"I can't believe Davison *cancelled* Tae Kwon Do today," Raquel complained as she walked through the door of the coffee shop. She sounded distinctly piqued. "We pay good money for those class -- Tier, what are you doing?"
The last question was accompanied by a yelp as she smacked straight into Tierney's back. Tierney didn't bother to acknowledge that question and in truth, didn't even hear it. The second she'd walked inside, her eyes had locked with Dare's, true gold meeting misty hazel, and she felt like she was dying inside.
Not sure what she was supposed to be experiencing, but positive it wasn't this strange ache that threatened to rip her into shreds. Unable to stop herself from sinking...
"Tierney! Do you think you could move?!"
The tension in Raquel's voice sent Tierney spinning back into reality. "Sorry." She blinked briefly, trying to regain her bearings, and looked around for Jihn. The blond vampire waved, coldly amused, from one of the corner booths.
"The least she could do is smile," Raquel muttered, her violet eyes narrowed.
As if in answer, Jihn's face widened into a grin. To Tierney, the expression looked forced, and somehow wrong, like it had been forgotten and unused. It didn't reach Jihn's leafy green eyes. Raquel, however, seemed happy with the change. She pushed around Tierney and ignored Jihn for the moment, walking to the counter.
Tierney followed her.
Vanessa stood behind the counter, looking bored as she wiped a rag over a glass cover. Tierney wasn't sure if she was trying to polish it or rub a hole in it. The witch brightened when she saw them. "Hey, girls! The usual?"
The two nodded in unison. Raquel's usual was white chocolate raspberry flavored coffee, with just a touch of cream; Tierney's was an iced mocha latte. Occasionally Tierney strayed away from that choice, but Raquel never did. It had been nearly all Tierney could do to get her to try the biscotti.
"Chocolate hazelnut," Raquel replied immediately, her face reflecting gleeful anticipation.
Smiling, Vanessa laughed. "Of course." She shook her head, opening the cover she'd just been polishing and removing four pieces of biscotti. Setting them on a plate, she handed it and a cup of coffee to Raquel. "I'll have yours in just a minute, Tierney."
"Thanks." She smiled at her, then looked at Raquel, leaning back against the counter as she did so. "Why don't you go sit with Jihn? I'll be there in just a second."
Her friend groaned. "Do I have to?" she half-whispered, half-whined.
"Just go," Tierney hissed back, rolling her eyes. Really, you'd think Jihn was some sort of psychopath from the way Raquel avoided her. But as far as Raquel knew, Jihn wasn't anything special, just some nasty senior with an attitude.
Raquel glared, but made her way back to the table.
The second she was gone, Vanessa leaned over the counter. "The girls you affectionately refer to as the Collective weren't so happy that you'd taken one of their dates," she murmured, amusement lighting her sparkling brown eyes. She tucked her red hair behind her ear and ducked her head. Shooting the girls a look from beneath that curtain of red, she allowed herself to grin somewhat maliciously.
"Weren't?" Tierney asked. She slid onto one of the tall stools lining the dusky blue counter and propped her elbows on the edge while she waited for Vanessa to finish making her coffee.
Vanessa nodded. "They somehow managed to coerce Byron and that new kid into taking them."
"His name is Dare," Tierney answered absently, before she thought to stop herself. Her eyes widened fractionally and she blushed, the soft rush of blood tinting her cheeks a deep rose. Quickly, hoping to take Vanessa's attention away, she added, "How did they manage that?"
Setting coffee in front of her, Vanessa stared at her curiously, her hands still for the first time since Tierney and Raquel had entered the coffee shop. "They seemed to agree pretty easily. Have you got a thing for the new boy, Tierney?"
"Not exactly," Tierney mumbled with a sigh. "I'll explain later. Right now I'd better join Jihn and Raquel." A quick glance in that direction revealed Raquel glaring and Jihn, while outwardly calm, wearing the expression Tierney knew meant she was ready to throttle someone. "Before they kill each other."
Vanessa glanced in their direction. "Good idea. Blood is a bitch to get out of the grout between these tiles."
Laughing, Tierney slid off the high stool, which wobbled when she shifted her balance. A typical coffee shop, through and through. Oh, except for the shop beneath, which sold all sorts of rare and useful objects, if you were a witch.
She pointedly ignored Dare and the Collective as she walked to join Jihn and Raquel. Smiling easily at Jihn, she set her coffee down, waiting until Raquel had moved to make room before she slid into the booth beside her. "Hey, Jihn."
"Tierney," Jihn acknowledged, a ghost of a smile still flickering at the edges of her mouth but not reaching her eyes. Her hair was drawn back into a messy pile at the back of her head, secured with a lethally sharp slice of wood that Jihn was apparently trying to pass off as a chopstick.
Racking her brain, Tierney tried to think of something they had in common, but only came up blank. Finally, she asked lamely, "How was your day?"
"Fine." Then, seeming to realize she was going to need to make an effort to be a little more friendly, or at least a little more sociable, she added, "Yours?"
It was a start. Definitely better than nothing. Maybe something odd would rise out of this, like a friendship with Jihn. Before they'd been associates, someone the other could trust, but not really anything else. Jihn didn't seem to spend time with anyone else. Maybe this would be good for her.
"Lovely, except for the run-in with Mrs. Cavendar." Tierney grimaced, while Raquel shuddered. "I don't think I've ever heard anything more terrifying than that woman screaming in French."
Raquel pushed the plate of biscotti toward her, silently offering Tierney one of the pieces. Tierney noticed she didn't extend the same courtesy to Jihn. She admonished her friend with her eyes, urging her to do so, but Raquel ignored her.
"You should hear her in English," she said instead. "It's even scarier."
Jihn didn't say anything.
Now what? That topic died a quick death and Tierney had nothing else to say. Neither Raquel or Jihn seemed to be making an effort, for which she wanted to kick both of them. She couldn't do this on her own.
"Jihn, aren't you going to get anything?" she asked finally.
Jihn shook her head. "Probably not. I ordered chai last time I was here." At Tierney's questioning look, she grimaced. "I guess the nutmeg made me sick. Vanessa forgot to leave it out."
Tierney frowned. The nutmeg should only make her sick if it got into her bloodstream. Nutmeg was a seed from a tropical evergreen tree. Just baby wood, if you wanted to think of it that way. Even then it wouldn't kill her, but it *would* make her ill. But what Tierney didn't understand was why it had. Ingesting the stuff shouldn't hurt her.
"Are you allergic to nutmeg?" Raquel demanded.
Jihn smiled faintly, her eyes warming slightly from that frozen green. "You could say that," she answered, biting her lower lip to keep from laughing. "Do you mind if I have a piece of that biscotti?"
Contemplating Jihn through narrowed eyes, she seemed to be judging her and coming to a decision. "Yeah, take that last piece. I'll go get some more." She shoved the plate in Jihn's direction. Turning toward Tierney, she raised an eyebrow and waited for her to move.
Tierney slid out of the booth, standing long enough to let her out, then sitting back down. Both she and Jihn watched as Raquel walked to the counter. "I think you're making progress," Tierney said softly.
Those cold green eyes chilled back to their original temperature. "I'm glad you think so," Jihn answered noncommittally. She glanced down at the piece of biscotti, then picked it up. Examining it almost as closely as Raquel had the first time she'd tried it, she raised it to her mouth and took a bite.
"How did the nutmeg get in your blood stream?" Tierney asked after Jihn swallowed the biscotti.
Jihn shrugged. "I cut my lip on the mug. It was chipped." She took another bite.
Mystery explained and all was silent once again. Tierney almost couldn't take the stimulating conversation. On the other hand, she really couldn't talk to Jihn about the things she wanted to talk to her about in front of Raquel, and vice versa.
Raquel came back, clearing her throat when Tierney didn't immediately move so she could sit back down. In one hand she carried a plate of biscotti. In the other she had a steaming mug of chai. "I had Vanessa leave out the nutmeg," she said, setting it in front of Jihn.
Surprise washed over Jihn's face. "Thank you," she said politely, pulling it closer. Something new played in her eyes and it was all Tierney could do not to smile as she took a sip of her latte.
"Welcome," Raquel shrugged, easily brushing it off as nothing. "So what are you doing tonight, Tier?"
"Yes, what are you doing tonight?" Jihn echoed. She ate the final bite of biscotti, washing it down with a sip of chai.
Tierney blinked, cradling her own mug between her hands. "Actually, I need to go soon. Julien's supposed to come over, remember? I want to be there if he calls."
"D'Angelo. Do you know him?" Raquel and Tierney both looked at Jihn expectantly.
She shook her head. "I know who he is. He's your brother's best friend, right?" Raquel nodded. "He's the point guard on the basketball team."
Again, Tierney was impressed with how well Jihn had done her homework. "Yeah, that's him."
"He has a crush on Tierney," Raquel confided, knowing it would annoy her friend. "She won't admit it, but there's something going on."
"There is not!" She stubbornly glared at Raquel, her hazel eyes flashing an angry tawny color.
Jihn merely raised an eyebrow and didn't say anything about that, instead changing the subject. "I need to go to the mall anyway."
"The mall?" Raquel immediately perked up at that statement. "I could use a new pair of shoes."
Tierney choked on her coffee. "You have enough shoes that you could wear a different pair every day of the month and not run out!"
Raquel brushed that aside. "Do you mind if I go with you?" she asked Jihn. Then to Tierney, she said, "That way you won't have to give me a ride home and you can be back sooner in case Julien calls." Her eyes pleaded with Tierney and Jihn to agree.
"It's okay with me," Tierney answered, shrugging.
Jihn nodded her acquiescence, which caused a smile to break over Raquel's face. "Great! I just need to call Adrien and tell him where I'm going to be." With that said, she bounded out of the seat, knocking Tierney onto the floor in her haste, and raced toward the pay phones by the door.
Only slightly miffed, Tierney picked herself up off the floor and sat back in her seat. She wrapped her fingers back around her mug and shared a resigned look with Jihn. Then the vampire's expression cleared.
"Being a little friendlier helped," Tierney pointed out, taking another sip of her coffee, this time without almost choking. She tucked a curl behind her ear and propped her chin on her hand. "It's definitely better than the 'I'm a bitch' approach." Wincing, she realized what she'd said.
"I don't deny that I'm a bitch," Jihn assured her, understanding Tierney's dilemma. Despite the lack of emotion on Jihn's face, Tierney somehow got the impression she was amused. "I encourage that view, actually."
"I know," Tierney admitted. "And I'm somewhat grateful, because it's kept those girls on their side of the café instead of coming over here to bother us."
Raquel made it back to the table in time to hear that last comment. She rolled her eyes. "They've been glaring the entire time. That being the case, I think we should all leave together."
"I'm taking that as a hint?"
She grinned. "Of course."
Stretching, Tierney slid out of the booth. She paused to throw a tip down on the table and grab her keys, then waited for Jihn to do the same. The blond vampire did so quickly, and with a jerk of her head, indicated that they should leave.
"See you later, Vanessa," Tierney called over her shoulder. Snide laughter followed her out the door, the Collective erupting into nasty conversation. They were loud enough that she figured they wanted her to hear.
She took a deep breath, telling herself not to worry about it, just like always. It just got so *annoying*. Jihn and Raquel waited for her at Jihn's car, a sleek black model Tierney couldn't identify. It looked nice and possibly Italian, but she knew as much about cars as any girl, which wasn't much. She had other things to worry about right now.
Raquel paused in the middle of opening the door. "I'll call you later, okay?" An impish grin flashed across her face and she winked. "You can tell me how it went with Julien." She got in the car and slammed the door.
"There is nothing going on!" Tierney yelled at the tinted glass window and her own reflection. A sound of disgust hissed from her throat. Turning back to her own car, she slipped the key in the lock. Let Raquel think what she wanted. Tierney knew better.
Her shoulders tensed as she recognized the voice. Slowly, she let her hand fall to her side, keys clutched tightly together, and spun around to face him. "What do you want?"
Dare's expression was unreadable. He leaned against the hood of the car -- and she briefly took pleasure in the fact that it was filthy -- with his strong arms crossed over his muscled chest. Gold sparks spun in his eyes like fireflies twinkling in the glow of firelight. The fading sunlight illuminated the sharp spikes of his hair, turning them into spires of gold. Standing with his back against the sunset, he reminded Tierney of a magazine ad she'd once seen, probably for some kind of cheap cologne.
Then he shrugged. "Just a friendly neighborhood reminder," he said, his voice spinning like velvet against glass. "Byron was afraid you might not keep your end of the deal."
"Byron is a pain in the ass," Tierney snapped.
Not a flicker of reaction across Dare's face. "He provides an interesting level of amusement."
She didn't look convinced, reaching behind her to grasp the door handle and slip it open. "I'm not going to break my promise. Do you want it written in blood? Your kind usually do."
"My kind?" He raised an eyebrow at that statement, straightening from his seductive slump -- and it was seductive, much to Tierney's dismay -- and slinking toward her.
The way he moved toward her made her feel like prey, like he was stalking her and moving in for the kill. She didn't like it one bit. "Yes, your kind," she said, hurling the words at him like bullets, "the kind that likes to see people cower in fear because they get some kind of sadistic pleasure out of it. The kind that doesn't trust anyone because they can't be trusted themselves."
"Oh, I can be trusted," he said, his eyes narrowing dangerously. He took a step closer. "And I prefer my victims to be begging for pleasure rather 'cowering in fear,' as you so nicely put it." Then he smiled cruelly, adding softly, "My half-breed scum."
"Your *what*?" she gasped, taking a step back, but finding the car in the way.
He moved a step closer, obviously intending to use his body as a barricade or as a weapon. She wasn't entirely sure which. "My half-breed scum," he repeated. Triumph glowed in those bright eyes. "You didn't tell me that little bit of information yesterday."
"It's none of your damned business!" She tried so hard to keep the hurt out of her voice, but no matter what she did, some of her pain filtered through. He didn't miss the slightest shake of her voice or the smallest widening of her eyes.
And he was enjoying every minute of it. She could tell by the curling corners of his mouth, by the streaming, almost blinding color of his eyes, by the conquering cast of his shoulders. He saw too easily how it hurt her. "Oh, but I think it is, my half-breed scum."
"Don't call me that!"
"Well," he said thoughtfully, "if I could remember your name, maybe I wouldn't."
She had the brief and nearly uncontrollable urge to slap him, or to turn him into a rat, or to kiss him. Anything to get rid of that contemptuous disregard. If she was going for shock value, the latter was probably the best way to do it. And once she realized that, she couldn't stop herself from grasping his face, pulling him down to her, and sealing his lips with hers.
The soulmate connection flared like a beacon, raging hot and all-consuming. She was sucked toward his mind, those dangerous currents dragging her closer to demise like a riptide, often discovered too late. Dipping through the nebulous shadows in his mind, she barely registered his mouth starting to respond, his lips moving softly over hers. With a groan, he surrendered.
How different that was from the usual. Usually, the girl submitted to the guy, more often than not with a sigh of protest and a brief moment of swooning. Yet here she was, trapping the sharp planes of his cheeks between her hands, eyes caressing the spiky shadows left by his eyelashes on his cheeks. Perhaps he forgot who she was and what she was as they stood there, lips meshing in a way she feared their souls never would.
Rousing himself, he seemed to regain that memory and the hazy cloud of his mind shrank away like a movie played in reverse. He blinked, his eyes focusing on hers. A moment later the sanity returned to them and they hardened. "Happy now?" he asked, that sculpted mouth curving into a mocking smile. "Now you know what you won't get a chance at having."
This time she slapped him.
Hard. Hard enough that she left an angry red print on his angular cheek, that the imprint of her hand stood out clearly against the golden tones of his skin. But instead of getting angry, instead of reacting like he should have -- like he cared at all -- he laughed.
That laughter rumbled softly over her skin, like the purr of a lion. "I hope that made you feel better." His smirking gold gaze ran slowly over her face. "Because looking in the mirror certainly won't."
He turned and walked back into the café.
Tierney stared after him, her eyes welling with tears. He seemed to so love delivering those parting shots, then walking away as if she didn't even exist. First in the cafeteria, then after Calculus, and now this. As the tears spilled over, she tried to tell herself it wasn't worth it -- *he* wasn't worth it -- but all that did was upset her more.
So she gave up trying to lie to herself. She stopped telling herself that appearances didn't matter. She stopped telling herself that Dare was an asshole. She stopped telling herself that it would all work out. Darius Drache was her *soulmate*. It had to mean something, didn't it?
And so she did the only thing she could. She decided to do the spell.
The first thing she'd done was to go home and removed the spell from her book bag, laying it on her bed for easy reference. She didn't have to put up with this. Not caring that the spell was forbidden magic, not caring that he might hate her anyway, not caring that things might not change.
Until she looked in the mirror.
She'd been in the process of gathering things she needed, raiding her bedroom drawers for candles and herbs she knew she wouldn't find in the kitchen. Digging through piles of ingredients that always came in handy, she'd looked up, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror over her dresser. Too ravaged by emotion to look away, she'd straightened, her hands stilled, and simply looked.
Simply stared at her features, wanting to curl up somewhere far away, where none of this mattered.
Now her fingers trailed down the glass, leaving greasy smudges in their wake. She met her reflection's eyes and wondered if she was doing the right thing. If it would even matter.
She catalogued her features almost idly. Round cheeks molding into a mouth that was far too full. Thin, short nose above a narrow and pointy chin. Her face too tapered. Thick, heavy eyebrows. Eyes too big in a too-small face. A face of extremes, where temperance might have been a virtue.
And plastic surgery, she added silently, realizing just how painful the truth can be.
She looked like a cross between Oscar the Grouch and Bert from Sesame Street, but with radically different coloring. Her skin, even with foundation, sometimes couldn't be smoothed into one skin tone. Make-up couldn't even fool passersby into believing the illusion of beauty. Or even the illusion of plainness.
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" she whispered. Her own face stared back at her, a painful mockery.
She strengthened her resolve. Just get what you need, she said to her reflection, do the spell, and then wait for the fairy tale ending.
Three strands of hair, she told herself solemnly, meeting her eyes with more determination than she'd ever shown for anything before this. She raised her arm, wrapping her fingers around a few strands near her ear, and *yanked*. She yelped. Tears sprang to her eyes, welling and threatening to spill over. That had *hurt*.
Sniffling, she rubbed her fingers sullenly over her smarting scalp. Pulling a sheaf of paper from her dresser, she quickly folded those strands of hair inside. She sealed the paper with a piece of tape and dropped it into her bag.
Downstairs now, to gather the last of the herbs, and she should be prepared. She stopped by her bed to carefully gather up the fragile spell. It slipped easily into a folder, which would hopefully protect it. Jogging down the stairs, she shot through the kitchen, stopping only briefly at one of the cabinets to grab cinnamon and thyme. Then she ran through the door, her fingers quickly securing the lock. She hurriedly sprinted to her car.
She needed to finish this before the tide came in.
As she got into the driver's seat, stuffing the spell's ingredients next to her, she paused to take a deep breath. It'll be okay, Tierney, she told herself grimly. The spell will work. You've got nothing to worry about. Oh, if only she knew of something else that would accomplish the same thing.
But she didn't.
Wrapping her nerves under tight control, she pulled the door shut behind her. A reflection spell, to reflect back the beauty of her soulmate, so that the reflection of his good looks showed itself on her features. And then she would be beautiful. Even more importantly, she would be equal.
No one would even know the difference, because this spell altered people's memories. As far as they knew, she'd always been beautiful, so tomorrow would be nothing different for them. For Tierney and Dare, it would be a completely different story. But whatever happened, she'd finally have a way to fight back. Maybe outer beauty would draw him into accepting her inner beauty as well.
She could only hope so.
Pushing her doubts and concerns out of her head for the moment, concentrating so she could drive, she started the car. She pulled out of the parking space and headed for the beach.