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Luce swallowed. Arriane hadn't mentioned anything about probation, and it didn't make sense that that would prohibit her from making new friends. But the word was enough to make Arriane clench her fist and throw a fat punch that landed on Molly's right eye.

Molly reeled backward, but it was Arriane who caught Luce's attention. She'd begun convulsing, her arms thrown up and jerking in the air.

It was the wristband, Luce realized with horror. It was sending some sort of shock through Arriane's body. Unbelievable. This was cruel and unusual punishment, for sure. Luce's stomach churned as she watched her friend's entire body quake. She reached out to catch Arriane just as she sank to the floor.

"Arriane," Luce whispered. "Are you okay?"

"Terrific." Arriane's dark eyes flickered open, then shut.

Luce gasped. Then one of Arriane's eyes popped back open. "Scared ya, did I? Aw, that's sweet. Don't worry, the shocks won't kill me," she whispered. "They only make me stronger. Anyway, it was worth it to give that cow a black eye, ya know?"

"All right, break it up. Break it up," a husky voice boomed behind them.

Randy stood in the doorway, red-faced and breathing hard. It was a little too late to break anything up, Luce thought, but then Molly was lurching toward them, her stiletto heels clicking on the linoleum. This girl was shameless. Was she really going to kick the crap out of Arriane with Randy standing right there?

Luckily, Randy's burly arms closed around her first. Molly tried to kick her way out and started screaming.

"Somebody better start talking," Randy barked, squeezing Molly until she went limp. "On second thought, all three of you report for detention tomorrow morning. Cemetery. Crack of dawn!" Randy looked at Molly. "Have you chilled yet?"

Molly nodded stiffly, and Randy released her. She crouched down to where Arriane still lay in Luce's lap, her arms crossed over her chest. At first Luce thought Arriane was sulking, like an angry dog with a shock collar, but then Luce felt a small jolt from Arriane's body and realized that the girl was still at the mercy of the wristband.

"Come on," Randy said, more softly. "Let's go turn you off."

She extended her hand to Arriane and helped heave up her tiny, shaking body, turning back only once at the doorway to repeat her orders for Luce and Molly.

"Crack of dawn!"

"Looking forward to it," Molly said sweetly, reaching down to pick up the plate of meat loaf that had slipped from her tray.

She dangled it over Luce's head for a second, then turned the plate upside down and mashed the food into her hair.

Luce could hear the squish of her own mortification as all of Sword & Cross got its viewing of the meat-loaf-coated new girl.

"Priceless," Molly said, pulling out the tiniest silver camera from the back pocket of her black jeans. "Say ... meat loaf," she sang, snapping a few close-up shots. "These will be great on my blog."

"Nice hat," someone jeered from the other side of the cafeteria. Then, with trepidation, Luce turned her eyes to Daniel, praying that somehow he had missed this whole scene. But no. He was shaking his head. He looked annoyed.

Until that moment, Luce had thought she had a chance at standing up and just shaking off the incident - literally.

But seeing Daniel's reaction - well, it finally made her crack.

She would not cry in front of any of these horrible people. She swallowed hard, got to her feet, and took off. She rushed toward the nearest door, eager to feel some cool air on her face.

Instead, the southern September humidity cloaked her, choking her, as soon as she got outside. The sky was that no-color color, a grayish brown so oppressively bland it was difficult even to find the sun. Luce slowed down, but got as far as the edge of the parking lot before she came to a complete stop.

She longed to see her battered old car there, to sink into the fraying cloth seat, rev the engine, crank up the stereo, and peel the hell out of this place. But as she stood on the hot black pavement, reality set in: She was stuck here, and a pair of towering metal gates separated her from the world outside Sword & Cross. Besides, even if she'd had a way out ... where was she going to go?

The sick feeling in her gut told her all she needed to know. She was already at the last stop, and things were looking pretty grim.

It was as depressing as it was true: Sword & Cross was all she had.

She dropped her face into her hands, knowing she had to go back. But when she lifted her head, the residue on her palm reminded her that she was still coated in Molly's meat loaf. Ugh. First stop, the nearest bathroom.

Back inside, Luce ducked into the girls' room just as the door was swinging open. Gabbe, who appeared even more blond and flawless now that Luce looked like she'd just gone Dumpster ping, squeezed past.

"Whoops, 'scuse me, honey," she said. Her southern-accented voice was sweet, but her face crumpled up at the sight of Luce. "Oh God, you look terrible. What happened?" What happened? As if the whole school didn't already know.

This girl was probably playing dumb so Luce would relive the whole mortifying scene.

"Wait five minutes," Luce replied, with more of an edge in her voice than she meant. "I'm sure gossip spreads like the plague around here."

"You want to borrow my foundation?" Gabbe asked, holding up a pastel blue cosmetics case. "You haven't seen yourself yet, but you're going to - "

"Thanks, but no." Luce cut her off, pushing into the bathroom. Without looking at herself in the mirror, she turned on the faucet. She splashed cold water on her face and finally let it all out. Tears streaming, she pumped the soap dispenser and tried to use some of the cheap pink powdered hand soap to scrub off the meat loaf. But there was still the matter of her hair. And her clothes had definitely looked and smelled better. Not that she needed to worry about making a good first impression anymore.

The bathroom door cracked open and Luce scrambled against the wall like a trapped animal. When a stranger walked in, Luce stiffened and waited for the worst.

The girl had a squat build, accentuated by an abnormal amount of layered clothing. Her wide face was surrounded by curly brown hair, and her bright purple glasses wobbled when she sniffed. She looked fairly unassuming, but then, looks could be deceiving. Both her hands were tucked behind her back in a way that, after the day Luce had had, she just couldn't trust.

"You know, you're not supposed to be in here without a pass," the girl said. Her even tone seemed to mean business.

"I know." The look in the girl's eyes confirmed Luce's suspicion that it was absolutely impossible to catch a break at this place. She started to sigh in surrender. "I just - "

"I'm kidding." The girl laughed, rolling her eyes and relaxing her posture. "I snagged some shampoo from the locker room for you," she said, bringing her hands around to display two innocent-looking plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner. "Come on," she said, pulling over a beat-up folding chair. "Let's get you cleaned up. Sit here."

A half-whimpering, half-laughing noise she'd never made before escaped from Luce's lips. It sounded, she guessed, like relief. The girl was actually being nice to her - not just reform school nice, but regular-person nice! For no apparent reason. The shock of it was almost too great for Luce to stand. "Thanks?" Luce managed to say, still feeling a little bit guarded.

"Oh, and you probably need a change of clothes," the girl said, looking down at her black sweater and pulling it over her head to expose an identical black sweater underneath.

When she saw the surprised look on Luce's face, she said, "What? I have a hostile immune system. I have to wear a lot of layers."

"Oh, well, will you be okay without this one?" Luce made herself ask, even though she would have done just about anything right then to get out of the meat cloak she was wearing.

"Of course," the girl said, waving her off, "I've got three more on under this. And a couple more in my locker. Be my guest. It pains me to see a vegetarian covered in meat. I'm very empathetic."

Luce wondered how this stranger knew about her dietary preferences, but more than that, she had to ask: "Um, why are you being so nice?"

The girl laughed, sighed, then shook her head. "Not everyone at Sword & Cross is a whore or a jock."

"Huh?" Luce said.

"Sword & Cross ... Whores and Jocks. Lame nickname in town for this school. Obviously there aren't really any jocks here. I won't oppress your ears with some of the cruder nicknames they've come up with."

Luce laughed.

"All I meant was, not everyone here is a complete jerk."

"Just the majority?" Luce asked, hating it that she already sounded so negative. But it had been such a long morning, and she'd already been through so much, and maybe this girl wouldn't judge her for being a little bit gruff.

To her surprise, the girl smiled. "Exactly. And they sure give the rest of us a bad name," She stuck out her hand.

"I'm Pennyweather Van Syckle-Lockwood. You can call me Penn."

"Got it," Luce said, still too frazzled to realize that, in a former life, she might have stifled a laugh at this girl's moniker. It sounded like she'd hopped straight off the pages of a Dickens novel. Then again, there was something trustworthy about a girl with a name like that who could manage to introduce herself with a straight face. "I'm Lucinda Price."

"And everybody calls you Luce," Penn said. "And you transferred from Dover Prep in New Hampshire."

"How'd you know that?" Luce asked slowly.

"Lucky guess?" Penn shrugged. "I'm kidding, I read your file, duh. It's a hobby."

Luce stared at her blankly. Maybe she'd been too hasty with that trustworthy judgment. How could Penn have access to her file?

Penn took over running the water. When it got warm, she motioned for Luce to lower her head into the sink.

"See, the thing is," she explained, "I'm not actually crazy." She pulled Luce up by her wet head. "No offense." Then lowered her back down. "I'm the only kid at this school without a court mandate. And you might not think it, but being legally sane has its advantages. For example, I'm also the only kid they trust to be an office aide. Which is dumb on their part. I have access to a lot of confidential shit."

"But if you don't have to be here - "

"When your father's the groundskeeper of the school, they kind of have to let you go for free. So Penn trailed off.

Penn's father was the groundskeeper? From the looks of the place, it hadn't crossed Luce's mind that they even had a groundskeeper.

"I know what you're thinking," Penn said, helping Luce shampoo the last of the gravy from her hair.

"That the grounds aren't exactly well kept?"

"No," Luce lied. She was eager to stay on this girl's good side and wanted to put out the be-my-friend vibe way more than she wanted to seem like she actually cared about how often someone mowed the lawn at Sword & Cross. "It's, um, really nice."

"Dad died two years ago," Penn said quietly. "They got as far as sticking me with decaying old Headmaster Udell as my legal guardian, but, uh, they never really got around to hiring a replacement for Dad."


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