Sterling Silver Christine Morgan (email@example.com) comments welcome Author's Note: this is a sequel to "Where You Need to Be."
"Mr. Xanatos, is this really necessary?" Owen looked as desperately unhappy as anyone had ever seen him. Which meant, to the untrained eye, he seemed mildly distressed. "It was your idea, Owen. I thought you'd want to be involved." David Xanatos wasn't even trying to hide his smirk. "Perhaps some other arrangement can be made?" Almost a plea. Xanatos shook his head. "It is a perfect opportunity for lessons. You can even take Alex along sometimes. He enjoys rides in the car, and now that he's fixed your hand, there's no reason you can't drive." "I cannot give proper instruction in a moving vehicle." "You yourself said that there was a good deal of history and theory needed in addition to the actual spellcasting. Start with that." Owen sighed, defeated and trapped. "As you wish, sir." Aiden Ferguson looked anxiously up at Fox. "I didn't mean to be so much trouble!" Fox laughed and patted the girl on the shoulder. "It isn't you, Aiden." "So what's the deal?" Lexington asked. The tension between him and Fox, going back to their first meeting, had all but dissipated thanks to Lex's fondness for baby Alex and Fox's big-sisterly attitude toward Aiden, but he was still concerned. "It's the headmistress of the Sterling Academy," Fox explained. "She and Owen have never gotten along. My husband takes perverse pleasure in needling them both." "Oh!" Lex got it. "So if Owen has to drive Aiden back and forth every weekend, he's going to run into her a lot." Aiden relaxed. "I thought he was mad at me." "Far from it," Fox reassured her. "Alex may be his prize pupil, but I know he has high hopes for you." "This is all so kind of you," Aiden said to Fox. "Letting me live here, paying for my schooling, buying me my own computer, and everything!" "You'll make it up to us." Fox smiled. "Now, since it looks like the battle is over and David wins as usual, shall we get your bags in the car?" "I'll help!" Lex said, grabbing a suitcase. Aiden felt weird about having a billionaire-sponsor and future boss carry her luggage, but she wasn't about to argue with Mr. Xanatos as he also helped load the car. "Does Miss St. John know about the arrangements?" Fox asked. Xanatos chuckled. "Owen will explain them to her when they arrive." "Oh, David, you can be such an evil man!" "This is nothing! You should have seen them when I made them attend the royal reception together. She was heading my European division then, so she was expected to make an appearance. I already had a date." "Yes, your princess," Fox said with mock jealousy. "So, naturally, I insisted that she and Owen go. They made a handsome couple, I must say." "Mm-hmm. And the temperature in the room drops twenty degrees whenever they're near each other." "Sounds like you're going to have a fun first day of school," Lex muttered to Aiden. "I'm so nervous!" "You're going to do fine. I wish I could go with you." Xanatos turned. "Sorry, Lex. There isn't a long enough string I could yank to manage that. Maybe in a year or two." If Owen was upset by Xanatos' decision, he made no further sign of it. He stowed Aiden's bags neatly in the trunk and waited by the driver's side door. "Goodbye, Lex!" Aiden threw her arms around him. "I'll call you tonight, and e-mail you as soon as I get my computer set up." He glanced at the Xanatoses, and she could practically read his mind as he debated whether to kiss her in front of them or not. Boldly, she settled the matter by doing it first. She broke off, blushing brightly, when she heard Brooklyn's sardonic whistle and Angela's giggle. The rest of the clan glided through the shadows of the garage. "We came to say goodbye!" Broadway called as he landed. He gave Aiden an awkward hug, always careful around her because she was so small and seemingly frail. Hudson, grandfatherly and gruff, said, "We wish ye well, lassie," while Bronx whined mournfully around her feet. Goliath, the only one of the clan that still intimidated her because of his massive size and stern countenance, had brought Elisa with him. That made him seem much less fierce in Aiden's eyes because nobody who was so clearly and deeply in love could possibly be mean. Elisa winked at Aiden and they both smiled, each remembering the first time they'd met, in the elevator of the Aerie Building. Each had been on her way up to visit the gargoyles, each waiting for the other to get off at a lower floor, neither realizing that the other knew the truth, getting more and more fidgety. How they'd laughed when they finally figured things out. "Farewell, Aiden," Goliath said, offering his huge hand. She shook one claw, all she could grasp. "I'll settle in this weekend and be back on Friday," she reminded them. "I know you will do our clan proud." "Thanks, Goliath. I'll do my best." "Miss Ferguson," Owen said, "We should be going or you'll be late for your orientation." "Miss St. John doesn't tolerate lateness," Xanatos added. Owen did not quite look pained, but it was close. With a final round of hugs and goodbyes, Aiden got into the car. The gargoyles waved, and began the long ascent to the turrets to meet the dawn. * * "You're late, Mr. Burnett. Our appointment was at 8:00 AM sharp." "It was unavoidable, Miss St. John." Aiden cringed inwardly but tried not to show it. She was very glad that the two adults were focusing their attention on each other and not her. Fox was right, it was cold in here, and getting colder by the second. Cordelia St. John, as the nameplate on her desk announced, was a tall woman with the angular, slim build of a fashion model. Her face was classically beautiful, her skin fair. Behind her glasses, her eyes were unusually lovely, being light blue ringed with darker striations, the lashes thick and long. Her hair was platinum, even lighter than Owen's, and pinned severely back. Her smart, well-tailored suit was dove-grey and cream, with no jewelry or color to liven it up. Her office suited her appearance and demeanor. The walls displayed diplomas and certificates in simple blondwood frames, the desk was a smooth expanse with nothing on it except a thick folder (which Aiden was dismayed to see had her name on it), the rug was Oriental, the furniture all straight lines and sharp edges and uncushioned surfaces. Aiden perched on one of the uncomfortable chairs and resisted twining her hands nervously in her lap. Miss St. John spared her an evaluating look over the top of her glasses, then sat behind her desk and began toying with a silver pen. Owen stood with his characteristic perfect posture. "I have been instructed by Mr. Xanatos to inform you that Miss Ferguson will be spending her weekends in Manhattan." One eyebrow arched. "That is not the way our school operates. This is a boarding school, an intensive learning environment." "I am aware of that. However, it is Mr. Xanatos' wish that this student pursue some independent study at his home." "We are equipped to provide every possible course of study. I am certain her needs will be adequately met here." "There is no doubt as to the quality of your curriculum or staff," Owen said. "The course of study is unique, and requires resources your school cannot provide." Aiden envisioned herself growing smaller and smaller as the two adults tried to out-chill each other. "And what resources might those be?" she asked icily. "I am not at liberty to say." "Her courseload will not be lessened because of this 'independent' study, and she will be expected back for first bell on Monday. That is at eight o'clock, _promptly_ at eight o'clock." "That is understood." The evaluating look, all sapphires and ice, settled on Aiden again. "What do you hope to accomplish at the Sterling Academy?" Aiden prayed for her voice to remain calm. "I'm hoping to major in medieval history. I'm interested in castles, cathedrals, architechture. My father is a professor of medieval history at the University of California." "Miss Ferguson is an advanced student, as I believe her file makes clear," Owen said. "All of our students are advanced. None are permitted to 'sail through' our classes, as they might have become accustomed to in the public schools." Stung, Aiden bristled. "I've always studied hard, and I've never just coasted!" "We'll see." She made a dismissing gesture, as if to say, enough of _that_. "You'll be rooming in Blakemoor Hall. Here is your class schedule. Books shall be provided when you arrive in class, and expected to be returned at the end of the quarter in conditions approximating new." She pressed a button on her desk. The door opened and a girl came in, looking so out of place that even Owen visibly reacted. She was about 5'6", several inches taller than Aiden, and at least sixty pounds heavier. Her figure was not bad, it was just that there was a lot of it, especially in the hips and bust. She wore black fishnet tights under black denim cutoffs, a wine- colored fake velvet crop top, a black jacket, and high buttoned shoes. Her jewelry was silver and consisted of a dagger dangling from one ear, a spider from the other, a stud in her navel, and a dozen bracelets on one wrist. Her hair was black, short, and curly, with a single burgundy streak running through it. She had brown eyes and black eyeliner and a tattoo of a red rose on her left breast. Miss St. John smiled a thin smile at Owen's reaction. She clearly had not been surprised, and if she was appalled by the contrast this girl made with her office, it didn't show. "This is Roberta Yale. She'll be your roommate and your guide until you've learned your way around. Welcome to the Sterling Academy, Miss Ferguson. Mr. Burnett, there are some forms we'll need to go over so that the details of this 'independent study' are crystal clear." Owen nodded resignedly. "Very well." Aiden followed the other girl out. "I didn't know we shared rooms." "Aw, it's not bad. Wait'll you see it. So, who's the stiff?" "Huh?" "The stiff, the tall guy, the one we left to the heartless mercies of the Ice Queen. He your dad?" "Oh. No. His name's Owen Burnett. He works for my ... I guess you'd call him my sponsor." "Yeah, right, you're the one from Xanatos! Call me Birdie. Saw you checking out my clothes. You wondering about the dress code?" "Well, yeah," Aiden admitted. "I mean, you look ... it's not that I don't like it, but ..." "You're wondering if I'm really like them." "Like who?" "There's basically three types of people who dress like this. The first type are ones that are all morbid and preoccupied with death. Second are the ones who are really attention-seeking losers who want everyone to think they're morbid and preoccupied with death. Me, I just dress like this because it drives my family nuts. Especially my aunt. She's a D.A. in the big city, Ms. Total Yuppie, and I love to freak her out. You should've seen the look on her face when I got my tattoo!" Aiden quailed. "Did it hurt?" Birdie winked. "I was too drunk to care!" "Oh," she said meekly. "Kidding. I was sober, and it hurt like crazy, and I wanted to change my mind but you can't just stop getting a tattoo halfway through. This is the quad," Birdie announced as they left the administration building and descended wide stone steps to a grassy area, crisscrossed with brick walkways and dotted with flowerbeds, clumps of trees, fountains, and rings of benches. "It's gorgeous!" Aiden breathed. "That's Blakemoor Hall, where we live, and that's Malone Hall, where the boys are." She indicated two L-shaped buildings set so they formed a square around a small courtyard where a spirited game of volleyball was going on. "Duval Hall is the history and social sciences building. Lucas Hall is arts; that's my turf. I'm a drama major." Aiden nodded. "I bet." She pointed out the rest of the buildings. "Math and science, language arts, and that's the gym. You'll get the hang of it pretty quick. The teachers are great, even if they work you until you drop, and most of the kids are pretty cool." "Is everybody ... you know, from rich families?" Aiden asked nervously. Birdie tossed her head and laughed. "Lemme guess, you're worrying you've stumbled into some V.C. Andrews novel where all the spoiled jealous rich bitches are going to make your life a living hell, until you long for the humble shack of your childhood or even the gloomy manor where your ancestors' incestuous past haunts every succeeding generation!" "Birdie, you're such a ham!" another girl called, on her way down the steps of Blakemoor Hall with a garment bag in her arms. "This the new girl?" "Yep. Cindy Bergman, Aiden Something. Sorry, I forget." "Ferguson," Aiden said, trying not to stare at the gorgeous girl in front of her. Cindy had a magnificent fall of hair the color of cherrywood, stunning green eyes, and the kind of complexion usually only seen on Maybelline ads. "Cindy's a drama student like me. For some reason they always cast her as the Juliet-type," Birdie explained. "She's nicer than most pretty people, and harmless unless you steal one of her boyfriends. She's got about forty." "That's not true," Cindy said, smiling brightly. "I try not to have more than one for each day of the week." "And she embroiders it on them, just like her panties," Birdie added. "You got a boyfriend, Aiden?" "Kind of." She smiled self-consciously. "Is he cute?" Cindy asked. "Kind of. He's ... yeah, he's cute. His name's Lex." "Has he got a brother?" Birdie pounced. "Uh ... yeah," she said hesitantly. "Great! Maybe you can set me up!" "Only because you've scared off every boy on campus," Cindy chided. "Look, Aiden, welcome to Sterling. I'm on your floor, so you'll have to come visit. Kirsten and I have a social hour every Tuesday evening to keep us all from studying too hard. I hope you're more fun than Birdie's old roommate. I've got to get over to the costume shop. See ya!" "Did your other roommate graduate?" Aiden asked as Birdie preceded her into the enormous rec room/lobby of Blakemoor Hall. Birdie scoffed. "Hardly. She got pregnant and Miss St. John expelled her." Aiden stared, wide-eyed. "Expelled?" "Yep. The Ice Queen never gets any, so when she finds out that somebody else has, she goes into a jealous berserk rage but calls it propriety and maintaining a moral atmosphere. That's what I think, anyway. You're not going to get knocked up, are you?" "Gosh, no!" Aiden cried, blushing to the roots of her hair. "Ooh, hoo, a virgin! Here's our room." Aiden gasped. "I've seen smaller apartments!" The room was almost a suite. The spacious central room had two large desks on either side of a window, a couch and two chairs around an oval coffee table, a dorm-sized refrigerator and microwave, plenty of shelves, and framed prints of landscapes hanging on the walls. Two wide doorways opened onto alcoves which were mostly taken up by beds, dressers, and closets. A small door stood ajar, revealing an equally small bathroom. Aiden went to the window, which overlooked the courtyard, and was surprised to find herself blinking back sudden tears. "Hey, what's the matter?" Birdie came over to her. "You homesick?" "A little. Mostly I'm happy. I was kind of scared. I mean, I'm all the way across the country from my folks, the only people I know are back in Manhattan ..." "Not anymore. We're going to be pals, Aiden. We're going to have a blast. Really wild times. I mean it." "I'm not much for wild times," she warned. "That's okay. This is school, right? You're here to learn. You'll learn." * * Birdie, Cindy, and Jeff Morton came in arguing. Aiden raised her head from her history book. She'd gotten to class early today, brimming with excited anticipation. Today was the first day that the class would be taught by a special guest lecturer, Professor Lennox MacDuff. " -- got to do better than that!" Birdie said, waving her hands in frustration. "I don't need you to tell me how to play my part, Yale!" Jeff said, bunching his fists in a threatening manner. A few weeks ago, Aiden would have been alarmed, but by now she knew the mercuric and rarely-serious temperments of her drama-student friends well enough to know they were being ... well, dramatic. "What's up?" Roy Hayden asked, closing his own book. "We just learned our casting for this semester's production," Cindy explained. "Birdie doesn't think Jeff and I can play Lord and Lady MacBeth." "Oh, I love that play!" Aiden said. "Birdie, who do you get to be?" "First Witch." "Talk about typecasting!" Jeff added snidely. "But these two," Birdie said, flashing Jeff a scathing look, "are doing it with all the menace of Disney's Quasimodo! They're supposed to be the villains!" "It's a tragedy," Cindy argued. "They're driven insane by guilt and circumstance!" "No, no, no!" Birdie insisted. "Don't drag our nineties culture of victimization crap into this!" By now, the entire class was focused on the trio of actors. "I've done this play before," Jeff said. "I was Banquo in junior high." Birdie snorted in disgust. "Give me that! I'll show you how it should be done!" She tore the script from Jeff's hands and cleared her throat. Her voice issued forth strongly, all but dripping with malice. "Is this a dagger I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee." She seized up Aiden's pencil and continued with the soliloquy, delivering a powerful performance that silenced the students. "Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven ... or to hell!" The door closed with the sharpness of a gunshot. Everyone jumped, and more than a few of them cried out. Professor MacDuff stood by the door, wearing a fearsome scowl. "That play is a travesty, an historical abomination." His jacket, professorial right down to the elbow patches, did little to conceal the impressive width of his shoulders. He looked strong enough and capable enough to take on an army. His thick hair and short beard were silver-grey, his eyes glinting like polished steel. He slammed his briefcase on the desk with another sharp report. "Your rendition does the _play_ justice, young lady. However, Shakespeare was greatly in the wrong about MacBeth. And his *fiend-like queen*." Birdie, pencil in one hand and script in the other, flushed but came back smartly. "That's a funny attitude for a guy named MacDuff. I mean, MacDuff killed MacBeth." "In the play. A play riddled with inaccuracies." He plucked it from Birdie's hands and flipped through it. He paused, a faint wry smile touching his mouth. "I bear a charmed life," he read in a quiet yet deep and compelling tone, "which most not yeild to one of woman born." He chuckled bitterly. "How true. No creature of _woman_ born was MacBeth's undoing!" Aiden frowned, thinking about his words in light of what she now knew about ancient Scotland. "So, tell us what really happened then," Birdie challenged. "You're an outspoken woman, Miss --?" "Yale. Birdie Yale. You and my aunt were on Nightwatch." "Oh, yes. The xenophobic shrew." Birdie laughed. "That's Aunt Margot!" MacDuff deftly divested Birdie of the 'dagger' and shook her hand. "A pleasure to meet you. Now, please take your seat so we may begin." "I'd really like to hear more about MacBeth," Aiden ventured, then realized it was the first time she'd ever spoken up in class without a.) being called on, and b.) raising her hand. "What of the rest of you?" MacDuff asked. "Does anyone object?" A sea of negations. Jeff added, "It might be neat, especially since we're doing that play this year." MacDuff sighed heavily. "Why couldn't they choose Hamlet?" he muttered. "Listen, then, and learn the difference between history and literature." He paused, gazing into space, and a cold shiver ran through Aiden. She'd seen that exact look on her own mother's face, when she'd revealed the strange story of her life. MacDuff began speaking, a tale of love and murder and betrayal and revenge. His voice carried its own power, richly accented, and he spoke so fervently and with such emotion that the entire class was spellbound. He skimmed over mention of the historical MacBeth's allies against the cruel Duncan, but one phrase caught Aiden's ear. He told of how these unnamed allies "swept down from above" to rout the enemy forces. The more she listened, the more Aiden became convinced that he was talking about gargoyles. She listened no less raptly than the others, but at the same time her mind was racing and filled with a thousand questions she wouldn't dare ask. * * "Miss Ferguson. Come in." Swallowing nervously, Aiden entered the office and sat in the indicated chair, folding her hands carefully in her lap so they wouldn't shake. The moment she'd been summoned, her stomach had gone into a wretched knot and she'd immediately begun searching her memory for anything she might have done wrong, feeling guilty even though she knew there wasn't any reason. "You've been here two months now," Miss St. John said, consulting her calendar. "How are you liking the Academy?" "It's wonderful," Aiden said earnestly. "I'm especially enjoying Professor MacDuff's class. All of the teachers are very good." She sniffed. "Naturally. We would never tolerate the caliber of teachers found in the public schools." She lowered her glasses and peered at Aiden over the top rims. "Nor students." Aiden clamped her hands tighter. "I've been doing well on all of my assignments," she said, trying not to sound defensive and totally failing. "Yes. Your teachers report more than adequate progress." She held up a folder, which Aiden recognized. "Professor MacDuff was most impressed with your paper on the murder of King Kenneth. He says he's never given such a high grade. I couldn't help but notice that your bibliography was rather sparse. Where did you get your information?" "From my parents," Aiden said hesitantly. "My mother is very interested in that era." "Hmm. Usually, MacDuff is very particular about his students having their facts straight. I'm surprised he didn't question your sources." "Oh, he did, ma'am! I told him what I told you, and he said that was all right." "How is your independent study progressing?" she asked suddenly. Aiden floudered. "Um, fine." "The Sterling Academy has always prided itself on being able to meet all the academic needs of its students. I am sure that we can provide a course of study to meet yours." "My Latin class is helping a lot," Aiden said. It was true; Owen had taught her that Latin was the language of sorcery, and although she had shown some innate talent, the more she could frame it in words, the better off she'd be. She suspected there was a lot more he wasn't telling her yet, that there was some huge secret about Owen that everyone else in the castle was in on but her. "Perhaps if you told me more about your area of study, I can help you." Aiden realized her right foot was jittering, a sign of her agitation and guilt. She'd never been a good liar, always caving instantly when faced with Authority, but she couldn't very well tell Miss St. John that she was learning all about sorcery. "Um, well, I'd rather not." Miss St. John raised one platinum eyebrow and her gaze chilled. "Is that so?" "Yes, ma'am," Aiden said meekly. "Very well, Miss Ferguson. You may go." Aiden stood. Paused. "Miss St. John?" "Yes?" "When you say that I can go, did you mean back to my room or leave school entirely?" The words came out in a breathless rush. Miss St. John regarded her with a long, cool silence. "This school has never dismissed a student for taking on extra study," she finally said. Aiden sighed and found a weak smile. "Thank you, ma'am." "You were frightened." "Oh, yes. This is the most wonderful place, and I'd hate to leave!" "Why do you think that would happen?" "Because I defied you -- oops!" Aiden clapped her hands over her mouth. Now she'd done it. Now she'd be kicked out for sure. "I see." Miss St. John's fingernails tapped on her desk, rapidly, the sound that of a spider in high heels skittering across a hard surface. "I mean ... I didn't mean ..." Aiden stammered miserably. "I am fully aware of what you meant. You're free to go, Miss Ferguson. To your room." "Yes, ma'am." Aiden hung her head and crept timidly out. * * Stone cracked and fell away. Bodies stretched, wings flexing, tails coiling and uncoiling. Eyes blazed white and red. "I never get tired of that," Elisa murmured. "Me either," Aiden said. "Aiden!" Lex sprang down from his perch. "Happy birthday!" "Not until Tuesday, but thanks!" She hugged him. Goliath went straight to Elisa and clasped her upper arms in his hands. They gazed into each other's eyes with an intensity that was nearly tangible. Only when that silent communion was done did he turn to Aiden and smile at her. "Yes, happy birthday, from all of us." "Hudson said he's going to bake you a cake," Angela said. "Tis Maria's recipie." Hudson patted Aiden on the shoulder. "Hope ye like chocolate, lassie." "Who doesn't?" Aiden said. "Maria's recipie. You could have told me," Elisa said to Hudson, aggreived. "Or she could have. Or _somebody_ could have. Instead, I have to hear about it from Morgan in the break room. 'Hey, Maza,' he says, 'did you hear Chavez has a new boyfriend?' Then Peterson asks who it is, and Morgan says, 'some guy named Hudson.' I nearly choked!" Hudson looked chagrined. "Ye've scolded me every night for a week now. When will ye be forgiving me?" Elisa poked Goliath in the chest. "Don't stand there grinning. You didn't tell me either." "He didn't tell us about you two either," Brooklyn pointed out. "If Angela hadn't guessed, we probably still wouldn't know." "And what is it that you think you know?" Goliath inquired ominously. "Uhhh ..." "Don't look at me," Angela said. "You got yourself into that one." "Let's get that cake!" Brooklyn backpedaled away from Goliath and beat feet for the stairs. "I'll help," Broadway called. Bronx whuffed in agreement. They descended into the gargoyles' quarters. Aiden gasped. "Oh, you shouldn't have!" The hall was bedecked with balloons, crepe paper, and decorations. The table was piled with presents. A huge banner proclaimed "HAPPY BIRTHDAY AIDEN." "We didn't," Broadway said, scratching his head. "Surprise!" Fox Xanatos threw open the door. "Guess who's here!" "Mom! Dad! Aunt Mary!" Aiden dashed across the room and embraced her family. "What are you doing here?" "It was David's idea," Fox said. "They're here for the weekend." The next few hours passed in a happy blur. Hudson's cake turned out perfectly, and he insisted on making Aiden blow out all eighteen candles. She opened gifts -- a watercolor of a unicorn that Angela had done, a fabulous cashmere sweater from Fox, a new computer program from her parents, a framed photo of the entire clan from Elisa, and much more. She'd never had such an extravagant birthday. Lex pulled her aside. "This is from me," he said shyly, offering her a small box tied with a satin bow. She opened it. "Oh, Lex, it's beautiful!" She lifted out the silver chain and the filigree heart-shaped locket. "Thank you!" He helped her put it on and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "I'm glad you like it." Her parents wanted to hear all about school, and she was glad to tell them. When she recounted Birdie's dramatic reading and Professor MacDuff's reaction, she did notice that strange looks passed between the Xanatoses and the gargoyles. Broadway advanced the opinion that Birdie sounded like a neat girl, and never mind her relation to Margot Yale. Aiden thought of how Birdie regularly pressured her to fix up a blind double date with Lex and one of his brothers, and giggled. The only time she faltered was when she talked about Miss St. John, and that was because Owen picked that moment to come in. His face tightened into a mask when Aiden mentioned Miss St. John's questions about her independent study. "Perhaps I should send Owen to speak with her," David Xanatos mused. "I doubt that would be helpful, sir." "Oh, please, don't!" Aide said. "She's already mad at me. I'd just as soon forget it." "She will not forget it," Owen said. "I assure you." "I don't want to be any trouble." Aiden looked pleadingly at Xanatos. "Really, it's all right. I actually think she's not that bad --" here Owen made a quiet sound that was not quite a snort " -- and she really does mean well. She only wants the best for her students." "We'll leave it up to your discretion, Owen. After all, Aiden is your student too." "Yes, sir. If it becomes a problem, I shall speak with Miss St. John." "That ought to be good," Xanatos muttered to his wife. Aiden changed the subject, regaling them with more tales of Birdie's wild antics. Later, her mother took her aside. "Aiden, honey, I am so proud of you. As much as I miss you, I can see how good a change this has been. A year ago, you never would have let us throw a party for you, or talked in front of everyone." "Oh, Mom!" She was blushing. "It's true. This school has worked wonders." "It's not just the school. It's here, too. Having so many good friends." She glanced at Lex, who smiled cheerily and waved. "Special friends." * * "How did you like history class today?" Cindy asked with a knowing smile. Birdie threw herself on the couch. "He is _so_ sexy!" "When he took off his jacket --" Kirsten, Cindy's roommate, rolled her eyes and whistled. "Wasn't anybody else paying attention to the lecture?" Aiden asked. "Lecture? What lecture?" Birdie snickered and kicked off her shoes. "Was there a lecture?" "I think some of the guys might have, but every female eye was too busy checking out the teacher." Kirsten dug a few sodas out of the fridge and handed them around. It was Tuesday night, the social hour, and half a dozen girls were already gathering in their room. "I bet Aiden listened," Birdie teased. "I did! It was interesting!" In class, Professor MacDuff had been lecturing on medieval armor. He had brought in an entire suit of it, and demonstrated the use and fit of each piece so that by the end of the hour he was arrayed as a knight. Aiden felt silly now as she realized her classmates had been more fascinated by anatomy than history. She said as much now, earning an appreciative laugh. "Oh, Aiden, if I thought for a minute he'd go for it, I'd throw you out in the street and have him for a roommate!" Birdie said. "You're deranged," Cindy said. "Sure, he's sexy, but he's practically three times your age." "Who cares?" Birdie flopped onto her back and flung her arms in the air. "Lay on, MacDuff!" Patsy Marks groaned and threatened to pour soda on her head. "Isn't it your birthday?" Kirsten asked Aiden. "Yes. See what Lex gave me?" She pulled her necklace out of her blouse and the girls oohed gratifyingly. "So when do we get to meet this Lex?" Cindy asked. "Are you bringing him to the Spring Ball?" "I doubt it ... he works nights ... for Mr. Xanatos." Aiden swiftly occupied herself with opening a bag of pretzels and practically scattered them all over the room. Diane Conroy, another of their regulars, appeared in the doorway. She was shepherding Tina Diamant, at fourteen the youngest of their clique, whose eyes were red-rimmed and wet with tears. "Tina!" Cindy cried. "What's the matter?" Instead of answering, Tina dissolved in fresh sobs. At once, the group swarmed solicitously around her, offering Kleenex, giving hugs and pats. "The Ice Queen just ran her through the wringer," Diane explained. "What happened?" Kirsten asked. "I didn't finish my science project on time," Tina wailed. "It was only going to be a day late, but she wants to call my parents!" "It's okay," Patsy soothed. "I don't want to flunk!" "St. John's just trying to scare you," Kirsten said. "She does that to everyone." "She needs a new hobby," Diane said. "Torturing young girls has got to be getting old. "She needs a man," Cindy declared. "Yeah, right!" Birdie said. "Cold as she is, it'd have to be one of those weirdos from the physics department who likes dipping it in liquid nitrogen!" Amid howls of laughter, Cindy suggested, "We could fix her up with MacDuff!" "No way!" Birdie said emphatically. "I know the perfect guy for her! Aiden's chauffeur, Owen!" "What?" Aiden gasped. "Who, that tall blond guy? The one with the perfect posture and no smile? He'd be great!" Cindy clapped her hands delightedly. "That's crazy! They can't stand each other," Aiden argued. "But they'd make such a couple!" Birdie insisted. "Can't you just see it?" "I like Owen," Aiden protested. "He's not as bad as you think. Well, he is, but ... well, once you get to know him ... he's really nice." "They're just teasing," Kirsten said. "Although it would be something, wouldn't it?" "Hah!" Diane said. "The Ice Queen get a man? Never happen." * * "Whoof, I'm beat," Birdie said. "I'm going to bed. How about you?" "In a minute. Lex said he'd call at ten." "Okay. See you in the morning." "Thanks for the present," Aiden said. "Hope you won't mind if I never in a million years wear it." Birdie shrugged and grinned. "It's only an ear cuff. You don't have to pierce anything. At least try it on sometime. Good night." Aiden sat at her desk to wait for Lex's call. When Birdie's light went out, she opened her top drawer. There, behind the photo Elisa had given her, was a long narrow wooden box with a brass lock. The tiny key was hidden in her wallet, tucked in the plastic compartment behind her student I.D. She unlocked the box and unwrapped the silk that concealed her gift from Owen. He'd given it to her on the drive back to school, and while he hadn't directly ordered her to keep it a secret, she'd gotten that idea very strongly. "You will not be ready to use it for quite some time," he'd said. "I am giving it to you now that you might get used to it, and it to you. If possible, hold it for a short time each day. Familiarize yourself with it. The day will come when it will be a powerful tool in your hands." It was only a piece of wood, a gnarled stick stripped of bark and smooth. But when she looked at it, or held it, she felt a tingle that seemed to vibrate inside her bones. Hecate's Wand, he'd called it. She knew who Hecate was, a Greek goddess of magic. Wendy Brandt was portraying her in the play this year. If there really were such things as magic wands, surely this had to be one. She held the wand in her right hand and tried to focus her will on it, just to see what would happen. It glimmered, then glowed with a pearly silver radiance. "Hey, Aiden, turn that light off!" Birdie's irritable, sleepy growl. She dropped the wand. The light went out. Tentatively, she poked it. Nothing happened. She picked it up again. The phone rang, startling her. She dropped the wand, which rolled under her desk, and picked up the phone before the second ring. "Hello?" It was Lex, wishing her a happy birthday. She smiled while she reached down and recovered the wand. "Everyone loved the necklace you gave me. I showed it off in Cindy and Kirsten's room. Do you know what?" She giggled. "They were talking about what a great couple Owen and Miss St. John would make." "I don't know about that," Lex said doubtfully. "I don't think he has a social life." She sighed. "It's too bad. Everybody should have someone special." "Yeah," he said, the warmth in his voice telling her that he was smiling. "I kind of feel sorry for him," Aiden said. "Owen's been really nice to me. I wish there was something I could do -- oh!" "Aiden? What's wrong?" She stared at the wand. The glow was back, a bright, pure silver creeping heatlessly over her hand and arm. It condensed suddenly into a sparkling beam and shot throught the window, leaving the glass unharmed. Aiden saw the beam split, like a forking lightning bolt, and streak off into the darkness. "Uh-oh," she said. "Geez, Ferguson, I'm trying to sleep in here!" "Aiden, what?" Lex sounded seriously alarmed. The wand had gone dark. The surge of power had faded into a quiescent hum. "Lex," she whispered. "I don't know what I just did, but I've got a _bad_ feeling!" * * "I am _so_ tired," Fox yawned. "Not too tired, I hope." Her husband slipped an arm around her waist. "Well ..." "Let's just look in on the emperor first, shall we?" They headed for the nursery, then stopped short and stared at each other. "Oh my God," Fox said. "That can't be what I think it is," Xanatos said. "Why? What do _you_ think it is?" Xanatos swallowed hard. "I think it's Owen Burnett singing 'On the Street Where You Live' from My Fair Lady." She shook her head. "That's what I think, too. Shall we check it out?" "Do you really want to?" "No, but we'd better!" Opening the nursery door, the first thing they saw was their son and heir chortling delightedly in his crib. The second thing they saw was Owen, in shirtsleeves, tie tugged askew and collar unbuttoned, waltzing with an oversized Raggedy Ann. "Let the time go by, I won't care if I --" He saw them and froze. Barely missing a beat, Xanatos swung his wife into his arms and began to dance. She joined him in song. " -- can be here on the street where you live!" Alexander squealed and clapped. Owen dropped the doll, looking like he wished he was anyplace else. The dentist, prison, even the desolate moons of Jupiter, would all be improvements over his current situation. Xanatos released his wife and regarded Owen with mock sternness. "Do you have something you'd like to tell us, Owen?" Owen straightened his tie. "Everything is perfectly under control, Mr. Xanatos." He collected his jacket and his composure. "I was just tucking in Alexander." "You were singing," Fox said. "And dancing!" "I assure you, Mrs. Xanatos, everything is under control." He left the room. "What in the --?" Xanatos wondered. Fox kissed their son goodnight. "Maybe he's been into the cooking sherry." "I hope that's it. Any other explanation is too bizarre to contemplate." * * "You're been in a rotten mood all morning," Birdie observed. "I didn't sleep very well." "Yeah, well, serves you right, flashing the lights on and off all night long." "I'm sorry," Aiden said. Crossing the quad, they saw a group of their friends gathered in a tight knot, buzzing with animated conversation. "Hey, let's see what's going on!" Birdie picked up her pace and headed in that direction. "I don't want to be late for class!" Aiden protested, but followed anyway. Cindy hailed them. "You'll never believe it! The Ice Queen's finally cracked! Tina, tell them!" Tina, who only the night before had been the picture of despair, was now bubbling with excitement. "I went to her office to talk about my project, and she was acting all weird! She wasn't wearing one of those suits, and she was nice to me and apologized, and gave me a hug!" "Look!" Patsy gasped. "There she is!" They turned and stared. Miss St. John was strolling alongside the flowerbed that edged the administration building. Her hair was loose, a platinum cloud around her face, softening her features. She had removed her glasses, and wore a long gown in a floral print of deep purple, emerald, and blue. Aiden felt a lead weight plummet into her stomach. "She looks like a douche commercial," Birdie said. The girls burst into gales of revolted laughter. "Birdie!" Tina cried. "She does!" Birdie insisted. "Can't you just see her, all soft-focus in a meadow with the breeze in her hair, talking about freshness?" "I wonder what happened to her?" Cindy said. "My sister went here, and she said that the Ice Queen has never changed." "Maybe we were psychic last night," Patsy suggested. "Maybe she did find a man! Maybe she's in love!" The world went blurry in front of Aiden. The world sounded like she had a seashell to her ear, all the noises far away and filtered through the rushing of the waves. "Aiden? Aiden!" Birdie shook her. "Are you okay?" "She's going to faint!" "Look how pale she is!" "Here, help her sit down!" Aiden waved them away. "I'm all right," she managed. "Just give me a minute." She sank into the grass and pressed her fingertips to her temples. Her pulse was light and fluttery. Goosebumps and clammy sweat covered her skin. Her breakfast rolled horribly and for one awful moment she was sure she was going to throw up in front of everyone. "Oh, no, this is awful!" she said to herself. "What did I do? What am I going to do?" * * She knocked lightly, half-hoping nobody would answer and half- desperate that somebody would. "Yes?" Aiden peered in. "Professor MacDuff? Can I talk to you for a minute?" He looked up from his desk. His presence seemed to overflow the small, cramped office. "Miss Ferguson, isn't it? Shouldn't you be in class?" "Yes, I'm ditching. Please, may I come in?" He frowned but gestured to a chair. "Did you have a question about the reading?" "No, sir. I've completed the reading. I needed your advice." "I'm not in the habit of giving advice to young girls. Your headmistress might be a better choice." Aiden glanced out the window and winced. "No, I don't think so. It's her I wanted to talk to you about." MacDuff followed her gaze, blinked, stood, strode to the window, and stared out. "Is that --?" "Yes," Aiden said miserably. "It's Miss St. John." Some of the students had, in honor of spring, put up a large swing from one of the old oaks and decorated it with vines and flowers. Miss St. John was now upon that swing, gliding back and forth, her face wreathed in a beatific smile. She reminded Aiden of Emma Thompson in 'Much Ado About Nothing.' "What in God's name has come over her?" "I think I cast a magic spell on her," Aiden said in a very small voice. "A magic spell?" She nodded, huddled in her chair as if awaiting fearful punishment. "I didn't mean to!" MacDuff sat on the edge of his desk and leaned toward her. His big hand closed comfortingly on her shoulder. "What was it? A group of you girls playing at Ouija? You should know those party games are just that -- games." "No." She looked up at him earnestly. "It wasn't some party game or pretend witch's curse! I thought you might believe me, because you believe in the gargoyles and I didn't have anywhere else to turn!" He snorted gruffly. "I have some small experience with magic. Why don't you tell me what happened?" "Well, um ..." A large tear trickled down her cheek. "I'm going to get in trouble, aren't I?" "Just tell me." "I got a magic wand for my birthday. I wasn't supposed to be able to use it yet, but something happened and I think I cast a spell on her. And maybe Owen, too. I was on the phone with my boyfriend Lex --" here the professor started, "-- and I was telling him how some of the girls had been joking about how Owen and Miss St. John might make a good couple, and the wand glowed silver and fired off a beam like a lightning bolt. And now ... well, look at her!" "I think the first thing to do is find out if anything has happened to Burnett," he said. He picked up his office phone and to Aiden's astonishment dialed Xanatos' private, unlisted number from memory. "How do you --?" Aiden asked, but he motioned her to hush. "I need to speak with Xanatos," he said into the phone. "No, I won't leave a message. It is urgent. Tell him it's MacBeth." * * "It _should_ be enough to handle the Quarrymen," Xanatos said. "Should isn't good enough," Elisa shot back. "Those people are crazy. They're fanatics. They've got to be stopped." "We're doing what we can to defend the castle. And the gargoyles." He spread his hands over the table, which was strewn with blueprints, diagrams, and maps. "I've showed you all of our defenses. What more can be done?" She spun away in frustration. "I don't know. But there've been too many close calls!" "Goliath thinks you should consider moving in here," Xanatos said. "I happen to agree with him. You've made yourself a target." "When did you and Goliath get so buddy-buddy?" she asked suspiciously. "Once we wound up on the same side, we found we had a lot in common." "I really doubt that." He sighed. "I've earned the gargoyles' trust, you know." "Goodie for you." Owen came in with a phone. "Sorry to interrupt, sir, but Mr. MacBeth is on the phone and he insists that it is important. He refuses to elaborate." "Excuse me while I take this call," he said to Elisa. She nodded, but lingered to listen. "Xanatos here. MacBeth, it's been a while. Saw you on television. What's on your mind?" He paused. "Peculiar?" He glanced at Owen, with an odd expression. "Well, now that you mention it ..." "What's going on?" Elisa asked Owen. "I do not know," Owen replied, although she thought he seemed troubled. "Oh, really?" Xanatos said. "Now, that is interesting. Put her on, would you?" He waited. "Aiden? It's David Xanatos. No, don't worry. I'm not angry. We'll get this sorted out. It might be best to have you come home early this week. How about tomorrow?" Pause. "Yes, I'll send Owen." At this, Owen's face lit up like a Christmas tree. Elisa could hardly believe her eyes. "No, I'm sure it'll be fine," Xanatos said. "Trust me." * * "You scared the hell out of me yesterday," Birdie said as she tore apart her side of the room searching for her compact disks. "I'm sorry," Aiden said. "I mean, we were all freaked out by St. John, but none of the rest of us fainted." "I didn't faint." "Close enough. Have you seen my Tchaikovsky CD? Oh, never mind, there it is. Comparative studies of classical themes in ballet, how about that for an assignment?" She hefted her boom box and checked the batteries. "So, what's really going on?" "What do you mean?" "Don't play innocent with me, Ferguson. You're a rotten liar. You know something." "Birdie, really, I don't. I just have to go back early today because Mr. Xanatos has something he needs me to take care of." I hope, she added silently. So far, her every attempt to undo whatever it was she'd done with the wand hadn't elicited so much as a flicker of silver light. She'd spent the night tossing fretfully, and when she did drift into sleep it was uneasy and troubled by bad dreams. She emptied her book bag of texts and notebooks, and as soon as she thought Birdie wasn't looking, hastily grabbed her wand box out of the drawer. "Birdie, have you seen my Latin dictionary?" "Diane was trying to use it to cheat on Jeopardy. I told her to put it back on your desk. Where are you going?" "I'm supposed to meet with Professor MacDuff." "Oh, you lucky thing! I'll walk with you." "How generous of you!" Aiden smiled, but it felt a bit strained. They were halfway across the quad when they saw the unmistakable form of MacDuff striding toward them. Something in his posture told Aiden he had bad news, even before they got close enough to see the grim expression on his face. "What's wrong?" she asked, hurrying up to him. "I had a call from Xanatos. Apparently, Burnett left early this morning without informing anyone. They don't know where he is." "Oh, no!" "Wait," Birdie said. "Isn't that his car?" She pointed to a vehicle coming swiftly up the long driveway. It was indeed, and Aiden sighed in relief. "Good, he came here! Maybe he knows how to break the spell!" She waved, but it passed them without slowing. She could make out Owen's shape behind the dark glass as the car sped toward the administration building. "Uh-oh! Come on!" The car slewed to a crooked stop in front of the wide stone stairs, kicking up gravel. The driver's side door opened. Aiden's jaw dropped. _Was_ it Owen? He was wearing black pants, a white shirt, and a patterned vest. No tie, no glasses. His fair hair was touseled, as if it had just been raked with his fingers instead of severely combed back. He sprang from the car, took three large steps toward the building. "Cordelia!" he called. The door at the top of the stairs was flung open and Miss St. John emerged into the early morning sun, her lavendar and light blue gown floating around her. She clasped one hand to her bosom, extended the other, and cried, "Owen!" All over the campus, students and faculty stopped in their tracks. Aiden was struck dumb with horror. "Too much!" Birdie shrieked, and punched 'play' on her CD player. Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" rolled forth across the grass. Owen matched Miss St. John's pose, one hand over his heart, the other reaching yearningly up at her. They held that stance for a timeless moment, then she all but flew down the steps toward him. "No!" Aiden yelled. "Birdie, stop it! This isn't funny!" MacDuff bent double, roaring with laughter. "This is serious!" Aiden screamed. "This is terrible!" Owen and Cordelia met at the bottom of the stairs, entertwining their outstretched hands. They paused a moment at arm's length, then drew together, moving with dancers' grace. "Owen, darling!" She caressed his face, tenderly, lovingly. "We have to do something!" Aiden cried, but her voice was robbed of its strength and her legs were following suit. She staggered into MacDuff, who steadied her but was otherwise no help at all. "If Xanatos could see this ..." he said, and then was off again into a bellow of mirth. "Cordelia, my dearest!" Owen took her in his arms and touched his lips to hers. Miss St. John lifted one foot daintily behind her as she surrendered meltingly to his embrace. Aiden forced herself to move, running clumsily toward them, through a sea of stunned expressions. She fumbled her bookbag open, dropped her Latin dictionary and closed her fingers around the wand. "I can't believe we've been so foolish for so long," Cordelia breathed, looking up at Owen with eyes that shone like the stars. Aiden tried to clear her mind and think of something, anything! She started to raise the wand, then realized she didn't dare! Even if she knew what to do, she couldn't break the spell in front of everyone! They'd all see, they'd all know! And suppose she did try, suppose she succeeded, and Owen and Miss St. John suddenly came to their senses, standing here in each other's arms? What then? They'd both be incensed, furious! She froze, helpless, the wand still hidden in the depths of her bag. "Come away with me," Owen said. "Now, today, this very minute!" "Yes! Yes, my love!" "No! No!" Aiden raced to them. "Owen, stop! Listen to me!" "Aiden?" He frowned fleetingly. "Now is not a good time." "My birthday present!" she said urgently. "Remember my birthday present?" "Miss Ferguson," the headmistress said coolly, "you should be in class. Mr. Burnett and I are having a private conversation." "Which we shall continue, in private." Owen swept her into his arms again and headed for the car. He gallantly opened her door and ushered her in, then started around to the driver's side. Aiden tugged desperately on his sleeve. "Owen, listen to me!" she practically wailed, trying to keep her voice low. "It's a spell! I accidentally put a spell on you with the wand! You have to do something!" He looked at her, comprehension slowly dawning. "Even as Puck, I am powerless to counter a spell cast in conjunction with Hecate's Wand." "Even as what?" Aiden blinked, confused. Miss St. John leaned over and opened the driver's side door. "Owen! Let us go, my darling." At once, his eyes went dreamy again. He gently shook Aiden off and slid behind the wheel. "I'll return to drive you to Castle Wyvern later," he promised. She grabbed for the door handle but missed as Owen carefully steered around her and started down the driveway. "No! Oh, no!" Aiden fell to her knees in the gravel, one hand pressed to her mouth and the other to her brow. "Oh, what am I going to do?" * * Cordelia rolled down her window and let the cool wind whisper in her cloud of platinum hair. She turned to smile at Owen, and when his dear lips curved to return it, she felt her heart would simply burst with joy. And oh! how that heart did flutter madly within her breast at the memory of his sweet kiss, and the anticipation of others yet to come! "Aiden seemed to think we were not entirely in our right minds," he said, sounding vaguely troubled. "We are _finally_ in our right minds! How could we not be?" She plucked one of his hands from the steering wheel and rained kisses upon it. "This is but at last what we have secretly longed for! Do you deny it?" "No. But still ... she did seem very upset." "Put it from your thoughts!" she urged. "Stop the car, and let us make love here in the deep embrace of the forest!" He pulled over with alacrity. Cordelia leapt from the car and spun in a circle, arms outstretched. "I shall be your wood nymph, and you be my Pan! Come, love, pursue me! And should you catch me, all my prizes shall be yours to enjoy!" She fled, giggling, through the trees. Owen followed. * * "I am the most wretched person ever to have lived," Aiden said glumly. "I wish somebody would tell me what's going on," Birdie hinted. Professor MacDuff, having finally regained control of himself, handed her the phone as soon as he finished dialling. He at least had the decency to look ashamed for his earlier outburst, but that was little consolation to Aiden as she heard a familiar voice pick up on the other end. "Fox? This is Aiden." "Oh, Aiden, good. Is David there?" "What? No. Why would he be?" "He left in the helicopter right after he talked to MacBeth. He's on his way." "Oh, no," she said. "Did Owen get there?" "Yes," she said reluctantly. "Well, let me talk to him." "I can't. He drove off. With Miss St. John." Aiden was overcome and burst into tears. While MacDuff patted her comfortingly on the back, Birdie snagged the phone. "Mrs. Xanatos? Hi, this is Birdie Yale. I'm Aiden's roommate. Aiden is a little upset. Is there anything I can do to help?" She got a puzzled look. "Sure, I guess. Let me ask her. Aiden, did you tell Owen what you did?" Aiden nodded. "He said he couldn't undo it, even as Puck, whatever that means." "Puck!" MacDuff said, startled. "Not Oberon's Puck!" Fox must have heard them, because Birdie was listening intently. "Okay, I'll tell her. Yeah, we'll have him call you when he gets here. Okay. 'Bye." She hung up. "She says her husband will find a way to fix everything, magic or no magic." Aiden sniffled. "How? What can he do?" "What are you asking me for? What is all this about magic? And fairies?" "Fairies?" MacDuff asked evasively. "Who said anything about fairies?" "You did, and she did! I played Peaseblossom in last year's production; I know who Puck and Oberon are! What I don't know is what the hell is going on!!!" Birdie said, her voice rising sharply on the last few words. It was completely the wrong time for it, but Aiden looked up at MacDuff from the depths of her misery, and said, "You really are MacBeth, aren't you?" He nodded. "Arrgh!" Birdie pulled her own hair, then slammed her hands on the desk. "Aiden, tell me, please, what this is all about!" Helicopter rotors filled the air. "In a minute," Aiden said with the resigned dread of a convict mounting the gallows stairs. "I'm about to have to explain to Mr. Xanatos." * * Students fled as the sleek red and black helicopter descended into the quad. This was a morning they'd not soon forget at the Sterling Academy. The grass rippled in expanding circles. Books flipped pages madly. Homework whipped away in a torrent of loose papers. David Xanatos emerged into the late morning sun. He gestured to his pilot, who cut the engines and let the craft settle silently to earth. He immediatley recognized MacBeth, and the small, cringing form next to him. The wildly-dressed teenager beside Aiden had to be her roommate. Poor Aiden looked like Atlas had just taken the world from his shoulders and crushed it down on her. A few words from MacBeth dispersed a clump of concerned faculty, although the curious still lingered at the periphery. "Aiden," Xanatos said. He chucked her under the chin. "Cheer up! It's all right." Her large, dark eyes were swimmy with tears. "I'm so sorry! This is all my fault!" "Nonsense," he said soothingly. "I must bear part of the blame. I underestimated the seriousness of the situation. I never should have suggested that Owen come up here alone." She bought it. The roommate was giving him a suspicious once- over, and he was sure that the long-practiced deceiver MacBeth wasn't entirely fooled, but Aiden bought it. "Now," he said, putting a fatherly arm around the girl, "tell me how it happened." She hitched in a ragged breath and nodded. "I think it was the wand. He gave me the wand, and somehow I used it!" "Wand?" A strange dark feeling swept over him. When she pulled the plain, gnarled stick from her bookbag, he jerked with shock. "My God! Lyonnes!" His memory gave a sudden shake, like a dog shedding excess water from its coat, and everything flooded back. "The snake! It was the Eye, the Eye of Odin! I _did_ know it had transformative powers! And Owen stole the wand! He must have altered our memories!" Realizing that he was speaking aloud, not to mention babbling, he hastily shut himself up. "Sorry. Long story. _Owen_ gave you that wand?" "For my birthday," Aiden said. "He didn't exactly say I should keep it a secret, but I kind of got that idea. I was holding it, talking to Lex about Owen and Miss St. John, and all of a sudden --" "She was just cleaning it and it went off," the roommate said. She looked a little dazed by all these weird revelations, but was coping pretty well. "I never meant to hurt anyone!" Aiden said, on the verge of tears again. "It's all right, Aiden," he repeated. "Does Owen know?" "I tried to tell him, but he didn't make any sense. He said something about not being able to counter it even as Puck." Xanatos considered. _That_ wasn't the best of news. He'd been more than interested in seeing how Aiden's magical power stacked up against Puck, and was planning to arrange a test himself before circumstance dropped one nicely into his lap, but he hadn't counted on this wand. It was an unexpected variable, screwing up the whole equation. "Where is Owen?" Aiden's face fell even further. "He drove off with Miss St. John." The roommate snickered. "Too much!" "It wasn't funny!" Aiden wailed. "What happened?" Xanatos demanded. Before Aiden could speak, the roommate told him. Didn't just tell him but acted it out with many a dramatic gesture, clutching at her heart in the sappiest lovesick tradition. "The music was my fault," she added, glancing apologetically at Aiden, "but I just couldn't resist." Xanatos looked to MacBeth. "What's your part in all of this?" "Aiden came to me for help." It was his turn to glance apologetically at her. "Regretfully, I was of little use to her. Your man's performance, which Birdie's mimics quite vividly, left me helpless with laughter." "I can imagine," Xanatos said, remembering his own reaction to finding Owen dancing in the nursery. "So they drove off?" Aiden nodded. "He said he'd be back to take me to the castle." "Well, I'm a busy man. I can't wait around all day while Owen takes scenic drives through the countryside. I'll find him." He started for the helicopter. "Wait!" Aiden ran to join him. "I'll come, too." "And me!" Birdie said. "You?" MacBeth scowled. "What do you intend to do?" She shrugged. "Dunno, but I came into this play in the middle and damned if I'll miss the end!" "Count me in as well, then," MacBeth said. "This is turning into quite the expedition," Xanatos muttered as they all climbed aboard. * * "There's the car!" Birdie cried. Xanatos had the pilot land on the road about thirty yards from the spot where the car was pulled over. Luckily, it was a nice long straight stretch, so no other drivers were apt to suddenly come around a bend and find a helicopter sitting in the middle of the road. Aiden watched the car, but nobody got out. "They're not there," she said. "Let's have a look around. You two," Xanatos pointed at Birdie and MacBeth, "check on that side. Aiden, we'll go this way. Meet back here in ten minutes if you haven't found them." Aiden followed Xanatos through the woods, her heart growing heavier with each step. Despite his reassurances, she just knew she was going to be in huge trouble over this. Birdie looked thrilled at getting to go off alone in the woods with MacBeth, so at least somebody was having a good time. "What do you think happened to them?" she asked Xanatos. "Well," he said, grimacing as he picked his way through the forest in clothes were no more suited for hiking than her own skirt and sweater, "the spell could have worn off and they went off in a murderous rage --" Aiden made a small, pathetic doomed noise in her throat. "--or," Xanatos continued, bending and picking up a discarded vest that she'd seen on Owen not long before, "it is something else entirely." She whimpered again, not sure which outcome was worse. "Door Number Two," Xanatos said, stopping dead in his tracks. Aiden came up beside him, looked, saw, gasped, blushed, and retreated. Not in time, for the sight of Owen and Miss St. John asleep in each other's arms, wearing little more than pine needles and smiles, instantly engraved itself upon her brain. Xanatos approached quietly while Aiden put her hands over her face. She peeked enough to see what he was doing, trying to screen out any inappropriate sights. "Owen!" Xanatos whispered, nudging the blond man with his foot. Owen stirred and opened his eyes. "Mr. Xanatos?" "Shh!" Xanatos winked, put a finger to his lips and indicated Owen's sleeping companion. A kaliedoscope of expressions crossed Owen's face in the blink of an eye. He carefully disentangled himself from Miss St. John and got into his clothes with as much dignity as the situation would allow. Xanatos chivalrously picked up Miss St. John's dress and laid it over her. "I can explain, sir." "Can you?" Xanatos arched an eyebrow. "This ought to be good." After a long, weighty pause, Owen admitted. "Very well, I cannot." "I can," Aiden said, moving into view. "It was a spell. But it was an accident, Owen, really it was! I never meant for it to happen!" "Owen, I think we need to talk to Puck," Xanatos said. "That is a difficult request, sir." "Is it? You're hardly fulfilling your duties as my son's guardian, running off unannounced and behaving irresponsibly." Owen inclined his head. "A good point indeed. As you wish, Mr. Xanatos." He spun in a rapid circle, blurred, and changed. Aiden took two swift steps back, tripped, and fell on her butt. "Owen?" "Hello, sweetcakes!" the spritely form that had replaced Owen called merrily. "Puck's the name, magic's the game. A game at which you're no novice! By Avalon, you did a job on Owen, didn't you?" "On Owen?" Xanatos said sharply. "Not on you?" "Oh, good gracious, no!" the floating elfin creature cried. "She's not my type. But poor Owen, oh, he's gone hook, line, and sinker!" "Can't we break the spell?" Aiden asked, finally regaining her voice. Puck tsked. "If it was just you, applecheeks, no problem! A snap and a wink and all is done! But you used the wand, naughty naughty! A slight miscalculation on my part. I didn't think you were ready. You made a fool of the Puck, but I'll let it go this time." "I'm sorry!" she cried, offering him the wand. Puck shot straight up in the air and hid behind a tree. "Careful where you point that thing!" "Aiden, put it away. Puck, down!" Xanatos snapped his fingers and pointed at the ground in front of him. The white-haired elf settled lightly to earth. "We need to figure out a plan." "I'm all ears," Puck chortled. "Seriously, though ... what did you have in mind?" Xanatos considered. "You altered my and Fox's memories once -- at least, it had better only be once and we'll talk more about that another time! -- can you do the same for everyone who saw all of this?" "Break Oberon's law to save a couple of reputations? No, alas, no. Not for a convenience." "What about having Alex fix Owen's hand? Wasn't that convenience?" Puck laughed and bobbed up so that he could waggle a finger in Xanatos' face. "_You_ try changing that squirmy boy's nappy with one hand! For his own safety, it was necessary!" "Would that work?" Aiden asked hopefully. "If everybody forgot?" Puck shrugged. "Maybe, though with your luck, you'd wipe them all clean. Plus, there's no guarantee that the spell wouldn't trigger anew the moment Owen and his sweet Cordelia met again. Plus ... well ... speaking of behaving irresponsibly ..." he turned a faint shade of pink. "Owen isn't exactly the sort of man who is prepared for any eventuality, if you take my meaning." Aiden didn't, until Xanatos looked down at the blissfully-sleeping Miss St. John and said, "You don't mean --?" "Oh, no!" Aiden gasped. Just when she'd thought things couldn't get any worse ... Xanatos exhaled a frustrated sigh. "Wasn't there any way you could have stopped this, Puck?" "Hey, I tried!" He shifted, looking abashed. "I was just about to, but then she said she'd be my little wood nymph, and ... well ... I was kind of curious what all the fuss was about. You mortals make such a big deal about it, after all." "You mean you've -- Owen's --" Xanatos held up his hands, shaking his head. "Never mind. I don't want to know. So what you're telling me is that there might be another half-fey, like Fox?" "Moon and stars, no! Owen is _human_!" "So was Anastasia." Puck crossed his arms in a large X. "Survey says .... brrrrzzzt! Titania, may the radiance of all the heavens forever shine upon her, was merely _disguised_ as a human. I saw through it, just as any self-respecting fey would've. When I created Owen, I wanted him to be undetectable. He _is_ human. Physically, genetically human." He floated upside down so that he was nose to nose with Aiden while his feet extended toward the treetops. "Of course, the kid might be a little quirky, like some we could mention!" He ruffled her hair, kissed her on the cheek, and righted himself just as MacBeth and Birdie came crashing through the underbrush. "Oh, cool, great special effects!" Birdie blurted, amazed. "I was about to say the same of you!" Puck retorted. "Hello, MacBeth. Hey, here's a joke for you. Three Weird Sisters go into a bar --" "Puck!" Xanatos said sharply. "Oh, right, there are children present!" "Aiden, what the hell?" Birdie asked. "Who's the refugee from ElfQuest?" "I heard that!" Puck said. "I'm being insulted by someone with an earring in her bellybutton!" "He used to be Owen," Aiden said. "But I got all mixed up after that." "We can save the introductions for another time." Xanatos rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "If Puck's suspicions are correct, you might not want to break the spell after all." "But you can tone it down a bit. Please!" Puck executed a backward loop and caught Aiden's hands. "I don't know if I could live with him like that!" "Exactly," Xanatos agreed earnestly. "I'll give you a little hint about Hecate's Wand," Puck said. "Any magic words that are meaningful to you are meaningful to it." "I don't know any magic words," Aiden protested. "Owen's had me working on my Latin!" "I know some!" Birdie said excitedly. "Here, try this!" She whispered in Aiden's ear. "You might want to ..." Xanatos suggested to Puck, twiddling his fingers. "Oh, back to lovesick Owen I must go," Puck sighed. "Best, 'ere sleeping lass arise, and find modest blush afore thine eyes!" He shimmered and grew, once more becoming Owen Burnett, with pine needles in his rumpled hair and a subdued sheepish look. Aiden took out the wand again. At her touch it flared into silver light. The others stepped back, while Owen knelt protectively beside Miss St. John. She concentrated her will on the spell, not to end it but to, as Puck wished, tone it down. The lines Birdie had whispered came easily to her lips. "Thrice to thine and thrice to mine, and thrice again to make up nine. Peace! the charm's wound up!" MacBeth groaned. Birdie winked at him. "Hey, if it works, who cares what play it's from?" The silver light curled out like smoke. Owen tilted his head back and inhaled it deeply. Tendrils of it slipped into Miss St. John's mouth as she murmured in her sleep. For a moment, they both seemed lit silver from within, and then the light faded. "Did it work?" Xanatos asked. "Yes, sir," Owen replied. "As it turns out, Aiden's spell did not create this problem. It merely revealed feelings long-buried." "Why, Owen, I had no idea!" "Considering all that you did to throw us together, Mr. Xanatos, it would seem you had more of an idea than I did," Owen said with actual bite in his voice. "You mean you didn't really hate her?" Aiden's sweeping relief made her knees buckle. "No." Owen gently pushed a lock of hair back from Miss St. John's brow, then realized they were all watching him and dropped his hand to his side. "We were too alike for that." "Told you they were the perfect couple," Birdie said. Aiden held out the wand again. "Maybe you should take this back. I let you down. I'm sorry." Owen shook his head. "Keep it. I am certain you will discipline yourself more effectively than I could." She gulped and nodded. "I won't use it again! I promise!" Xanatos patted her on the shoulder. "Don't make that kind of promise, Aiden. Fate loves to make a person break a vow." "Perhaps we should leave these two," MacBeth said, indicating Owen and his companion. "I think he'll have enough explaining to do without our presence." "An excellent idea. Oh, and Owen?" "Yes, Mr. Xanatos?" "You left my car parked on the side of the road with the windows open and the keys in the ignition. Don't do that again." "Of course not, sir. My apologies." Xanatos grinned. "And my congratulations!" Owen lifted Miss St. John into his arms, her gown wrapped around her, and stared carrying her toward the car. Xanatos stopped, eyes twinkling with high good humor, and called back. "If I may say so, Owen, you've never looked more heroic!" "Very funny, sir." * * The End
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