Despite having stood up, Julien wasn't moving. In fact, he looked downright loath to take that first step toward Adrien and the girls holding him captive.


"It's not going to help anything," he warned. "They're just going to get me, too."


Raquel groaned. "Oh, sit down. We won't make you go over there if you're that opposed to it."


With a sigh of relief, he sat back down. "I wasn't going to anyway. I have my sanity to protect."


Tierney hid her smile. The last time they'd accosted Julien, he'd sworn for hours that his intelligence had diminished by at least half its original level, if not several degrees more. Conversation with them was like being forced to listen to the Backstreet Boys for hours on end. Eventually, your brain went numb and you started spouting inane and gushy nonsense. Not to mention that your hearing slipped into a fully selective mode, editing out anything but condolences.


She swirled her ice cream with her spoon before taking a small bite. Raquel and she affectionately referred to Lindsay, Meera, and Teresa as "the Collective" for reasons that made Julien and Adrien howl with laughter. Mash them into the same person, and you'd get the same result. Same hairstyle, same clothes, and even worse, same personality.


They weren't the nicest group of girls, nor did they have the most scintillating personalities. Their interest focused on three things: the latest style, getting out of schoolwork without failing miserably, and boys, especially Julien and Adrien, probably because they were the most sought after guys in school. It would be a coup de grace if one of the Collective actually dated one of them.


Fortunately, Julien and Adrien would never let this happen.


The Collective didn't seem to realize this, however, and currently put forth their best efforts to trap either of the boys any time they found the chance. Last Tierney had heard, Teresa wanted Julien and Lindsay had her sights set on Adrien. Meera apparently was being left with one of the lesser members of the basketball team to pursue.


It probably didn't help that Julien and Adrien had augmented their popularity with their spectacular performance on the court last week, clinching the state title for the school's basketball team. Julien was the starting point guard; Adrien the starting center. Both had already been offered scholarships from several schools in the Big East conference. Both were heavily considering taking them.


She really didn't see either of them getting involved with someone from her class when they were both ready to leave, and especially not with someone who only wanted them for the status they held. Or their looks, which both had been blessed with in abundance.


"You know," she said, absently licking a smudge of ice cream from her spoon, "if Lindsay actually had a personality, your brother might be in trouble."


"He's already in trouble," Raquel shrugged, "of being bored to death."


Julien laughed and took a sip from a can of soda. "You aren't giving him enough credit. I'll bet you twenty dollars he's not standing there because he's enjoying himself."


"No, he's standing there because she has a death grip on his arm," Raquel noted, craning her neck to get a better view. The pained expression on her brother's face was the only thing she could see. "Maybe I should tell her that the boa constrictor approach won't work on him."


Tierney glanced over to see for herself, her gaze briefly clashing with Dare's. He stared, hatred and bemusement stabbing through her, not blinking or looking away. She dropped her gaze.


Toying idly with what she suspected were the remains of green beans on Julien's tray -- or had been once, at least -- she cleared her throat. "She probably wouldn't understand, even if you did manage to get past the initial three words before she made some sneering comment and walked away."


"Listening is *definitely* not their strong point."


"Neither is intelligence," Julien muttered. He, too, was staring at the table of girls who held Adrien captive. "He's not going to put up with them for much longer."


"What do you think they're talking about?" Raquel wondered, turning her attention back to the now melted puddle of chocolate ice cream.


Tierney set her spoon down and took a sip of water. "Astrophysics. Or maybe how Teresa's car broke down, so now she *desperately* needs a ride to school in the morning."


Something in Tierney's voice made Raquel pause, disbelief washing over her face. She sat back, outrage in every line of her body. "You're not serious."


"That twenty dollars will be mine yet."


"Did her car really break down?" Raquel demanded. She shoved the ice cream away one final time, its soupy remains splashing disturbingly.


Julien nodded. "She was telling anyone who would listen this morning. When she couldn't find anyone else to talk to, she repeated it a few times. I'm pretty sure it died."


"It didn't die," Tierney corrected. She glanced at the group one more time. Dare was still staring. "I heard The Collective talking about it this morning when they thought no one else was listening."


"Talking about what?"


Sometimes it amazed her how dense Raquel could be. "Talking about her car. How it didn't really break down -- in great detail, mind you -- but that Lindsay was going to tell everyone it did and that they'd better back her story up."


Raquel stared. "So it's all a ploy to get Adrien to drive her to school in the mornings."


"Of course, it's a ploy to get Adrien to drive her! Can you think of any other stupid reason her brand new Porsche would break down?"


Tierney rolled her eyes, quite annoyed with the whole situation. She probably shouldn't have said anything, but she'd been so irate when she'd heard them, she hadn't been able to help herself. If nothing else, there was the chance she could spare Raquel the ordeal of riding with the entire Collective, which would inevitably happen.


That the Collective would stoop to something like this didn't surprise Tierney in the least. It made her angry that they tried to pull these stunts, but as for wanting them-- That was a different story entirely, and she couldn't quite say she blamed them. They were gorgeous. Both tall and lanky, with the typical build of a basketball player. And the faces they'd been gifted with...


Adrien had the looks to model for Ralph Lauren, or perhaps Abercrombie and Fitch, though he would never admit it and got very defensive if anyone *ever* brought it up. His rich brown hair was spiky, to go with the current trend, although it had been spiky for as long as Tierney could remember, and his blond highlights ran bright and natural, unlike the dyed horrors many of the guys at school were sporting. His pure violet eyes were a perfect offset.


Julien, on the other hand, could have been a model for a classic Greek statue. His features were perfect and sculpted, complemented perfectly by his short cropped blond hair. Exactly the style of an ancient Greek soldier. His eyes were gray, calming, and currently lit with humor.


"I'll bet you he doesn't fall for it," Raquel said impulsively.


"Now you're giving him too *much* credit," Julien responded. He finished his soda, his long, lanky body draping over the chair. "He's too nice to them."


Futilely trying to tuck a fly-away strand of hair behind her ear, Tierney answered, "He's too nice to everyone. He does, however, occasionally make an exception for them." She smirked, her face lighting as she thought of past encounters with the three girls who collectively shared one brain cell.


Julien grimaced. "Not often enough, unfortunately. He was actually talking about making me sit through prom with one of them." He shuddered. "I would rather pry my teeth out with a pair of pliers than listen to one of them for a whole night."


"That's a very, um, graphic image, Julien. Thanks."


He grinned suddenly. "No problem."


Raquel brushed that aside with a fluttering wave of her hand. "You think he'll do it?"


He fished in his pocket briefly, then extracted a crisp twenty-dollar bill, laying it carefully on the table. "That twenty bucks says so," he answered.


"Let's up the stakes a bit," Raquel suggested, pushing the money into the center of the table. Her violet eyes sparkled wickedly. "Twenty dollars and the name of the lucky lady you're taking to prom."


He looked briefly startled. "Didn't I already--" Then he grinned, the corner of his sculpted mouth curling sheepishly. "Tierney? Did you want to go?"


Now it was Tierney's turn to feel shock creep over her face. "Absolutely," she murmured, surprised to see the relief steal over his classic features. She laughed and reached to squeeze his hand. "As if I could ever deny you anything."


"Please, don't feed his ego!" Raquel begged, her nose wrinkling in mock horror. "There's barely enough room at the table as it is."


He tossed his empty soda can at her. "Lunch is almost over and Adrien hasn't made it back to the table yet."


Swinging around to face the group, both Raquel and Tierney openly stared now, glaring in their general direction. The Collective had their backs to the two girls and Adrien was the only one who saw them. He grimaced apologetically, then detached Meera's hand from his arm. They saw him shrug, then edge around the three girls. He walked toward their table with an expression of intense relief plastered on his face.


"It's about time," Raquel muttered.


Tierney hid her smile. Raquel and Adrien had the best sibling relationship she'd ever seen, which didn't stop Raquel from making some of the most derogatory comments or complaining about him. But more often that not, they acted as though they were the best of friends. They shared without squabbling over who got what or who had what last. Oh, they fought, of course, loudly and heatedly, but they were quick to make up. If she'd had a sister, she'd want their relationship to be like that. Sometimes it was lonely being an only child...


She buried those thoughts quickly, grinning up at Adrien, who filled the place of the brother she didn't have. "What was that all about?"


He looked mildly disgruntled. "She wants me to drive her to school while her car's getting fixed. She-- Hey, what are you doing?"


Eyes narrowed, Raquel and Julien watched as Tierney snatched the money triumphantly. She pocketed the bill, shoving it into her back pocket. Adrien eyed them suspiciously, but they only stared back, the three of them doing a superb imitation of the cherubs painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.


"Don't worry about it," Tierney responded. "Continue."


He shrugged. "Anyway, so I told her I'd give her a ride in the morning. She's going to have to find her own way home. I have baseball practice."


"And what luck that is," Raquel snapped. "How could you promise to give that -- that lying *witch* a ride to school?"


"I didn't--"


"Don't make excuses!" she interrupted. She angrily gathered the remains of her lunch, throwing them on her tray with nearly the same zeal as she would have thrown them at his head. Julien watched, amused, throwing a wicked grin at Tierney. She shook her head, pursing her lips and managing to look disapproving. He only grinned wider.


The bell rang. Adrien gestured helplessly, but she cut him off with a sharp sweep of her hand, seizing the tray and stalking to the front of the cafeteria. Tierney stood, too, pausing to give him a brief hug before she picked up her things.


"She'll get over it," she said. "I'll try to talk to her."


Bewildered, he answered, "I don't understand what I did."


"All will be explained," Julien answered, still laughing. He slung his book bag over his shoulder. "One day you'll be privileged enough to understand the mysteries of the female mind."


"Well, I know *you* aren't, or did you mean to--"


She left them arguing. Quickly disposing of her tray, she joined Raquel near the door. Her blond friend tapped her foot impatiently, scowling, and glared at anyone who came within a ten-foot radius. As soon as Tierney was within earshot, she told her -- and whoever else was listening -- exactly what she thought of her brother.


"How could he possibly fall for that?" she demanded, tossing her long, straight hair over her shoulder. "Is he brain-dead or simply stupid? What on Earth could have made him agree?"


Tierney remained silent, listening to her diatribe without commenting, especially since she knew any contradicting  input would be unappreciated. Her attention soon wandered, as she'd heard this particular speech several hundred times, and Raquel had concluded every one of those times that Adrien was simply stupid. When he reached brain-dead (by Raquel's standards), she was sure she would notice the fireworks.


Raquel wheeled around, shoving through the double doors leading to the hallway. Tierney followed quietly, letting her friend's anger run its course. They marched down the corridor, Raquel's fury quickening her pace.


Glancing around, she noticed Dare standing at a locker, staring hard at her. Byron Redfern talked incessantly next to him and didn't seem to notice where Dare's attention was focused. She met his eyes coolly, silently telling him she wouldn't let him intimidate her. His mouth curled contemptuously, but he was the first to look away.


Score one for me, Tierney thought. She shook her head and continued down the hall, Raquel still complaining beside her. Then she realized Raquel had fallen silent, and glanced over her shoulder every couple of steps. "What are you looking at?"


"He's cute, isn't he?" Raquel sighed.


"Who?" Tierney asked, utterly lost. She glanced around, but didn't see anything particularly attractive lurking in the hallway. "Are you seeing something I don't?"


Raquel came to a halt and Tierney suddenly realized they'd made it to their lockers. A moment later, Raquel had opened hers, subtly angling the mirror so that she had a better view of the direction they'd just come from. "The new boy, Tier. The one who's standing with Byron Redfern."


"Dare Drache?" Contempt filtered through those words despite Tierney's conscious attempt to stay nonchalant. She wrenched her locker open. "He's not worth your time, trust me."


Raquel finally turned away from the mirror, surprise mingling with interest for just a minute. "You know him?"


"Hmm." Tierney pulled out her books for afternoon classes and slammed the locker shut. "We had a run-in at lunch."


She leaned back against the closed locker. Shifting her books to a more comfortable position, she waited for Raquel to finish looking so they could head to their next class. Raquel could do subtle if she wanted, but Tierney was openly staring. Unlike most of the girls in the hallway, who gawked dreamily in his direction, her face wore derision like an extremely realistic Halloween mask.


Finally shutting her locker, Raquel smacked her. "Stop staring," she hissed.


"He is," Tierney pointed out. "I'm just returning the favor."


With a sigh, Raquel yanked her around and dragged her down the hall. "I can't believe you," she complained. She threw one last, longing glance over her shoulder, and sighed again. She released Tierney's arm, leaving the taller girl to rub distractedly at her bruised skin. Stalking over to the water fountain, she bent to take a drink.


Just as she straightened up, someone rammed into her from the side. She stumbled back.


"Oh, I'm *so* sorry," Teresa cooed, pale blue eyes widening in mock concern. Lindsay and Meera tittered behind her.


"Of course, you are," Tierney answered coolly. "Come on, Raquel." She started walking toward her next class, only to find herself effectively blocked by the Collective. She and Raquel exchanged exasperated glances.


"Can we help you?" Raquel questioned, boredom oozing from her voice. She made no move to get around them, almost as if they weren't worth the effort.


Lindsay smirked. "When I want a lesson on how to be pathetic, I'll make sure to call you." The other two laughed snidely at her side.


The second bell rang, indicating they had about a thirty second span before they were late. Tierney knew for a fact that the Calculus teacher had threatened to throw Teresa out of class if she was late one more time. The Collective surged around her, hastily moving toward their respective classes.


"Freak," Teresa sneered, elbowing Tierney out of her way despite the four feet of open space in the middle of the hallway. She tossed her head and a silken sheet of perfect auburn hair slapped Tierney in the face. She was tempted to rip it straight out of the girl's flawless scalp.


Meera jostled her from the other side. "Find a circus, troll," she purred, before prancing self-importantly down the hall. 


Raquel cheerfully flipped her off.


Lindsay and Teresa tossed their heads and followed her, neither bothering to look back or to acknowledge this gesture. She knew they were talking about them, though, from the malicious laughter that floated behind them.


"I'm glad they think they're so wonderful," Raquel said, disgust flooding her voice, and turned back to face her friend. Compassion jumped through her at the hurt expression on Tierney's face. "Don't let them bother you, Tier. They'll win if you do."


"I know," Tierney sighed. "They're just so..."


"Vapid?" her friend supplied archly, leading the way down the lengthy corridor. "I've seen fruit flies with more personality than those three have. And, funny, but it was in the biology class that Meera failed, too."


Tierney smiled wanly. Oh, she knew she wasn't pretty, but their comments still cut through the shell she'd built around herself. Maybe she was just stinging from Dare's comments at lunch, but their cruelty hurt.


Raquel's sparkling violet eyes lit up like a lightning streaked sky, suddenly remembering something that would brighten her friend's day. "Laugh it off, Tierney," she advised. The sparkle in her eyes turned suddenly mischievous. "She thinks Adrien is taking her to prom."


Pausing, Tierney watched her uncertainly. "He's not?" she wondered.


Raising a slender finger to her lips, warning her silently not to say anything, she replied softly, "He's taking Jordana Cartiss."


Tierney shrieked, clapping her hand over her mouth and blinking back tears of laughter. "What do you think she'll do when she finds out she doesn't have a date? Or who he's taking?"


It was a well-known fact that Jordana and the Collective did not get along. Or more aptly, that they hated each other with more passion than any character ever written into a cheesy romance novel. That Jordana's crowd openly scorned the Collective didn't seem to faze them.


For this reason, Jordana ranked highly on Tierney and Raquel's list of favorite people, not to mention that she was one of the few people who didn't avoid them like they would a highly annoying pit bull. More importantly, Jordana was one of those rare people in high school who realized personality was more important than looks or money, and who actually had all three.


The Collective positively scorned the ground she walked on.


"I don't know what she'll do," Raquel admitted, "but I hope it's something desperate."


Tierney nodded, silently agreeing with her. "We're late," she reminded, changing the subject. "And Mr. Timmons might not care if I show up at all, but Harington *will* fail you."


Scowling, Raquel turned around. "In that case, I'm off to see the guidance counselor. If I'm lucky, she'll give me a pass and the old hag won't be able to fail me."


"See you next period," Tierney called over her shoulder. Raquel waved, then sauntered down the hall at a pace indicating her extreme lack of concern. The day Raquel showed up on time for class would be the day the Collective came to school without makeup.


And before *that* happened, Tierney would be the most stunning girl in the school. Since she didn't expect that to occur in the near future, she wasn't anticipating a radical change in the other things, either. But still, the image was rather funny.


Stopping in front of the door to her class, she eased open the door and slipped inside. Mr. Timmons didn't look at her or acknowledge anyone had entered the room. He simply continued his tirade on the excesses of ancient Greece, pausing occasionally to scribble some incoherent phrase across the chalkboard.


She opened her notebook with a sigh and uncapped a pen. The last thing she wanted to do was listen to Mr. Timmons go on -- without pausing for breath -- about the Acropolis. Neither history nor Mr. Timmons was one of her favorite things, especially when her world had just been knocked awry.


Still completely astonished that Julien had asked her to prom, she considered reasons he might have done it. It certainly wasn't because of her stunning looks. He could have asked anyone! Even those who already had a date probably wouldn't have refused him.


So the question was: how had she gotten so lucky? Not only did she have a date, which she'd been worried about, but she also had a date that would inspire jealousy among the masses. The thought brought a small smile to her face. Teresa would *not* be happy. But still, why had he done it?


Maybe he didn't want to get involved with anyone now, and he knew she was safe. That must be it.  She was practically Adrien's sister, by sentiment if not by blood, and therefore off-limits. Someone safe.


 What a disgusting thought. She paused in the middle of mindlessly copying notes, the tip of the pen digging deeply into the paper, and scarring the sheaf. Who wanted to be safe? She scowled down at the flowing handwriting. Now she wasn't sure if she should be flattered or insulted.


Guilt surged. Julien was too genuinely nice to use her. Granted, she'd only known him for five or six months, since Adrien decided spending every waking second with his now ex-girlfriend fell into the category of "not a good idea," and he and Julien started hanging out. But from the time she *had* spent with him, she knew he saw girls as people instead of as cattle.


Most guys felt no remorse at herding girls up and leading them off to the slaughter. Julien was not one of them. And so she could only conclude he'd asked her because he was her friend, and because he had no interest in any particular girl. Still a gross thought, but better than the other.


Maybe if she thought about it later, she would ask him.






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