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It's That Damn Fluorescence

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Ashe scanned the lunchroom, more than a little disappointed when she failed to spot the head of long, carefully-groomed brown hair she’d been on the lookout for ever since the school day had started. She had no problem plunking herself down at a table full of strangers. If she was completely honest with herself, a tiny part of her liked being the new kid - the eyes on her in the hall, everyone eager to meet her and learn about where she was from and what she was like. It felt good to have so many people interested in who she was after the isolation of the sleepy town she’d lived in before, and she knew it wouldn’t be long before she’d find herself a new posse of friends to hang out with. But catching up with Vent had been probably the most exciting prospect of moving here, and she’d seen neither hide nor hair of him since she’d arrived.

“Hey! New girl!” A friendly voice chirruped out. “Come sit with us!”

Snapping out of her reverie, Ashe glanced around to see a blonde-headed girl waving at her from a table in the corner. A few other kids sat with her, but there was an empty spot smack-dab in the middle of them.

Feeling a grin spread across her face, Ashe moved towards them and gladly took the proffered chair.

“Thanks,” she said, appraising her new companions. Quite the mix of teens sat around her - a tall, skinny kid with streaks in his hair; a broad-shouldered girl with fiery red bangs, grinning back with vicious hospitality; a small boy with glasses whose serious face made him look almost twice his age; and the girl who had waved her over - a kind-eyed, gentle-looking student dressed nearly head-to-toe in pastel pinks, with an abundance of plush keychains latched to the backpack resting in her lap.

“I’m Prairie,” the girl offered, giving a cheerful smile.

“Ashe, at your service,” Ashe responded. “Pleased to meet you.”

The next twenty minutes of the lunch period passed amicably. Ashe’s comrades were endlessly chatty and invited her eagerly into their inner circle, sharing inside jokes and sly digs about the school culture and social pecking order with a level of animation and excitement that set her extroverted heart buzzing with glee. She quickly learned that the boy with streaked hair was named Anguille, but that most people called him butterfingers because in woodworking elective he’d spilled his box of screws all over the floor and it’d been weeks before all of them had been recovered, with several being located by an unfortunate fellow student’s foot. She learned that the cafeteria food was best on Thursdays when the produce was delivered fresh, but that it would be better to pack lunch for Taco Tuesdays if she didn’t want to experience an extreme gastric reaction. She learned that Biology class was unbearably slow but Pre-calculus was surprisingly fun.

But the conversation took a turn for the worse when, in the middle of an uproarious reenactment of the time Fleuve had forgotten to do the reading for English class and had made up an oral report on the spot, Prairie’s face went white and she reached over and grabbed Ashe’s arm.

“What? What is it?” Ashe asked, confused.

The others around her seemed to mirror her confusion, then one by one glanced behind her - and one by one paled to match Prairie’s frightened countenance, whirling to face their food almost just as quickly as they had looked up. All except Cédre, whose face soured into a grimace.

“Act natural,” Prairie whispered, finger twitching against one of the keychains on her bag.

Kinda hard to act natural when everyone’s being so funny all of a sudden, Ashe frowned to herself. I wonder what’s got them all so agitated.

Leaning back in her chair, she twisted to look, ignoring the tightening of Prairie’s grip against her arm.

At first, Ashe didn’t notice anything peculiar. Just more rows of students, gossiping and laughing and tapping away at their phones, enjoying the precious hour of freedom before they were sent back off to class. But then, she saw it. An isolated table, pushed way off back near the exit door. And at that table, only one person.

He was a tall, lanky-looking young man - Ashe figured he’d probably be over six feet standing judging from his legs alone. His clothes were dark and grungy, back clad in a purple leather jacket she couldn’t help snorting at internally - a feeling that only intensified when her eyes slid up to his hair, which was dyed a garish shade of blue and styled into a messy, ridiculous mullet. Two things that should never go together, she scoffed internally. He sat backwards in his chair, arms folded over the top, slouched lazily against them.

She appraised him for a moment before realizing that he was staring right at her. Had been staring at her, since before she noticed - since probably before she turned around.

Their eyes met, and something struck her as slightly uncanny about his gaze.

A sly smile spread across his face.

Shivering despite herself, she whirled back around towards her new friends, resolving immediately not to grace the creep with any more attention.

“Who on earth is that?!” she hissed under her breath.

Prairie almost seemed to shudder. “That’s one of the Albert twins,” she responded, voice almost too low to hear. “No one knows their real names. The teachers only refer to them by their last names, and no one’s gotten close enough to them to find out anything else.”

Cedré’s grimace deepened. “And stuck around to tell it,” she muttered.

Ashe turned towards her, discomfort rising. “What do you mean?”

“It’s just a rumor,” Prairie continued, but her face was grave enough to speak otherwise. “But a couple years ago, he and his sister…befriended a couple other kids from the school. Started acting real chummy towards them, talking to them a lot. Singling them out. It was all pretty weird, considering they’d always kept to themselves…”

Anguille leaned forward urgently. “And then one day they just quit coming to school.”

“The…Albert kids?” Ashe questioned.

“No.” Cedré flicked at the straw in her drink. “The other four students.”

“They got expelled,” Anguille continued. “Well, some of them. Two of them transferred. In the middle of the semester, with no goodbyes and no other explanations. The Albert twins were the last people they were seen with.”

Ashe’s brow furrowed. “Hasn’t anyone asked them if they know anything?”

Fleuve shook his head violently. “We don’t dare.”

“I heard the police questioned them, but they claimed not to have any clue about why they left so suddenly,” Anguille tacked on.

“Probably a load of bull,” Cedré huffed.

“Anyway, they’re bad news.” Prairie folded her arms as if hugging herself. “I’d stay away from them if I were you.”

Ashe leaned back, mulling it all over. Missing kids, freaky upperclassmen - it was a lot to take in on the first day of her last year of high school. Especially since she could practically feel the eerie, smug leer of the subject of conversation boring holes into the back of her head.

I’m going to talk down that creep, she resolved suddenly. I’m not gonna let him terrorize me or my new friends, spooky backstory or no. I’m not scared of him and his eighties-ass hairdo.

She would’ve marched over and given him what for just then, but she figured it’d probably give the rest of her companions a heart attack, so she resolved to wait for the right moment. But she wasn’t gonna let his ominous, unwanted staring go unconfronted.

She didn’t realize she’d get her chance sooner than she thought. Next period, to be exact. Biology class. She’d found a seat at the only empty microscope before noticing that everyone around her seemed to be paired up, and no one looked eager to take the spot next to her.

That is, until he waltzed in.

The class had already started, but the teacher didn’t call any attention to him despite his tardiness - almost like she, too, was afraid of him. Ashe couldn’t deny he had presence. It was almost like a cold chill spread over the room when he walked in - that uneasy prickle down her spine had been the only thing that made her look up.

They locked eyes, and that stupid, almost-wicked grin crept across his face again.

Shrugging off the wave of revulsion that ran through her, she stared him down defiantly as he loped over to the vacant seat at her microscope and settled lazily into a slouch.

“Hey there, new girl,” he said. His voice was a little higher-pitched than she had expected, but that only added to her discomfort - he sounded smug, but with a whining quality, like a blood-sucking mosquito whistling towards its prey.

“I have a name,” she spat back, not even trying for civility.

“Oh, I know. It’s Ashe.” His smile broadened even further than it should have been able to. “Everyone’s been talking about you. It’s been a while since we’ve had anyone new in Forks.”

Like Cedré, she felt herself grimace. “Well, if you’re so observant, maybe you also picked up on the social cue that it’s gross to stare at people you don’t know from across the lunchroom.”

“You were staring too,” he observed, smile never wavering.

“Only because you were doing it first,” she insisted. “Besides, I think I have a right to get a good look at the person who was ogling me for almost an hour straight. But unlike some people, I actually have manners.”

The newcomer blinked, almost as if he wasn’t used to being fussed at in such a way. But he didn’t seem angry. If anything, his stare grew more intent, and despite her bravado, she felt herself squirm in her seat a little bit.

“You’re right,” he said, tone suddenly low and smooth, in a way that seemed like it was meant to sound placating, but came off a bit patronizing instead. “But I’m not the only one who was watching you, you know. Like I said, you’re quite the center of attention today.”

“Yeah, but you’re the only one who was so obvious about it.”

His smile morphed into a smirk. “So you’re saying I should’ve stared at you with more subtlety.”

“I’m saying you shouldn’t have been looking at all, and should’ve been minding your own business,” she retorted, annoyed at how he’d twisted her meaning, and how he still seemed totally unbothered by her accusations.

“Well…you’re pretty hard to ignore.”

Eugh. So he’s that kind of creep too. Ashe braced herself for an icky, unwanted compliment.

“I can hear your obnoxious voice from halfway across the school.”

Shocked and offended, Ashe whirled on him viciously. “Obnoxious??? That’s rich, coming from you! I can barely stand to look at you!”

If she wasn’t already so mad, she would’ve found it comical that it was this insult of all things that managed to break through his mocking facade and draw a flash of irritation out onto his features.

Turning away from her, he propped his head on his chin and started staring sullenly out of the window.

Whatever. Determined not to waste the entire period, she tugged the microscope closer and started flicking through the slides that had been provided to them. She groaned internally as she saw what they were - onion root tip mounts. I hate mitosis. But anything was better than bickering with the weirdo next to her, so she popped a slide on the stage and got to work.

She agonized over the slides in peace for a while, struggling to decide whether a certain cell was in anaphase or telophase, but it wasn’t long before she felt that crawling feeling on the back of her neck and looked over to see the blue-haired boy watching her again from the corner of his eye.

Downright furious now, she shoved her chair back from the lab bench and practically snarled at him. “Cut. That. Out.

“Ashe!”

She jumped to attention as the teacher stared her down disapprovingly.

“I know you’re new here, but I expect you’re familiar with the rules of the classroom.” She scowled - clearly wrung out from dealing with irrepressible teenagers all day. “No talking. Unless you’re discussing the assignment. I don’t want to hear you arguing.”

She bowed her head. “Yes ma’am.”

As quietly as possible, she pulled her chair back up to the lab bench. The moment the teacher turned her back she jabbed a finger at her new nemesis. “Look what you did. First day of school and I’m already in trouble.”

“It’s not my fault you’re so jumpy,” he hissed back.

She was ready with a retort, but she stopped herself.

There was something off about the boy’s teeth. She hadn’t noticed it before, but for a brief second they’d almost seemed longer than they should’ve been. Sharper. With a wicked curve to them.

As if they were designed for tearing flesh.

She shook her head and looked at him again - and just as suddenly as it had come, the perculiar notion was gone.

This freak is really getting to me, she thought to herself, turning away from him and removing the tricky slide from the stage.

To his credit, he didn’t so much as glance at her for the rest of the period, opting instead to stare at the chalkboard with an expression of intense boredom. He didn’t once ask for a turn with the microscope, and Ashe didn’t offer it to him, determined to minimize further interaction as much as humanly possible. She'd made up her mind that challenging him had been the wrong move. From now on, she was going to give him nothing but the cold shoulder.

The ringing of the bell was like music from heaven to her ears. She hightailed it out of the classroom, not even bothering to sling her backpack over her shoulders as she hurried down the halls to her locker to retrieve the rest of her things.

“Ashe!”

Prairie and Cedré approached from behind. Distress must’ve been written all over her face - Prairie’s genial countenance faded, and the furrowing of Cedré’s brow was evident even beneath her wild crimson bangs.

“You wouldn’t believe who I got stuck with in Bio,” Ashe growled, recounting the events of the past hour.

Cedré punched her fist into her palm with a loud smack. “I’ll beat his ass.”

No,” Prairie urged, clutching the fuzzy cat charm that dangled from her backpack’s shoulder strap. “Don’t talk to him. It’s not safe.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do? Let him terrorize her?” The redhead shook her head stubbornly. “That’s unacceptable.”

“Maybe Ashe can talk to the teacher and tell her he’s bothering her,” the smaller girl offered hopefully.

“I’m not sure how well that’ll go. We didn’t exactly get off on the right foot today.” Slamming her locker shut, Ashe faced down her companions with a grim expression.

“Well…maybe he’ll leave you alone, if you ignore him.”

“Yeah,” Cedré agreed. “That jerk’s probably just trying to psych you out. Don’t give him the time of day and he’ll probably get bored and slink back to whatever hole in the ground he crawled out of.” She grinned wolfishly. “And if it doesn’t work, we always have ass-beating as a Plan B.”

Ashe couldn’t help chuckling a little at Cedré’s hunger for violence. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Craning her neck, Prairie waved as she caught sight the rest of her friends approaching and started to back away from the lockers - then hesitated. “We had plans to go to the park and build snowmen,” she ventured. “Would you like to join us? It might help get your mind off things.”

Touched, Ashe was on the verge of agreeing - then with chagrin remembered the state of disarray the attic she’d be using as her room was still in, even after a full day of cleaning and rearranging.

“I’d love to,” she told them. “But I have to finish unpacking. I’m not quite settled in yet.”

Prairie seemed disappointed, but she quickly broke into a rueful smile. “That’s probably for the best, actually…Cedré’s giving me the feeling that it’s probably going to turn into a snowball fight.”

The guilty party’s grin widened.

“You’ll have to tell me all about it tomorrow.”

“It’ll be a battle to remember,” Cedré promised as she and the others headed towards the door.

Ashe watched them leave. I probably should’ve gone, she thought wistfully, but I don’t want to run the risk of missing Vent if he tries to visit today. I told him I’d be in town.

Even though the halls were still full of students, she suddenly felt lonely.

Pulling herself together, she shouldered her pack, mulling over the events of the day - and the homework assignments that were already piling up - as she freed her keys from her pocket and trailed out towards the parking lot.