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The Initiation (Chapter Nine)

The girls who came over were named Laurel and Melanie. Laurel was the girl Cassie had seen in the library with Diana. Up close she was very slim, with light-brown hair almost as long as Diana's and a pretty, pixieish face. She was wearing a floral dress and pink hightops.

"It's veggie pizza, isn't it?" she said, kicking the door shut behind her because she was carrying a stack of Tupperware containers in her arms. "You didn't order any patriarchal pepperoni, did you?"

"No meat," Diana assured her, opening the door again to reveal another girl standing there patiently.

"Oops – sorry!" Laurel shouted on her way to the kitchen. "I've got stuff here for a salad."

Diana and the new girl turned as one to shout, "No tofu!"

"It's just veggies and greens," Laurel's voice floated back. Diana and the new girl exchanged looks of relief.

Cassie was fighting shyness. The new girl was definitely a senior, tall and beautiful in a sophisticated way. Her smooth cap of chestnut hair was pulled back with an Alice band, and under it her gray eyes were cool and assessing. She was the only person Cassie had ever seen who looked as if she were wearing glasses when she wasn't.

"This is Melanie," Diana said. "She lives on this same road at Number Four. Melanie, this is Cassie Blake – she just moved into Number Twelve. Mrs. Howard's her grandmother."

The thoughtful gray eyes were turned on Cassie, then Melanie nodded. "Hi."

"Hi," Cassie said, glad she'd had a bath and hoping Diana's clothes didn't look too silly on her.

"Melanie's our brain," Diana said fondly. "She's devastatingly smart. And she knows everything there is to know about computers."

"Not everything," Melanie said without smiling. "Sometimes I think not anything." She looked at Diana. "You know, I overheard some whispers about a Cassie, and something to do with Faye, but nobody would tell me more."

"I know. I only found out about it today. Maybe I'm out of touch with what's really going on in school – but you should have told me you'd heard something, at least."

"You can't fight everybody's battles, Diana."

Diana just looked at her, then shook her head slightly. "Cassie, why don't you go in and help Laurel with the salad? You'll like Laurel; she's a junior like you."

In the kitchen Laurel was standing in front of a counter full of vegetables, chopping away.

"Diana said I should help you."

Laurel turned. "Good! You can wash that shepherd's purse over there – it's fresh, so it's probably got some native wildlife crawling on it."

Shepherd's purse? Cassie looked at several piles of greenery doubtfully. Was this something she ought to know?

"Uh… this?" she said, picking up a dark green triangular leaf with a mealy white underside.

"No, that's wild spinach." Laurel gestured with her elbow to a pile of long, slender leaves with ragged edges. "That's the shepherd's purse. But you can wash them both."

"Do you ever use – uh, feverfew – in salads?" Cassie asked hesitantly as she washed. She was glad to have something to contribute. These girls were so smart, so competent, so together; she desperately wanted to make a good impression.

Laurel smiled and nodded. "Yes, but you have to be careful not to eat too much; you can get a rash. Feverfew's good for other things, too; it makes a good wash for insect bites and a great love – " Laurel broke off suddenly and went into a flurry of chopping. "There, this burnet is ready. It's good to get these greens fresh, you know," she added quickly, "because they taste better and they're still full of life from Mother Earth."

Cassie glanced at her warily. Maybe this girl wasn't so together after all. Full of life from Mother Earth? But then, suddenly, she recalled that day when she had leaned against the red granite and felt a buzzing deep inside it. When she'd imagined she'd felt that, rather. Yes, she could see how you might think that fresh plants were full of that life.

"Okay, this is done. You can tell Di and Melanie it's ready; I'll get some plates," Laurel said.

Cassie went back into the spacious front room. Melanie and Diana were absorbed in conversation, and neither of them saw her come up behind them.

"… picking her up like a puppy off the street. You're always doing that," Melanie was saying earnestly, and Diana was listening with her arms folded. "But what's going to happen later – ?"

She broke off as Diana saw Cassie and touched her forearm.

"It's ready," Cassie said, feeling awkward. Had they been talking about her? Calling her a puppy off the street? But it hadn't been Diana saying that; only Melanie. She told herself that she didn't care what Melanie thought.

The cool gray eyes weren't unfriendly, though, as Melanie looked at her while they ate the salad. Only – thoughtful. And when the pizza came, Cassie had to admire the ease with which the other three girls laughed and talked with the college-age delivery guy. He got so interested in Melanie that he practically invited himself inside, but Diana, laughing, shut the door on him.

Afterward, Melanie told several amusing stories about her trip to Canada over the summer, and Cassie almost forgot about the remark. It was so good just to be surrounded by easy, friendly talk; not to feel shut out. And to be here by Diana's invitation, to see Diana smiling at her… she still could scarcely believe it.

When she was getting ready to leave, though, she got a shock. Diana handed her a neat pile of clothes – the gray sweater showed no trace of soot now – and said, "I'll take you home. Don't worry about your grandma's car. If you give me the keys, I'll have Chris Henderson drive it to your place."

Cassie froze in the act of handing over the keys. "Henderson? You mean – you don't mean one of the Henderson brothers."

Diana smiled as she unlocked the Integra. "So you've heard of them. Chris is nice, really, just a little wild. Don't worry."

As they drove off, Cassie remembered that the one playing keep away with her backpack had been called Doug, not Chris. But she still couldn't help feeling alarmed.

"We all know each other out here on

Crowhaven Road

," Diana explained in a comforting tone. "See, there's Laurel's house, and the next one is Faye's. The kids who grew up here sort of stick together. It'll be okay." ,

"Stick together?" Cassie had a sudden, disturbing idea.

"Yes." Diana's voice was deliberately light. "We've got a sort of club…"

"The Club?" Cassie was so appalled she interrupted. "You mean – you're in it too? You and Laurel and Melanie?"

"Mm," Diana said. "Well, here's your house. I'll call you tomorrow – maybe I could come over. And we can carpool to school on Monday…" She stopped at the expression on Cassie's face. "What is it, Cassie?" she said gently. ?

Cassie was shaking her head. "I don't know… yes, I do know. I told you how I heard Faye and Suzan and Deborah talking the first day of school – that was how all the trouble started. I heard the kind of things they said, and I know they're in the Club. And it was so awful… I don't see how you could be in a club like that, with them."

"It isn't what you think…" Diana's gentle voice trailed off. "And I can't really explain. But I'll tell you this – don't judge the Club by Faye. Although there's a lot of good in Faye too, if you look for it."

Cassie thought you would have to look with a scanning electron microscope to find it. After a moment, she said so.

Diana laughed. "No, really. I've known her since we were babies. We've all known each other that long out here."

"But…" Cassie looked at her worriedly. "Aren't you afraid of her? Don't you think she might try to do something terrible to you?"

"No," Diana said. "I don't think so. For one thing, she's – made a sort of promise not to. And for another" – she looked at Cassie almost apologetically, although a smile was tugging at the corner of her lips – "well, don't hate me, but Faye happens to be my first cousin."

Cassie gaped.

"We're mostly cousins up here," Diana said softly. "Sometimes second and third, and all that, but lots even closer. Here's some herb tea Laurel made up for me over the summer," she added, putting something in Cassie's hand. "Drink some tonight if you've been having trouble sleeping. It ought to help. I'll see you tomorrow morning."

When Diana appeared at the door, her hair was pulled back in one long, exquisite French braid. It hung down like a silk tassel. She had a packet of good-smelling dried leaves wrapped in cheesecloth in one hand.

"You said your mom had the flu, so I brought some tea for her. It's good for coughs and chills. Did you try that tea I gave you last night?"

Cassie nodded. "I couldn't believe it. I went right to sleep and woke up this morning feeling great. What was in it?"

"Well, for one thing, ground-up catnip," Diana said, and then smiled at Cassie's reaction. "Don't worry; it doesn't have the same effect on humans as on cats. It's just relaxing."

Was that what Diana had been doing that first morning Cassie had seen her? Making some kind of tea? Cassie didn't quite dare to admit she'd been spying that day, but she was pleased when Diana said she'd like to make the tea and give it to Cassie's mother personally.

"It's a simple herb and gem elixir for chills," she said quietly to Mrs. Blake, and there was something reassuring about her voice. Cassie's mother hesitated a moment, then reached for the cup. She tasted it, and then looked up and smiled at Diana. Cassie felt warm all over.

Even Cassie's grandmother's seamed old face broke into a smile at the sight of Diana as she passed the two girls walking down the hall to Cassie's room.

"It must be great to have a grandmother like that," Diana said. "She must be full of old stories."

Cassie was relieved. She'd been afraid that Diana wouldn't be able to see past the mole and the stooped back and the coarse, grizzled hair. "She is pretty great," she said, marveling at how much her own attitude had changed since that first day when she'd seen the figure in the doorway. "And it's nice to finally get to know her, since she's the only relative I have left. All my other grandparents are dead."

"So are mine," Diana said. "And my mom, too. It's sad, because I always wanted a little sister, but my mother died the same year I was born, and my dad never remarried, so there never was any chance."

"I've wished for a sister too," Cassie murmured.

There was a silence. Then Diana said, "This is a beautiful room."

"I know," Cassie said, looking around at the massive, shining furniture and the formal draperies and the stiff chairs. "It's beautiful, but it's like a museum. That's all my stuff that got shipped from home." She pointed to a pile of belongings in the corner. "I tried to spread it around, but I was afraid of scratching something or breaking something."

Diana laughed. "I wouldn't worry. These things have made it through the last three hundred years; they'll hold out a little longer. You just need to arrange the room so your stuff fits in with them. We could try it next weekend – I'm sure Laurel and Melanie would help too. It would be fun."

Cassie thought of Diana's bright, airy, harmonious room and felt a surge of hope. If her bedroom could look just half as good as that, she'd be happy.

"You're just too nice to me," she blurted out, then winced and put a hand to her forehead. "I know how incredibly stupid that sounds," she said helplessly, "but it's true. I mean, you're doing all this for me, and you're not getting anything back. And – I just can't understand why you'd want to."

Diana was looking out the window at the ocean. It rolled and sparkled, reflecting a clear, radiantly blue September sky. "I told you," she said, and smiled. "I think you're nice. You were good to help Sally the way you did, and it was brave to stand up to Faye. I admire that. And besides," she added, shrugging, "I like being friendly to people. It doesn't feel like I'm getting nothing back. I'm always wondering why people are so nice to me."

Cassie threw a look at her, sitting there by the window with sunlight spilling over her, haloing her in brightness. Her fair hair seemed literally to glow, and her profile was perfect, like a delicately carved cameo. Could Diana really not know?

"Well, I guess the fact that you always seem to try and find the good in everybody could be part of it," Cassie said. "People probably can't resist that. And the fact that you're not vain and you're really interested in what other people have to say… and I guess the fact that you're the most beautiful person I've ever seen in my entire life doesn't hurt," she added finally.

Diana burst out laughing. "I'm sorry you grew up around such ugly people," she said. Then she sobered, looking out the window again and playing with the drapery cord. "But you know…" she said, and her voice was almost shy. Then she turned to Cassie, her eyes so brilliantly green that it took Cassie's breath away.

"You know, it's funny about us both wishing for sisters, and neither of us having one," she said. "And ever since I saw you in the science building… well, I've felt almost as if you were my little sister. It sounds strange, but it's true."

It didn't seem strange to Cassie. Ever since she'd seen Diana, she'd felt as if they were connected in some way.

"And – I don't know; I feel I can talk to you, somehow. Even more than to Melanie and Laurel, even though we just met. I feel that somehow you understand me and that… I can trust you."

"You can," Cassie said quietly, but with a passion that surprised even her. "I don't know why either, but you can trust me, no matter what."

"So if you wanted…" Diana was frowning slightly, chewing her lip, still looking down as she pleated the curtain material. "Well… I was thinking maybe we could sort of be foster sisters to each other. Sort of adopt each other. Then I'd have a little sister and you'd have a big one. But only if you want to," she added quickly, looking up again.

Want to? Cassie's problem was that she didn't know what to do – throw her arms around Diana, dance around the room, burst into laughter, or burst into tears.

"That would be okay," she managed to say after a minute. Then, heart singing, she smiled at Diana, shyly, but meeting her eyes directly. "No, that'd be – great."

"You're looking better this morning, Mom," Cassie said. Her mother, sitting on the edge of her bed, smiled at her.

"It was a bad flu, but I am better now," she said. "And you – you're looking happier, sweetheart."

"I am," Cassie said, dropping a quick kiss on her mother's cheek. You'll never know how much, she thought.

This morning was almost like the first day of school in excitement and anticipation. I don't care if everyone else in the entire school hates me, Cassie thought. Diana will be there. Just thinking about that will make the rest not matter.

Diana was looking particularly beautiful that day, wearing a green suede jacket lined with blue silk over jeans faded almost white. At her throat hung a simple pendant with a single stone in it, a milky stone with a blue-white shimmer. Cassie was proud just to walk beside her at school.

And in the halls, she noticed something strange. It was hard to walk three steps without getting stopped by someone.

"Oh, hi, Diana – have you got a minute?" "Diana! I'm so glad to see you…" "Diana, it's killing me. Won't you just think about this weekend?" (This from a guy.) Practically everybody they passed wanted to talk with Diana, and those who didn't have something to say hung around the edges just listening.

Cassie watched Diana speak to each of them. The guys begging for dates were the only ones she dismissed, smiling. Some of the people shot nervous glances at Cassie, but none of them backed away or said anything nasty. Apparently Diana had the power to counteract even Faye.

Finally, a few minutes before the bell, Diana pulled away from the crowd and walked Cassie to her English class. She not only came inside but sat down at a desk beside Cassie's and chatted with her, ignoring everyone who was looking at them.

"We'll have to have another pizza party this week," she said in a clear, carrying voice. "And Laurel and I were talking about ways to redecorate your room if you still want to. Laurel's very artistic. And I really think you ought to transfer into my AP history class if you can. It's last period, and the teacher, Ms. Lanning, is great…"

She went on talking, seeming utterly oblivious to the rest of the class. But Cassie could feel something bubbling up inside her like the carbonation in a bottle of soda. Girls who had actually turned their backs and scuttled away from her last week were now listening avidly to Diana's monologue, nodding as if they were part of the conversation.

"Well, I guess I'd better go – I'll meet you at eleven fifteen for lunch," Diana said.

"Where?" Cassie asked, almost panicking as Diana got up. She had just realized she'd never seen Diana – or Laurel or Melanie either – at lunch.

"Oh, in the cafeteria – the part in the rear. Behind the glass door. We call it the back room. You'll see it," Diana said. The girls around Cassie were exchanging looks of astonishment. As Diana walked away one of them spoke.

"You get to eat in the back room?" she asked enviously.

"I guess so," Cassie said absently, watching Diana.

"But…" Another look passed between the girls. "Are you in the Club?" one of them finished.

Cassie felt uncomfortable. "No… not really. I'm just friends with Diana."

A pause. Then the girls settled back, looking bewildered but impressed.

Cassie scarcely noticed. She was watching the door, and the girl who'd walked in just as Diana reached it to walk out.

Faye was looking particularly beautiful this morning too. Her black hair was wild and lustrous, her pale skin glowing. Her lips looked more sensuous than ever, emphasized by some new shade of berry-red lipstick. She was wearing a red sweater that clung to every curve.

She stopped in the doorway, blocking it, and she and Diana looked at each other.

It was a long, measuring glance, hooded golden eyes locked with green. Neither of them said anything, but the air between them almost crackled with electricity. Cassie could almost feel the two strong wills fighting for dominance there. Finally, it was Faye who moved aside, but she gestured Diana through the door with an ironic flourish that seemed more like contempt than courtesy. And as Diana passed by, Faye spoke over her shoulder, without turning to look.

"What did she say?" one of the girls asked Cassie.

"I couldn't hear it," Cassie said.

But that was a lie. She had heard. She just didn't understand. Faye had said, "Win a battle; lose the war."

At lunch, Cassie wondered how she hadn't seen the back room of the cafeteria before. She understood, though, how Diana and her friends hadn't seen her – the entrance to the back room was swamped with people. People standing around, people hoping to be invited in, or people just hanging out on the fringes. They blocked any view those seated inside might have of the cafeteria proper.

It was easy to see why this room was the favorite gathering place. There was a TV mounted on one wall, although it was too noisy to hear it. There was even a microwave and a Veryfine juice machine. Cassie was aware of stares on her back as she went in and sat down beside Diana, but today they were stares of envy.

Melanie and Laurel were there. So was Sean, the little slinking boy who'd urged her to go to the principal. So was a guy with disheveled blond hair and slightly tilted blue-green eyes – oh, God, one of the Henderson brothers. Cassie tried not to give him a look of alarm as Diana nodded at him and said, "That's Christopher Henderson – Chris, say hi; this is Cassie. You moved her white Rabbit."

The blond guy turned and stared defensively. "I never touched it. I didn't even see it, okay? I was somewhere else."

Diana and Melanie exchanged a patient look. "Chris," Diana said, "what are you talking about?"

"This chick's rabbit. I didn't take it. I'm not into little furry animals. We're all brothers, okay?"

Diana stared at him a moment, then shook her head. "Go back to your lunch, Chris. Forget it."

Chris frowned, shrugged, then turned back to Sean. "So there's this new group, Cholera, right, and they've got this new album…"

"Somebody did move my car," Cassie offered tentatively.

"He did it," Laurel said. "He just doesn't have a very good memory for reality. He knows a lot about music, though."

Sean, Cassie noticed, was a different boy in here than he'd been by the lockers. He was excessively polite, seeming eager to please, and frequently offering to get things for the girls. They treated him like a slightly annoying little brother. He and Laurel were the only juniors besides Cassie.

They'd been eating just a few minutes when a strawberry-blond head appeared in the doorway. Suzan looked cross.

"Deborah's got a lunch detention and Faye's off doing something, so I'm eating in here," she announced.

Diana looked up. "Fine," she said evenly, then added, "This is my friend Cassie, Suzan. Cassie, this is Suzan Whittier."

"Hi," Cassie said, trying to sound casual.

There was a moment of tension. Then Suzan rolled her china-blue eyes. "Hi," she said finally, and immediately sat down and began removing things from her lunch sack.

Cassie looked at Suzan unloading her lunch, then threw a quick glance over at Laurel. Then she looked at Diana and raised her eyebrows questioningly.

She heard the crinkle of plastic as Suzan produced the last item from her bag; then a piercing shriek from Laurel.

"Oh, my God – you're not still eating those! Do you know what's in those things, Suzan? Beef fat, lard, palm oil – and it's about fifty percent white sugar…"

Diana was biting her lip and Cassie was shaking silently, trying to keep a straight face. Finally it was too much, and she had to let the giggles escape. As soon as she did Diana burst into laughter too.

Everyone else looked at them, baffled.

Cassie smiled down at her tuna sandwich. After so many weeks of loneliness, she had found where she belonged. She was Diana's friend, Diana's adopted sister. Her place was here beside Diana.

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