The words echoed through Tierney’s head, dredging up memories of that soul-shuddering kiss that had left her curiously empty. Soaring through his mind, she had felt nothing. Nothing. Not one iota of caring, of compassion, or of charm. Simply darkness.
Sometimes darkness masked beauty. Sometimes it was beauty in itself.
Not this time.
This time, the swelling darkness held only hatred and horror, distortion and disgrace. Nothing beautiful hovered at the edges and pushed away those minor faults that love could overlook. Love was supposed to overcome everything, but only if it had the chance to grow. And in the recesses of Dare’s soul, love could only crumble away and die.
She wanted to scream at him, to plead, to beg -- anything to break through that selfish mask that discounted everyone and everything he encountered, but even if he had been there to hear it, she wouldn’t have wasted the energy. The raw materials simply weren’t there. Without them, anything else was useless.
It was so hard to believe that this stunningly handsome boy could be so lacking splendor inside. Even after their first encounter, she’d wanted so desperately to search for fragmented pieces of value. And no matter what else he’d done, she’d clung to those hopes. But it was so typical of the Nightworld to hide internal deformity with external charm.
Well, he wasn’t hiding anymore.
The spell wouldn’t lie, and couldn’t if it tried. The magic was pure -- the motives slightly murky -- but his soul was as tarnished as its emptiness claimed. Laid bare before her, she could not deny what he was, even if she didn’t like it. She couldn’t change that, only decide to accept it.
She finally found her voice. “That spell wasn’t what I asked for.”
And without thinking about it or weighing the consequences, she knew she would rather have been misled by the other, as long as it gave her a chance at happiness. Maybe his beauty had fooled her, but ignorance was bliss. Knowing was so much more painful.
The witch frowned. “What do you mean it wasn’t what you asked for? It was in your handwriting. It was an exact match to what you wanted.”
No, it wasn’t, Tierney thought, realization sweeping over her. Oh, how could she have been so stupid? “I thought the title was just misspelled.” She sighed. “It wasn’t, was it?”
Miranda shook her head. “I copied it word for word.”
Letting her eyes slide shut, she said, “Can I see the spell?”
Without a word, Miranda led the way out of the room, weaving her way back the way they’d come, but with a few minor detours. She finally stopped in a room that contained an ancient-looking safe. Rummaging in her pocket for her keys, she knelt in front of it. Then, after locating the particular key, she slipped it into the deadbolt.
Moments later, she held a crumbling parchment in her hands, which she brought to a long oak table. Still silent, she set it down and turned to look at Tierney expectantly.
Also quiet, Tierney walked over to the table. The same spell she’d performed not a week ago lay there innocuously, belying the damage it had wrought. For all intents and purposes, it was the same spell. With the exception of one word in the title, it was the same. And only one action should have separated it from the one she asked for.
She swallowed hard, then pushed it away from her. The sick feeling in her stomach threatened to overwhelm her. A simple mistake, but one that had cost her more than she could afford. Tears welled in her eyes. Fate -- as well as the effects of the spell -- told her the tears weren’t worth it, but she wanted to cry anyway. Goddess help her, but this was so *unfair*.
“It’s a reflection spell,” she admitted finally.
Miranda watched her soberly. “But it wasn’t the one you wanted. I wondered when Jihn showed me the slip of paper.”
Pushing her misery aside, Tierney looked up and met the witch’s violet eyes, wondering if perhaps she had Harman blood running through her veins. But then she shoved that thought aside, too. “I need to fix it,” she said. “Do you have the counterspell?”
“It’s in the safe.”
The two girls fell quiet again as Miranda moved back toward the safe, then began looking for the counterspell. As she shifted through the stack of deteriorating parchments, Tierney wondered if maybe a silencing spell would be a better option for Dare. If he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t demand she change things back the way they were... Except it simply wasn’t worth it. This image wasn’t her, and she didn’t want it.
Better to be herself and be without him than to make herself something else to please him. He didn’t deserve the effort. And besides, there was always...
Don’t think like that! she scolded, before she could complete the thought. The last thing you need to be worrying about is other boys. With some guilt, she turned her attention back to Miranda, who was walking back to the table. She slid into a nearby chair.
“I can’t give you the original,” Miranda said reverently, her voice hushed. She smoothed the spell with careful fingers, fastidiously avoiding the disintegrating edges. “You’ll have to copy it.”
Tierney nearly laughed, but it was the kind of laughter drawn from bubbling hysteria. She held the responsibility this time, and if she wrote something down incorrectly, the fault belonged to her. Wouldn’t it be ironic if she screwed up the counterspell?
Sobering, she accepted the paper and pen, setting herself to diligently copy the sprawling words. The soft scratch of the felt-tip comforted her, so ordinary in this suddenly surreal world. When she finished, she capped the pen and handed it back to Miranda. “Thank you.”
Miranda nodded, brushing it off without a second thought, but the expression on her face was earnest and urgent. “Tierney, whatever you do, don’t mess up this spell. If you managed to pull of the other one, I don’t think you’ll have any problems, but... This one is forbidden for a reason.”
“I’ll be fine,” Tierney said calmly, looking over the directions she’d just copied. “It’s simple compared to the other.”
“I know.” Miranda’s voice was hushed.
Tierney smiled softly, the pain in her eyes not quite fading. “Thank you again.”
“Don’t worry about it.” The witch hesitated a moment. “Do you still want the other spell? The one you meant to do?”
And even though it took Tierney several painful moments to answer, she knew her response immediately. “No,” she whispered, her hazel eyes distant. “It wouldn’t do me any good.”
As each day brought them closer to prom, Tierney grew more nervous. Every morning, something flared deep inside her, some sort of premonition cautioning against the events of that coming Friday night. The prom loomed before her, disaster as imminent as accidents on an icy day.
She wouldn’t do the spell before the prom.
Dare glared at her each day in the hall, warning her silently to fix the spell and end this useless charade. Glowering defiantly, she met that gaze without flinching. She’d meet his demands, but not because he wanted her to, and not until she was good and ready. Although he might be able to bully her, she hadn’t been lying when she told him she held the whole damned deck of cards. Unfortunately for him, she wasn’t ready to play her hand.
She’d blatantly told him so. The day after he demanded she fix the spell, he’d grabbed her in the hall, wondering why she hadn’t done it yet. She sank back into that memory with little effort. The shadowed hall melded around her, the gleam of the locker dull in the scant light, dimness flourishing during classes, when the halls weren’t lit.
He grabbed her from behind, swinging her around to face him. “I thought I told you to fix this,” he hissed.
She stared back at him calmly, anger still pulsing through her from yesterday, when his callousness bruised more than just her ribs. “You did,” she shrugged.
They both knew it was false bravado. No matter how many times she reminded herself he didn’t care -- no matter how many times she reminded herself she shouldn’t -- it didn’t stop her from hoping something might change. And now, even her anger was fading, replaced with that insane optimism that soulmates were meant for each other.
“Then why isn’t it fixed?”
Instead of reacting to his angry tone, she answered levelly, “Because I’m not ready to fix it yet.”
He floundered for a minute, apparently startled by her calm answer. Maybe he expected her to cower before him, maybe he expected her to get angry, but she did neither. His surprise showed in his voice. “What are you waiting for?” he asked, but he didn’t sound as angry.
“I need to find some ingredients.”
“Get them tonight.”
She smiled at the flat demand in his voice. Apparently Dare had never learned the finer skills of coercion. He’d probably never needed them. At home, she wouldn’t be shocked to learn everyone did his bidding the second he rapped out an order. Here was different, but he didn’t seem to understand that. Her amusement made his scowl deepen.
“I can’t,” she protested sweetly, so as not to inflame his volatile temper. “A witch had to special order them. They won’t be here until Saturday. So you see, it’s out of my hands.”
What she didn’t tell him was that Miranda had offered to order them using overnight delivery, but Tierney had refused. She didn’t want to spend the extra money, and was interested to see how the pictures for prom would come out. Would they show her in her true form or would they show her under the influence of the spell? Dare could afford to wait while she carried out her little experiment.
He didn’t know what to say to that, but it was a good thing they weren’t touching, even better that she shielded her thoughts. She could feel the tendrils of his mind slinking around hers like a cobra ready to strike. When he realized she wasn’t letting him in, he retreated, but the nasty look on his face said he wasn’t happy about it.
“If I find out you’re stalling for any reason,” he said, those golden eyes flaring like starbursts as he stepped closer to her, “you will pay.”
“In blood,” she reminded him evenly. She didn’t even flinch when his hand wrapped around her neck, one strong finger sliding down her pulsing artery.
One move, and he could crush her.
One move, and he could kiss her.
He did neither. His hand slipped from her throat, that strange gloating glimmer never quite diminishing from his spinning eyes, and he stepped back. And for some strange reason, she felt just a little bit emptier inside. He didn’t let her dwell on that emotion.
“If it comes to that,” he agreed instead, the corners of his mouth tilting in a mocking smile. He held the warning like a steel gauntlet over her, as tangible as his hand against her throat, and as tangible as the cold berth of his heart.
Widening the distance between them, she met his eyes squarely. Maybe to let him know she wasn’t afraid; maybe to deafen the pounding of her heart. Either way, he wasn’t fooled and she knew it. “It won’t.”
It wasn’t a promise; those were too easily broken and too fragile under the nebulous shadows in which she found herself. One word, and promises unraveled like a spider’s nightmare. While they held their weight in trust and in faith, in him she had neither. Rather, it was an ultimatum.
One that was not lost on him.
“You’d better be sure of that,” he taunted, then stalked away.
A deep breath rushed from somewhere in her chest. A breath she had been holding throughout their encounter, one that she was more aware of than the emotions coursing through her. A sigh of relief, perhaps, but one that didn’t lessen the burning core of fear inside her. She would not make promises to him, but she had no doubt he would keep his promise to her. If it came to that.
She hoped to the Goddess it didn’t.
And now, with only one day left before the prom, she couldn’t understand why that twisting mass of fear grew and pulsed through her veins, tripping like hydrochloric acid flushing through her system. It must be the spell and the night following the prom trying to overshadow tomorrow night. It was just a dance, wasn’t it?
Gnawing on her lower lip, she let herself wonder if her feelings really sprang from something real, or something imagined. Raquel caught her attention before she could.
“Tierney!” her friend called, her face flushed with excitement, “are you coming over tonight?”
Tierney blinked. “For what?” she asked slowly, genuinely at a loss.
Sighing, Raquel grabbed her arm and started dragging her to the parking lot, where most of the football players gathered in what looked to be an angry mob scene. They weren’t angry, just loud, and Tierney had to laugh at their antics.
“What’s going on?” she repeated.
“Pre-prom party.” A slight grimace flitted over her face. “They’re grilling, but I guess we’ll have to live with that. Mom prohibited gasoline last time they tried to use the grill, so it shouldn’t be too dangerous.”
Amused, Tierney stifled a laugh and allowed herself to be dragged to the group of loitering males. “We do have school tomorrow. You’re aware of that, right?”
Her friend shrugged. “It’s a half day. I can sleep during class.”
Tierney wisely refrained from mentioning that she did that anyway.
Adrien and Julien lurked in the group’s center, each leaning against his respective car, engaged in animated conversation. Neither one acknowledged the girls’ presence, although Tierney noted a slight straightening of Julien’s shoulders. Raquel smacked her brother on the arm.
“I’m not cooking,” she warned, her violet eyes sparking dangerously.
“Don’t worry. We wouldn’t let you.”
She scowled, snatching the keys out of her brother’s hand. “Just for that, I’m driving home.”
Coughing to hide his amusement, Julien said, “You need keys for that, Raquel.”
For a moment, she looked positively chagrined, but then her face cleared. Dangling the keys in front of his face, she smirked. “I have keys. Right here.”
“Good for you,” Adrien congratulated dryly. “Except they’re Bill’s keys, not mine, and I don’t think he’s going to let you drive his car.”
Tierney laughed and turned to Julien, ignoring the way Raquel thrust the keys back at her brother and pouted. “So what’s going on tonight?” she asked.
He didn’t answer right away, his gray eyes lingering on hers, filled with an emotion she couldn’t identify. It wasn’t the charged hope she’d seen on the beach or the playful amusement he displayed in the cafeteria, but something more infinitely blank. But then he blinked, the expression clearing, and she thought it must have been an illusion.
Adrien beat him to the question. “We’re grilling,” he stated, glancing around the teeming parking lot. “You know what school will be like tomorrow. We’re not going to do anything in class.” He paused and reconsidered those words. “Well, the teachers might try.”
She knew what he meant. With the charged excitement running through the student body, they would have little control over the students’ attention. Classes would be too short to get much done anyway. Most teachers would hand out inane assignments. A few like Mrs. Harington would try to lecture. None would get anything accomplished.
“Who all’s invited?”
That caused Adrien to survey the parking lot again, this time with a quick grin that lit up his face and flashed his dimples, deeper than Julien’s and just as attractive. If she thought of Adrien like that, which she didn’t. “Everyone,” he acknowledged.
Tierney followed his gaze around the mass of people. “Who all’s coming?”
That sunny smile flashed again. “Everyone.”
“Except me,” Julien interjected, before she could demand -- with good reason -- how they were going to feed everyone. He didn’t offer an explanation, just announced he wasn’t going to be there. She wondered if he hoped it mattered to her.
Frowning, Raquel inquired, “Why not?” She didn’t sound happy about his decision to boycott their impromptu party.
With an endearingly shy glance at Tierney, he said, “It’s my parents’ anniversary. I can’t skip out.”
The announcement left Tierney feeling vaguely discontented. While Julien’s presence wasn’t required for her to have a good time, she’d wanted... something. Something she couldn’t quite place, which his absence would obscure and render impossible. She didn’t allow herself to examine these feelings too deeply.
“We won’t miss you.” Raquel smiled sweetly at him, patted him on the arm, and then shoved her brother out of the way so she could climb in the car. She took Adrien off guard, otherwise she never would have moved his tall frame out of its stationary position. Tierney was struck -- not for the first time -- by the extreme difference in their heights.
Adrien towered over Tierney, while Tierney very nearly towered over her friend. Raquel’s brother had apparently been blessed with the recessive gene in a family of much smaller stature. Still, the contrast between them appeared somewhat incongruous.
As he headed for the other side of the car, preparing to depart, Tierney decided leaving would be a good thing as well. Besides having things to do, she was still vaguely uncomfortable at the thought of being alone with Julien. She didn’t understand the contradicting feelings and didn’t want to. “I’ll see you later, then,” she said to the siblings, with a winsome smile tossed in Julien’s direction. She turned to go.
“Tierney--“ He caught her wrist, the poignancy in his touch as aching as the confession in his voice. Unlike Dare, he didn’t try to hurt her, didn’t force her to remain against her will. He simply left that one simple touch searing through her skin to something she didn’t know existed, and that one statement to seep emotion through her soul.
She was all too aware of Raquel watching avidly from the window, not even bothering to pretend she wasn’t paying attention. And not only that, but the guys around them were elbowing each other slyly as they spied. Tierney was tempted to charge admission and sell popcorn.
“Later, okay?” She smiled gently at him, but her hazel eyes shone green with worry. Later was such an indefinite time, at the mercy of whim and fancy. That premonition blossomed hazily inside her, reminding her of its ominous presence, which refused to fade or cower.
He shrugged, agreeing, and all the while managed to look somehow wronged. “Sure.”
The word stretched immeasurably between them. He wanted to tell her no. She knew that, but didn’t let it stop her from sauntering away. As she walked to her car, she looked back once to find him still leaning where she had left him. He fingered a set of keys almost absently, his long and lean body draped against the passenger door, his storm cloud eyes unfathomable.
When he saw her look back, he smiled. A smile laced with thought -- with caution -- that spread across his face, but never touched the lightning in his eyes. “I’ll pick you up at five,” he called as Adrien pulled out of the space beside him, honking madly.
Waving in acknowledgement, she turned around and closed the distance to her car. The way he looked at her melded her insides into something she didn’t recognize, a twisted mass of confusion that not even Dare could equal.
With Dare, she knew what he was like. She knew what he wanted and what motivated him. She knew that he was empty. Ignoring the whispers sliding through her brain -- the ones trying to tell her what to do -- she unlocked her car and slipped inside.
That same premonition that warned her against tomorrow night told her the thing with Julien would be resolved soon enough.
She almost didn’t go to Raquel’s house that night. Her parents lounged comfortably in front of the television, her mother’s fingers twined tightly in her father’s. Despite all the obstacles they faced -- he as a human and she as a witch -- they were happy. Tierney could only imagine what that must be like.
“Hey,” she greeted them, dropping onto the couch across from them.
Her mother smiled and murmured a greeting, but her attention didn’t wander from the newscaster’s dry voice. Her father turned in her direction. “Hi, honey. Going to bed?”
Glancing at the clock, Tierney laughed. “It’s only seven o’clock, Dad. Besides, Adrien and Raquel are having a party.”
“Don’t you have school tomorrow?” Her mother frowned, finally looking in her direction.
Tierney nodded. “Yeah, but it’s a half day.”
That statement didn’t cause the expression on her mother’s face to lighten. Tierney felt resentment creep over her, even if it was just for a moment. Her mother wasn’t here to monitor what she did on a regular basis anyway and they both knew she would still be going if her parents weren’t here. Besides, she was seventeen! She did have some sense of responsibility, even if it was sometimes a little skewed.
Admittedly, she wasn’t completely sure she wanted to go. The amount of people Adrien had indicated had stunned her. After all, the Harmans’ yard wasn’t *that* big. People would soon be spilling onto the streets. What worried her most of all was that few people would neglect to show up. If Adrien invited you to a party, you showed up. Anyone who was anyone -- and many who weren’t -- counted his invitation as a coup.
To waylay her mother’s fears, at least a little, she said, “I promise I won’t stay out too late, Mom. I’ll be home before midnight.”
Nodding, her mom turned back to the news, while her dad smiled and leaned over to pat her hand. “Have fun tonight, Tierney. Don’t get into too much trouble.”
Well, she was committed to going now. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she sighed.
With that said, she stood, walking out of the room, sure her parents didn’t notice she’d gone. She wandered to her car without bothering to go upstairs and fix her make-up. Who was going to be there that mattered? No one. Even Julien wouldn’t be there.
She had to wonder -- just a little -- why that thought bothered her so much.