"You want what?" Even through the phone, Miranda Arlith's voice was incredulous. "Jihn, I work spells, not miracles."
Jihn's eyes narrowed on the dark and distant "New Age" shop in the shadowed street. Courtesy of her vampire senses and her superior eyesight, she was able to make out Miranda's slim figure slinking behind the counter. "I'm approximately two hundred feet away. I expect the spell to be on the counter when I walk inside."
As Miranda fumbled with the phone, Jihn heard her sorting through the jumble of keys resting at her fingertips. "I'm not even sure I have those keys!"
"You're a witch. I'm sure you can find a way around that."
"It would take days to figure out which spells were embedded in which keys. If I don't have the key, I can't get in!"
A press of the button, and the call ended. Through the window, Jihn saw Miranda frantically pawing through a drawer, hopefully in search of that key. Her steps slowed to a more leisurely pace. After all, why hurry? She had until the start of school tomorrow morning.
Jihn didn't believe in sleep.
A waste of time and energy, she thought as she slipped a key from her pocket. She stepped onto the sidewalk softly, her footsteps less than a whisper against the concrete. Her shadow cut through the night like a knife, and to anyone who looked, only shadows shifted.
Grasping the key firmly in her fingers, she moved to the glass door. Miranda was still searching, dumping things on the counter as she looked. Jihn slid the key quietly into the lock, her eyesight reducing any fumbling a human would have done. A bell tinkled softly over her head as she swung the door open.
Miranda jumped, something clattering to the floor, falling from her hand. "I found it," she said immediately.
"Good," Jihn answered, unconcerned. Turning, she shut and bolted the door. "I was almost certain I would have to provide some unpleasant incentive before that happened."
She smiled coldly at Miranda, even though she knew the witch couldn't see her, then walked to counter. The smell of herbs filtered through the air, calming, with a touch of something acrid washing underneath. Jihn raised an eyebrow. "And what spells have you been doing?"
Miranda muttered something inarticulate, leaning down to pick up the ring of keys she dropped. Then, her voice loud in the quiet, she asked, "Why did I ever give you a key?"
"You owe me."
That single statement shut Miranda up, mostly because she knew Jihn was right. She owed Jihn much more than a forbidden spell and keys to the shop. She also knew Jihn wouldn't be asking unless it was important.
Sighing, she indicated that Jihn should follow her into the back of the store. "I can't believe I'm doing this."
Jihn didn't say anything, easily avoiding crystal displays and towering shelves, and strode through the door after her.
Miranda flipped on the light. "Close the door behind you," she instructed. "You might not need the light to see, but I do." Then she shivered, glancing warily around the cluttered room. "I can't believe I'm doing this," she repeated.
Following her gaze, Jihn noted several crystals far larger than any displayed outside, intricate veins of quartz dancing through them. The smell of herbs was stronger here and wafted around unmarked packages of various shapes and sizes set on dusty shelves. Murky greens nestled among ominous red packets, as well as other colors Jihn didn't associate with anything pleasant. She knew what was in those unidentified bags, because she had gotten many of them for Miranda and her family. Their names were better left unmentioned.
Shaking, Miranda walked over to an exquisitely carved safe at the far end of the room, like you would see in a museum. But this safe was far older than most museums had ever seen. It had been passed from generation to generation. Now its gold surface was nearly rubbed bare from being touched so often.
"Jihn..." Miranda's voice broke and she cleared her throat. "Are you sure about this?"
"Positive." Jihn's answer was firm and uncompromising. She stared at Miranda out of steely green eyes, a color that should have been soft and soothing. Even though Miranda knew differently, Jihn looked so young. Hardly the dangerous type. Hardly the type to fear.
She sighed. "I'm not going to ask what you want it for, but please be careful. This is *dangerous*."
A shrug, completely unconcerned. Jihn hid her amusement better than any Academy award winning actress. "I think I can handle it," she murmured.
"I don't even know what *you'll* do with it," Miranda snapped. "You're not even a witch!"
"That's not your concern."
"Obviously nothing is my concern," Miranda muttered with a sigh, fitting the key into the lock. A moment and a few whispered words later, a click, and then the door lurched open with a groan. The witch reached inside. She withdrew a crumbling stack of spells. "These are the reflection spells. I can't give you the original. We're going to have to copy it."
Jihn stared back impassively. Her face was as cold and blank as always, her silky blond hair falling around her face like a halo. She motioned for Miranda to bring the pile over.
Gritting her teeth, Miranda did so. "Which one did you need?" she asked, setting them carefully on one of the many shelves so she could sort through them. She deftly separated the first from the pile.
"I have it written down," Jihn answered. She pulled the slip of paper Tierney had given her from her pocket and handed it carelessly to the witch.
Miranda accepted it silently, her eyes reading over the scrawled words quickly. "Whoever wrote this has *really* messy handwriting." She shook her head, then crumbled the piece of paper in her fist. "I can't believe I'm doing this."
This time amusement shone brightly on Jihn's face, her eyes lighting like leaves in the rising sun. "Then don't believe it, Miranda. Just do it."
"I'm looking for it," the witch retorted. She sorted rapidly through the spells, even while she was careful not to bend or rip any. Finally, her fingers hesitated over an age-mellowed sheet. "This is it."
She lifted it carefully, cradling it in her open hands, and carried it away from the shelf. Weaving her way around the piles of gleaming crystals to a small table, she laid it down. Jihn followed her only because she didn't have anything else to do and was tired of standing in the doorway.
"Be useful," Miranda said sweetly. "Go find me some paper. It's the least you can do when I'm likely to get in trouble for giving you this."
Silently, Jihn turned and walked to the front of the store, where she picked up a sale flier. Snagging a pen, she traced her way into the back room, careful to close the door behind her. She handed it to her without a word.
"And don't stand over me."
Miranda didn't glance up as she said it. No emotion flickered over Jihn's face, nor did her body language betray any reaction. She turned quietly and moved to sit at the other end of the room. Not a muscle moved. She simply sat and waited, her silence almost inhuman and just as disconcerting.
It took only a few moments to copy the spell down on the back of what Miranda considered to be brightly colored trash. Necessary to pay the bills, the bright greens, pinks, and yellows attracted customers to their little corner. But so little care was given to those fliers. A frisson of premonition surged through her, so strong she almost didn't hand it over.
"Please," she begged, "be careful with this, Jihn. I swear, if I get caught--"
"You won't get caught," Jihn interrupted smoothly, reaching to snatch it neatly from her hand. "Have some faith."
Her glowing green eyes met Miranda's violet steadily, unblinking, until the witch had to look away. Jihn had steel-plated nerves and an iron strong will, not that she let it show. Her tall, willowy body looked fragile, too slender, and too weak. Not hinting at the strength that lay buried in those sleekly muscled limbs. And even though there was nothing child-like in those eyes, burning like copper chloride set to flame, they were wide and open and endless. As with quicksand, it was hard to tell their depths.
She kept her delicate features emotionless, the faint rosy flush perpetually brushing over her golden skin lending to the impression of inadequacy. She looked a mere seventeen and just as helpless.
And Jihn knew the worst part was the way she used it to her advantage.
"I don't think you realize how important this is." Miranda, despite what seemed to be a conscious effort, was shaking. "We're not allowed to change time to alter the present, even in ways as miniscule as this spell. It alters people's *thinking*."
Shrugging, Jihn glanced down at the paper casually, then tucked it into her pocket. As always, her face rested impassive under the witch's worried scrutiny. "Thank you, Miranda," she said politely, then deliberately turned her back.
She felt the witch's eyes on her as walked to the door, unlocking it long enough to slip through, then securing it from the outside. Satisfaction flooded through her like a raging river down a streambed. That had been almost too easy. A moment's curiosity drenched her mind before she shoved it aside. What Tierney wanted from the spell was her business, and it would stay that way.
Tierney didn't see Raquel the next day until after her second class, English with Mrs. Harington. Luckily, Tierney was in the Honors section, taking early American literature, and Mrs. Harington hadn't assigned them any essays on "obscure English words," as Raquel had quite eloquently put it. Instead, she'd gifted them with sixty pages of Thoreau to read.
It wasn't worth the effort to complain and Tierney didn't mind anyway. The assigned reading had taken her mind off her soulmate and the spell Jihn had promised to get.
"I hate science," Raquel grumbled as Tierney got to her locker. "Why do I need to know about meiosis? How will it effect my daily life?"
"You'd be surprised," Tierney laughed, yanking her locker open. Unlike her purse and unlike her room, her locker was immaculate, all the books neatly categorized and notebooks neatly stacked. Placing her English books carefully into the correct place, she straightened and slammed the locker shut. "Ready for art?"
Raquel brightened. "Nothing is more fulfilling than making my stick figures look authentic."
Groaning, Tierney replied, "There has to be something that you're good at or that you like. Why don't you at least make an effort in art? You might find you enjoy it."
"It's more fun to antagonize Mrs. Obry." Raquel shut her own locker, falling into step beside Tierney. The trip to the art room was short, which was the standing reason that Raquel made it to class without fail. Usually, she was even on time.
Tierney followed her through the door. The art room was her least favorite place in the entire school. English, science, math, languages... No problem. But put a pencil in her hand and ask her to draw a tree and it would probably end up looking like a poorly drawn horse. Art was definitely *not* her forté. In fact, it probably couldn't even be considered one of her weaker skills.
Her artistic talent was simply nonexistent.
They sat down at the wide, scarred tables in their usual seats, across from the window. Raquel liked to watch the guys' gym class; Tierney liked to daydream. Neither activity was conducive to Mrs. Obry's expectations.
"Oh, look how cute they are sitting there together!" someone exclaimed.
"Let's get them a box of crayons so they can start their latest art project," came the mocking reply. "I hear two-year-old just love that."
Gritting her teeth, Tierney promised herself she wouldn't rise to the bait. She'd been more than dismayed to find she had art with both Lindsay *and* Meera at the start of the semester and had been enduring their barbs since then.
Raquel opened her mouth to snap back what Tierney suspected was a nasty reply, yelping when she kicked her under the table. "What was that for?" she hissed. She leaned down to rub her jean-clad shin.
"What do you think?" Tierney snapped back.
She wrinkled her nose. The smell of turpentine was absolutely putrid and seemed to be billowing about the room in abundance. Apparently, the case before them had been experimenting with oil paints, a logical assumption due to the smell drifting through the room and the canvasses that were set carefully against the back wall.
Still glaring, Raquel followed the direction of her gaze. "I hope she doesn't make us do something that requires talent," she muttered.
Malicious laughter drifted from in front of them. Lindsay slapped two canvasses down on the table. "Don't worry," she practically purred, "Mrs. Obry gave me express orders not to let you two have anything but finger-paint."
"Oh, good," Raquel shot back before Tierney could stop her, "I was wondering if there was some way we could improve your face."
Lindsay sneered, but couldn't seem to come up with an appropriate response. She flounced away with the sneer still plastered on her features.
Noticing the disapproving look on Tierney's face, Raquel rolled her eyes. "Oh, don't look at me like that. At least I didn't tell her that putting a plastic bag over her head would improve it even more."
"I wish we could play with finger-paint," Tierney answered, ignoring Raquel's final comment. "It would be more fun than whatever torture Obry has planned for today."
They watched as the woman strode over to them, her hands full of various art supplies. Seeing the obstinate expression Raquel's face, she looked merely resigned. She stopped at their table.
"Acrylics," she announced dryly, setting down a handful of paints. "I trust you'll find something inartistic to do with them, but please, try to aim for the canvas, Raquel."
"Can it be abstract?" Tierney pleaded, already dreading this exercise. She picked up a wide, flat paintbrush, helplessness already spiraling through her.
Mrs. Obry's expression softened. She seemed to like Tierney because she actually tried, despite her complete lack of skill. "Let me get you another piece of canvas so you can practice mixing colors. Abstract is fine."
"I don't know why she likes you," Raquel muttered, watching as she walked to the front of the cluttered classroom, dodging pottery and sculptures along the way.
Tarps spilled over the floor, their smoky translucent surfaces splattered with paint and dried clay. They glistened in the light. Mrs. Obry avoided them easily, even as the drafty air caused them to flutter and sprawl along the thin slice of open floor. The misshapen sculptures and too long pieces of rough material made the obstacle course that much more interesting.
She came back with not one but two pieces of canvas board. "Surprise me, Raquel," she said, handing one to her. "Give me a reason not to fail you."
"Oh, I can do that without drawing a thing," Raquel answered cheerfully. "If I pass, you won't have to see me next year."
"That's almost enough incentive to give you an A," they heard her mutter as she shook her head and walked away.
Cheerful now -- Tierney could only assume she was happy she'd managed to ruin the teacher's day -- Raquel reached for a tube of paint. "What do you think will happen if I mix cerulean with tangerine?"
"Something interesting?" Tierney offered. She picked up another paintbrush, wondering desperately which one she should use. Did the shape of the brush make a difference? And wasn't there something you were supposed to do before you dipped it in paint?
Mrs. Obry clapped her hands, now standing at the front of the classroom. Or at the back, depending on how you looked at it. She wore disapproval like a black cloud of impending gloom and pinned one of the guys with a piercing stare. The class gave her full attention, as they knew better than to ignore her. Mrs. Obry could be formidable when crossed.
"At the beginning of the semester, I told you the paintbrushes needed to be wet before acrylic paint ever touched the bristles. I gather that none of you were listening to that speech, as several of you," Shane Carson cringed, "have started painting without wetting the brush. If I see anyone else making this mistake, you'll spend your afternoon learning the proper care of your equipment."
Raquel was careful to dip her brush in water before bringing it anywhere near paint.
Picking up a tube of cadmium yellow, Tierney uncapped it and squeezed a small amount on a palette, following that with a drop of white. She dipped her paintbrush in water, then began trying to mix the colors. All she managed to do was smear the white into the yellow.
"This is hopeless," she moaned. "It dries too fast for me to do anything but ruin it." She sighed, then tried again. "I have papers for you to look at."
Attentively mashing globs of colors opposite to each other on the color wheel, Raquel was making several interesting shades of brown. "After school?"
Tierney nodded. "That works. Do you mind if Jihn comes with us?"
Raquel's brush halted, pressing roughly against the canvas. Suspicion lurked in her eyes. "Why would Jihn Daniels come with us? She's not a witch, is she?"
First of all, Tierney thought, her name isn't Jihn Daniels. But you don't need to know that just yet. Second, if you even knew about the rest of it... She squirted quinacra violet on the palette.
"No, she's not," she admitted, "but I thought we could all get something to eat, then you and I could go back to my house and I could show you."
The paintbrush resumed its former path of spreading uncomplimentary colors of paint. "I don't like Jihn."
"I know," Tierney answered dryly. "You've more than expressed that opinion in the past. She's not so bad though, really. You should talk to her sometime."
"What's with suddenly advocating Jihn as a decent person? Did she bribe you or something? And if she did, what does she want with me?"
"No bribes," Tierney lied, though it wasn't exactly a lie, either. She *had* told Jihn she didn't want anything in return. Jihn had merely coerced her into accepting something. "I just think she's lonely."
Raquel laughed. "Do you think that could have anything to do with the fact that she's a bitch? No one *wants* to talk to her."
Silently, Tierney agreed with her, but out loud she said, "She's got the Collective being nice to her. You've got to give her that."
"They're scared to death of her. I don't know if it counts."
Tierney didn't know what to say to that, because it was true and she couldn't even lie to refute it. It was almost written in stone, as much as the Collective pretended otherwise. "Well, I just wish you would give her a chance. What would it hurt?"
Setting down her paintbrush, Raquel held up her canvas board thoughtfully and tilted it so it caught the light. "You know," she answered, "you said the exact same thing about that science lecture you made me go to about six months ago. I was sick for weeks."
"I didn't know you were allergic to the chemicals he was using in the demonstration!"
"Neither did I," Raquel admitted. "Still, I have this strong feeling I'm going to find out I'm allergic to Jihn, too."
She set the canvas board down, apparently ready to start painting on her real canvas. The water she had been using to rinse off her brush was a murky color that reminded Tierney of swamps and alligators. She shamelessly stole Tierney's container without asking. Tierney didn't say anything.
"But if you think I should..." Raquel sighed. "I guess there's no reason not to."
"Mrs. Byrd, please have Tierney Anderson report to the office immediately."
The intercom crackled weakly, Mrs. Shumaker's voice somehow dryer and older through a communication system that might have been considered "advanced" fifty years ago. Those broken tones sent confusion spiral through Tierney's mind. Why was *she* being called to the office?
From where she stood at the front of the room, Mrs. Byrd, who was substitute teaching for the day, nodded at her. Baffled, Tierney stood, momentarily debating whether or not to take her things. Sixth period would be over shortly and whether or not she'd make it back was debatable. Suddenly decisive, she gathered up her books.
As she walked past other students in the classroom, she managed to catch snippets of snide comments from all sides. Keeping her head high, she ignored their brutal whispers.
"*I* heard she put a spell on him."
She could only assume they were talking about how she'd gotten Julien to ask to her prom. And oddly, he'd been the last person on her mind.
"It's true," the first voice insisted, "she's a devil worshipping witch. Matt swears he saw her bathing in pig's blood last night!"
"You are *so* gullible," the second voice sneered. "She's not a witch. She's just a freak. How would Matt know if it was pig's blood anyway?"
Tierney continued to walk, forcing her features to remain stoic. She knew exactly where that little rumor had come from, but refused to acknowledge it. After all, what was the point? If she tried to deny it, the gossip would spread faster than -- well, she would say "wildfire," but it had already done that. Only this time it would have the ring of truth to it.
Edging past two empty desks, she forced herself to relax. Think of something pleasant, like shopping for your prom dress, she thought. If Tierney couldn't find Jihn before the end of the day, she and Raquel were going to shop after school.
She ambled through the door into the darkened hallway, lined on both sides with dull, sea foam green lockers. Highly reminiscent of a mental ward, the colors in the school should have led to mass depression. The pale hue was a calming color, but used in overabundance, anything could drive you mad. Tierney would definitely say they'd crossed the line.
Then again, Tierney's parents only paid taxes. What did her opinion matter?
Focusing on the white haven at the end of the hall, she went back to wondering what the administration wanted now. If she was really unlucky, they'd ask her to show the new boy around school. Dare. Her soulmate. Whatever title she called him by, the punishment was still the same.
The office appeared on her left shortly, her thoughts wandering slower than her feet against the pseudo-granite floor. Mrs. Shumaker glowered at her through the wide picture window separating the office from the main hallway. Nothing new there. If Mrs. Shumaker wasn't glaring, Tierney might start to worry for her health. The woman always looked like she'd just swallowed a porcupine.
"Can I help you?" she wheezed. Her voice had the same grating tones as a floor sander against polished metal. Staring imperiously, she somehow managed to look down her nose even though Tierney was standing over her.
"You called me to the office?" A quizzical raising of the eyebrow, coupled with the brief uncertainty as to the state of Mrs. Shumaker's mental health. "From Mrs. Byrd's class? The one she's substituting for today?"
If possible, Mrs. Shumaker's expression turned even more sour. "I did no such thing."
Tierney stared at her. Maybe her concern for the secretary's mental state wasn't so farfetched. "But I --"
Raising an eyebrow, the lady said, "Go back to class, Tierney, and stop trying to cause trouble." She sniffed angrily, turning her attention back to the papers in front of her.
Not sure what to say, Tierney glanced around the office twice to make sure one of the other secretaries wasn't lurking there. No one. And Mrs. Shumaker said she hadn't --
Shaking her head, Tierney walked out of the office. Huge windows gleamed around her, proudly displaying a few straggling bushes in a bed of river rock. Soon they would be in full bloom, but now they just looked dejected. Clutching her books, Tierney silently opted between going back to her locker during the five minutes she had left or wandering to her next class.
Her locker, she decided. While it might be interesting to go to French unprepared, Mrs. Cavendar would likely have an apoplexy. She started down the hall, subdued, and wondering what had just happened. If anyone was crazy, it was definitely Mrs. Shumaker.
The thought almost made her giggle. The woman was bad enough sane, with a humor so dry it made the Sahara desert look fertile. But, crazy... Oh, it would be funny to see her staid business suits replaced with something a little louder, like green and orange plaid. And she'd even match the walls.
A small smile curved her lips. Yes, that had been weird, but at least she'd gotten out of the last ten minutes of history. Mr. Timmons might be the most boring teacher on the face of the earth, but at least you didn't have to listen. Mrs. Byrd liked to randomly ask questions instead of finishing her sentences.
She turned the corner, trying to remember if Mrs. Cavendar had assigned them any homework for today. Probably. The woman just loved to grade. Lost in thought, she didn't notice the shadow playing dimly over the scantily lit floor. Someone yanked her into the teachers' lounge and slammed the door.
Tierney drew in a breath to scream.