The voice was soft, cultured, its faint English accent immediately recognizable and distant like the chime of fairies in a hidden forest. Adrenaline shot through her veins, that sweetly euphoric feeling where blood pounded hotly, a distant chiming explosion in her brain.
She took two long, steady breaths to calm herself. "Why do you do that?" she demanded.
Jihn's eyes burned steadily at her. "Do what?" she asked coolly, her voice a stark contrast against the warm child-like cast of her features.
"Jihn, don't play stupid with me!" Tierney exclaimed, eyes flashing like static electricity, a hot jump of silver through smudged hazel. The excess emotion splashed through the dusty air.
And maybe something flickered over Jihn's face, some recognition that hadn't been there before, but perhaps she'd just imagined it. She bit sharply into her lower lip, trying to form a coherent tirade. The words sputtered and died at her lips.
She took a deep breath, hoping to wipe the bitter edge from her voice. "You nearly scared me to death."
"Only nearly?" Mock disappointment smeared the striking green of Jihn's eyes and spilled onto the sharp planes of her cheeks. "Remind me to work harder next time."
"I'd rather you didn't," Tierney replied sweetly. "Next time, a simple, 'Tierney, come here,' will suffice."
Not a flicker of reaction. "It amuses me to see the look of terror creep across your face before you realize it's only me."
Contrary to that statement, Jihn did not look amused. Flushed cheeks and dewy green eyes leant to her childlike, innocent blankness, erasing any trace of feeling. She reminded Tierney of a movie she had seen once, so long ago she could no longer recall the name.
The film had been about a little girl who never once cracked a smile, never once cried. No matter what happened, the girl always looked the same. As if someone had frozen time with some weird exception to the laws of physics, so that you always saw the same thing, regardless of which way you looked.
It amazed Tierney how Jihn could ignore emotion so easily, brushing it aside with the same care she would show a gnat. An annoyance, but not something that effected her in any lasting way. There, but not really present.
"I don't think it does," Tierney answered, her voice soft. She dropped into an empty desk in the long row, staring fixedly at her hands. "What do you want?"
Laughing, Jihn replied, "My weekly assignment is to spread good cheer wherever I go. You're my first victim."
"You're kidding, right?"
"What do you think?" Jihn sneered, her face back in its rigid lines. Her mouth was pursed slightly and so much frost gathered in her eyes and voice that Tierney wondered if she'd need an ice pick. Anything to chip through the layers Jihn built around herself so that maybe she could get a glimpse of the girl who lay beneath.
She had a better chance of befriending a cobra.
Looking up and sighing, she replied, "It's been a long day. I've stopped thinking."
"Any run-ins with your dear soulmate?"
Speechless, Tierney blinked, wondering wildly who could have told and how Jihn would have known, when Tierney and Dare had barely mentioned it to each other. "But-"
"I saw the look on your face when he touched you," Jihn interrupted quietly. She sat in a seat the next row over, her back no less straight and her posture no less rigid. "And I heard your conversation at the front of the cafeteria."
"It doesn't mean anything," Tierney said quickly. She worried her full lower lip with perfect white teeth and cast a worried glance Jihn's way, the color of her eyes darkening to a rich chocolate mingled with fertile forest green.
Jihn raised one perfectly arched brow. "Perhaps not." Something in her voice suggested otherwise. "But in case you stop telling yourself that, I brought you the spell you asked for." She leaned back in her chair and crossed one slim leg over the other, doing the perfect imitation of a lethal Russian spy interrogating the not-so-innocent witness.
Tierney fought the urge to laugh.
"I really don't want it," she insisted, suddenly on more comfortable ground. Easy to deny or refuse what you never had a chance at in the first place. And now she refused only a whim, something that had quickly passed as reality blew in.
"Neither do I," Jihn countered. "Take the spell or I auction it off to the highest bidder."
"You can't do that!"
Jihn's smile blew through like a sudden cold front in the middle of a roaring March. "I beg to differ." Her smile was far too filled with confidence. "I can do whatever I want."
Letting her wide eyes slide briefly closed, Tierney murmured, "Doesn't it even faze you that this is forbidden magic? You'd just sell it off to whoever paid you the most?"
"Of course." Jihn straightened, tilting her body slightly forward, her eyes narrowed on Tierney's defeated face. "After all, I don't know anything about magic. I can call it an accident."
"Yes, but what scares me is that you *would*." Tierney sighed. "And now I feel obligated to take the spell just so it doesn't fall into someone else's hands."
"Justify it any way you want, but don't lie to yourself, and especially to me. You wouldn't have asked for it if you didn't want it."
Cringing, Tierney knew that she was right. She still wasn't sure she would actually *do* it, but it made her feel more comfortable to have the option. And now, by caving under Jihn's bluffs -- though she still wasn't entirely sure they were merely pretenses -- she was guaranteed to have that option and that much more likely to actually use it.
The bell rang.
"Where is it?"
Tierney didn't know if there was another class in this room during the next period, but she'd rather not be there to find out. In the darkened classroom, this interaction looked more like a clandestine drug deal. She waited impatiently as Jihn delved into her pocket, extracting a brightly colored paper. She accepted it warily. "What is this?"
"The spell," Jihn answered, her tones pacifying, as if she were talking to a small child. "Surely you didn't think they'd send the original."
"I had hoped," Tierney muttered as she squinted at the tiny printing at the top of the page. "It would have been easier to read."
"Funny, we thought the same thing about your handwriting."
Tierney shook her head. "It's fine. I think she misspelled the title, but that's not that important. Did you have to write it on the back of a flier?"
Instead of answering, Jihn picked up a pile of thick textbooks lying on a nearby desk. "You're going to be late for French," she warned, glancing at the clock set above the door. Then she let her mouth curve, but the movement did not extend to her other features and Tierney expected something to crack. "If Mrs. Cavendar gives you detention, we can't meet after school. You don't want to see me upset."
Really, she thought, she didn't. A happy Jihn made for a peaceful existence. "Where?"
"The coffee shop Raquel loves to go to. I'll be there at three." With that said, she walked out of the room, her blond hair swinging easily behind her like a curtain of spun gold.
Impressed, Tierney could only watch her go. Jihn had done her homework if she knew about Raquel's obsession with the coffee shop. The second bell rang and she groaned. Late again. Pretty soon, the teachers were going to assume Raquel's habits were rubbing off on her. Of all the things she *didn't* want to happen...
... that one was certainly above seeing Dare again.
"Screw the coffee shop," Tierney said suddenly. She frowned down at her books, wondering if she really cared even to take them out of her locker and put them into her back pack. "Let's just hop a plane to England and live in a box."
Raquel paused in the midst fishing through her papers. "Is that legal?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes, if you're actually going to do it! I don't want to find out you're rotting in some foreign jail!"
Tierney laughed. "I believe the suggestion included a 'we,' not an 'I.'" She shook her head wryly, finally deciding to take home her American Literature book. Perhaps it would help her grade to read the assignment tonight instead of bluffing her way through it. "I take it you're not coming?"
Raquel's face reflected scorn. "If I'm moving anywhere, it's to a tropical island with servants and a *nice* house, not to a dirty street in a country where rain is more common than grass of *any* sort," a brief silence while she paused for breath, "and do you really think a box is going to protect you from that? It's much more likely to disintegrate at the first raindrop!"
"It'll be an experience," Tierney shrugged. She watched Raquel finally give up on her hunt for whatever she was looking for, shutting her own locker quietly. Unsurprisingly, she had to slam it shut the second time, as well as kicking it twice before it finally stuck. "Coffee shop?"
"Absolutely." A scowl. "We don't have to wait for Jihn, do we?"
"No," Tierney answered, watching as exaggerated relief flooded over Raquel's face. Amused, she continued, "She's going to meet us there at three."
Raquel slammed her locker shut, her eyes narrowing angrily. When the locker bounced back open, spilling her biology book and her history book onto the scuffed floor. "Peachy." She kicked her books viciously before bending to pick them up.
Swallowing her laugh, Tierney leaned back against her locker and waited for Raquel to finish. Her friend replaced the books slowly. She was obviously trying to put off the coffee shop for as long as humanly possible. Lingering over her notebooks -- which she located with surprising ease -- she flipped through one and then another. She placed them back on the self, then started leafing through her trig book.
Tierney stayed quiet until Raquel started digging for a pen in the recesses of her locker, sorting through the graveyard of writing utensils until she found one that worked. "Raquel, let's go," she finally ordered. She reached down, grabbing her friend's arm and dragging her away.
"Hey! I have to close my locker!"
With a healthy amount of cynicism, sure that Raquel would find at least eight other things that needed to be done before they could walk to the car, Tierney let go of her arm. To her surprise, Raquel shut her locker and came back without a word. Tierney raised an eyebrow.
Grumpily, Raquel answered her unasked question. "Stalling isn't going to make it go away," she grumbled, though she looked like she wished it would. Slinging her back pack over her shoulder, she started down the hall, leaving Tierney to trail behind her.
The latter didn't say anything on the short trip to the car. She was too busy pretending she didn't hear the snide conversations pummeling her from all sides. And the worst part: they were all lies, every single last one of them. No, she hadn't once had a little sister that she sacrificed to Satan at the age of four. No, she wasn't going to pull a Carrie during prom, even if someone dumped a bucket of blood on her in the middle of the dance. Though she would be pretty pissed off.
She followed Raquel through the double glass doors leading into the parking lot, past the track team, who stretched for that day's practice, past the group of stoners loitering at the back of the parking lot. Everyone ignored the two of them, except for the sly glances sent their way and the whispered comments of which Tierney only caught snippets.
It was amazing how two-faced her classmates were. In front of Julien and Adrien, their treatment bordered on cotton-candy sweet and was just as sickening. When the senior boys weren't around, it could only be described as nasty and shallow. It almost made Tierney ill.
Shaking her head, she tried to push the memories of those conversations to the farthest recesses of her mind. Right now, it was more important to figure out how Jihn fit in with this whole thing. Did she want Raquel to know she was a vampire? Tierney would guess the answer to that was "no."
So instead of addressing that issue, she asked Raquel something else that was bothering her. "I didn't tell you that you're a witch on the beach yesterday. How did you know?"
Blinking, Raquel's mouth fell open to answer, then she shut it abruptly. Finally, she responded, "Are you sure you didn't say anything?"
"Positive," Tierney said firmly. "It didn't occur to me that I hadn't told you when you said you wanted to learn. I was too surprised that you *did*." She unlocked her car quickly, thanking the Goddess that it wasn't winter anymore. Every time it got cold, her locks froze shut and it was a battle to even get in the car.
Raquel waited for Tierney to unlock the doors, tapping her fingers impatiently. She wrenched open the door and answered as she climbed into the car. "I don't know how I knew," she admitted. "I really thought you said something."
Sitting on the driver's side, Tierney swung her legs inside and reached for the handle. "Yeah, I thought--" As she grasped the handle, someone suddenly called her name. Startled, she looked up.
A groan sounded from beside her. "What does he want?" Raquel sighed. She dropped her book bag on the floor and slammed the car door, slinking down into the seat. She looked like a recalcitrant teenager who had just been punished, which wasn't that far from the truth.
Julien jogged toward them, looking muddy and disheveled and somehow still a beautiful specimen of humanity. His shin guards flopped against his legs and his soccer cleats clicked against the concrete. "Hey, Tierney, hold on a second!"
Instead, she pulled the door closed and rolled down the window to her little blue Corsica. "What's up?" she asked simply.
He grinned, bracing his forearms against the roof of her car and leaning down so that they were at eye level. She caught the smell of sweat and dirt, mixing with that scent that was uniquely Julien. Or as was the case of too many of the guys at school, too much cologne. Still, it wasn't unpleasant.
Distracted, she barely noticed his gray eyes stray to Raquel. They seemed to lose some of their spark, but Tierney knew she had to be imagining it. Julien and Raquel liked each other, and in fact, he was almost as much of a brother to her as Adrien. So, why...?
"I need a favor," he said, cutting off those thoughts. His cheeks dimpled when he smiled, something that only heightened his attractiveness. "Are you going to be home tonight?"
"No," Raquel interjected, beating Tierney to a response. She smiled angelically at him from her side of the car, but if she'd had a halo, it would have been listing dreadfully to the side. Especially since at the moment, she was playing devil's advocate.
He stared at his best friend's little sister, momentarily stunned into silence. "Did I ask you?" he countered finally.
"You couldn't come up with anything more original than that?" Raquel looked disappointed. Rolling her eyes, she shook her head and somehow managed to slump farther into her seat. Tierney fought the urge to smack her.
Julien sighed, angling his body toward Tierney again. "Are you going to be home?"
"That depends on why you're asking. If you're asking because you're afraid I'm going to resurrect my non-existent dead sister, then no, I'm going to be out in a field digging her up. If you're asking because you want to stop by, yes, I'll be there."
"Have they started spreading more rumors?" he demanded angrily, almost before she'd finished her sentence.
She was taken aback by the vehemence in his voice. Both she and Raquel knew he meant the Collective when he referred to "they." He didn't like the girls, that much was obvious, but she'd never heard such scorn in his voice when talking about them. Something else must be bothering him, she decided.
Opting to skate around that question, she answered, "There are always rumors, Julien. I barely pay attention any more. It's not worth it."
He didn't look convinced, but he backed away from the topic, following her lead reluctantly. "If you say so. I might come by later if that's okay."
Tierney nodded. "Of course, it is. Just call to make sure I'm there. Mom and Dad are still in Japan until Sunday, so you can keep me company."
"Great." He grinned again, his dimples peeking out of his smooth, clean-shaven cheeks, and slapped the roof of the car, one of those bizarre habits some guys have, which make no sense and serve no purpose. "I have to get back to practice. I'll catch you later tonight."
She smiled back and waved as he sprinted away, the muscles in his quads playing beautifully. It was a damned shame they were such good friends and he thought of her as a little sister. The stuff dreams are made of, she thought with a sigh. Then she thought of her soulmate and shuddered. She picked her keys up off the seat beside her.
"He wants you," Raquel said, as soon as she was sure he was out of earshot.
Tierney jumped, startled, and slid the key into the ignition, letting the car purr to life. "You're crazy." She glanced over at her friend, who was staring at her, amused and smirking. "What are you looking at me like that for?!"
"I'm not crazy. He wants you. I can tell."
"To borrow some of your skepticism, let me guess: the tea leaves told you?"
"Can you really do that?" she asked, surprised, then she realized Tierney was kidding. "No! I don't know how to read them, remember? But I can tell. He treats you differently than he treats everyone else."
Tierney pulled out of the parking space. "Just because he talks to me like I have a brain doesn't mean I get special treatment. It just means that I'm capable of intelligent conversation as well as being able to parrot back all the sports statistics."
Laughing, Raquel replied, "And you actually know what a touchback is when you talk to him, instead of trying to say it's when one of the players reaches back to touch the quarterback before the play is called."
"If you're going to talk sports, it helps to know what you're talking about," Tierney agreed, her voice dry. Then she glanced at the clock and grimaced. "We're going to be late and Jihn's not going to be happy."
"Did you have to remind me?"
"What are we doing here?" Dare complained, sneering at the tastefully decorated walls of the coffee shop.
The paintings adorning the walls were a knock off of Van Gogh, to go with the rest of the decor. While they were masterfully reproduced so that even the texture was nearly perfect, Dare scorned the failed attempt at culture. All of the paintings were well-known and highly publicized, such as /La nuit étoilée/ and /Café le soir/. Nothing rare or lesser known.
He did have to admit, however, that it blended well with the rest of the coffee shop. Single wall lamps illuminated each of the prints, streaks of light stretching in almost perfect circles over their canvasses. Those lights were dim, however, and cast only shadows over dusky blue tables. Uncomfortable-looking wrought iron chairs sat grouped around the tables in some odd semblance of order, even though some tables had six chairs and others only had three, despite the tables' equal size. The walls were a different shade of that muted blue, a color echoed in the random pattern of blue and white tiles lining the floor.
"Lindsay and Meera wanted us to meet them here. Hope they said three," Byron frowned, his eyes narrowing suspiciously at his watch, which did indeed read three o'clock.
Dare's mouth twisted in a sneer, an expression that seemed to be nearly plastered to his face at least three-fourths of the day. "That didn't mean you had to agree."
Byron acknowledged that absently, snagging one of the wrought iron chairs and sitting down. "Don't argue with the blood donors, they always say."
"Who is 'they?'"
"Don't know, really," Byron answered, looking mildly surprised at the question. "The Elders, maybe?"
It was all Dare could do not to roll his eyes. "You can't influence them? It seems like it would be a lot less effort than being nice to them." With a scowl, he sat at the table across from Byron. He picked up a menu from the center of the table and glanced at it briefly. "Is the coffee here any good?"
The vampire made some indistinct gesture to indicate that he didn't know. "Never drink it," he admitted. "One of the waitresses is a witch and she brings me... uh, tomato juice. Hey, Teresa!" He beamed up at the snobby junior, the only one of the three who was truly pretty.
Much to Dare's disgust, she simpered back. "Lindsay and Meera will be here in a second. Lindsay had to park."
Frowning again, Byron asked, "When did Lindsay get a car?"
Teresa shrugged, brushing the question aside, and dropped into the seat next to Dare. "Could you get me an iced mocha latte?" Then she stared at him expectantly, seemingly certain he would get it for her, no questions asked. And, of course, he would pay for it.
Her mouth fell open. For a moment, she looked absolutely furious that he'd refused her request, then her features smoothed into their normal snobby contours. "Byron?" she pleaded, though it sounded more like a whine than anything else.
He nodded, pushing his chair back and glaring at Dare. ~Be nice to my dinner!~ he snapped mentally. After issuing that warning, he walked over to the tall counter, where he ordered Teresa's drink. The redheaded waitress apparently knew him, because she smiled warmly at him, and disappeared briefly into the back.
Must be the witch, Dare thought, racking his brain to think of something to say to Teresa. He was saved by the other two brainless idiots who accompanied her everywhere she went. "Hi, Dare," Lindsay cooed, her hip brushing against his arm as she passed. He suspected the action was intentional, just as he suspected she was the easiest of the three girls.
So Teresa was the prettiest, Lindsay was the easiest... What did that make Meera?
Curious, Dare turned to face her. Her expression was not friendly, nor did she seem to invite any sort of interaction. If her nose got any higher in the air, she might start having to direct traffic. And then Dare had his answer. Meera was the snobbiest.
Lindsay unabashedly stole Byron's seat. Her knee brushed Dare's beneath the table, peeking at him from beneath lowered lashes. She glanced coyly away when she noticed he was looking. He smothered his disgust. The human girl was trying to *flirt* with him, of all things.
When Dare glanced over at Byron, he was staring at the girls, looking merely resigned at the new seating arrangement. Dare shrugged apologetically, which Byron waved off with a careless motion of his hand. A few seconds later, he walked back to the large table, carrying a steaming latte and a glass of "tomato juice." He sat directly between Meera and Lindsay.
"Thank you, Byron," Teresa said, her lashes fluttering. Dare wanted to gag, but he forced himself to remain stoic.
The door at the front of the shop jingled, swinging inward. Byron groaned. "Hate this coffee shop," Dare heard him mutter under his breath.
The girl standing in the doorway apparently heard him, too. Her wide and innocent green eyes focused on them, unblinking, and her mouth curved just slightly. She walked toward them like a panther stalking her prey. "Byron, dear, then why do you come?" Her gaze swept over the three girls who were trying not to cower in their cushioned seats. "I never thought I'd see you dictated by a blood bank."
"Yeah, well, hoped I'd never see you at all. Happens like that."
She shrugged, her delicate features somehow dark and oddly chilling, though her expression did not alter. Dare was surprised by the subtle change in her. He looked at Byron quizzically, his tawny eyes questioning the identity of the girl. When Byron mouthed back her name, Dare merely raised an eyebrow, hiding the depth of his surprise. Whatever he'd expected from Byron's cousin, this wasn't it.
"Keep wishing, Byron, dear. The Goddess eventually has to take pity on you, doesn't she?"
Byron rolled his ever-changing eyes. "What d'you want, Jihn?"
She shrugged, one slim white shoulder raising absently beneath a silken sheet of gilt, and glanced at the human girls who wore expressions of loathing underlain with fear. Contradictorily, she slipped into one of the empty chairs. Teresa cringed away from her. "I need a favor."
"Surprise, surprise," he muttered disgustedly. "What is it this time?"
"Your firstborn," she replied smoothly, her eyes seeming to drill straight through each of them in turn. "Are you ready to sign her over yet?"
He stared at her suspiciously. "How d'you know my firstborn'll be a girl?"
She smiled, but the expression held no warmth. Only a fleeting glimpse of cold cruelty. "I warned you what would happen if you didn't help the last time."
"What's the favor?" he demanded, after a lengthy pause. A niggling doubt struggled through his mind and somehow, he knew she wasn't lying. Jihn wasn't the type to threaten.
Casting a contemptuous stare over the human girls who cowered in their seats, she rose. "I'll be at your house later tonight. We'll talk there." She turned, her shimmering hair whipping behind her, and walked away. She sat at a booth at the far end of the shop, clearly waiting for someone.
Lindsay shuddered delicately. "She's like a cobra without fangs," she said. Her fingers nervously traced an abstract pattern on the table top.
Byron's mouth curled in what looked like amusement. "Oh, she has fangs, she does. I'd be careful, if I were you." He chuckled softly to himself.
"She's such a bitch," Meera accused, wrinkling her nose.
Dare was tempted to ask her how she would describe herself. A model of compassion and tolerance? He wanted to laugh at the irony of her statement, but was afraid he would spend the next twenty minutes explaining why he was laughing.
The red-headed witch at the counter walked over, carrying two more mugs of coffee. "It's on the shop," she said, her voice husky. She set one in front of Lindsay and one in front of Meera. "And good luck on finding prom dates."
Obviously offended, Teresa blinked up at her. "Excuse me?" she asked coldly, not bothering to thank the witch for the coffee.
The girl, whose name tag read "Vanessa," smiled sympathetically. "Well, I just heard that Julien and Adrien have dates, and I knew how much you wanted to go with them, so I wanted to wish you luck on finding someone else to go with." She reached out, removing the container for the sweeteners and the salt and pepper. She traded it for a fresh container on another table.
Teresa's pale blue eyes were still narrowed. "Who are they going with?"
"Adrien's date is Jordana Cartiss and Julien," she paused to think about it for a moment, her face scrunching, "I think is going with Tierney Anderson."
All the blood rushed from Teresa's face. "Tierney Anderson? You have got to be kidding me."
Vanessa shook her head apologetically. "Julien was the one who told me." She shrugged and walked back to the counter, where she busied herself with wiping everything down.
"Now where am I going to get a date?" Lindsay whined, her face nearly as pale as Teresa's. "The prom is only a week away and I was sure they would take us! Everyone who is anyone has a date already." She pushed the coffee away and didn't seem to realize how offensive that statement was to Dare's ego.
Apparently, neither did he. "We can take you," he found himself offering before he realized what he'd done. By then it was too late to take the words back. What the hell is wrong with me? he wondered.
Byron shook his head vigorously, panic flitting across his face. "Terrible idea. Not going to do it." His features set stubbornly. "I refuse to go to a stupid dance."
It was Dare's turn to kick him under the table, instead of the other way around, which he did with relish. For some reason, he didn't even think about saving the situation and backing out. Byron yelped loudly, his body jerking and his eyes widening fractionally. He correctly read the warning in Dare's eyes. "Ow! Okay, okay! I changed my mind! I'll do it!"
"I'll go with you, Dare," Lindsay said quickly, before Teresa had a chance to speak up.
Teresa glared at her, angry to have lost the new guy to one of her best friends, but then she smiled at Byron. "And I guess you and I are dates." A brief silence settled over the table, but it only lasted a few seconds, until Teresa said sweetly, "I expect a dozen red roses. At least."
Groaning, Byron silently said, ~Now do you see what you've done?~
But Dare didn't answer. He was too distracted by the girl who'd just walked in the door.