Tierney slid in the seat next to Raquel.
She didn’t really want to be in the middle of the cafeteria, surrounded by people who didn’t realize the turmoil her life was in, and who wouldn’t understand if they did. Surrounded by people whose greatest worry was whether they passed the next biology exam.
“Hey, Tierney!” Jordana greeted her. Murmurs of greeting resounded around the table.
Tierney smiled weakly at the group of people, some of whom she knew well and some of whom she didn’t. The lunch crowd changed so often that it was hard to tell who was going to be there from one day to the next. The regulars were there, of course -- Julien, Adrien, Raquel, Jordana, and her -- but the others changed as frequently as the Collective changed clothes.
“Hi,” she responded. Her mind was in too much turbulence to dredge up anything else to say.
“Aren’t you going to eat anything?” Raquel demanded, staring disapprovingly at the empty space in front of her friend. “I thought you were going to get money.”
Oops. In the aftermath of Dare’s callousness, she’d completely forgotten. “It wasn’t in my locker. I must have left it at home.”
Adrien sighed and shifted in his chair, dipping his hand into his pocket. “You can pay me back later,” he said, holding out a few bills expectantly.
Tierney shook her head. “I’ll just get something after school. It’s not a big deal.”
“Tierney, you need to eat!”
Raquel’s vehement declaration amused Tierney, mostly because Raquel often boycotted lunch herself, simply because she was too keyed up to eat. But Raquel seemed more inclined to look after Tierney’s well-being than she did her own, and vice versa.
“I’m not hungry.”
Despite the gentle amusement in her voice, Adrien and Julien still looked worried. Admittedly, it wasn’t like her not to eat. On the other hand, these were her friends, not her parents, and while she appreciated their concern, she knew eating would not agree well with her rioting stomach. Every time she thought of Dare, she wanted to be sick.
Willing herself not to look in the direction of his table, she wondered again what had gone so horribly wrong, and why. She’d completed the spell exactly as the directions stated, down to the fine print. And though she’d gotten what she wanted, Fate had thrown her obstacles that suddenly seemed insurmountable, and that counteracted the very point of performing the spell. If this was some sadistic way of telling her not to mess with nature, she’d more than learned her lesson.
But in the meantime, she needed to find Jihn. Sweeping her gaze over the cafeteria, she willed herself not to let her gaze fall and rest longingly on that spiky golden head, whose charring eyes burned her even with the space between them. She could hear his words as if he still spoke them, ultimatums slipping as easily from his lips as arrows might pierce her heart.
Her heart bled just the same.
“Are you sure?” Adrien frowned, still waving the money in front of her face and interrupting her thoughts. “It’s really not a big deal.”
“Neither is skipping one meal,” Tierney countered. She pushed his hand away and maintained her resolute expression. “I promise I’m not going anorexic on you.”
The last was said soberly, because she knew that was one of Adrien’s biggest concerns. In junior high, he’d been friends with a girl who’d been hospitalized for anorexia, whose parents had moved away the same week she’d been released. He hated when people didn’t eat.
He pocketed the dollar, but didn’t look completely convinced. “If I don’t see you eat something after school, you’ll be sorry.”
“Yeah, he’ll shove it down your throat,” Raquel grumbled, then smiled sweetly at him. Tossing her platinum hair over her shoulder, she leaned forward and patted his hand reassuringly. “You know I love you, Aid.”
Julien rolled his eyes, while Adrien glared. Then Julien asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to borrow some money, Tier?”
“Positive,” she said firmly, but her voice warmed. The dimples in his cheeks flashed alarmingly, and blushing, she looked away. Why did nature distribute such grossly unfair looks all in one place? Her pulse rate wasn’t handling it too well anymore. Before, it hadn’t mattered, because he’d just been another one of the guys, hadn’t wanted her. Now, Raquel had convinced her that he did, and every look sent her into near hyperventilation.
“After school,” Adrien reminded her direly.
She rolled her eyes and brushed him off with a wave of her hand. “I promise.” Then, catching Dare looking at her out of the corner of her eye, her jaw tightened. “I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going now?” Raquel asked curiously, appearing confounded by Tierney’s newfound tendency to disappear at random intervals.
She stared hard in his direction. “I forgot to give Dare Drache the calculus problems yesterday.”
“Wear a blindfold.”
The people not in their core crowd snickered at Raquel’s comment, but Tierney barely spared her a glance. She stood, meeting that glittering gold gaze directly, then strode purposefully in his direction.
She didn’t have far to go. His table was only one away, so close they looked as though they’d chosen that distance on purpose. But then she saw Teresa staring at Adrien and Lindsay doing the same to Julien, and realized the guys had probably had very little choice in the matter. Without a word, she sat down in the only empty seat at the table, which just so happened to be right across from Dare.
Byron scowled. “What d’you want?”
“None of your damned business,” she responded pleasantly, focusing her attention on Dare. He didn’t say anything, simply watched her with that smug smile, the tilted corners of his mouth screaming that he’d won. Byron blinked, offended.
“You’re contaminating our breathing space,” Teresa answered waspishly, taking in Tierney’s outfit, which was far more expensive and far more stylish than hers. Her chin tilted up another inch, until Tierney thought she might fall over. “I think that makes it his ‘damned business.’”
“If you don’t like it, you can move,” Tierney snapped, her frustration and anger finally breaking after days of abuse. What did she need them for anyway? Nothing. Her voice went from pleasant to cold in less time than it took to shatter glass and with as much ferociousness. “I could really care less about your breathing, though it’s delightful that you know more than five letter words.”
Teresa drew in a sharp breath of outrage, her blue eyes shining rheumy and hateful. “No one gave you permission to sit here.” Enunciating each word clearly, she said this with the stabbing certainty that Tierney was beneath them.
“You’re not wanted,” Meera added frostily.
Tierney burst into laughter. “Believe me, this is the last place I care about being wanted at. If you could see past your own pathetic aspirations, you’d see you’re just being used.” Then she sobered and turned back to Dare. “Have you thought about this?” she asked, her voice no less cold than when she spoke to the Collective. “Have you thought about what you’re doing?”
“Oh, it’s not what I’ve done, but what you’ve done,” he answered silkily. “Now it’s time for you to fix it.”
“I think we’ve covered that,” she responded flatly. She pushed her palms against the top of the table and tried to put what she felt into words. Anger gave her unexpected courage. “That wasn’t the question.”
“Which part of ‘you’re not wanted’ didn’t you understand?”
“Shut up.” Ignoring Meera’s interruption as though it had never happened, she continued to watch Dare through unblinking hazel eyes.
He shifted under that relentless stare, losing none of his cocky assurance. “There’s nothing to think about. I know what I’m doing.”
His eyes flared at the empty curiosity, the pupils shrinking to dots as empty as his heart. “You certainly didn’t, now did you?”
As always, he aimed for the soul, and struck dead center. It wouldn’t be enough to simply hurt her, though he did that, too. Oh, no. Nothing that easy. No, his revenge was far more sweet. Not only would he make her give up her newfound beauty -- though they both knew it was worthless to her -- but he insisted on wounding her in the process. And what better way to do that than to ravage any hope to which she might still cling?
He would destroy her, leaving her a shell of what she was. Defenseless against the jibes of others who might be more aesthetically pleasing, but who were worthless as people. As humans. For just a moment, she let his contempt wash over her and extend it to the girls around her. How apt that they were little more than blood banks and too stupid to realize otherwise.
She wouldn’t let him get to her this time. “I wasn’t too horrified with the results,” she shrugged, reaching for a double-chocolate chip cookie on his tray, more because she knew it would anger him than anything else.
Biting into the cookie, she noticed his face darken. Good.
“Are you so sure about that?”
Struck by how closely he parroted her earlier words, she paused with the cookie halfway to her mouth. “I don’t have anything to complain about.”
“Except me,” he said softly, leaning over and plucking the cookie from her hand. “And if you’re not careful, you’ll do a lot more than complain.”
Oh, what a shock. More threats. Instead of responding to that, she smiled, triumph lining her face. “You say that now, Darius Drache, but you forget that I hold the whole damned deck of cards. You don’t want me to burn them, now do you?”
Without giving him a chance to reply, she stood and walked away, letting the Collective’s malicious chatter wash over her. With a few vindictively whispered words, they were wearing their food as opposed to looking at it. Laughter erupted through the cafeteria.
Immature? Definitely. But sometimes a little well-placed immaturity did wonders for a person’s vengeful streak, and hers had been clamoring for quite some time.
Veering to the right, she headed to where Jihn sat, staring at the Collective with some interest. She looked up when Tierney approached. “Your doing?” she asked, nodding in the three girls’ direction.
Tierney just shrugged, slipping in the seat across from Jihn. “Why are you eating alone?” she questioned instead, frowning at Jihn’s mostly empty plate. Though she would guess it hadn’t been too full to begin with. “You could have sat with us.”
Shaking her head, Jihn somehow seemed uneasy, though she maintained her emotionless façade. “No, I think it’s a better idea to let Raquel to come to me. If I force myself on her, she might start to get suspicious.”
And, of course, Jihn was right. It amazed Tierney how perceptive the vampire could be, despite her marked dislike for humans and the Nightworld alike. So instead of pursing that with anything other than a murmured agreement, she changed the subject. “Jihn, can I ask you a favor?”
Jihn’s hooded green eyes expressed mild curiosity. “Depends on what you want.”
She hesitated a moment before answering Jihn’s unspoken but implied question. “I need a spell.”
“Again?” Still just that hint of surprise, but maybe a touch of annoyance as well. “Can’t you get it yourself?”
Tierney took a deep breath. “I’m guessing it’s forbidden,” she admitted.
For a moment the lamia didn’t say anything. “Tell me what you want,” she finally sighed.
Now Tierney felt queasy. This was the hard part, telling Jihn she needed to actually see the witch herself this time. She didn’t imagine Jihn would be thrilled at giving the name of her contact. “I can’t exactly do that.”
“Because I don’t know what I want,” Tierney said. Swallowing hard, she said, “I need the counterspell for the one you got me.”
Jihn was at a loss, evidenced by the bewilderment shining in those liquid leaf eyes. “Did it not do what you wanted? It’s what you asked for.”
“Not exactly.” Her voice lost its apologetic notes, filled now with a sort of bitter irony. “It was close to what I wanted, but it did something I didn’t expect. It transferred our looks instead of reflecting his to me.”
“I think we had this discussion.” Appearing bored -- not anything unusual -- Jihn sat back. “Dare’s ugly. So what?”
“We did have this discussion,” Tierney acknowledged, then slumped in her chair and tried to find the words to explain her predicament to Jihn. When she looked up, she found Dare still staring at her as if in reminder of what she’d promised.
Jihn followed the direction of her gaze and smiled. “Then we don’t need to have it again.”
A frustrated sound erupted from Tierney’s lips. “We do need to have it again. I have to fix this. Look, I made a mistake. I don’t *want* this anymore.” She wanted to cry, despite her resolution to stay strong. She hadn’t sobbed in front of Dare. Why Jihn? Maybe because she had the sneaking suspicion that Jihn might care.
But Jihn wasn’t being cooperative or helpful. “You don’t want what?”
“I don’t want Dare,” Tierney whispered miserably. “I don’t want to deal with his hatred. I don’t want to be chased by him in the halls. I thought being beautiful might change things, but it hasn’t. All it’s done is make things worse.”
“It gives new meaning to the adage that beauty is only skin deep, doesn’t it?”
The quip lacked any mockery and Tierney could find none on Jihn’s face when she looked up. Only a resigned pity, which might be somehow worse. She didn’t want anyone’s pity and especially not Jihn’s. “Please, Jihn. Give me her name.”
Now Jihn did look surprised. “How do you know the witch is a she?”
“Lucky guess.” And it really was.
After a few moments of quiet contemplation, Jihn seemed to come to a decision. She reached over to the stack of books sitting near her tray, flipping open one of the notebooks. Scribbling down what looked like a name and number, she ripped it out and tossed it to Tierney. “Her name is Miranda. If she asks, give her my name and tell her I’ll make it up to her later.” Then a hint of a smile played on her features. “Don’t let her bully you into not taking it. She likes to try that.”
Picking up the scrap of paper, Tierney met Jihn’s eyes soberly. “Thank you.”
Jihn sat back, subdued. “Don’t thank me. Just don’t make me regret it.”
Tierney could only nod.
She spent the rest of the day working up the courage to actually visit the witch. But delaying would only anger Dare, and the sooner she got it over with the sooner he would stop with his idle and vague threats. If only they were either.
She had no doubt he would actually do exactly what he said.
And now she was, sitting with her parents in the middle of the massive dining room, trying to make small talk when she really just wanted to hide from all her problems. Talking about her day only made things worse. Her mother had actually cooked, though -- something she rarely did or rarely needed to do -- and Tierney would feel bad abandoning her mother’s efforts.
“I sent the cook home early today,” her mother was saying, her voice echoing in the room’s cavernous silence. ”She didn’t look well.”
Ah, something to explain her sudden rash of graciousness. Her parents were away so often they rarely let anyone go home early, because they had little to do as it was. How hard could it be to clean up after people who were never there? Tierney had learned early on not to make a mess.
She stabbed a broccoli stalk with her fork. Her mother must be worried the cook would pass on whatever illness she had to them. Silently poking the chicken, she listened to her father clear his throat.
“It’s nice to have just the three of us,” he murmured. No doubt he worried the food was drenching in magic as well as spices. “We’ve missed you, Tierney.”
She believed it, too. They always missed her, but never enough that they stayed home. She’d resigned herself to their nomadic lifestyle long ago. Before she started school, she used to go with them. Now their trips were limited to summer vacation. “I missed you, too,” she said. She even meant it.
“What did you do while we were gone?” her father asked, swallowing a forkful of chicken.
Oh, not much. Met my soulmate, found out he was a bastard, did a spell to reverse our looks... The usual. She’d bet that would go over stunningly well. Out loud she said, “I studied a little and spent time at Raquel’s house.”
Her mother beamed. For some strange reason, she adored Adrien and Raquel -- and in that order, too -- more than anyone else Tierney brought home, though not many people met that qualification. She briefly wondered what they would think of Dare. Her father? He’d probably be appalled, while her mother would be angry at his condescending attitude. Now that would be something to see.
“Well, good,” her father said, also pleased. “How’s school going for you?”
“It’s fine,” Tierney shrugged.
Her father nodded, apparently at a loss for what to say next. Then his face brightened. “Any boys?”
“Kent,” her mother admonished, looking scandalized at the question, “if she wants to tell us, she will.”
Tierney almost giggled. Her parents were so funny about protocol, and it didn’t even matter. “It’s fine, Mom.” Still suppressing her smile, she turned her attention back to her father. “No, Dad, no boys right now. Well, unless you count my prom date.”
“Prom is this Friday, isn’t it?”
Surprised that her mother had known that, Tierney nodded. “Yeah, the Grand March starts at five-thirty. Are you going to be there?”
They couldn’t have missed the hope rising in her voice. She saw the glances they exchanged in a way they probably thought was covert, then her mother smiled softly. “Of course, we’re going to be there. Who is your date?”
“Julien D’Angelo.” She stabbed another stalk of broccoli and tried not to glow as she said his name. How ironic that his name made her gleam while her soulmate’s made her cringe. If only this *were* a fairy tale, it might be the other way around.
Her mother’s smile broadened. “He’s such a lovely boy. So polite.”
Swallowing the last piece of broccoli, she agreed. “He really is a sweetheart.” More than you know, she added silently.
“So, ah...” her dad cleared his throat. “No romance there?”
Rolling her eyes, Tierney gathered up her plate. “We’ll see, Dad.” She knew her parents despaired of her ever dating, but comments like that were generally her cue to leave. “I have to go pick up my dress. I’ll be back around eight, okay?” She slid around the table, dropped a kiss on her dad’s cheek, then moved to give her mother a brief hug. “I’m so glad you guys are back,” she said, then she ducked out of the room.
She’d much rather spend the night here with her parents, fending off their questions about her love life than searching for a spell to make Dare happy. She knew what she’d done had been wrong and that it was her responsibility to fix it. And she also knew it wouldn’t change that much. She just didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
Earlier, she’d been so angry at him that she let her mouth run away with her. Too angry to be afraid of him and of what he could do to her, she’d taken a risk. But they both knew he really didn’t care. Her risk meant nothing.
Snagging her keys and her purse from the banister in the foyer, she hurried outside. The number burned through the fabric of her shorts. So easy to fix something that had taken such courage to cast. How unfair, she thought, scowling at her car.
Then she got in, slipping the keys in the ignition and pulling out of the driveway. She knew exactly where she was going.
The drive to Miranda’s shop was both short and easy, few turns to take and even fewer chances to turn back. She’d been there before. She pulled into the parking space and simply sat for a few moments, willing herself the motivation to go inside. It wasn’t an easy feat.
Gathering the last shreds of her resolve, she opened the door and stepped into the crisp, salt-laden air. When the door slammed, a light flickered inside the shop. Miranda must be waiting for her. She took a deep breath and then ran lightly to the glass door strung with seashells and crystals.
Miranda met her at the door. Her long copper hair was swept back into an artfully mess at the back of her head, tendrils wisping at her nape. “Tierney?” she asked quietly once she opened the door.
Tierney nodded. The witch let her in, then locked the glass door securely behind her. Her eyes, a cross between violet and blue, met Tierney’s frankly, and the latter felt she was being measured. As usual, she was probably falling endlessly short.
The hushed pause seemed to last for an eternity, but then Miranda said, “So you’re the one Jihn got the spell for.”
Again, Tierney could only nod, except that this time she felt tears swim in her eyes. How had everything gone so horribly wrong? “Yeah, I’m the one.”
“And now you want the counterspell.”
“I have to do something,” Tierney admitted miserably. She followed the witch deeper into the shop and fell silent as she flipped lights on and off as they entered and exited rooms too big to be buried in this tiny building. Sometimes illusion was everything and sometimes it was nothing, as she well knew. What good had it done her?
Finally Miranda stopped. “I gave you the spell you wanted. You should learn to live with the consequences if you’re going to play games with nature.”
The soberness in the witch’s voice stunned her almost as much as the truth of her words. She should have thought about the consequences before she’d ever performed the spell. Of course, that didn’t change what had to be done, or what Tierney wanted, or what had happened. The end result was still the same, no matter how much she wished she hadn’t done it. Sometimes hindsight was a killer.
Anyway, she wouldn’t call it a game. Games were for amusement, but she wasn’t amused and hadn’t expected to be. Oh, no, her expectations had been far different... Not to mention far removed from what she’d ended up with.
She leaned back against the soft mauve wall. “I know. I just...” A sigh. “I just didn’t mean for this to happen.”
A sharp, keen stare swiveled in her direction. “You didn’t mean for what to happen?”
Tierney tilted her head back and peered at the ceiling. “I didn’t mean to transfer Dare’s looks to me and vice versa. I thought we would both be beautiful, instead of turning me beautiful and turning him into the walking image of a slug. I thought--“ She shook her head sadly. “I don’t know what I thought.”
Miranda looked at her with renewed interest, surprise furrowing her brow. “It didn’t transfer Dare’s looks to you, Tierney.”
Somehow, those words made everything crystal clear. All her suspicions about the spell had been wrong. It hadn’t stolen Dare’s beauty. Thievery would make things too simple, would diminish the importance of what had happened. And she suddenly realized with chilling certainty what had occurred, even while she hoped the witch would deny it.
If Dare had a soul at all, if he and Tierney were meant for each other, they would be equal in their beauty. They would be perfect, and perfect for each other. But his cruelty and uncaring screamed a different conclusion all together.
Miranda’s next words proved her right, falling hard and heavy on her ears.
“This spell outwardly reflects your inner soul.”