Stupid.

 

So *stupid*, she thought, slamming the door of her house shut behind her. She didn’t even care that she might wake her parents. Right now, they were the last of her worries. Pausing a moment in front of the door, she kicked off her shoes -- she hadn’t bothered to refasten them after the beach -- and picked them up in one of her hands.

 

How could she have been so stupid?

 

She took a deep breath and leaned back against the wall, not even stopping to think about the sand clinging to her dress or the mark it might leave on the wall. Tomorrow... tomorrow would be soon enough to deal with the things that didn’t matter. Tomorrow would be soon enough to deal with what she’d done.

 

Her eyes slid shut as she rested there, her shoulders slumped tiredly. In one night, she’d managed to ruin everything she’d gained in the last week. She didn’t even know how she could explain this to Julien, if any way existed to fix what she’d done. For something that wasn’t worth the time she’d wasted on it since it started, when Dare first touched her. When she first realized she had a soulmate...

 

She expected to feel different.

 

Instead, she just felt used.

 

Her lower lip trembled, but she bit back her tears. She didn’t deserve to cry. Everything she’d done -- all of it -- was her own fault. She should have known better, but--

 

It was too easy to fall into that idealistic hope of perfection. She’d hoped, dreamed, and even prayed that finally she would be accepted for who she was. Who better to do that than her soulmate? And she’d wanted it so bad she hadn’t realized that Julien offered her that the entire time.

 

With a weary sigh, she stood straight and left the wall’s support. All this time, she’d thought Dare had to be better inside than every action and word escaping his lips made him seem. But she’d been wrong. She finally knew she fit her soulmate, because she was just as bad as he was.

 

For one night, she’d wanted to pretend he cared, but she hadn’t even gotten that. The price she paid for the illusion was far too high. And even before she’d left with him, she’d known.

 

She’d done it anyway.

 

Picking up the tattered hem of her skirt, she wandered slowly to the wide staircase. Up a step. Her “if only” list was growing by the second. If only she hadn’t left the dance... If only she hadn’t let her idealism skim the surface when Dare had asked her to leave...

If only.

 

Her mistakes made her sick, because they floated all too clearly in her mind. How many times had she heard that hindsight was the clearest? If only she had listened... If only. It was too late for that now. Against her will, a tear slid down her face.

 

Here she was again, alone. Dare didn’t want her. Julien *couldn’t* want her now -- and ironically, he was the only person she *did* want. The only person to whom she wanted to talk, the only person with whom she felt she could really share herself. And she’d ruined it. *Ruined* it.

 

For what?

 

A few moments of being held in Dare’s arms like she was worthwhile?

 

Goddess, how could she have been so stupid? She was worthwhile without him -- no, she was *better* without him. She should have realized that from the start. She should have left him to rot in his emptiness and his shallowness. Should have run straight into Julien’s arms and never looked back.

 

What she wouldn’t give to go back and change the past. But... it wouldn’t have helped. She needed to learn -- to understand -- just what kind of person Dare was. Yes, she should have seen it. She knew that. Yet there always would have been some small part of that wondered what if...

 

And maybe that would have led to a completely different kind of “if only,” but it would still be there. Lurking just beneath the surface like a simmering black poison tarring her life. At least now she was free from any doubts she might have had. She and Dare couldn’t be together even in some pseudo universe where cat cuddled with dogs and world peace lasted for centuries. They wouldn’t get along.

 

She finally resumed walking and mounted the steps without stopping again, but she was still lost in thought. Dare might be her soulmate, but they would never fit. Not in this lifetime. Maybe not in any. Even so, she’d lied. Both to herself and to him.

 

She once thought that in Dare, there was nothing lovely and nothing dear, simply a few worthwhile fragments which hung clung hopelessly to the edges.  Now she realized that was wrong. Trapped beneath those layers of shallowness and contempt, the part that belonged with her shimmered hazily. She could feel its tug against her soul. If only it weren’t so faint and far below... If only.

 

Fate might have made them destined for each other, but life had had other ideas.

 

It seemed as if life had won.

 

Suddenly realizing she had walked to stand in front of her door without being aware of what she was doing, she blinked, staring at the varnished wood, and then pushed her way into her room. It was late. So late that the sun should be blinking over the horizon soon. So late that yesterday should only be a memory to be agonized and fretted over, instead of feeling like it would never end.

 

She wasn’t sure she would be able to sleep. Too many thoughts whirled inside her head, but then... one caught and held. What if... what if it wasn’t too late?

 

The idea spun and coiled in her brain as she peeled the grimy dress from her body and let it fall to the ground. Heedless of the gauzy material, she shoved it out of the way with her foot. Maybe she would burn it tomorrow and burn away the feelings she associated with it. But in the meantime...

 

What if she went and talked to Julien? Explained *everything* to him, even those things you weren’t supposed to tell humans? Fear and hope twisted inside her. Maybe if she broke the law, she could make him understand what had happened and why she had left. As the idea took root, she felt the fear melt into a cloudy pool at the pit of her stomach, almost unnoticeable it was so small.

 

Julien was more important than some stupid law, especially since she didn’t think he would care. He’d accepted her for what she was before... Why would something like that change his mind? Maybe she could make him see.

 

Quickly racking her brain for the most logical place to find him, she hurried into her bathroom and jumped in the shower. She was in the middle of washing her hair -- and pulling out the pins that had been holding it up -- when it hit her. He had to be at Raquel’s house.

 

It made sense, didn’t it? Their house was scheduled to be the unofficial after prom party, despite their mom. Mrs. Harman hadn’t protested the arrangement. She’d merely let her eyes glaze over like frosted violets and wandered back into her room. Tierney doubted she would come out at any point tonight.

 

She finished showering quickly and twisted the water off. Stood shivering in the chill bathroom air as she squeezed the water out of her hair. Then she reached for a towel. She focused on the little movements and the familiar routine almost raptly, because it was easier than worrying about what might happen in the next few hours. If she thought about it anymore, she probably wouldn’t be able to force herself to go.

 

Dressing was something she did quickly and with little thought. What did it matter what she looked like now? It was three in the morning. No one was supposed to look ravishing at this time of night. Besides, he’d already seen her at her worst...

 

No, she thought suddenly, her memory drawn bitterly back to only a few hours ago. Those few, heart-wrenching moments on the beach had been her worst. Bedraggled and coated in sand, with the salty ocean water lapping around her body, she couldn’t have done much worse. If she’d been with someone who mattered, she might have cared.

 

Her face void of emotion, she pulled her hair into a ponytail at the base of her neck, then idly examined the smooth white skin in the mirror. At least Dare hadn’t left any bruises where he’d touched her. That was a first. She trailed a hand over that skin, remembering his touch, laced with fire and promise. A fire without warmth.

 

Steeling her nerves, she walked to her closet and slipped her feet into a pair of sandals. Where had she left her keys? Trailing her eyes over the room, she finally spotted them hiding behind a candle on her dresser. A green candle, the color of hope. Hopefully that would be an indicator of how this evening would turn out...

 

Cheered by that thought, she hurried to her dresser and snatched up her keys. She paused a moment in front of the mirror, eyes running over her reflection briefly. The tank top and shorts wouldn’t do much to protect her from the cool night air, but she doubted she’d notice it anyway. She had too many other things on her mind.

 

She chewed on her lower lip and leaned forward, taking the opportunity to wipe the mascara smudges from beneath her eyes. She might be going to tell him everything -- even that she was a witch -- but she didn’t want to look like a gothic vampire while she did it. The goal was not to make him freak out anymore than she possibly had to.

 

Staring at herself, she fingered the keys, checking her appearance one last time. Why was she standing here in front of the mirror, wasting time and putting off leaving? Oh, the answer was far too easy. She was scared to death that he would reject her, that he would ignore everything she had to say, that he would think she was crazy...

 

Stop procrastinating, she thought firmly. She turned away from the mirror finally. Turned her back on the haunted image standing behind her, the one who had made so many mistakes. She was sick of letting fear rule her life, which meant one stunning, important thing...

 

She and Julien needed to have a little chat.

 

 

***

 

 

She made it halfway down the stairs before her mother stopped her.

 

"Tierney? What are you doing?" She appeared at the top of the stairs, slipping her arms into a baby pink silk robe and knotting the belt tightly. Her eyes were shadowed and red-rimmed from lack of sleep. Rubbing her hand over her tired eyes, she waited for her daughter to answer.

 

Tierney felt bitterness wash over her. It wasn’t like they ever cared what she did in the middle of the night before, when they were off on their business trips to Japan or flitting around Europe. They almost never called to check up on her. And now her mother wanted to know where she was going?  After a moment’s hesitation, she answered. “I’m going to Raquel’s house.”

 

No further explanation. No excuses. Nothing but that one statement that made her mother’s eyebrows dip into a puzzled frown. “Isn’t it late to be going over there?” she asked.

 

“No,” she responded, but what she really wanted to ask was, “How would you know?”

 

Her mother’s frown deepened. “Tierney, I don’t know if I want you wandering around the streets this late at night. It’s not safe.  Do you do this sort of thing often?”

 

“No.” Her impatience was getting the best of her.  “I promised Raquel I would go over there after prom.”

 

“Prom was over four hours ago,” her mother pointed out dryly, then she sighed. She pushed back a strand of perfect hair -- the kind Tierney now had -- and tucked it behind her ear.  “I’m not going to stop you from going, not tonight, but please don’t make a habit out of this, Tierney.”

 

Tierney stared at her mother, her hazel eyes distant and sheltered from her mother’s concerned efforts. She might have been looking directly at her, but she was thousands of miles away where no one could reach her. No one, maybe, except Julien.

 

“I won’t.”

 

She was ready to turn and hurry down the steps, but her mother wasn’t finished. “Tierney, is everything okay? You’ve seemed a little down lately.”

 

Swallowing back a choked laugh, she wondered how to explain what was going on and whether she could make her mother understand. Probably not. Her mother was the consummate witch, even if she didn’t practice anymore. She’d probably be grounded for life if she told her she’d been messing around with forbidden spells.

 

And, oh, about the soulmate thing... How could she make her mother see how awful Dare was?  The only way was to introduce them, but she had no intentions of bringing Dare to her home any time soon. Or of having anything to do with him, if she could help it, other than fixing the mess she’d made. After that, she was finished. He could have his spineless, stuck-up collectivized girls and enjoy the shallowness of his life. She didn’t want any part of it.

 

“I’m fine,” she answered softly. And even if I weren’t, I doubt you’d understand.

 

Acceptance washed over her mother’s face, the frown finally clearing away. “Are you sure?” she demanded.

 

Tierney knew it was only a cursory question, so her reaction was somewhat fatigued. “I’m fine,” she reiterated adamantly. She clutched her keys tighter in her hand and willed her mother to go away. Anticipation skated through her like an icy reminder of what she was leaving to do.

 

Every second she waited, the ice got colder. Maybe she would freeze here, standing in the hallway, wondering what was about to happen and why her mother suddenly cared. Maybe she would be stuck forever in this single moment where everything tumbled and crashed dizzily around her, helpless to fix it.

 

“Be careful.” Her mother smiled wearily at her, the light in her eyes worried. “Good night, sweetie.”

 

“Good night, Mom.”

 

Instead of scrambling for the door, she watched as her mom slipped gracefully up the stairs, disappearing into her room. For one brief, insane moment, she wanted to call her back, throw herself into her mother’s arms, and confess everything. Just to be comforted or told that everything would be okay, even if it wasn’t true. But even as that thought escaped, sanity kicked in.

 

She had to take care of this alone.

 

Swallowing back her fears, she grasped her keys tighter, then walked slowly down the stairs. If she was lucky, at least *something* would go right tonight.

 

 

***

 

 

She arrived at Raquel’s not twenty minutes later. The street was nearly filled with cars that shone dully under the street lamp, but traveling up the road slightly, she was able to find a parking space. She pulled the car smoothly into it, then shut off the engine. Wondering what would come of this, she stared off into the darkness, still clutching at the steering wheel.

 

Tonight seemed as if it would never end.  Everything happened so slowly -- no, so quickly -- that the events appeared to be only a capricious sort of torture. Blending and melding together so smoothly that it was hard to tell where one hurt twisted its last painful blow and where the next sank into her skin.

 

She yanked the keys out of the ignition, threw open the door, and eased herself out of the car. The door banged softly shut behind her. She shivered in the light of the cold and apathetic moon. Then, wrapping her arms securely around herself, she hurried down the street in the direction of Raquel’s house.

 

The lights were off.

 

Her anticipatory feelings deflated inside her, scattering like people at the first roar of gunshots.  Everyone was already asleep... And she’d have to wait until morning to rectify whatever mistakes she’d made. Rectify them... or be burned by them.

 

As she started to turn away, slinking in the direction of her car, she noticed lights flickering through the curtains. She moved closer to the window, swinging her body around so she could see through the slice of space between the curtain and the window, and peered inside. Julien and Adrien sat on the couch, involved in deep conversation despite the mass of bodies passed out around them.

 

Her awareness levels soared and screamed like an eagle taking flight. Oh, god. He was still awake, he was there, he was only a few feet away... and he didn’t look like he’d had a good night. He rather looked as though he’d tried to find his way to utopia and gotten lost instead.

 

Oh, goddess, what had she done? Without stopping to think, she reached to rap quickly on the door. The sound reverberated in the night’s silent stillness. She flinched involuntarily, imagining the suspicious way Adrien and Julien’s heads snapped toward the door. When it started to swing open just a little, she prayed that whichever guy it was wouldn’t slam the door in her face.

 

It wasn’t one of the guys.

 

"Tierney?" Raquel asked sleepily, peering through the crack in the door. She yawned. "Do you know what time it is?"

 

No, Tierney answered silently. Time doesn't mean anything to me anymore. It's only a measure of how quickly I lose everything, and so I'd rather pretend it doesn't exist. Taking a deep breath, she said, “I need to talk to Julien.”

 

She could see wakefulness creeping through Raquel’s eyes.  “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” she said hesitantly. Straightening up behind the white door, she glanced into the living room, where the two guys were probably sitting silently while they waited to see what would happen.

 

Tierney took a deep breath and another step closer. “It’s important. Please?”

 

”What do you want to talk to him about?” Raquel asked. Tierney noticed her fingers playing hesitantly with the thick metal chain keeping the door from opening any farther.

 

“I want to apologize.”

 

Raquel chewed on her lower lip and contemplated this answer. When she finally responded, her voice was so low Tierney could barely hear her. “Tierney, he’s *really* upset. You might want to leave it for a few days.”  She paused a moment, her expression sympathetic but stubborn. “Adrien would kill me if I let you in. Julien’s just hurt, but Adrien is furious.”

 

“Please?” Tierney asked again, imploring her friend to acquiesce with every fiber in her body. *Please*, Raquel, she thought. You know me. You know just how bad I feel right now.

 

Sighing, Raquel glanced in the direction of the living room again. “I really shouldn’t...” she hedged, then she shook her head.  “Let me ask him.” Gently closing the door, she disappeared from view.

 

Tierney waited almost impatiently on the concrete stoop. As she stared into the sky, she felt like a star’s lifetime had passed. As if the gases collided and exploded while she watched, only to collapse into nothing eons later.

 

She wrapped her arms more tightly around herself and wondered what right Adrien had to be
”furious.” Julien, she could understand. After all, she hadn’t exactly been the model date. Her brain kept her from correcting that statement with a more caustic example. But Adrien had no business being angry at her. The situation didn’t even involve him.

 

Goddess, what was taking so long?  She frowned agitatedly at the sky. She wasn’t asking for blood, not like she’d done from Dare. No, all she wanted was a conversation. Simple as that and just as quick. She just needed a chance...

 

A chance she’d already blown once. Cursing softly under her breath, she took a few moments to call herself several choice names. Self-derision might not get her anywhere, but she certainly felt like she deserved it. She didn’t want to think how she’d feel if Julien had done this to her instead of the other way around, and she certainly didn’t think about what she might have done. She sometimes had a very vindictive and violent temper.

 

She couldn’t really blame Julien for whatever reaction he had or whatever feelings he felt -- or didn’t feel -- toward her. After all, she’d lied to him, to herself... to everyone around her. She wouldn’t blame him if the he didn’t give her the chance to be honest. Goddess only knows if would help even if she did talk to him. But... she had to try.

 

Hence the reason she was standing at Raquel’s doorstep, shivering and waiting for someone to come back. Silently, she hoped Julien would be the one to reopen the door. When it swung open, she held her breath and hoped.

 

Only Raquel stood there, looking uneasy. She twisted a strand of pale blond hair between her fingers and shifted anxiously on her feet. “I think you should probably go,” she mumbled, not quite able to meet her friend’s eyes.

 

“Julien doesn’t want to talk to me?” Tierney asked, hard pressed to keep the resigned bitterness out of her voice. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes, but she brushed them back almost angrily.  You don’t deserve to cry, remember?

 

Instead of answering, Raquel shook her head. Then she sighed and unbolted the door, stepping onto the porch and shutting the door behind her. “You really screwed him up.”

 

Interesting that she would say that, Tierney thought. Not screwed the situation up; screwed *Julien* up. She stared at her friend without acknowledging those words. Could she really have had that big of an effect on him?

 

She wasn’t even that special, she thought desperately, her tears threatening to spill over. And for the thousandth time that night, she wondered what she’d done.  Though deep down, she could admit it to herself. “I know,” she whispered.

 

If anything, Raquel’s face became even more sympathetic. “Come on,” she said, tugging her friend over to sit on the broken top step.  “Let’s talk for a minute.”

 

Tierney allowed herself to be led and yanked onto the step. She didn’t want to talk for a minute, not if the other person wasn’t Julien. No, she’d rather curl up in a tight little ball and forget everything around her, even if it was just for a few minutes.

 

Resting her arms on her drawn up knees, Raquel stared wistfully at the stars. “Did you ever wonder what would happen if you really, truly wished with all your might on a star?”

 

A strangled sound escaped Tierney’s mouth. “I did,” she replied bitterly. “Look where that got me.”

 

Surprised, Raquel glanced in her direction. “What are you talking about?”

 

“Nothing,” her friend sighed, switching her attention back to the stars. She didn’t want to get into an explanation right now, didn’t want to explain all everything to Raquel. Didn’t want to talk about soulmates or the Night World.  She had plenty of time to do that later, when she felt slightly less miserable.

 

Raquel didn’t say anything for a little while, but then she twisted her head and looked sadly at Tierney. “Do you have any idea how much you hurt Julien tonight, Tier?”

 

The feelings coursing through Tierney twisted sharply like a dagger in her gut. Guilt, remorse.... both of these sentiments were becoming far too familiar to her, like unwanted relatives who never left from their visit. “Yes,” she managed, though she wanted to pretend like she hadn’t heard anything.

 

“He adores you,” Raquel continued, as if she hadn’t heard the tension lacing Tierney’s voice. “Even though he’s hurt right now and doesn’t want to see you, I can still tell.” Rather than stop there, she twisted the knife even deeper. “I don’t think he knew what to do when you walked out the door with Dare. Who, incidentally, we all thought you hated.”

 

“I do,” Tierney said flatly, conviction infusing her voice. “I didn’t realize just how much until tonight, but I really do. More than anyone else I’ve ever known.”

 

Blinking, Raquel asked, “Even more than the Collective?”

 

“More than anyone.”

 

It took her friend a moment to digest that information. “Then why did you leave with him?” she questioned quietly.

 

Staring into the darkness, Tierney shrugged. “I had --“ A peal of helpless laughter escaped her. “There were things we needed to talk about.” Too many things, but not enough emotion to go with them. Too many things, but not enough caring for them to matter.

 

Quietly, Raquel wondered, “Things that were more important than Julien?”

 

This time she couldn’t hold back the tears slipping down her cheeks, even if was her own fault. “I thought they were,” she whispered sadly.

 

Raquel didn’t see those tears, lost in her own thoughts and her own opinions. She stood up, brushing the dirt from the backside of her pants. “Next time you might want to be sure,” she advised. “I have to go to bed, Tierney. It’s after four in the morning. I’ll... call you tomorrow, okay?”

 

Before Tierney could even reply, she hurried through the door and disappeared. Tierney let her head fall into her hands while trying to choke back her tears. Tomorrow, she thought firmly, finally standing up to leave. She would make him listen to her tomorrow, make him at least acknowledge her apology, even if he didn’t accept it.

 

Tomorrow would be soon enough to fix what she’d done.

 

And maybe -- just maybe -- she could force herself to sleep in the meantime.

 

 

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