Chapter One: In Which the Good Are Smitten

"The witch returns!"

One of the clique's athletic buffs lifted his palms in defense and mocked Dahlia with a grin. The others joined in and leaned back with their hands out, pretending to be afraid as laughter erupted among them. She just kept her head down, clutched her books tightly to her chest, and continued in her swift pace to her first class. The group called after her, "Please don't cast a spell on me!" And, "We should burn her!" This kind of thing wasn't new. It was well into her first semester at Gotham State University, and so far, every day she had to deal with the harassment and teasing from her peers. Though Dahlia was used to it, that never meant the pain went away.

With frustration, she barged into one of the girl's restrooms and placed her things down on the counter, then simply stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her arched eyebrows creased upwards, a sad and lame moan echoing out through her shut, plain lips. One tightly balled fist ran firmly over her cheek, brushing her hair from her face as she suppressed tears.

There were hardly any like her, with her blanched skin and black hair. And Dahlia always dressed in black. They all called her a Goth, or a witch or vampire. At the same time, they would also call her a nerd or a geek because she was one of the smartest girl in her classes, and she wore glasses to read. They would call her anything and everything, whatever hurt her and boosted their own self esteem.

"Oh, you're here." Dahlia quickly turned to see a girl emerge from one of the bathroom stalls, adjusting a leopard-furred purse on her bare shoulder. This was Natalie O'Neil, one of the so-called populars of the campus. She dressed trashy, she acted conceited and superior, and she was just another bully to Dahlia. While she remained silent and stared at the upper class-man with hidden distaste, Natalie continued on as she went to wash her hands. "If you're going to slit your wrists, do it over the sink so you don't make a gross mess." Turning off the sink, she then went to grab a paper towel to dry her hands. As she crumpled and tossed it in the garbage, she turned and did a short and sarcastic bow with a smirk laid on her glossy lips, "Hope you have fun with your magic spells and voo-doo dolls." Dahlia watched the door for several minutes, suppressing her rage behind the shaking of her tensed muscles, before finally picking up her books and heading out with haste.

The first of her classes passed quickly, and with relatively no one bothering her. Later in Psychology, Professor Crane was lecturing as usual, and as usual, Dahlia was listening attentively. This was the one class she somewhat enjoyed for a change, and never did she sleep or not pay attention. Natalie however sat right next to her, and she was one who just loved attention. Smirking to herself, she leaned over and snatched Dahlia's thick glasses right off her face. She whispered while holding them away from her body with two fingers like one would hold a twitching spider, "These are the ugliest things I've ever seen. Are you a bum who can't afford nicer frames or something?" Immediately, that last comment struck a nerve in Dahlia. Slowly turning her head to glare into Natalie's pale hazel eyes, she snatched her glasses back and replied with a hushed, sibilant voice,
"Not all of us are as rich as you, Natalie."
"Well, you should be." She replied with a stuck-up grin. Dahlia replied bluntly, her voice slightly escalating in volume with her anger,
"I'm sure the horny old men down at the cat walk pay you guys pretty well." Natalie's jaw dropped, and her cheeks flushed pink.

"Miss Rhodes."

Dahlia's head snapped towards the front of the room and she stared in fright like a deer caught in headlights. Crane was staring right back at her with his unblinking, intense blue eyes. For a moment he was silent, then adjusted his squarely-framed glasses with two fingers and said in a calm voice, "Is there something you would like to share with the rest of the class?" For what seemed like hours, she just kept staring, her mouth trying to form words, but no sound emerging from her throat. Timidly, she just lowered and shook her head, her eyes following the wood grain of the desk. Crane threw a warning glance to Natalie before continuing with his lesson. "As I was saying . . ."

"Miss Rhodes."

Dahlia cringed and paused on her way out of the classroom, the other students having already left. She expected yet another scolding or warning, but received none as she awaited the next words. Finally she slowly turned to face her professor, still tense and nervous. Crane waited until Dahlia was facing her until he spoke, his hands clasped comfortably in front of his lap. "I assume you've studied and are prepared for tomorrow's exam."
". . . Oh!" Dahlia's shyness around her instructor suddenly vanished as she remembered the exam. She had totally forgotten about it. Her hand jerked up to the collar of her turtle neck and nervously pulled at it. "I . . . I forgot."
"Then it would be wise to do some studying while the university's library is open." He warned her. "Your grades have been steadily declining. It's very unlike you."
"Yes sir, I-I know . . ." Dahlia lowered her head once again. Though he sounded aloof about it, she felt like she was disappointing both herself and Crane. "I'll go and study right now. Thank you for reminding me." Nodding quickly, she turned and scurried out the door. For a moment, Crane stood watching her darkly clad figure hurry down the hall. He then shut the door, sat at his desk, and began to shuffle through various papers.

". . . The notion of the reflex arc was developed in studies of spinal preparations in which protopathic stimuli or muscle tensions are the chief sources of excitation. Under these simple conditions something like a point for point correspondence between receptor cells and muscle groups could be demonstrated, as in the case of the scratch reflex . . ." "Dear . . . Dear!"
"Huh?" Dahlia's eyes shot up out of the book to see the face of the school's librarian staring down at her. She smiled warmly and said,
"The library's closing, Dear. Got everything you need, I hope."
Not quite. The hours Dahlia spent in the school library were a waste, as she was easily sidetracked from her notes with psychology books unrelated to the material on the exam. Fascinating nonetheless, but of no use to her academically.

The sky was dark as the night had come over Gotham - Dahlia had stayed far longer than she had planned. She carried her books in one hand and held her warm coat shut with the other, walking through the parking lot to head home. Something rattled in the darkness. Startled, she glanced over her shoulder towards the buildings, but saw nothing. Then she turned her head and glanced over her left shoulder, carefully watching the shadows. Her eyes trailed up where she noticed that it was the night of a new moon.

"You witch."

And even more wary, Dahlia glanced back forward to see two boys emerge from a pickup truck, both heading for her quickly. She backed away, eyes wide, and managed to let out a trembling, "W-What do you-" Her words were interrupted as she bumped into something behind her, and immediately after, large arms hooked under hers and lifted her to the tips of her toes. Dahlia's books fell to the damp ground with a thud, and her notes soon fluttered down in hot pursuit. The terrified shriek she let halfway out was stifled as a girl then came forward and slapped a line of duct tape over her mouth.

None other than Natalie. For several minutes, she and Dahlia locked eyes, hers full of anger, and her hostage's full of fear. Then Natalie brought her hand across her cheek, hard, several times before she finally calmed herself and ranted, "You don't dare think of saying that kind of thing to me ever again, you hear, you little witch? If you ever think you can be better than me, or think that you can get away with something, stop and think again." Her hand came up and grasped Dahlia's neck firmly and very threateningly, bordering dangerously on choking her. "So long as you go to this school, I own you and you are my dog to step on all I want. You'll never be as good as you want to be. Got it?"

And with a wave of her decorated hand, the strong boy who had been holding Dahlia suddenly shoved her forward and into the car nearby. Then the four got into the pickup and drove off, leaving Dahlia weeping furiously on her knees, leaning against the car and weakly stripping the tape from her mouth.

Dahlia's home was on the third floor of a run-down apartment building in The Narrows. She trudged up the stairs, still in tears, and entered quietly, hoping not to draw any attention from her father or step mother, Linda. But the alcoholic had kept a close watch on the door, and immediately sauntered up. "Dahlia!" She raised her hands up in the air and furrowed her eyebrows. "Where the hell have you been all night? I needed you here to help clean the kitchen, impossible girl!"
Giving her a death glare, Dahlia replied coldly, "I had my own problems to deal with . . . And since when do you clean?"
Linda ignored her. She had been for the year that she and Dahlia's father, Lou, had been together. "I left you with the dishes and mopping the floor. If you ask me, I went to easy on you . . . Hey!"

Dahlia slammed the door to her small bedroom shut and locked it. Like her clothes, everything in her room was black. The sheets on her bed, her night stand, the vanity mirror and bookcase . . . Even the walls were painted black, and the back of her door. She went right for a drawer in the vanity and took out a tube of cooling gel, applying some to her bruised neck and sore muscles. Every so often, she'd drive her cheek to her shoulder to wipe away the tears.

Like a great mind reader, Cat suddenly hopped in through the window from the fire escape, purring in her swift entrance. Dahlia turned and greeted her, sniffling sadly as she went and sat down on her bed and scooped up the adventurer. "Sorry Cat, you're going to have to get yourself something to eat tonight. I don't want to go out there again." Cat was, of course, a cat. Perfectly black with brilliant blue eyes, so blue and often unblinking that she reminded her of her psychology professor, and one who came and went as she pleased. But when Dahlia needed her, Cat was there to listen - A best friend.

While cradling the feline carefully in her arms, Dahlia leaned back against her fluffy pillow and ran her pale hands over Cat's soft fur.

"I don't know what I did to deserve a beating in the parking lot, Cat, but they never fail to remind me of just how miserable I am. Is non-conformity so frowned upon in this day and age? Today I told Natalie off for the first time, and I got repaid after school by her and her group smacking me around. Jerks. At least this time they let me walk away though." The stinging pain in her cheek had yet to subside. Lifting her hand from Cat's neck for a moment, she instead ran them over her own skin to feel its numb puffing. It would go away eventually.

"But . . . I'm not going to let them scare me anymore . . ." A pause, and then Dahlia scoffed. "I say that every day . . . It doesn't matter anymore. The past is passed. Tomorrow I have some important things to do. If I can at least get through this semester, then I won't see Natalie or her boyfriend and his friends anymore." Cat only meowed and rubbed her cheek against Dahlia's chin.