By for Elisabeth.
"Does everyone understand what we are doing?"
Cassie stood in the center of the circle in her pale blue shift, the Master Tools resting on her moonlit hair, on her wrist, and around her thigh, signifying that it was her turn to serve as main leader during the current moon. She looked stately standing there under the starlight, so much more comfortable and confident than when Diana had met her only half a year earlier.
"We're supposed to do this...how?" Doug asked, scrunching up his forehead so that his blue-green eyes narrowed to slits. He looked confused, but that was not an unusual state for the Henderson brothers.
"Not everyone has a silver cord to rely on like some people around here," Laurel said with a grin, and Diana winced inwardly at the warm glance Cassie and Adam exchanged. She could not help it, but her expression remained as serene as ever. No one but her would ever know.
"That is the point of this exercise," Cassie explained again, "to help us all build a similar connection throughout the Circle. In case any of us are ever alone and in trouble like I was when the Bainbridges had me last autumn, we will be able to call on one another for help, no matter the distance."
"Like psychic telephone lines. 1-800-Save-Me," Laurel said cheerfully
"We will never need to use it, I hope. But I think it is a good idea to know how in case we ever run into more trouble. There are still Dark Powers out there..."
"And witch hunters," Melanie said.
"Rival covens," Deborah suggested.
"Sally Whitman's hair stylist," Suzan said with a shudder, causing smirks to break out among certain members of the circle. Cassie shot her a disapproving look - a look, Diana noted with a smile, closely resembled her own - before continuing.
"I know that this is new territory for most of us, and I do not expect it will be easy. I thought we could start practicing tonight by pairing up and have one person go somewhere in town and try to 'call' to the other."
"How?" Chris asked, looking just as confused as his brother.
"Open your minds to your partner. Concentrate on only them, and invite them in. Help them find you. Try to attune your minds, and merge them."
"And the secrets come spilling out," Deborah said with a snicker. Diana felt that uneasy twist again in her middle but it quickly passed when Faye rose to her feet, brushing sand off her long black shift in a way that made the process longer and so much sensual than it would have been on anyone else. She certainly had the full attention of Sean and the Hendersons by the time she straightened and sauntered to the middle of the circle where Cassie stood, watching her warily.
"I'll pick, shall I?" Faye said, reaching for the little jar Cassie held with the names of all the coven members written on slips of paper. Cassie hesitated as she met Faye's smiling golden eyes and looked for a moment as if she wanted to argue, but then she shrugged and handed over the jar. She went to sit beside Adam and leaned against him. Their hands entwined together in the sand. Diana's eyes were drawn to them before forcing herself to look back at Faye, her expression as even as ever, although her heart was beginning to beat more quickly.
"Let's see..." Faye reached in the jar and pulled out the first two slips of paper. "Melanie...and Suzan."
Melanie and Suzan looked at each other from across the circle, neither particularly thrilled with the selection but uncomplaining.
"So I...hide now?" Suzan asked.
"Melanie does. First name called will go to a secret location and the second name will attempt to find them after twenty minutes," Cassie explained.
"I'll get my head start now." Melanie stood and wrapped her shawl more tightly around her shoulders before walking along the shoreline back to Crowhaven Road.
Faye's fingers dipped back in the jar, picking out the next two names. "Doug...and Chris."
"That's not fair," Laurel protested. "They're twins. They must have an advantage over the rest of us because of it."
"We all need to learn somehow," Cassie said, as the Hendersons grinned at each other, seeming to communicate already with their eyes where they would meet. Diana had a feeling they would end up at the arcade downtown. Doug had been complaining earlier that the coven meeting that night was cutting into his quest for the new Mortal Kombat high score, a goal Chris vigorously supported.
As more names were called, Diana found herself getting more and more nervous. Nick and Cassie were next, and Nick stood without a word and headed down the beach in the opposite direction from where Melanie had gone. After that, Faye pulled Sean's name and her own. Sean looked horrified with the idea and scurried off as he went away to "hide" from his partner.
Faye's hand was dipping again. "Diana..." she read as she unfolded the little slip of paper and let it drop to the sand. Her red-tipped fingernails hovered over the jar almost teasingly, and she shot Diana an amused glance before going in for another name.
Please, Diana found herself thinking, please let me be with Laurel. Let it be Deb. Just please not him.
Faye's hand rose with the new name. She barely glanced at the little slip of paper before a throaty chuckle escaped her lips. "...and Adam." Her eyes lifted to meet Diana's with an almost innocent (if such an expression on Faye was possible) look of well, what do you know. Diana wondered if Adam's name was actually written there, as she strongly suspected that this had been Faye's reason for volunteering from the start. Either way, it did not matter now, as Diana was bound to it.
Faye did not mean anything by it, not really. She had been moderately tame of late (for Faye), but she could not help a little wickedness now and then, especially at her cousin's expense. Diana supposed it was better for Faye to divide her interests so that she was not preying solely on the male population of New Salem. It was a small sacrifice to make if it kept her out of trouble with the outsiders.
Diana made herself smile at Adam as she stood. "See you soon," she told him and started off down the beach after Nick, feeling the mischievous intensity of Faye's gaze on her back. She walked, sticking close to the water's edge, her bare feet sinking into the wet sand as the cool waves washed over them. It chilled rather than soothed her.
He was going to know. The nervous twist in her stomach became heavier and more concentrated. No matter how careful she had been the past few months, it would all be meaningless soon, because as soon as she opened her mind to Adam and let him in, he was going to find out.
Breath of wind
Light of moon
Let this task
Be ended soon.
Diana's lips twisted into a half-smile. She was less of a natural at spontaneous poetry than Cassie, but could manage to get her point across. She always felt better when calling on the Powers for assistance or guidance, even though now all the prayers and rituals in the world would not be enough to do what she needed and skip time forward to the end of the night. She was going to have to face it alone without relying on any help.
After walking along the shoreline for about five minutes, Diana turned to the dunes on her right and started to climb. Her feet slipped and sank in the sand. She managed to cut her right index finger on a particularly sharp blade of dune grass and trip over a piece of driftwood before she made it to the top. She paused and sucked on her cut while looking around, trying to decide which way to go next. A dark figure and a little orange glow about ten feet ahead caught her attention, and Diana started forward with a smile of relief.
"I thought you quit," she told Nick, as she lowered onto the sandy grass beside him. Nick was stretched out on his back, on knee raised as he looked up at the stars, a cigarette smoldering in one hand.
"Don't tell Cassie," he requested as he brought the cigarette to his lips again and blew the smoke out.
"Won't that defeat the purpose," Diana said lightly, "when she will be coming along to find you any minute?"
Nick rolled his head to the side and gave her a look with raised eyebrows. "Ah," Diana said. "I see."
"I'm not playing the game. Not tonight."
"I understand," Diana said. She did, more than he knew.
"Faye knew what she was doing when she put me with Cassie and you with Conant."
Diana was startled. "How did you know?" Nick had been gone by the time Faye read out her name and Adam's.
Nick turned to give her another look, his amusement barely perceptible in the moonlight. "You're sitting here chatting with me instead of mind-melding with your partner. It isn't that difficult to work out who you're trying to avoid."
"I don't know what you mean," Diana said calmly. "I only just got here. But if you wish, I will be on my way..." She had begun to rise to her feet when Nick's free arm raised and he grabbed her hand. Diana was startled by the way his warm fingers suddenly clenched hers.
"Don't," he said, his voice flat, and Diana detected a hint of loneliness in his tone. He released her almost instantly, as if embarrassed, and Diana suddenly felt reluctant to leave him alone, quietly smoking on top of the dune and trying to push Cassie from his thoughts. She sat beside him again.
For the next few minutes, they lay together in silence, but not in an uncomfortable way. Diana thought about the situation, the stillness of the sky, the sound of Nick breathing beside her. Only months ago, she would have thought it impossible that Nick would allow anyone to be this close to him. Cassie had been good for him in that way, allowing him to open up, letting not only her but the rest of the circle in in ways they had been unable to breach on their own throughout the years. Diana had always respected Nick and felt for him and was pleased that Cassie had given him a chance, even though she had known it would not last. Nick had known as well, but Diana suspected it did not make it hurt any less when Cassie ended their brief relationship.
"Does it bother you, seeing them together?" Nick asked suddenly, as if sensing the direction of her thoughts.
"Cassie and Adam are soulmates. They are meant to be together."
"That's not what I asked."
Diana shifted on the sand, pretending to focus on brushing away stones from beneath her back. "Yes," she said, somewhat to her own surprise as she lay back. "Yes, it bothers me."
Realizing how jealous that sounded, she looked at Nick quickly and amended, "I don't begrudge them being together. I really don't. I understand. I want them to be happy."
"But," Nick prompted.
"But I can't help the way I feel. Adam and I were together for so long, I guess I thought we always would be." Her words seemed to hang in the cool night air above them.
Diana had never talked about it with anyone, not Melanie or Laurel and certainly not Cassie, but for some reason she did not mind telling Nick. Among everyone in the coven, he was the one who could best understand.
Diana could feel Nick watching her, and she rolled over onto her side to look at him. "He can't know," she said. "That's why I don't want to do this either. If I let Adam in, he'll see how much it still hurts. And I don't want him or Cassie to be weird around me or think they have to hide. I've told them for months that everything is okay, and if they find out I've been lying..."
"They won't find out. Not from me." Nick gave her a nod, and Diana felt herself nod in return, her eyes stinging. "You're way too good for him anyway."
Diana gave a startled laugh. "No, I'm not."
"You are. No one else would have forgiven them or put up with it the way you have. Handing over your boyfriend to your best friend like a Christmas present and not thinking twice about it...you're a saint. You don't belong on the same plane as the rest of us."
"Saint Diana. Sure, that's me."
"Isn't this your cue to tell me I'm too good for Cassie?" Nick snorted, rolling his eyes at the stars. "Not like you could say it with a straight face."
Diana frowned at his tone. "Nick, any girl would be lucky..."
"Sure. Any girl." He put out his cigarette in the sand and leaned back again with his arms behind his head. "Just not the one I wanted."
"If we could all have what we want," Diana said reasonably, "there would be no room to grow."
Nick laughed. "Like I said. You're too good."
Diana smiled up at the stars. She disagreed, but did not wish to argue. Her eyes were drawn to Orion's belt near which she could see the distant glow of an airplane moving far above them. It reminded her of the passing time.
"They will be coming to look for us soon," she said with the return of the sick feeling in her stomach. She had almost forgotten what they were doing. How would she and Nick be able to explain why they had not been trying to connect with Cassie and Adam?
"They don't have to find us."
"How can we prevent it?"
Nick raised his eyebrows again and held out a hand. "We're witches, aren't we?"
With relief, Diana took his hand. His fingers linked through hers and their hands fell together to the sand between them. She closed her eyes and concentrated, feeling Nick doing the same. She asked the night to cloak them, to hide them from outside eyes until they wished to be seen. She did not know if such a request would be granted, but even wishing for it made her feel safer.
Her eyes flew open as she heard the soft murmur of voices coming up the dune, muffled by the wind. Nick did not move beside her, but she knew he heard it too from the soft pressure of his hand. They lay and waited.
Adam appeared first, his hair looking as dark as red wine in the dim light. At the top of the dune, he turned and reached down a hand to help Cassie up.
"I still don't feel them anywhere. Do you?" Cassie was saying, looking upset.
"We followed them this far."
"Because of their footprints, not any connection with them. And the grass is thicker up here. We won't be able to follow the trail any longer. I can't sense them at all. It's not working. Why isn't it working?"
"We just need practice," Adam insisted, but Cassie was still shaking her head, looking disappointed.
"I thought it would be a great exercise for the group. I thought it would be easy. It was when you found me."
"I will always find you," Adam said earnestly, taking Cassie by the hands and facing her fully. Under the light of the moon, they looked as perfectly matched as a painting of a knight and his lady, with Cassie's face tilted up to his trustingly and Adam's stance exuding confidence and protectiveness.
At her side, Nick made a soft gagging noise, and Diana had to bite her lower lip to keep from laughing. The sound must have escaped their spell, for Cassie and Adam both looked their way. Diana held her breath, expecting their faces to light with recognition, but their eyes slid right over them. Adam took a few steps forward, his head tilting as he listened. He actually paused beside Diana's outstretched ankles but gave no sign of noticing her laying there.
"Well, they were here. Or Nick was at least," Adam said, looking to the left, his eyes passing over Nick. He walked over to where Nick lay - stepping around them, Diana saw, although he did not appear to notice that he walked oddly in a wide semi-circle. He bent and picked up Nick's cigarette butt, which was still smoking lightly and lifted it for Cassie to see.
"That's not his. He quit," she said confidently, at which Nick slid his eyes over to meet Diana's, and she again had to fight not to laugh.
Adam dropped the butt and ground it into the sand with the toe of his shoe. "Maybe they doubled back."
"Maybe. We should check further back in the woods first." Cassie took Adam's arm and led him away from where Nick and Diana lay in the sand towards the dark cluster of trees growing on the slope of the other side of the dune. A few seconds passed before their voices disappeared, drowned out by the night wind.
Diana's concentration dropped, and she released Nick's hand. "Thanks for that. I could not have done it on my own."
Nick again put his hands behind his head. "What are we going to tell them?"
"That we tried so very hard, but could not get the hang of making a mental connection. You'll have to do it though. I'm no good at lying."
"You said you've been doing it for months. And well, apparently. They haven't shown any inhibitions about flaunting being together."
Diana winced. "Don't. It is what it is. I can't do anything about it."
"Except laugh at the absurdity of having to hide it from the world alone."
Not alone, Diana thought. At her side, Nick was silent, a thoughtful, peaceful silence. Diana was very glad to have him with her. Nick was a special person, so much more than anyone ever seemed to realize. He was always trying to hide his kindness, even though in the past at his worst moments it had always found a way to shine through. It had been so easy for the others to dismiss him as he had spent so much of his life in the background, detached, trying not to be noticed. But Diana had always noticed him and cared deeply about him, even through her Adam-colored goggles. All her life, she had wished for him to be happy.
Any girl would be lucky, she thought, turning to study his handsome profile that was tilted up, looking at the sky. Wasn't that something to think about?
"They could be coming back any minute," Diana said, mostly to distract herself from the blush that had suddenly stolen to her cheeks as she looked at Nick in a way she had never done before. She was grateful for the cover of night concealing it from his eyes.
"We're more than a match for them," Nick told her as he rolled his head her way and smiled, a quick flash of teeth glinting in the darkness. He linked his arm through hers, and at that moment Diana believed it. Together, she and Nick gazed up at the inky sky. She felt content to stay there with him and let the night pass them by. She no longer cared if Cassie and Adam came back and saw them or suspected that they had been avoiding them.
At that moment, the prospect of moving on seemed just a little bit easier.
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