And came face-to-face with Robbie, standing behind me.

I shrieked. “Rob, I’m going to smack you if you don’t stop doing that! Now, move. I have to get somewhere.”

“Don’t go.” His voice was quiet, serious. Surprised, I looked up at him. The perpetual goofy grin was gone, and his jaw was set. The look in his eyes was almost frightening. “This is bad, I can feel it. Jockstrap is up to something—he and his buddies were hanging around the yearbook department for a long time after he talked to you. I don’t like it. Promise me you won’t go.”

I recoiled. “Were you eavesdropping on us?” I demanded, scowling. “What’s wrong with you? Ever hear of a ‘private conversation’?”

“Waldron doesn’t care about you.” Robbie crossed his arms, daring me to contradict him. “He’ll break your heart, princess. Trust me, I’ve seen enough of his kind to know.”

Anger flared, anger that he dared stick his nose into my affairs, anger that he could be right. “Again, it’s none of your business, Rob!” I snapped, making his eyebrows arch. “And I can take care of myself, okay? Quit butting in where you’re not wanted.”

Hurt glimmered briefly, but then it was gone. “Fine, princess.” He smirked, holding up his hands. “Don’t get your royal pink panties in a twist. Forget I said anything.”

“I will.” Tossing my head, I flounced out of the room without looking back.

Guilt gnawed at me as I wove through the halls toward the cafeteria. I regretted snapping at Robbie, but sometimes his Big Brother act went too far. Still, Robbie had always been that way—jealous, overprotective, forever looking out for me, like it was his job. I couldn’t remember when I first met him; it felt like he’d always been there.

The cafeteria was noisy and dim. I hovered just inside the door, looking for Scott, only to see him at a table in the middle of the floor, surrounded by cheerleaders and football jocks. I hesitated. I couldn’t just march up to that table and sit down; Angie Whitmond and her cheerleading squad would rip me to shreds.

Scott glanced up and saw me, and a lazy smile spread over his face. Taking that as an invitation, I started toward him, weaving my way past the tables. He flipped out his iPhone, pressed a button, and looked at me with half-lidded eyes, still grinning.

A phone rang close by.

I jumped a bit, but continued walking. Behind me, there were gasps, and then hysterical giggles. And then, the whispered conversation that always makes you think they’re talking about you. I felt eyes on the back of my head. Trying to ignore it, I continued down the aisle.

Another phone rang.

And another.

And now, whispers and laughter were spreading like wildfire. For some reason, I felt horribly exposed, as if a spotlight shone right on me and I was on display. The laughter couldn’t be directed at me, could it? I saw several people point in my direction, whispering among themselves, and tried my best to ignore them. Scott’s table was only a few feet away.

“Hey, hot cheeks!” A hand smacked my ass and I shrieked. Spinning around, I glared at Dan Ottoman, a blond, pimply clarinet player from band. He leered back at me and winked. “Never took you for a player, girl,” he said, trying to ooze charm but reminding me of a dirty Kermit the Frog. “Come down to band sometime. I’ve got a flute you can play.”

“What are you talking about?” I snarled, but he snickered and held up his phone.

At first, the screen was blank. But then a message flashed across it in bright yellow. “How is Meghan Chase like a cold beer?” it read. I gasped, and the words disappeared as a picture flashed into view.

Me. Me with Scott in the parking lot, his arm around my shoulders, a wide leer on his face. Only now—my mouth dropped open—I was butt nak*d, staring at him in wonder, my eyes blank and stupid. He’d obviously used Photoshop; my “body” was obscenely skinny and featureless, like a doll’s, my chest as flat as a twelve-year-old’s. I froze, and my heart stopped beating as the second part of the message scrolled over the screen.

“She’s smooth and goes down easy!”

The bottom dropped out of my stomach, and my cheeks flamed. Horrified, I looked up at Scott, to see his whole table roaring with laughter and pointing at me. Ring tones echoed through the cafeteria, and laughter pounded me like physical waves. I started trembling, and my eyes burned.

Covering my face, I turned and fled the cafeteria before I started wailing like a two-year-old. Shrieking laughter echoed around me, and tears stung my eyes like poison. I managed to cross the room without tripping over benches or my feet, bashed open the doors, and escaped into the hallway.

I spent nearly an hour in the corner stall of the girls’ bathroom, sobbing my eyes out and planning my move to Canada, or possibly Fiji—somewhere far, far away. I didn’t dare show my face to anyone in this state ever again. Finally, as the tears slowed and my gasping breaths returned to normal, I reflected on how miserable my life had become.

I guess I should feel honored, I thought bitterly, holding my breath as a group of girls flocked into the bathroom. Scott took the time to personally ruin my life. I bet he’s never done that to anyone else. Lucky me, I’m the world’s biggest loser. Tears threatened again, but I was tired of bawling and held them back.

At first, I planned to hole up in the bathroom until school ended. But, if anyone missed me from class, this would be the first place they’d look. So, I finally gathered the courage to tiptoe down to the nurse’s office and fake a horrid stomachache so I could hide out there.

The nurse stood about four feet in thick-heeled loafers, but the look she gave me when I peered through the door suggested she wasn’t going to take any teenage foolishness. Her skin looked like that of a shrunken walnut, her white hair was pulled into a severe bun, and she wore tiny gold glasses on the end of her nose.

“Well, now, Ms. Chase,” she said in a gravelly, high-pitched voice, setting aside her clipboard. “What are you doing here?” I blinked, wondering how she knew me. I’d only been to the nurse’s office once before, when a stray soccer ball hit me in the nose. Back then, the nurse was bony and tall, with an overbite that made her look like a horse. This plump, shriveled little woman was new, and slightly unnerving, with the way she stared at me.

“I have a stomachache,” I complained, holding my navel like it was about to burst. “I just need to lie down for a few minutes.”

“Of course, Ms. Chase. There are some cots in the back. I’ll bring you something to make you feel better.”

I nodded and moved into a room divided by several huge sheets. Except for myself and the nurse, the room was empty. Perfect. I chose a corner cot and lay back on the paper-covered mattress.

Moments later, the nurse appeared, handing me a Dixie cup full of something that bubbled and steamed. “Take this, you’ll feel better,” she said, pressing the cup into my hand.

I stared at it. The fizzling white liquid smelled like chocolate and herbs, except stronger, somehow, a mix so potent it made my eyes water. “What is it?” I asked.

The nurse just smiled and left the room.

I took a cautious sip and felt warmth spread from my throat down to my stomach. The taste was incredible, like the richest chocolate in the world, with just a hint of bitter aftertaste. I quaffed the rest in two gulps, holding the cup upside down to get the last drops.

Almost immediately, I felt sleepy. Lying back on the crinkly mattress, I closed my eyes for just a moment, and everything faded away.

I AWOKE TO LOW VOICES, talking in furtive tones, just beyond the curtains. I tried to move, but it felt like my body was wrapped in cotton, my head filled with gauze. I struggled to keep my eyes open. On the other side of the sheets, I saw two silhouettes.

“Don’t do anything reckless,” warned a low, gravelly voice. The nurse, I thought, wondering, in my delirium, if she would give me more of that chocolaty stuff. “Remember, your duty is to watch the girl. You must not do anything that will draw attention.”

“Me?” asked a tantalizingly familiar voice. “Draw attention to myself? Would I do such a thing?”

The nurse snorted. “If the entire cheerleading squad turns into mice, Robin, I will be very upset with you. Mortal adolescents are blind and cruel. You know that. You mustn’t take revenge, no matter how you feel about the girl. Especially now. There are more worrisome things on the move.”

I’m dreaming, I decided. That must be it. What was in that drink, anyway? In the dim light, the silhouettes playing across the curtain looked confusing and strange. The nurse, it seemed, was even smaller, barely three feet in height. The other shadow was even more peculiar: normal-size, but with strange protrusions on the side of his head that looked like horns, or ears.

The taller shadow sighed and moved to sit in a chair, crossing his long legs. “I’ve heard the same,” he muttered. “Dark rumors are stirring. The Courts are restless. Seems like something is out there that has both of them scared.”

“Which is why you must continue to be both her shield and her guardian.” The nurse turned, putting both hands on her hips, her voice chiding. “I’m surprised you haven’t given her the mistwine yet. She is sixteen today. The veil is beginning to lift.”

“I know, I know. I’m getting to it.” The shadow sighed, putting his head in his hands. “I’ll take care of that later this afternoon. How is she?”

“Resting,” said the nurse. “Poor thing, she was traumatized. I gave her a mild sleep potion that will knock her out until she goes home.”

A chuckle. “The last kid who drank one of your ‘mild’ sleep potions didn’t wake up for two weeks. You’re one to talk about being inconspicuous.”

The nurse’s reply was garbled and broken, but I was almost sure she said, “She’s her father’s daughter. She’ll be fine.” Or maybe it was just me. The world went fuzzy, like an out-of-focus camera, and I knew nothing for a time.

“MEGHAN!”

Someone was shaking me awake. I cursed and flailed, momentarily confused, and finally lifted my head. My eyes felt like they had ten pounds of sand in them, and sleep gook crusted the corners, making it impossible to focus. Groaning, I wiped my lids and stared blearily into Robbie’s face. For a moment, his brow was furrowed with concern. Then I blinked and he was his normal, grinning self.

“Wakey wakey, sleeping beauty,” he teased as I struggled to a sitting position. “Lucky you, school is out. It’s time to go home.”

“Huh?” I muttered intelligently, wiping the last traces of sleep snot from my eyes. Robbie snorted and pulled me to my feet.

“Here,” he said, handing me my backpack, heavy with books. “You’re lucky I’m such a great friend. I got notes for all the classes you missed after lunch. Oh, and you’re forgiven, by the way. I won’t even say ‘I told you so.’”

He was speaking too fast. My brain was still asleep, my mind foggy and disconnected. “What are you talking about?” I mumbled, shrugging into my pack.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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