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Witchlight (Chapter 14)

Keller put her hands to her face. At first, she didn't recognize what was happening to her. Then she realized that she was crying.

She was shaking, Raksha Keller who wasn't afraid of anyone and who never let her heart be touched. She was making those ridiculous little noises that sounded like a six-week-old kitten. She was dripping tears through her fingers.

The worst thing was that she couldn't seem to make herself stop.

Then she felt Galen's arms around her, and she realized that he was crying, too.

He was better at it than she was. He seemed more used to it and didn't fight it as hard, which made him stronger. He was able to stroke her hair and even to get some words out.

"Keller, I'm sorry. Keller… can I call you Raksha?"

Keller shook her head furiously, spraying teardrops.

"I always think of you as Keller, anyway. It's just-you, somehow. I'm sorry about all of this. I didn't mean to make you cry. It would be better if you'd never met me…"

Keller found herself shaking her head again. And then, just as she had the last time, she felt her arms moving to hold him back. She pressed her face against the softness of his sweatshirt, trying to get enough control of herself to speak.

This was the problem with having walls so hard and high and unscalable, she supposed. When they came down, they crumbled completely, shattering into nothingness. She felt utterly defenseless right now.

Unguarded… vulnerable… but not alone. She could feel more than Galen's physical presence. She could feel his spirit, and she was being pulled toward it. They were falling together, falling into each other, as they had in the library. Closer and closer…

Contact.

She felt the touch of his mind, and once again her heart almost exploded.

You're the one. You're my soulmate, his mental voice said, as if this were an entirely new idea, and he was just discovering it and rejoicing in it.

Keller reached for denial, but it simply wasn't around. And she couldn't pretend to someone who shared her thoughts.

When I first saw you, he said, I was so fascinated

by you. I already told you this, didn't I? It made me proud to be a shapeshifter for the first time. Aren't you proud?

Keller was disconcerted. She still wasn't finished crying-but, yes, she was. With his warmth and passion shining into her, his arms locked around her, his mind open to her… it was hard not to get swept up in it.

I guess I'm proud, she thought to him slowly. But only of some parts of it. Other things…

What things? he demanded, almost fiercely protective. Our history? The dragons?

No. Stuff you wouldn't understand Things about-animal nature. Even now, Keller was afraid of letting him see some parts of her. Leave it alone, Galen.

All he said was, Tell me.

No. It happened a long time ago, when I was three. Just be glad you get to pick what kind of animal you'll become.

Keller, he said. Please.

You don't like animal nature, she told him. Remember how you pulled your hand away when you touched my shoulder in the music room?

In the… ? His mental voice trailed off, and Keller waited grimly to feel the memory of disgust in him. But what came wasn't revulsion. Instead, it was a strong sense of longing that he was somehow trying to smother. And choked, wry laughter.

Keller, I didn't pull away because I didn't like your fur. I did it because . . He hesitated, then burst out, sounding embarrassed, I wanted to pet you!

Pet… ?

Your fur was so soft, and it felt so good when I moved my palm the wrong way against it-just like velvet. And-I wanted to-to do this. He ran a hand up and down her back. I couldn't help it. But I knew it wasn't exactly appropriate, and you would probably break my jaw if I tried it. So I took my hand away. He finished, still embarrassed, but half laughing. Now, you tell me what you're not proud of.

Keller felt very warm, and she was sure her face was flushed. It was just as well that it was hidden. It was too bad-there was probably never going to be a time to tell him that she wouldn't mind being petted like that…

I'm a cat, after all, she thought, and was distantly surprised to hear him chuckle. There were no secrets in this kind of soul-link, she realized, slightly flustered. To cover her embarrassment, she spoke out loud. "The thing I'm not proud of-it happened when I was living with my first Circle Daybreak family. I used to spend a lot of time in my half-and-half form. It was easy for me to get stuck that way, and they didn't mind."

I wouldn't, either, Galen said. You're beautiful like that.

"Anyway, I was sitting on my foster mother's lap while she was combing my hair, and I don't know what happened, but something startled me. Some loud noise outside, maybe a car backfiring. I jumped straight up and tried to race for my hiding place under the desk."

Keller paused, made herself take an even breath. She felt Galen's arms tighten around her.

"And then-well, my foster mother tried to hold on to me, to keep me from being frightened. But all I could think of was danger, danger. So I lashed out at her. I used my claws-I have retractable claws in that form. I would have done anything to get away."

She paused again. It was so hard to tell this.

"She had to go to the hospital. I forget how many stitches she needed in her face. But I remember everything else-being taken to another foster family because that one couldn't handle me. I didn't blame them for sending me away, but I always wished I could have told her how sorry I was."

There was a silence. Keller could feel Galen breathing, and that gave her an odd sense of comfort. Then he said quietly, out loud, "That's all?"

Keller started, then lifted her head a little and made herself answer the same way. "Isn't it enough?"

"Keller… you were just a baby. You didn't mean to do any harm; it was an accident. You can't blame yourself."

"I do blame myself. If I hadn't been taken over by my instinct-"

"That's ridiculous. Human babies do stupid things all the time. What if a human three-year-old falls into a swimming pool and somebody drowns trying to rescue her? Would you blame the baby?"

Keller hesitated, then rested her head on his shoulder again. "Don't be silly."

"Then how can you blame yourself for something you couldn't help?"

Keller didn't answer, but she felt as if a crushing load was sliding slowly off her. He didn't blame her. Maybe she wasn't to blame. She would always be sorry, but maybe she didn't need to be so ashamed. She tightened her own arms around him. Thank you, she thought.

Oh, Keller. You're so wonderful, and you're so set against admitting it. Everything you do… shines. Keller couldn't form any words for a moment. Then she said, Galen? When you do choose a form, choose something gentle.

I thought you thought everybody has to be a fitter, he said, and his mental voice was very quiet. Some people shouldn't have to be.

Then she just let him hold her.

Another endless time, while they both seemed to be floating in soft, gold fire. It flared around them and through them, joining them. Sometimes she could hardly tell which thoughts were his and which were hers.

He said, I used to write poetry, you know. Or try. My parents hated it; they were so embarrassed.

Instead of learning to be a good hunter, their son was writing gibberish.

She said, There's this terrible dream I have, where I look out at the ocean and see a wall of water hundreds of feet high, and I know it's coming and I can never get away in time. Cats and water, you know. I guess that's why.

He said, I used to daydream about what kind of animal it would be most fun to be. But it always came down to the same thing, some kind of bird. You just can't beat flying.

She said, One thing I always had to hide from my foster mothers was how much I liked to shred things. I thought I was being so clever when I would hide their panty hose after I used my claws on them. But when I did it on the sheer curtains one day, everybody knew.

They talked and talked. And Keller gave herself up to it, to the simple pleasure of his closeness and the feeling that for once she didn't have to hide or pretend or defend herself. It was such a blessed relief not to have to pretend at all.

Galen knew her, and he accepted her. All of her. He loved herself, not her black swirling hair or her long legs or the curve of her lips. He might admire those things, but he loved her, what she was inside.

And he loved her with a sweetness and a power that shook Keller to her soul.

She wanted to stay like this forever.

There was something else waiting for them, though. Something she didn't want to think about but that loomed just outside the brightness and warmth that surrounded them.

The world… there's still a world out there. And it's in trouble.

And we can't ignore that.

Galen.

I know.

Very slowly, very reluctantly, Galen straightened, putting her away from him. He couldn't seem to let go of her shoulders, though. They sat that way, their eyes locked.

And the strange thing was that the mental connection wasn't broken. They could still hear each other as they held each other's gaze.

We can never be like this again, Keller said.

I know. He had faced it as clearly as she had, she realized.

We can't talk about it; we can't even be alone together. It isn't fair to Uiana. And we have to try to forget each other and just go on.

I know, he said for the third time. And just when Keller was marveling at his quiet acceptance, she saw tears in his gem-colored eyes. Keller, it's my fault. If I weren't the son of the First House…

We'd never have met. And that would have been worse.

"Would it?" he said out loud, as if he needed reassurance.

Yes. She gave the answer mentally, so that he could feel the truth of it. Oh, Galen, I'm so glad we met. I'm so glad to have known you. And if we live through this, I'll be glad all my life.

He took her into his arms again.

"We have it, Boss," Winnie said.

Her eyes were sparkling. Beside her, Nissa looked calmly enthusiastic.

"What?" Keller asked. She herself felt calmly alert, in spite of almost no sleep the night before. She and Galen had stayed up late, reading over the scrolls, making sure that there was nothing they had missed.

They had already explained what they'd found to the others.

Now Winnie was grinning at her.

"How to protect Iliana at the party on Saturday. We've got it, and it's foolproof!"

Nothing is foolproof, Keller thought. She said, "Go on."

It's like this. We put wards all around the Ashton-Hughes house, just like the wards Grandma Harman made for this house. The strongest possible from Circle Daybreak. But we put them around the house now, as soon as we can. We key them so that only humans can get in."

"And we add another layer of protection," Nissa said. "Circle Daybreak agents posted around the house, starting now. Nothing gets in, nothing gets out that they don't know about. That way, when we go to the party on Saturday, we know it's safe."

"We just whisk her from one safe place to another," Winnie said. "As long as we can keep her in here until Saturday night, there's-no chance of any danger."

Keller considered. "We have to make sure the limo is safe, too. Absolutely safe."

"Of course," Winnie said. 'Ill take care of it."

"And I'd want agents to check the people who go hi somehow. Not just monitor. Would there be any way to do that?"

"Without the family knowing?" Nissa chewed her lip gently. "What if we set up some sort of road crew near the front gate? There's bound to be a gate; this is a mansion, right?"

"Check it out. And we'd better get plans of the house, too. I want us all to know the place by heart before we get there."

"City planner's office," Nissa said. "No, more likely the local historical society. The house is probably a historic monument. I'm on it."

Keller nodded. "Hmm." She tried to think if there was anything else to worry about. "Hmm, it sounds…"

They watched her, breath held.

"It sounds good," Keller said. "I think there's just the tiniest, slightest possibility that it might actually work. But I'm probably being overoptimistic."

Winnie grinned and socked her on the shoulder. "You, Boss? Perish the thought."

'It's so difficult," Iliana said. "I mean, what can you wear to both a birthday party and a promise ceremony?"

"And a Solstice Ceremony," Winnie said. "Don't forget that"

"You're trying to make things worse, aren't you?" Iliana held up one dress, then another. "What's right for a Solstice Ceremony?"

"Something white," Winnie suggested.

"That would be good for a promise ceremony, too," Keller said. She was doing her very best to be patient, and finding it easier than she had expected.

The last three days had been very quiet Iliana had agreed to stay home from school even when her cold got better. Galen and Keller had scarcely spoken in that time, and they had never been alone.

And that was… all right. There was a quietness inside her to match the quiet air outside.

They both had jobs to do. And they would do them as well as possible. Keller just prayed that what they did would be enough.

"White? I don't know if I've got anything white. It has to be fancy because everything at Jaime's is fancy. I hope she's really okay."

"She's fine," Keller said. "You talked to her an hour ago." To her own relief, Jaime had stayed quietly at home for the past three days, too. The last thing she wanted was for that girl to be attacked again. But the Ashton-Hughes house, at least, was safe. For three days, it had been buttoned up tight, with Circle Daybreak agents watching every person who went through the gates. And checking them, using the same wards that protected the house. No Night Person could cross the invisible line that encircled the grounds, and no person who tried to cross and was turned back by the wards would be allowed to leave without being tracked.

All we have to do is keep her safe during the drive, Keller thought. First to the mansion, then to the meeting place in Charlotte. We can do that. I know we can do that.

She checked her watch.

"Come on, kid, it's after eight," she said. "We should be moving soon."

Iliana and Winnie were both ransacking the closet

"Pale blue," Winnie said, "pale lavender, pale pink…"

"It has to be white," Iliana said.

"I'm sorry I mentioned it."

A knock sounded on the door, and Nissa looked in. "We're back. You guys ready?"

"In a minute," Keller said. "How're things at the mansion?"

"Perfect. The witches say the wards are strong."

"Who's come in?"

"Caterers and a college band. That's all so far. All one hundred percent human according to the wards-and to Galen, who kept running up to the cars at the gate and trying to sell them Christmas Benefit teddy bears."

Keller almost grinned. Galen would be good at that. "The family must have thought he was crazy."

"They never came out and complained. Nobody's come out, in fact, which makes things easy on die surveillance team." She sobered. "Boss, why do you think the dragon hasn't tried something yet? He's cutting it awfully close."

"I don't know. I think…"

"What?"

"I think he must be betting it all on one throw of the dice. One all-out attack, fast and decisive."

"At the party."

"At the parry," Keller said. "So we'd better be on our toes."

"We've got him locked out, though. Those wards are secure."

"I hope so."

From the closet, Iliana squealed, "I found it!"

She was holding a dress almost the color of her own hair, white with some sort of sparkling thread woven in. It draped in soft folds across her hip as she held it up for Winnie's inspection.

"Perfect," Winnie said. "You can get engaged in that dress; you can go to a birthday parry; you can celebrate the Solstice-you can probably get married in it if you want"

"You can do whatever you want, but you have to do it now," Keller said, checking her watch again. "But do you like it? I think I bought it last year."

"It's beautiful," Keller said, and then, as she saw the hurt in Hiana's violet eyes: "Really. It's beautiful. You'll look wonderful in it, and Galen will be-very impressed."

Where had that sudden hitch in her breath come from? She had gotten over it quickly, but she noticed that Diana gave her an odd look.

"Now, come on, everybody,*' Keller said briskly, looking at Winnie and Nissa. "Are you two ready?"

They both looked down at their ordinary outfits, then looked back up and shrugged in chorus.

"Yeah."

'I guess they can think we're the help," Keller said. "Everybody check your transmitters. I want to be in constant contact once we get there."

"Right, Boss."

"Got it, Boss."

Iliana had put on the dress and was looking in the mirror. "My hair," she began, and then she glanced at Keller. "Ill just leave it down," she said. "Okay?"

"Down is fine, down is great." Keller glanced at her watch and tightened her belt.

"Down is just right for a Solstice Ceremony," Winnie said. She added in an undertone as Iliana started for the door, "Don't mind her. She's always like this before a big operation."

'It's a good thing I didn't ask her about my shoes…."

Keller looked around to make sure there was nothing they were forgetting. Then she looked at the other three girls. They smiled back at her, eyes alert and ready for anything. Even the smallest one, who looked like a Christmas tree angel somebody had taken down and brought to life.

"Okay, people," Keller said. "This is it. It's show time."

Galen was wearing a dark sweater and pants that set off his blondness. It was casual but still appropriate for the promise ceremony later on. His eyes met Keller's briefly as Iliana said good-bye to her parents, and they both smiled. Not fake smiles, either. Simply the quiet, undemanding smiles of comrades with a job to do.

"Kee-kee!" Alex said from the door as they went to the car in the garage.

That kid is up way too late, Keller thought She turned and waved.

"Blow him a kiss," Diana prompted helpfully. "He likes that."

Keller gave her a narrow sideways look and blew him a kiss.

"Kee-kee!" Suddenly, his round little face crumpled. "Bye-bye," he proclaimed sadly.

"Oh, that's sweet," Diana's mother said. "He's going to miss you. He probably thinks you're going for good."

"Bye-bye," Alex said, and huge tears rolled down his cheeks. "Bye-bye! Kee-kee! Bye-bye!" He began to sob.

There was a little silence among the group standing by the car. Winnie stared at Alex, then glanced at Iliana.

"He doesn't-he's never had any precognitions, has he?" she muttered.

"He's a baby," Iliana whispered back. '1 mean, how could you tell?"

"He's just tired," Keller said briefly. "Come on, let's go."

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