The Guardian's Kitsune

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Naruto x ?

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Author's Note

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Every previous incarnation of this fic was part of the Unleashed Series. Now at long last it's finally its own standalone product with a background I like and can stand. Thank you all for accepting this final and perfect version.

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Story Start

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Wilhelmina Vandom woke up with a gasp. A flurry of images bombarded her Psyche. She then groaned and clasped her right eye in pain. On her face she sported a nasty looking black eye.

''Honey? Are you okay?'' Her mother, Susan Vandom asked. The driver was a beautiful woman in her mid-thirties dark shiny raven locks and beautiful tan. Though, her features were marred due to the fact that her cheek was swollen while like her daughter her lip was split too.

''I'm fine...just a bad dream,'' The red hair tomboy lied. Memories of that night once again filled her memories. It had been over a week and that night was still fresh in her mind. Fadden Hills a place that held terrible memories for both of them. Thomas, she wouldn't even refer to that man as father who almost killed her mother. The same woman, who worked two jobs to support them when that drunkard lost his job.

If 'he' hadn't had come to save them there was no telling what would have happened that night.

They were on their way to a new town where they could make a fresh start. Starting soon, her mother was going to be working at a company by the name of Simultech, an industrial software-developing company on the outskirts of the town they were driving to Heatherfield.

Unfortunately a storm was going on overhead, not to mention it was night-time wasn't the best time to be driving. ''We'll be okay, right mom?'' The red hair girl asked concerned. Will didn't get along with the relatives on her father's side of the family. Her grandfather was the owner of the company which died along with him.

Her aunt on his side was this famous lawyer and it concerned Will that Thomas could get out of jail.

The money brought into the home was managed by Vandom Matron who invested it in several stocks and a college fund for Will. The Vandoms weren't exactly what one would call wealthy, but they had more than enough money to cause a bit of problem for people who crossed them.

Though, the downturn that the economy had experienced lately had hit everyone pretty hard.

It would take weeks for her mother to make sure that the investments couldn't be touched by Thomas or the other Vandoms. Until then the two didn't have too much money. Besides some clothes they managed to grab and some essentials.

''Of course we will sweetie. While you were sleep I got a call from Kuiinshi and he wired me some money. We're more than set for a while.''

Will smiled a small smile. Kuiinshi, it was the name of the older step-brother of her only real friend. The only person in the world she could consider a friend. That didn't think she was some frog freak.

''How much longer until we get there?'' Will asked softly, her mind still elsewhere.

''Another hour or so.''

''Oh...ok. Mom, I'm sorry."

''Honey I wish you stop blaming yourself. It's not your fault he was the way he was sweetie. So don't ever be sorry about something you couldn't do anything about.'' She declared with all her honestly and love for her daughter. She hated that her daughter's self-esteem was so low and that was thanks to her bastard of an ex-husband and that town. A town that wasn't all too welcoming to those they considered outsiders. The only decent people were some townspeople here and there, mainly their neighbor and his younger brother. In a year's time her daughter would be turning sixteen.

This year was initially going to be the best year of her daughter's life. Even in the baggy red tee-shirt and jeans one could see the red-head would grow into a beautiful woman someday. She was a bit pale, freckles on each cheek, and not to mention soft brown eyes that held much kindness in them.

Eventually they arrived at the apartment complex. Putting up their hoods they got out of the car and began taking out there things. Once box Will picked up ripped from the bottom. Will sighed as her mother pulled her into a hug.

''Excuse me...are you Mrs. Vandom?'' Called a voice from the door of the complex. The person was a man in his early thirties wearing a black bath robe.

''It's Miss Vandom,'' Susan corrected. ''And yes...I'm not too late am I?''

''No...oh and don't worry about any of the bills or electricity. It's all been paid for along with this and next month's rent.'' The man said as Susan stood there a few moments, a mixture of shock and confusion.

Susan nodded, a small smile gracing her features. After nearly twenty minutes they were able to get everything in. Both found themselves quite surprised by the fact that the place was so nicely furnished. Some of these things looked brand new. On the table was a fruit basket with a card.

'Hope you enjoy your stay. I left a few papers on your nightstand with some things marked. Oh and Naruto wanted me to tell Will he says Hi. Anyway Suzy-cat hoping to hear from you soon. " Susan rolled her eyes as her smile got bigger. Why did he insist on calling her something so corny and...seventies was it? You dress up as a hippie chick for one party and people never let you forget. Kuiinshi, a true friend...of course there was this joke around that they were something more which only tend to fuel her ex-husband's drunken rage.

It didn't help that Will was really close with Kuiinshi's young ward Naruto either.

Will, meanwhile was going through every room of the apartment, amazed that everything looked so new and clean. She got her answer when her mother showed her the letter.

'Naruto?' A sad smile covered her lips. She was missing him already.

''I'm sure we'll see them soon Will. Knowing those two there probably already on their way driving for a visit.''

''Yeah,'' Will responded with hope in her voice. ''Is there anything to eat?'' Will asked as they walked into the Kitchen. Sure enough the fridge as well was quite stocked.

''I swear...if I didn't know any better I say that man was trying to buy our love.''

''If he is, he certainly isn't getting off at a bad start.''

The two shared a laugh at this. Susan was glad to hear her daughter's laughter again. It had been too long. Both of them had dinner and took a shower. It was nice to wipe off all the grime and such from such a long drive. They then unpacked their pillows and sheets.

''Goodnight Will...'' Said kissing her daughter's cheek.

''Night mom,'' Will mumble and yawned. Susan cut off the light and exited Will's new/temporary room and prepared to catch some sleep of her own.

Tomorrow would be the start on the new day of the rest of their lives.

It was so cold, the frigid air sending chills throughout the young red haired girl's body as she hugged herself to warm herself a little. Why did it feel like she was completely naked? Cracking her eyes opening she saw the reason behind that feeling as she was one hundred percent naked. What the hell was going on and for that matter where was she? It looked like she was trapped in a tear shaped crystal that was hovering in the clouds which was swirling violently from what appeared to be hurricane force gales of wind and the torrential downpour of rain.

"Where am I?" Will screamed, "Mom!"

All of a sudden the crystal shattered dropping her unceremoniously to the surface of the clouds which seemed like ground as she landed roughly with a sharp gasp as it jarred her sore rib cage. Huddling there she tried to see anything but the severe weather was actually starting to force her back before a loud beeping startled her.

Sitting up with a cry Will found herself in her bed. She noticed the time on her alarm clock. She was going to be late for school. A few days had passed and her mother had registered. Hopping into the shower and throwing on a pair fresh of clothes Will grabbed the copy of the apartment key her mother made and was out the door.

Taranee Cook walked into the court-yard of her new school. She cringed as she looked at the sign looming over the entrance...a big, green archway that read 'Sheffield Institute.'

'Institute.' Taranee still wasn't used to that word. She remembered when her parents had told her the name of her new school.

'Oh Yeah,' Taranee thought, rolling her eyes behind her tiny, round specs. 'That was just before they made me pack up my entire life and move to a new city where the air always smells like salt water and the sidewalks are overflowing with skinny fashion models.'

''The Sheffield Institute's one of the best private schools in Heatherfield,'' her mother had said, nodding briskly.

''You're putting me in an institution?'' Taranee had wailed back.

Turned out, a lot of schools in Heatherfield were called institutes. It was just one more way this city was totally different from Sesamo, Taranee's 'real' hometown.

She shivered as she wended her way toward Sheffield's front door, tiptoeing around the puddles still left over from that thunderstorm the right before. It had been a wicked downpour.

Taranee must have spent an hour watching the lightning bolts zapping the ocean just beyond her bedroom window. With every strike, the lightning had seemed to inch a bit closer to her new cliff side house. But from some reason, Taranee had barely flinched.

'Scared of fire?' She thought. Not even. Scared is knowing that the tofu stir-fry Mom packed for me will be reeking by noon. Which means the stylish Sheffieldians will have yet another reason not to sit with me at lunch. The first reason being, of course, that they don't know I'm alive.'

Taranee hopped around another puddle. But for all the leftover rainwater this morning, one would never know the storm had happened. The sun was shining and the sky was so blue it didn't look real. A contrast to the usual weather Heatherfield had experienced the past few days.

Streams of kids were trotting up the school's stone steps all were wearing the latest fashions.

Just looking at all those strangers laughing and shouting hello to each other as they rushed into the school made Taranee shiver again. It was only her third day of school, and she was already dreading it. She yanked the cuffs of her orange turtleneck over her hands and gazed up at the Euro-style pink stucco building, complete with a mottled green copper roof and a big clock.

A big clock that read 8:00. As in two minutes till she'd be late for history class.

By the time she made it into Sheffield's main hallways, most of the kids had rushed off to class. Taranee caught her breath and made a dash for the big marble staircase. She was just about to launch herself on the bottom step when she skidded to a confused stop.

''Oh man...'' she whispered. ''I have no idea where to go!"'

After only two days at Sheffield, Taranee realized, as dread swirled in her stomach, that she still hadn't mastered the maze that was her class schedule.

She tore open her kente-cloth book bag and began pawing through it. Tofu in Tupperware. Lip gloss. Eyeglass cleaner. Two shiny, new notebooks. And her schedule? Nowhere to be found.

Just when Taranee was breaking into a cold sweat, she heard the familiar clomp-squeak-clomp-squeak of frantically late sneakers behind her.

She glanced up to see yet another stranger. But this one was a skinny girl with half a dozen cowlicks in her red hair.

She looked lost, too. The girl dug her schedule out of her jean pockets and blinked at it. Then she spun around looking for an arrow, a trap door, a sign from the heavens...anything to save her from the dreaded first day of school.

Taranee knew this all too well, being a recent new student herself.

Taranee grinned as the girl stomped her green sneakered foot in frustration.

''How to get to room 304?'' she answered. ''Hope to get promoted out of room 303, maybe.''

The girl's skinny shoulders hot up to her ears as she spun around to stare at Taranee. Taranee tried to act casual. She didn't want the new kid to think she was too excited to be making real human contact or anything.

''Two days ago, I had the same look on my way,'' Taranee said, tossing the longest of her randomly assorted, beaded braids over her shoulder. ''I'm new too. My name's Taranee.''

''Nice to meet you,'' The girl said quietly. Slowly, her shoulders unclenched themselves.

''I'm Will.''

Taranee felt herself thrill inside. 'New-Friend moment,' she thought. Totally worth being late to class.

''Would you please explain what you're still doing out here in the hallway, young ladies?''

Taranee cringed, and Will's shoulders shot back up to her ears.

''It's the principal,'' Taranee whispered to the terrified newbie, as the source of that very angry voice bustled towards them. ''Mrs. Knickerbocker."

'Ugh! Being late to history class,' Taranee thought. That's no biggie. But a discipline session with Sheffield's big cheese? Taranee tried to think of the things she rather do. Drink warm milk? Run a three-minute mile?

Ugh. Taranee shuddered. ''Okay, even doing time with Mrs Knickerbocker s better than that,' She thought.

Mrs. Knickerbocker stalked around the School with her ample chest thrust out before her and her even more ample backside swishing from side to side with terrifying force. It reminded Taranee of the swirling brushes of a street sweeper, dead set on riddling the hallways of filth (otherwise known as loitering students).

And then there was Mrs. Knickerbocker's hair. It was fascinating...towering, shellacked pompadour. Snowy white. As translucent as spiderwebs. It was definitely one of the wildest old-people oddities Taranee had ever seen. She couldn't help staring at the stiffly glistening beehive as Mrs. Knickerbocker pointed a plump finger toward the east hallway.

'Oh yeah,' Taranee suddenly remembered.

'That's where my history class is...''

''Lessons have already begun,'' Miss Cook,'' Mrs. Knickerbocker sputtered. ''Straight to class.''

Taranee was one step ahead of her. She'd already spun around and begun hurrying away. She glanced over her shoulder as she slunk down the hallway.

'Poor newbie,' she thought, watching Will grin nervously up at the principal. 'I wonder what lunch period she has?'

''As for you...'' Mrs. Knickerbocker was saying, leering down at Will.

''M-m-my name is Will Vandom, ma'am,'' Will said, flashing the woman with the widest, fakest cheesy grin Taranee had ever seen. She liked Will already. ''I think I'm a bit lost.''

''Miss Vandom,'' the principal announced. ''We're off to a bad start. ''

Taranee sighed as she saw Will's chin drop to her chest. She knew 'exactly' how the new kid must have felt: gawky, nauseatingly, please-let-the-floor-open-up-and-swallow-me bad.

'Come to think of it,' Taranee thought as she finally located her history class and walked inside, that's just about how I feel right about now.

Taranee gave an embarrassed little wave at the twenty-one pairs of eyeballs that were, well, eyeballing her as she stumbled through the door. She looked wildly around the room, searching for an empty desk.

Luckily, there was one right behind two girls she already recognized. She had two other classes with them. They usually sat in the back of the room, the better to keep up their constant, whispered gossip sessions. Taranee was a little suspicious of he sassy early bloomer with the tousled, brown hair and pug nose, but she liked the Asian kid with the kooky clothes. Today...the kid was using a pair of green, bubbly goggles as a head-band. The goggles clashed with her fuchsia sweatshirt in the most brazen away. She was beyond cool.

''Better late than never, Miss Cook,'' Mr. Collins called out from the blackboard. Even from the back of the room, Taranee could see his thick, red mustache twitching with amusement.

''Students are always welcome here,'' he continued. ''Especially on days when there's a pop quiz!''

''A pop quiz?'' the earl bloomer cried. ''Yesterday you said there would a be a review!''

''I lied,'' Mr. Collins said, skulking down the aisle with another mustache-shimmying smile. He leered with vampire like glee at the girl and said,''you should know by now, Irma, that we history teacher teachers are mean by nature.''

The Asian girl giggled and gave the early bloomer, Irma, a wink.''

''I thought that was only math teachers.'' she piped up cheerfully.

Irma meanwhile, was pouting big time. She slumped on to her desk and whispered. ''This is just plain 's completely different.''

Taranee sank into her desk chair and searched for her history book in her book bag. Actually, she felt grateful. In one fell swoop, Irma had shifted all the attention away from Taranee and on to herself.

Perhaps more attention than she'd bargained for.

''Why so upset?'' Goggle girl whispered to Irma. ''Doesn't your spell work anymore?''

Taranee blinked. Spell?

''What on earth are you talking about?'' she muttered, narrowing her blue eyes to malevolent slits.

''Oh, come on,'' Goggle girl said, giving Irma's shoulder a playful nudge. ''I mean rigging the quizzes.''

''Did you say 'rigging the quizzes'?'' Taranee whispered over Irma's shoulder. As soon as the question left her mouth, she gritted her teeth. 'Way to go,' she thought. 'As if I don't have enough black marks with Knickerbocker today. Now I have to walk into the middle of a cheating scandal.'

Of course Irma's reaction was no surprise. She whirled around and clamped her hand over her friend's grin.

''She didn't say anything over her friend's grin.'' Irma's said, somehow managing to glare at Taranee and Goggle Girl in one sweeping motion. ''She just like the sound of her own voice.''

''Rmmph,'' Goggle girl gasped, before she squirmed her face out of Irma's palm. A second later, Irma unleashed a piercing yowl. She snatched her hand away from Goggle girl and starting shaking it around. She wiped it on her sweater with exaggerated disgust. Then she waved it high in the air.

''What's going on back there?'' Mr. Collins yelled.

''Mr. Collins!'' Irma yelled back. ''Hay Lin bit me!''

Taranee stifled a snort of laughter while Hay Lin fiddled with one of her long, glossy pigtails and fluttered her eyelashes innocently.

Clearly, Mr. Collins knew how to play dumb, too. Ignoring Irma's bite marks, he simply homed in on her hand.

''That's a raised hand,'' he said. ''Congratulations Irma. I needed a volunteer, and it looks like I've found one.''

''Burn!'' Taranee whispered to herself. She'd learned the antique dis from Peter, her surfer-dude brother. And never had it been truer than at this moment.

As Mr. Collins began to ponder his quiz question, Irma's injured hand started trembling. She sank into her chair.

''B-b-but that's not fair,'' she squeaked.

Hay Lin just giggled again and turned to Taranee.

''Watch and learn,'' she whispered from behind her hand. She wore a glittery purple ring that sparkled in the fluorescent light.

''When Irma's quizzed, first she gets angry. Then she gets desperate. Then she shuts her eyes tight, crosses her fingers...''

''Shut up!'' Irma snapped.

''That would be 'angry,' Taranee thought.

''I haven't studied at all.'' Irma whined to Hay Lin. ''All I know is a little about Stone-age.''

Then Irma did just as Hay Lin had predicted. She laced her fingers together, clenched her eyes shut, and began chanting.

''Ask me about Charles the Great,'' she breathed in a rush. ''Please-oh-please please-oh-please-oh...''

Hay Lin continued to narrate to Taranee.''

''See? And if there's only one single thing she's studied, that's exactly what the teacher is going to ask her about,'' she said. ''I don't know how she does it. All I know is that it works every time.''

Tarane was...totally confused. So, it wasn't cheating that Hay Lin was talking about. She was saying Irma had...what? Some psychic power? A voodoo spell? A chunk of kryptonite hanging from her neck?

All three girls stared hard at Mr. Collins as he scanned his textbook.

''Hmmm.'' he said. ''Let's see here,'' Mr. Collins muttered with Agonizing casualness.

''Charles the Great,'' Hay Lin whispered impishly.

''Irma Lair...'' Mr. Collins began.

''Charles the great,'' Irma pleaded in a hoarse whisper.

''Why don't you tell us,'' Mr. Collins demanded finally,'' about Charles the Great?''

''Yes!'' Hay Lin cried, bursting into loud laughter. It would have been a sure detention getter if Mr. Collins hadn't been so focused on Irma.

Irma, meanwhile, practically clapped her hands with glee as she launched into a long, show-off speech about Holy Roman emperor.

Not that Taranee listened to a word. She was too busy freaking. Maybe had she much more to fear from this curvy in-crower than school yard snubbing.

'Maybe...' Taranee thought. But before she let the idea form fully in her mind, she shook her head hard enough to make her braids click together.

What was she thinking? That Irma, with her hippie, flower-power jewelry was...magical?

''New,'' Taranee muttered, slumping back in her desk chair with yet another shiver. ''That's just not possible.'' She thought to herself. It wasn't possible…was it?

When Sheffield's final bell rang, Cornelia Hale looked down at her notebook page.

It was blank.

There was a physics test in three days, and Cornelia hadn't taken one note. In fact, she'd heard not one word of Mr. Temple's lecture.

'Where have I been for the last fifty minutes?' Cornelia wondered, blinking sleepily as she began to put her notebook and pens into her magenta messenger's bag. A long lock of blond hair fell over her eyes, and she shook it away impatiently.

I wish my hair wasn't so straight, she thought irritably, shoving the lock behind her ear even though she knew it would slither back into her face in about three seconds.

And then Cornelia felt a chill. Suddenly she realized where the past hour had gone.

She'd been doing it again.

'It' had begun so gradually, Cornelia couldn't even remember when it had started. In fact, she didn't really know what 'it' was. Not exactly. But she remembered the first time she'd been aware of it.

She'd been in English class. Martin Tubbs had been droning on about the symbolism of the night in Huckleberry Finn. Cornelia had sighed heavily...leave it to four-eyed Martin to find something obscure, then analyze it to death.

I wish it was night now,
Cornelia had thought wearily. 'Then this whole, lame school thing would just be a distant mem...''
Huh?

Just over her head, Cornelia had heard a sputter, then a pop. And then the classroom had gone dark.

Their teacher, Mrs. Nelson leapt out of her chair.

''There must be a blown fuse,'' she'd said, going to the classroom door and looking out the window. ''Although...that's funny. Ours seems to be the only classroom without light. Sit quietly, and I'll go get the janitor.''

Of course, the class practically threw a party when Mrs. Nelson left. There was 'nothing' like a reprieve in the last ten minutes of an excruciating English lecture. Cornelia had gotten up from her desk with a big grin and done a few stretches. Being a figure skater, she craved constant motion. Then she'd loped over to her friend Elyon's desk to show her the new lip gloss she'd bought the day before.

But, behind her happiness, Cornelia had felt a tiny kernel of unease. She'd glanced up at the dark, slightly hissing fluorescent lights. And a tremulous, almost silent voice in the back of her head had whispered, ''Did I do that?''

That's when she'd suddenly remembered the broken pencil that seemed to have sharpened itself, the bell that had rung just a few minutes early, the boy who had smiled at her just when she had willed him to.

And just now, during her physics lecture, Cornelia realized with a start, something even stranger had happened. She'd been staring out the window, gazing at the green-red leaves of a maple tree as they fluttered in the breeze. But then the leaves had begun to swirl around form shapes. First she'd seen a squirrel. Then the face of a cute guy winking at her followed by her little sister, Lilian, sneering. But when Cornelia had wished to see the cute boy again, there he'd been.

Part of Cornelia knew that, somehow, she was making these things happen. But most of her, the real her, the one who got things done instead of daydreaming her days away, managed to shake the knowledge from her head every time it wormed its way in.

'It's not true,'
she told herself. 'Not true, not true, not true...impossible.' She listened to enough physics lectures to know that.

Cornelia knew what would clear these thoughts from her head immediately...people. She headed out of the classroom to join the throng of kids in the hall. Most of them were already slamming their locker door shut and running, not walking, toward every available exit door.

Cornelia noticed several people...most of them boys...glancing her way as they passed by. She shrugged it off. She knew she was part of Sheffield's Infielders. As opposed to Outfielders, as the school's rebels and misfits were known. Or the dreaded Snufilupigi...invisible to all.

So, she was popular...big whoop. Cornelia didn't put too much stock in it. She knew who her real friends were. Friends like Elyon, whom she'd just spotted down the hall. She was plodding slowly down through the crowed, looking even more wistful than usual.

Just as Cornelia started to wave to her, she was swept up into a whirlwind of Hay Lin and Irma.

''Ha! I can't believe it! You did it again!'' Hay Lin teased her friend.

''Hey, it's a secret! You can't tell everyone.'' Irma said, glaring at Hay Lin, whose slouchy jacket was falling off her skinny shoulders as usual.

''What can't she tell us?''

''Cornelia!'' The lithe girl exclaimed. ''The remote control quizzes. She did it again.''

Cornelia hid a tiny smile by turning to open her locker.

'Remote-control quizzes? She think she's big shot, but she's a just a beginner. If she only knew what I can do...''

For an instant, her mind flashed upon the cute, brown-eyed boy with the flouncy hair who'd appeared in the swirling leaves outside of her class window. She felt as if she'd seen him before. Perhaps in a dream...

Then Cornelia shook her head sharply.

'Impossible remember?' She admonished herself. She scowled into the mirror hanging inside her locker door, narrowing her blue eyes to slits. She then slammed her locker door shut and spun around in time to see Hay Lin waving at an African American Girl in an orange turtleneck and a cockeyed assemblage of beaded braids.

''See you tomorrow,'' Hay Lin called to the girl.

''Who was that?''

''Her name is Taranee. One of the new arrivals. The other one in class with you and Elyon right.''

''Yeah,'' Cornelia said, noticing that Elyon had finally made her way through the throng and reached them. '' I think her name's Will. Ask Elyon! She always has all the news.''

''Hi girls.'' Greeted the sandy blonde girl. Her hair was short with the exception of two braids in the front and her eyes were a pale blue.

The four girls were making their way out of the school.

'Look at me,'' Irma said. Then she nodded and glanced at Cornelia and Hay Lin.

''I've already seen this face before,'' she said.

''Me, too,'' Cornelia Joke. ''It was in a documentary about the Easter Island!''

In response Irma pointed to Elyon's frown with both fingers on both side of the girl's face.

''Oh, no, no, no Cornelia!'' Irma said, contradicting her as usual. She ducked behind Elyon and pointed at her wan expression with mock concern. ''I recognize a 'flunked' look when I see one. And I say that what we have here is a big, fat, hair 'F'!''

Elyon yanked herself out of Irma's clutches and glared at her.

''All right, already!'' She said through gritted teeth. ''I got a bad grade in math satisfied?''

Irma held up her arms pumped. ''Of course I am! Because you know what that means?''

''PUNISHMENT!'' Irma and Hay Lin cried out with an enthused cheer.

''Aaw, come on!'' The girl complained. ''You could look the other way just this once!''

''The law's the law, Elyon! You know the rules of the group!'' Cornelia stated.

''And for a really terrible grade, we need something really nasty...'' The brown haired girl as she started to think.

Suddenly, Cornelia had a stroke of genius. She gave Elyon a sidelong glance and then put on a puzzled look.

''Hhm, it's strange, though I thought that matt-ematics was your favorite topic.'' Cornelia teased her friend.

Elyon stopped in her tracks and gasped. ''Leave Matt out of this!'' The younger girl exclaimed.

The others decided to join in on the teasing.

''Of course!'' Hay Lin said, bouncing tauntingly in front of Elyon. '' He'll be your punishment! You'll have to ask him to study with you!''

''Begging and Pleasing!'' Irma added.

Hay Lin put her fists on her boy hips and swung around to face Irma.

''Let's get this straight, Irma! Either she begs or she pleads!''

''She should beg! I said it first!''

''What about if we make her beg pleadingly?''

''That's silly!''

''But it's a compromise.''

''Good luck, Elyon!'' Cornelia said as Elyon slumped over in defeat. Then she turned and left and followed the Institute's wrought-iron fence down the side walk.

As she strolled along, feeling the breeze ripple her long lime-green skirt, she gave a little sigh. The change in season always made Cornelia a little sad, especially when summer gave way to fall. Cornelia couldn't help taking it a little personally when the trees lost their leaves.

She knew it was silly, but she felt for those threes in the winter, all bare-limbed and damp and chilly. They seemed so...vulnerable. Leaves were like insulation, like the cozy, blue turtleneck she'd put on for her bike ride home.

A girl's yell jolted Cornelia out of her daydream.

'Okay, time to ditch the vulnerable thoughts, she said to herself. 'Something's going down by the bike rack.'

Another's girl's voice, shrill as a bird, joined the first. Cornelia sped up.

'What's going on over there?' She wondered angrily.

As she rounded the corner, she saw one of the girls...Taranee, the new kid in the orange sweater. Crouching on the sidewalk next to Taranee was the other new girl...Will.

And they were both glaring at...ugh, Uriah's gang of thugs. Greasy hair, lots of its, tattered skate duds, and a collective I.Q. of about 22.

They'd be the terror of Sheffield if they weren't so uncreative,' Cornelia thought with a sigh. As is, they're just a major pain in the neck.'

This time , the thugs had tangled a bunch of bikes into an elaborate knot. Cornelia had seen it all before. But she wasn't sure if Taranee could handle it. 'She'd seemed pretty timid in the hallway.

''Did you guys do this?'' Taranee demanded while Will yanked at one of the bikes angrily.

'Oh,' Cornelia thought, I guess she can hold her own.

''Hee-hee!"' Kurt squealed. He was the tubby one with the scuzzy brown hair. He and Laurent, with his blond buzz cut and barrel chest, were two dumb, giggling peas in a pod.

''Looks like somebody's going to be walking home today!'' he teased.

Cornelia couldn't help noticing that Nigel, the only halfway presentable member of Uriah's crew, stood by silently. He issued no taunts, no name-calling. In face, he looked a bit bewildered.

Kurt, on the other hand, was laughing so hard he was snorting like a pig. His fuzzy brown eyes waggled tauntingly at the new girls.

''So, you think that's funny, do you?'' Will growled.

''Could be,'' Kurt bellowed. Then his eyebrows started wiggling...in a different way. He leered at Will.

''You're new here, aren't you?'' Uriah said. ''You're cute!''

''And you're the same old lamebrain, Uriah!'' Cornelia burst out as she stepped over to the gang and tapped their leader on his bony shoulder. He spun around and stared at her, giving her way too close a view of his oily chin, his over-gelled red spikes, and his pimply nose. Cornelia threw her shoulders back and returned to stare. She pointed at Uriah and then pointed at her blue bike, which was twisted around Will's red one.

''Is that my bikes in the middle of that mess too, Champ?'' she asked him threateningly.

He scrunched his face into a snarl and blurted out, ''So deal with it! Let's move, guys.''

'Cowards,' Cornelia thought, as the gang scurried after Uriah, guffawing and elbowing one another in the ribs before they disappeared around the corner.

Apparently like most losers they got their kicks from picking on those weaker than them.

''That was just Uriah and his cronies. Just ignore them...My name is Cornelia. Taranee right?''

''Yeah nice to meet you...''

Meanwhile Will was trying to adjust her bike. The bikes were being tampered with by the wanna be thugs and as a result Will's seat came off of. ''What about you? Will isn't it?''

''Uum...yeah,'' The red-head answered uncertain. She was still uneasy about this new place. After discovering her friends hated her and that her father was paying them off so she wouldn't stick out and 'embarrass the family name'.

''You're coming to the costume party in a few days right? It's going to start at 8?''

''I'll keep that in mind...'' Taranee replied.

''Who knows...maybe I see you before then...see ya.'' The blonde said with a friendly smile as she untangled her own bike from the mess and waved goodbye, taking off on her bike.

''Hey so...'' Taranee turned around to see Will was already on her way.

''Well...bye.''