fact they’d been ignoring him all day. He was obviously supposed to wait on bated breath for them to acknowledge him.
They probably believed in aliens, too. The expectation was just as unrealistic.
“Green?” Byron prompted. Dare would guess he hadn’t been paying attention, either, except to remember that color, because when he shrugged, uncomprehending, Byron looked lost.
“Our dresses,” Meera said coolly, looking down her nose at him. “And what kind of flowers you’re expected to get us.”
Expected to get them? With the superior way the three girls were acting, Dare was more likely to stop on the side of the road before the prom and pick the nearest weed. If Lindsay was lucky, he *might* brush the dirt from the roots before he handed them to her. They weren’t exactly endearing themselves.
Teresa glanced at Lindsay pityingly, then narrowed her eyes on Dare. “Roses. Whatever color Lindsay asks for. After all, if she has to look at you all night, the least you can do is get her something nice.”
He almost lost control. Almost. Only the fact that they were in a public place saved the girls from being picked up piece by piece. That and the realization that this was Tierney’s fault. Once she fixed whatever she’d done, everything would be back to normal. And then Lindsay would be ecstatic to have him as a date. He almost wondered how they’d rewritten history in their minds, absolving Lindsay from fault. Hadn’t she been the one to claim him as hers?
In whatever parallel universe this was, who was at fault didn’t matter. Since Dare was the ugly one now, they expected him to willingly subject himself to their abuse. Lindsay piped up at this point, adding, “At *least* a dozen. Red.”
Meera nodded sagely. “And if you get anything else...” She fixed him with a triumphant stare, as Teresa opened her mouth to finish that sentence.
He couldn’t listen to them anymore. He stood abruptly, his chair scraping over the floor, and directed his attention at Byron. Whichever girl had been speaking made a huffy noise to indicate she was not happy about being interrupted. He ignored her.
“I’ll be right back,” he told Byron.
“Take your time,” Teresa cooed, maliciously, and resumed her irrelevant chatter. She smiled with all the venom of a black widow spider and waved innocently.
That action fueled his already mounting anger. Byron’s food source or not, her internal organs were looking more and more tempting by the nanosecond. So he did the next best thing to killing her -- he ignored her.
Spinning around so her catty smile greeted his back, he stalked toward the table where Raquel, Adrien, and two people he didn’t recognize sat. They didn’t notice him coming or didn’t realize he was headed toward them. When he reached the table, he pulled out one of the metal chairs, uninvited, and sat.
Conversation came to an abrupt halt. The two senior boys seemed to be outraged by his audacity, or maybe by the intrusion of their territory. For several seconds, they stared silently at him. Raquel, on the other hand, openly glared. He assumed Tierney had told her what was going on -- that he and Tierney were soulmates -- and maybe even than Raquel had helped Tierney with the spell. He glared back.
But then she spoke. “What do you want?”
He was tempted to deliver a vicious retort, until he realized he needed her to tell him where Tierney was. And maybe if he was nice to her, he’d get a chance to... know her better, so to speak. Definitely not an unpleasant thought. He sent her his most charming smile. “Where is Tierney?”
“Why? She doesn’t want to talk to you.”
Dare was well aware of that. Of course, he really didn’t care what Tierney wanted, as long as she fixed the spell. And in order for her to do that, he’d have to coerce her. Coercion usually meant face-to-face interaction, which meant she was going to talk to him regardless of her own wishes and desires.
It never occurred to him that she’d been doing that all along.
Sitting back in the seat and making himself comfortable, he settled in for a wait. If he had to spend the entire lunch period with them to find out where she was, he was ready to do so. “I just have a question for her.”
The unknown boy and Adrien exchanged an unreadable glance, then Adrien leaned forward, his expression as unfriendly a rattler ready to strike. “She’s already got a date for the prom,” he announced calmly, eyeing Dare with icy detachment.
“Extend my sympathies,” Dare answered flatly. He folded his arms over his chest, his jaw tightening at the outrage flashing over their faces. Maybe that had been the wrong thing to say.
“Extend them yourself,” the tall, blond boy sitting a seat away from Adrien said. “I’m right here.”
Definitely the wrong thing to say. If he continued to piss them off, they wouldn’t tell him where she was. Gritting his teeth, he uncrossed his arms and sat up into a friendlier position. “Look, I just want to ask her a question about Calculus. We have it last period and I couldn’t figure out how to do one of the problems.”
The senior boys seemed to thaw at this explanation. The other girl at the table spoke up. “It’s horrible, isn’t it?” she sighed. “I couldn’t do any of them last night.” After a moment of silence while everyone but Dare empathized with her and her experiences with Mr. O, she perked up. “I understand it now. Do you want me to show you?”
He blinked at her a few times before he answered. “I’d really rather ask Tierney,” he hedged.
“Are you sure? My name is Jordana,” she said, sticking her hand out expectantly.
He found himself grasping it without realizing he’d reached for it. “Dare,” he returned, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the girl’s aura of *niceness*. Every other person he’d encountered today -- with the exception of Byron, who probably hadn’t noticed -- had immediately turned away in horror.
Jordana, it seemed, was the antithesis of a normal high-school student, something she wasn’t even aware of. She smiled cheerfully at him, then admitted, “If I were you, I’d get Tierney to explain it, too. She’s so much better at it than everyone else.” She glanced around innocently. “Does anyone know where she is?”
The table was suddenly quiet. Adrien shrugged, while Julien pointedly looked away. And stayed looking away. Dare stared at him suspiciously, ready to probe Julien for the details he was sure he had, but then Raquel interrupted.
She was no friendlier than when he’d first sat down at the table. “She got sick,” she said, looking him straight in the eye. “She had to go home. Her mom came to pick her up.”
For a split second, he thought about feigning concern, but it would probably come off looking fake anyway, so he decided not to bother. He hoped she really was sick after what she’d done to him. It would serve her right. He nodded at Raquel in gratitude, then stood. “Tell her I hope she feels better,” he said. “Thanks.”
Then he walked away.
“He seems nice,” Jordana offered into the deafening silence. “He’s the new kid, isn’t he?”
Raquel rolled her eyes and started stabbing her fork at the remains of her lunch. “Yeah, Jordy, he’s the new kid.” After the particularly vicious impaling of a carrot, she put down her fork and looked sadly at Jordana. “You’re way too accepting.”
Her brow wrinkling, Jordana asked, “Why? Is there something wrong with him?”
“He’s an ass,” she answered dismissively, brushing the question off with a wave of her hand and switching her attention back to Julien. “Where is Tierney really, Jules? I know she didn’t go home.”
Julien scowled. “I thought I told you not to call me that.”
“I think it’s cute,” Jordana interjected, seemingly unaware that the “cuteness” was exactly what he hated about it. She smiled sweetly at him, her beautiful face lighting up.
“Yeah, Jules,” Adrien grinned. “It’s *cute*.”
His friend’s face promised dire retribution at some future point in time. “I don’t like it,” he repeated stubbornly, glaring at Raquel, who had initiated the whole thing. That said, he turned his attention back to his lunch and frowned silently down at his tray.
Raquel rolled her eyes. “Okay, then, *Julien*. Where did Tierney go?”
Instead of answering her, he picked up his carton of milk and took a long swig. Then he ripped a piece from the half-eaten roll on his tray and, putting into his mouth, chewed it slowly. When he picked up his fork and started to push what looked like chili around on his tray, she lost her temper, much to Adrien and Jordana’s amusement.
Reaching across the table, she punched him hard in the arm.
“Hey!” he yelped, his face drawing into insulted lines. He rubbed a hand over the spot she’d punched and glared at her, but he didn’t have to ask what it was for.
“Where is Tierney?” she demanded.
Still glaring and rubbing absently at his arm, he replied, “In the library. Where else would she be?”
“Knowing Tierney?” she countered. “My first guess would be somewhere obscure, like Siberia. My second guess...” She thought about it for a minute, then conceded, “The library.”
“Get thee gone, witch,” Adrien joked as she gathered up her things to go find Tierney.
She paused in the middle of picking up her tray. “Will you stop that? It’s bad enough that I have to hear you reading your plays in the middle of the night, but really! Thoreau?”
Jordana grinned. “I don’t think that was Thoreau, Raquel. From the Crucible, maybe, but Thoreau definitely not. You’re mixing up your time periods.”
“Whatever,” Raquel shrugged. “I’m leaving.” She waved vaguely at the others seated at the table and then walked to the front of the cafeteria to dump her tray. At the front of the cafeteria, she had a brief discussion with one of the hall monitors involving quite a bit of pleading on her part and even more flirting. Finally, he granted her the right to leave.
With a bright smile, she exited the cafeteria, completely unaware that Dare watched her every move.