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23.12.2018

Ripley gave Zack her most pitiful look. And whined. She saved up her whines to add to the impact when she whipped one out.

"But I don't wanna go to Mia's."

Living with her for nearly thirty years made him immune to such tactics. Though he had to give her big points for delivery.

"When you were a kid you practically lived at Mia's."

"Then, now. See the difference? Why can't you go?"

"Because I have a penis. I'll restrain myself and not ask if you see the difference. Be a pal, Rip."

She spun in a circle, her version of drumming her heels on the floor. "If Nell's going to be hanging out at Mia's tonight, then Mia can keep an eye on her. Jesus, Zack, don't be such a mommy. The asshole in L.A. doesn't even know she's alive yet."

"If I'm being overprotective we'll just all have to live with it. I don't want her driving to the cliffs alone at night." The thought of her car flying over cliffs three thousand miles away left a ball of ice in his gut. "Until this thing is resolved, I want to keep an eye on her."

"So keep your eye on her. You're the ones trying to decide if you're going to be long-suffering, star-crossed lovers, or Ward and June Cleaver."

He let the insult pass, as it was her way of starting a pissing match so she could storm out and get out of doing what he asked. "I'll never figure how it is I know more about women than you do, when you're of the same species."

"Watch it, slick."

He supposed he hadn't let the insult pass after all. "She doesn't need me hovering over her. She doesn't need a man, even such a sterling example of manhood as myself, crowding her. She's got tough decisions to make. I'm trying to keep a little distance, without making an issue of keeping a little distance, until she's made them."

"Gee, you sure do think a lot."

The simple fact was, he was putting her in a hell of a pinch. He wanted her to keep an eye on Nell, and Ripley wanted to keep an eye on Zack. She hadn't had an easy moment in the two days since he'd told her Nell's story.

Blood on the moon, she thought. Nell's vision of Zack covered with blood. A sociopathic, potentially homicidal husband, and Ripley's own disturbing dreams. She hated knowing she was dipping into omen territory, but… hell, it didn't bode well.

"What are you going to be doing while I'm babysitting the love of your life at Witch Central?"

There was something else he'd learned in nearly thirty years of knowing her. He could always count on Ripley. "Taking both our evening patrols, buying some takeout, and going home to a lonely dinner."

"If you think that makes me feel sorry for you, think again. I'd trade places with you in a heartbeat." She walked to the door. "I'll go by Nell's, tell her I want to tag along tonight. I want you to watch your back."

"Excuse me?"

"I don't want to talk about it. I'm just saying."

"I'll watch my back."

"And buy some beer. You drank the last bottle."

She slammed the door because… just because.

Mia set out fresh charms. Every day, it seemed, the air got a little heavier. As if something was dragging it down. She glanced outside. It was already dark. There was so much night at the end of October, so many hours until dawn.

There were things it wasn't wise to speak of at night, or even think. Night could be an open window.

She burned incense of sage to counter negativity, fastened on earrings of amethyst to strengthen her intuition. She'd been tempted to slip some rosemary under her pillow, to help chase away her troubled dreams. But she needed to see, needed to look.

She added jasper to the chain around her neck, a strengthener of energy, a reliever of stress.

It was the first time in years she could recall being so constantly hounded by stress.

Tonight wasn't the time for it, she reminded herself. She was going to take Nell to the next step, and such things should be joyful.

She fingered the magic bag in her pocket, filled with crystals and herbs, and, as she'd taught Nell, tied with seven knots. She detested being so edgy, as if waiting and waiting for disaster to strike.

Foolish, really, when she'd been preparing for disaster, and how to divert it, all her life.

She heard the car, saw the streak of lights slash across her front windows. As she walked to the door, she visualized pouring the stress into a small silver box, locking it.

So she appeared to be her usual calm self as she opened the door. Until she saw Ripley.

"Slumming, Deputy?"

"Didn't have anything better to do." She was surprised to see Mia in a long black dress. Mia rarely wore black. The one thing Ripley had to admit, the woman wasn't often obvious. "Special occasion?"

"As it happens. I don't have any objections to you being here, if Nell wants you. But don't interfere."

"You don't interest me enough to interfere."

"Is this argument going to take long?" Nell asked pleasantly. "I was hoping for a glass of wine."

"I think we're done. Come in, and welcome. We'll take the wine with us."

"With us? Where are we going?"

"To the circle. You've brought what I told you?"

"Yes." Nell patted the large leather pouch she wore.

"Good. I'll get what I need, then we'll go."

Ripley wandered around freely enough while Mia got ready. She had always liked the cliff house. Loved it. The big, crowded rooms, the odd corners, the thick carved doors and glossy floors.

She'd have gotten by happily enough with one room and a cot, but she had to admit Mia's place had style. And class. As far as atmosphere went, you couldn't top it.

Class, style, and atmosphere aside, it was always comfortable. A place where you knew you could sink into a chair and put your feet up.

A place, she recalled, where she had once run as free and as welcome as a pet puppy. It was a hell of a note to realize, all at once, how much she'd missed it. Missed it all.

"You still use the gable room?" Ripley asked casually while Mia selected a red wine from the rack.

When Mia glanced back their eyes met. Shared memories. "Yes. Some of your things are still there," she said as she wrapped three glasses in white linen.

"I don't want them."

"They're still there, in any case. Since you're here, you can carry this bag." She gestured, then picked up the second that held the wine and glasses.

She opened the back door, and Isis streaked through. It surprised Nell, as the cat generally couldn't be bothered to join them.

"It's a special night." Mia threw up the hood of the cloak she swirled over her shoulders. Black again, with a lining of deep wine-red. "She knows it. It's nearly Samhain. Nell needs to practice lighting the balefire."

Ripley's head snapped up. "Moving a little fast, aren't you?"

Mia merely studied the moon as they walked. It was down to a thumbnail and would soon be full dark. Around that sliver of white she could see a haze blacker, thicker than the sky.

"No."

Annoyed that Mia had made her uneasy yet again, Ripley shrugged. "Halloween. Lifting the dead. The night boils with evil spirits and only the brave or foolish walk in the dark."

"Nonsense," Mia said lightly. "And there's no point in taking that route to try to scare Nell."

"The end of the third and last harvest of the year." Nell breathed deep of the night. "A time for remembering the dead, for celebrating the eternal cycle. Also the night when the veil between life and death is said to be its thinnest. Hardly a negative time, but one of reaffirmation and fun. And, of course, Mia's birthday."

"The big three-oh this time, too," said Ripley.

"Don't be so smug." There was a little bite in Mia's voice, a not entirely playful nip. "You'll be hitting it yourself in six weeks."

"Yeah, but you'll always be older than me."

Isis was already in the clearing, sitting still as a sphinx in the center.

"We have some candles for working light. You can put them on the stones, Ripley, and light them."

"No." She shoved her hands, very deliberately, into the pockets of her bomber jacket. "Carting your bag of tricks is one thing. I won't participate."

"Oh, for pity sakes. You'll hardly spoil your magic celibacy by lighting one or two candles." But Mia snatched the bag from her and stalked to the stones.

"I'll do it," Nell insisted. "There's no point in either of you being angry, when you're each doing what you want."

"Why are you so angry?" Ripley kept her voice down, crouched as Mia came back to select what she needed from her bags. "I usually have to work a lot harder to get under your skin."

"Maybe my skin's thinner these days."

"You look tired."

"I am tired. Something's coming. It's pushing, and pushing closer. I don't know how much longer I can hold it back, or even if I'm meant to. There'll be blood."

She gripped Ripley's wrist, held her still. "And pain. Terror and grief. And I'm afraid that without the circle there'll be death."

"If you're so sure of this, afraid of this, why haven't you sent for someone? You know others."

"It's not for others, and you know it." She glanced back toward Nell. "Maybe she's strong enough."

Mia straightened, tossed back her hood. "Nell. We'll cast the circle."

Whatever she'd expected to feel, Ripley hadn't expected the yearning that ribboned through her as she watched the basic ritual, as the familiar words echoed in her head.

She'd given it up, she reminded herself. She'd set it aside.

She watched wand and athame glimmer. She had always preferred the sword.

Her mouth pursed in consideration as Mia lit candles with a wooden match. Even as she opened her mouth to speak, to question, Mia sent her a quieting look.

Fine, your way as usual, Ripley thought, and kept her comments to herself.

"Earth, wind, fire, water-elements, hear this call from your daughters. While the moon above does ride, within the magic circle rise."

With her head thrown back and her arms raised, Mia waited. And the wind lifted, all but sang, the candle flames speared, ruler-straight despite the swirl of humming air. Under her feet, the earth trembled lightly, and in her cauldron, fragrant liquid began to bubble.

As Mia lowered her arms again, each subsided.

Nell had yet to get her breath back. Over the past months, she'd seen and done and been told the fantastic. But until tonight she hadn't been treated to such a vivid display.

"Power awaits," Mia told her, and held out a hand.

When Nell clasped it, she found Mia's skin warm, nearly hot.

"It waits in you. Your link is air, and calling to it comes most easily to you. But there are four. Tonight, you'll make fire."

"The balefire, yes. But we didn't bring wood."

With a little chuckle, Mia stepped back. "We won't need it. Center yourself. Clear your mind. This fire does not burn. This fire does no harm. It lights the dark and glows from charm. When you make its golden tower, you will know your strength and power. And once begun, bring harm to none."

"It's too soon for her," Ripley said from outside the circle.

"Quiet. You're not to interfere. Look at me, Nell. You can trust me, and yourself. Watch. And see."

"Hold on to your hats," Ripley muttered, and stepped a bit further back, just in case.

Mia opened her hands, empty hands. Spread her fingers. Turning them over, she held her arms out as if reaching.

There was a spark, electric blue. Then another, then a dozen, then too many to count. They sizzled, like fire on water, turned the air within the circle to deep sapphire.

And there, where the bare ground had been, rose a bright and gilded pillar of flame.

Nell's legs simply folded until her butt hit the ground with a solid thump. Nothing that was going through her mind, had she been able to capture any of the scattered pieces of her thoughts, could have made its way out of her mouth.

"Told you." Ripley sighed, shook her head.

"Quiet!" Mia spun away from the fire, held out a hand to help Nell to her feet. "You've seen me do magic before, little sister. You've done magic yourself."

"Not like that."

"It's a basic skill."

"Basic? Mia, really. You made fire. Out of nothing."

"What she means is it's along the lines of losing your virginity. It's kind of a jolt," Ripley said helpfully. "It might be less pleasurable than you expect the first time around, but after a while, you get better at it."

"Close enough." Mia agreed. "Now center yourself, Nell. You know how. Clear your mind. Visualize, gather the power. Make your fire."

"I can't possibly-"

Mia cut her off with a lifted hand. "How do you know unless you try? Concentrate." She stepped behind Nell, laid her hands on Nell's shoulders. "There's light inside you, and heat, energy. You know it. Bring it together. Feel it. It's like a tingling in the belly, and it rises toward the heart. It spreads up, fills you."

Gently, she put her hands under Nell's arms, lifting them. "It runs under your skin, like a river, flows down your arms, to your fingertips. Let it come. It's time."

While they worked, Ripley watched. There was something lovely about it in a strange way. Something like watching Mia balance Nell on her first two-wheeler, offering encouragement, keeping pace, building confidence.

The first time wasn't easy on student or teacher, she knew. Nell's face was sheened with the sweat of effort. The muscles in her arms trembled.

The clearing, never completely silent, seemed to vibrate. The air here, never completely still, sighed.

There was a faint and fitful spark. When Nell would have leaped back, Mia was there, holding her in place, her quiet and steady encouragement like a chant.

Another spark, stronger.

Ripley watched Mia step back, leaving her little sister wobbling on two wheels, solo. Despising the weakness, Ripley felt tears, pure sentiment, gather in her eyes. And a little spurt of pride as Nell's fire shimmered to life.

For the first time since she'd begun, Nell felt the beat of her own heart, the rise and fall of her own chest. Power, bright as silver, pumped through her blood.

"It's better than losing your virginity. It's beautiful, and bright," she whispered. "Nothing will ever be the same for me again."

She turned, full of joy. But Mia was no longer looking at her, but at Ripley.

"We need three."

Furious, Ripley refused to let the tears fall. "You won't get the third from me."

Mia had seen the tears, and understood them. She also understood Ripley. "Very well." To Nell she said, "She probably can't do it anymore."

"Don't tell me what I can't do," Ripley piped up.

"It'd be hard for her to find that out, especially after watching you do so well, after such a short time."

"And stop talking like I'm not here. I hate that."

"Why are you here?" Mia asked with annoyance. "Nell and I can make the third together." Which had been Mia's plan before she'd seen Ripley at the door. "We certainly don't need you and your pathetic, rusty attempts. She was never as good as me," she said to Nell. "It always infuriated her that what came so easily to me was such an effort for her."

"I was every bit as good as you."

"Hardly."

"Better."

Ah, Mia thought. Ripley never could turn down a challenge. "Prove it."

Weakened by sentiment, stirred by longing, and bristling with the dare, Ripley stepped into the circle.

No, Nell thought. She swaggered.

She didn't hold out her arms as Mia had, but seemed to throw them, and the fire that burst from their tips, onto the ground.

The minute she did, she hissed like a snake. "You did that on purpose."

"Perhaps, but so did you. And look here, the sky did not fall. You made the choice, Ripley. I couldn't have pushed you into it unless you'd wanted it."

"This doesn't change anything. It's one time only."

"If you say so, but you might as well have some wine while you're here." Mia studied the trio of flames as she picked up the bottle. Ripley's was bigger than hers, a result of temper. But not, Mia thought with satisfaction, nearly as elegant.

And, pouring the wine, she felt a fire inside herself. That was hope.

They had another glass when they returned to Mia's house.

Restless now, Ripley wandered from window to window. Jingling the change in her pocket. Mia ignored her. For as long as she'd known her, Ripley had never been a quiet soul. And at the moment, Mia understood there was a considerably testy war going on inside of her.

"Have you decided how you're going to handle your situation with Zack?"

Nell glanced up at her. She sat on the floor, mesmerized by the fire. "No. Part of me hopes that Evan will divorce me, take it out of my hands. And the rest of me knows that's not the core of the problem."

"If you don't stand up to bullies, they tromp all over you."

Nell admired Ripley. Strong, wiry, and ready, she thought. "Knowing that and acting on it are two different things. Evan would never have taken a piece out of someone like you."

Ripley lifted a shoulder. "So, take it back."

"She will when she's ready," Mia countered. "You of all people should know that it's impossible to push one person's beliefs, ideas, or standards on another. Or to erase someone else's fear."

"She's upset with me because I hurt Zack. I can't blame you."

"He's a big boy." Ripley shrugged, then sat on the arm of the couch. "What are you going to do about him-Zack, that is-in the meantime?"

"Do?"

"Yeah, do. Are you just going to let him slide through his brooding phase-which is what comes after the pissed-off phase with him and, let me tell you, is a lot harder to live with. I figure we've gotten to be pals, more or less, since you've been here. Do a pal a favor and snap him out of it before I have to smother him in his sleep."

"We've talked."

"I don't mean talk. I mean action. Is she really that much of a sweetie?" Ripley asked Mia.

"Apparently. Ripley, in her own delicate way, is suggesting that you lure Zack back to bed and soothe away your troubles with a bout or two of hot jungle sex. Which is her answer to all manner of pesky annoyances, including hangnails."

"Bite me. Mia's given up sex, which explains why she's such a bitch."

"I haven't given it up, I'm simply more selective than a cat in heat."

"It isn't about sex." Making the statement, making it firm and fast, was Nell's only solution to fending off another argument.

Ripley snorted. "Yeah, sure, right."

Mia sighed. "It pains me, more than I can say, to agree with Ripley. Even partially. Certainly your relationship with Zack isn't, as all of Ripley's are, based on sex. But it's a vital part of it, an expression of your feelings, a celebration of them, and your intimacy."

"You can put flowers on it, it's still sex." Ripley gestured with her glass. "However high-minded Zack is, he's still a guy. Being around you and not getting laid-"

"Ripley, please."

"Not having intimacy," she said in a prissy tone after Mia's reprimand, "is going to make him edgy. If he's going to deal with your L.A. asshole, he should be in top form."

"He's been very careful to keep me at a distance, in that area."

"Then close the distance, in that area," Ripley said simply. "Here's what we do. You drop me off at your place. I'll bunk there tonight. You go over to the house and take care of business. You've been hanging out with him long enough to know what buttons to push."

"That's sneaky, deceitful, and manipulative."

Ripley cocked her head at Nell. "What's your point?"

Despite herself, Nell laughed. "Maybe I will go over. To talk," she added.

"Whatever you want to call it." Ripley polished off her wine. "Maybe you could take these glasses and things back into the kitchen, get your stuff together."

"Sure." She rose, began to gather the glasses. "I'll just be a minute."

"Take your time."

Mia waited until Nell was out of the room. "It won't take her long, so say what you didn't want to say in front of her."

"What I did tonight doesn't change anything."

"That's redundant."

"Just shut up." She paced again. She'd opened herself-only for a short time, but that's all that had been needed. She'd felt that heaviness in the air, the pressure. "Okay, trouble's coming. I'm not going to pretend I don't feel it, and I'm not going to pretend I haven't tried to figure a way to deal with it. Maybe I could, but I won't bet Zack on it. I'm going to sign up for this, Mia." She turned back. "But just for this."

Mia didn't rub it in. In fact, it didn't occur to her to do so. "We'll light the balefires at midnight on Samhain eve. We'll meet at ten on the Sabbat. Zack already wears Nell's talisman, but I'd protect your house if I were you. Do you remember how?"

"I know what to do," Ripley snapped. "Once this passes, things go back the way they were. This is-"

"Yes, I know," Mia retorted. "A one-time-only."

Zack had given up on paperwork, given up on his telescope, and pretty much given up on the idea that he could will himself to sleep. He was trying to bore himself to sleep now, by reading one of Ripley's gun magazines.

Lucy was sprawled beside the bed in a deep sleep that he envied. Every now and then her legs would twitch as she chased dream gulls or swam in her dream inlet. But she lifted her head, one sharp motion, let out a soft, warning woof seconds before Zack heard the front door open.

"Relax, girl. It's just Ripley."

At the sound of the name, Lucy was up and scrambling for the door, where she stood wagging her entire body.

"Forget it. It's too late to play."

The knock on the bedroom door had Lucy barking joyfully and Zack cursing. "What?"

Lucy whipped herself into happy circles as the door opened, then she leaped enthusiastically on Nell.

Zack shot up in bed. "Lucy, down! Sorry. I thought it was Rip." He nearly threw back the covers, then remembered he was buck naked. "Is something wrong?"

"No. Nothing." She bent over to pet Lucy, wondering which of them was more embarrassed, and decided it was a tie. "I just wanted to see you. Talk to you."

He peeked at the clock, noted it was coming onto midnight. "Why don't you go downstairs? I'll be right there."

"No." He wasn't going to treat her like a guest. "This is fine." She came over, sat on the side of the bed. He still wore the locket, and that meant something. "I made fire tonight."

He studied her face. "Okay."

"No." She laughed a little, and scratched Lucy's head. "I made it. Not with wood and a match. With magic."

"Oh." There was a tickling inside his chest. "I don't know what I'm supposed to say to that. Congratulations? Or… wow?"

"It made me feel strong, and excited. And… complete. I wanted to tell you. It made me feel something like I do when I'm with you. When you touch me. You don't want to touch me because I have a legal tie to someone else."

"It doesn't stop the want, Nell."

She nodded, let the relief of that come. "You won't touch me because I have a legal tie to someone else. But the fact is, Zack, the only man I have a real tie to is you. When I ran, I told myself I would never tie myself to another man. Never risk that again. Then there was you. I have magic in me." She lifted a hand, fisted, to her heart. "And it's amazing and thrilling and sweet. Still, it's nothing-nothing, Zack-to what I have in me for you."

Any defense, any rational reason he may have had quite simply crumbled. "Nell."

"I miss you. Just being with you. I'm not asking you to make love with me. I was going to. I was going to try to seduce you."

He skimmed his fingers through her hair. "What changed your mind?"

"I don't want to ever lie to you again, even in a harmless way. And I won't use one set of your feelings against another set. I just want to be with you, Zack, just be. Don't tell me to go."

He drew her down until her head was cradled on his shoulder, and he felt her long, long sigh of contentment echo his own.