"That was truly the most prodigious circle-casting I've ever experienced!" Damien gushed after the circle had been closed and we were gathering up the candles and smudge stick.

"I thought 'prodigious' meant 'big,' " Shaunee said.

"It also can show exciting wonder and can refer to something stupendous and monumental," Damien said.

"For once I'm not going to argue with you," Shaunee said, surprising everyone except Erin.

"Yeah, the circle was prodigious," Erin said.

"Do you know I actually could feel earth when Zoey called it?" Stevie Rae said. "It was like I was suddenly surrounded by a growing wheat field. No, it was more than being surrounded by it. It was like I was suddenly a part of it."

"I know exactly what you mean. When she called flame it was like the fire exploded through me," Shaunee said.

I tried to understand what I was feeling while the four of them talked happily together. I was definitely happy, but overwhelmed and more than a little confused. So it was true, I did have some kind of affinity with all five of the elements.

Why?

Just to bring down Aphrodite? (Which, by the by, I still didn't have a clue how to do.) No, I didn't think so. Why would Nyx touch me with such unusual power just so that I could kick a spoiled bully out of the leadership of a club?

Okay, the Dark Daughters were more than a student council or whatever, but still.

"Zoey, are you all right?"

The concern in Damien's voice made me look up from Nala, and I realized that I was sitting in the middle of what used to be the circle, with my cat on my lap, completely engrossed in my own thoughts as I scratched her head. "Oh, yeah. Sorry. I'm fine, just a little distracted."

"We should get back. It's getting late," Stevie Rae said.

"Okay. You're right," I said, and got up, still holding Nala. But I couldn't make my feet follow them as they started to head back to the dorms.

"Zoey?"

Damien, the first to notice my hesitation, stopped and called back to me, and then my other friends stopped, looking at me with expressions that ranged from worried to confused.

"Uh, why don't you guys go ahead? I'm going to stay out here for just a little while longer."

"We could stay with you and--" Damien began, but Stevie Rae (bless her little bumpkin heart) interrupted him.

"Zoey needs to do some thinkin' on her own. Wouldn't you if you just found out you were the only fledgling in known history to have an affinity for all five elements?"

"I suppose," Damien said reluctantly.

"But don't forget that it'll be getting light soon," Erin said.

I smiled reassuringly at them. "I won't. I'll be back at the dorm soon."

"I'll make a sandwich for you and try to scare up some chips to go with your brown non-diet pop. It's important that a High Priestess eats after she performs a ritual," Stevie Rae said with a smile and a wave as she pulled the rest of the four along with her.

I called thanks to Stevie Rae as they disappeared into the darkness. Then I walked over to the tree and sat down, resting my back against its thick trunk. I closed my eyes and petted Nala. Her purr was normal and familiar and incredibly soothing, and it seemed to help ground me.

"I'm still me," I whispered to my cat. "Just like Grandma said. All the other stuff can change, but what's really Zoey--what's been Zoey for sixteen years--is still Zoey."

Maybe if I repeated it over and over enough to myself, I'd actually believe it. I rested my face in one hand and scratched my cat with the other, and told myself that I was still me...still me...still me...

"See how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O, that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!"

Nala "me-eeh-uf-owed" in complaint as I jumped in surprise.

"Seems like I keep finding you by this tree," Erik said, smiling down at me and looking like a god.

He made me feel all fluttery in my stomach, but tonight he also made me feel something else. Just exactly why did he keep "finding" me? And just exactly how long had he been watching this time?

"What are you doing out here, Erik?"

"Hi, it's nice to see you, too. And, yes, I would like to have a seat, thank you," he said and started to sit beside me.

I stood up, making Nala mutter at me again.

"Actually, I was just going to go back to the dorm."

"Hey, I didn't mean to intrude or whatever. I just couldn't concentrate on my homework so I went for a walk. I guess my feet carried me this way without me telling them to, 'cause next thing I knew here I was and here you are. I'm really not stalking you. Promise."

He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked totally embarrassed. Well, totally cute and embarrassed, and I remembered how much I had wanted to say yes to him earlier when he asked me to watch dorky movies with him. And now here I was, rejecting him and making him uncomfortable again. It's a wonder the kid ever talked to me. Clearly, I was taking this High Priestess thing way too seriously.

"So how about walking me back to my dorm? Again," I asked. "Sounds good."

This time Nala complained when I tried to carry her. Instead she trotted along after us while Erik and I fell into step together as easily as we had before. We didn't say anything for a while. I wanted to ask him about Aphrodite, or at the very least tell him what she'd said to me about him, but I couldn't come up with a good way of saying something that I probably didn't have any business questioning him about.

"So what were you doing out here this time?" he asked.

"Thinking," I said, which technically wasn't a lie. I had been thinking. A lot. Before, during, and after the circle-casting I was conveniently not going to mention.

"Oh. Are you worried about that Heath kid?"

Actually, I hadn't thought about Heath or Kayla since I'd talked to Neferet, but I shrugged, not wanting to get specific about what I'd been thinking.

"I mean, I guess it's probably hard to break up with someone just because you got Marked," he said.

"I didn't break up with him because I got Marked. He and I were pretty much finished before that. The Mark just made it more final." I looked at Erik and took a deep breath. "What about you and Aphrodite?"

He blinked in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"I mean today she told me that you'll never be her ex because you'll always be hers."

His eyes narrowed and he looked truly pissed. "Aphrodite has a serious problem with telling the truth."

"Well, not that it's any of my business, but--"

"It is your business," he said quickly. And then, totally and utterly shocking me, he took my hand. "At least I'd like it to be your business."

"Oh," I said. "Okay, well, okay." Once again, I was sure I was astounding him with my witty conversation skills.

"So you weren't just avoiding me tonight; you really had some thinking to do?" he asked slowly.

"I wasn't avoiding you. There's just ...," I hesitated, not sure how the hell to explain something I was pretty sure I shouldn't explain to him. "There's a lot of stuff going on with me right now. This whole Change thing is pretty confusing sometimes."

"It gets better," he said, squeezing my hand.

"Somehow, for me, I doubt it," I muttered.

He laughed and tapped my Mark with his finger. "You're just ahead of some of the rest of us. That's hard at first, but, believe me, it'll get easier--even for you."

I sighed. "I hope so." But I doubted it.

We stopped in front of the dorm, and he turned to me, his voice suddenly low and serious. "Z, don't believe the crap Aphrodite says. She and I haven't been together in months."

"But you used to be," I said.

He nodded and his face looked strained.

"She's not a very nice person, Erik."

"I know that."

And then I realized what had really been bothering me and decided, oh, well, what the hell, I'd just say it.

"I don't like it that you'd be with someone who's so mean. It makes me feel funny about wanting to be with you." He opened up his mouth to say something and I kept talking, not wanting to hear excuses I wasn't sure that I should or could believe. "Thanks for walking me home. I am glad you found me again."

"I'm glad I found you, too," he said. "I'd like to see you again, Z, and not just by accident."

I hesitated. And wondered why I was hesitating. I did want to see him again. I needed to forget Aphrodite. Seriously, she is really pretty and he is a guy. He probably fell into her haggish (and hot) clutches before he knew what was happening. I mean, she did kinda remind me of a spider. I should be glad that she hadn't bitten his head off, and give the guy a chance.

"Okay, how about I watch those dorky DVDs with you Saturday?" I said before I could freakishly talk myself out of going out with the most gorgeous guy at this school.

"It's a date," he said.

Obviously giving me time to pull away if I wanted to, Erik slowly bent down and kissed me. His lips were warm and he smelled really good. The kiss was soft and nice. Honestly, it made me want him to kiss me more. Too soon it was over, but he didn't move away from me. We were standing close, and I realized that I had my hands on his chest. His were resting lightly on my shoulders. I smiled up at him.

"I'm glad you asked me out again," I said.

"I'm glad you finally said yes," he said.

Then he kissed me again, only this time he wasn't hesitant. The kiss deepened, and my arms went up around his shoulders. I felt, more than heard, him moan and as he kissed me long and hard it was like he flipped a switch somewhere deep inside me, and hot, sweet, electric desire flashed through me. It was crazy and amazing, and more than anyone else's kisses had ever made me feel.

I loved the way my body fitted his, hard against soft, and I pressed myself against him, forgetting about Aphrodite and the circle I'd just cast and the entire rest of the world. This time when we broke off the kiss we were both breathing hard, and we stared at each other. As my sense started to return to me I realized that I was totally smushed against him and that I'd been standing there in front of the dorm making out like a slut. I started to pull out of his arms.

"What's wrong? Why do you suddenly look different?" he said, tightening his arms around me.

"Erik, I'm not like Aphrodite." I pulled harder and he let me go.

"I know you're not. I wouldn't like you if you were like her."

"I don't just mean my personality. I mean standing out here making out with you isn't normal behavior for me."

"Okay." He reached one hand toward me as though he wanted to pull me back into his arms, but then he seemed to change his mind and his hand fell to his side. "Zoey, you make me feel different than anyone has ever made me feel before."

I felt my face getting hot and I couldn't tell if it was from anger or embarrassment. "Don't patronize me, Erik. I saw you in the hall with Aphrodite. You've clearly felt this kind of stuff before, and more."

He shook his head and I saw hurt in his eyes. "What Aphrodite made me feel was all physical. What you make me feel is about touching my heart. I know the difference, Zoey, and I thought you did, too."

I stared at him--at those gorgeous blue eyes that had seemed to touch me the first time he looked at me. "I'm sorry," I said softly. "That was mean of me. I do know the difference."

"Promise me that you won't let Aphrodite come between us."

"I promise." It scared me, but I meant it. "Good."

Nala materialized out of the dark and started winding around my legs and complaining. "I better get her inside and put her to bed."

"Okay." He smiled and gave me a quick kiss. "See you Saturday, Z."

My lips tingled all the way up to my room.



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