Okay, the Dark Daughters were more than a student council or whatever, but still.
"Zoey, are you all right?"
The concern in Damien's voice made me look up from Nala, and I realized that I was sitting in the middle of what used to be the circle, with my cat on my lap, completely engrossed in my own thoughts as I scratched her head. "Oh, yeah. Sorry. I'm fine, just a little distracted."
"We should get back. It's getting late," Stevie Rae said.
"Okay. You're right," I said, and got up, still holding Nala. But I couldn't make my feet follow them as they started to head back to the dorms.
Damien, the first to notice my hesitation, stopped and called back to me, and then my other friends stopped, looking at me with expressions that ranged from worried to confused.
"Uh, why don't you guys go ahead? I'm going to stay out here for just a little while longer."
"We could stay with you and--" Damien began, but Stevie Rae (bless her little bumpkin heart) interrupted him.
"Zoey needs to do some thinkin' on her own. Wouldn't you if you just found out you were the only fledgling in known history to have an affinity for all five elements?"
"I suppose," Damien said reluctantly.
"But don't forget that it'll be getting light soon," Erin said.
I smiled reassuringly at them. "I won't. I'll be back at the dorm soon."
"I'll make a sandwich for you and try to scare up some chips to go with your brown non-diet pop. It's important that a High Priestess eats after she performs a ritual," Stevie Rae said with a smile and a wave as she pulled the rest of the four along with her.
I called thanks to Stevie Rae as they disappeared into the darkness. Then I walked over to the tree and sat down, resting my back against its thick trunk. I closed my eyes and petted Nala. Her purr was normal and familiar and incredibly soothing, and it seemed to help ground me.
"I'm still me," I whispered to my cat. "Just like Grandma said. All the other stuff can change, but what's really Zoey--what's been Zoey for sixteen years--is still Zoey."
Maybe if I repeated it over and over enough to myself, I'd actually believe it. I rested my face in one hand and scratched my cat with the other, and told myself that I was still me...still me...still me...
"See how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O, that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!"
Nala "me-eeh-uf-owed" in complaint as I jumped in surprise.
"Seems like I keep finding you by this tree," Erik said, smiling down at me and looking like a god.
He made me feel all fluttery in my stomach, but tonight he also made me feel something else. Just exactly why did he keep "finding" me? And just exactly how long had he been watching this time?
"What are you doing out here, Erik?"
"Hi, it's nice to see you, too. And, yes, I would like to have a seat, thank you," he said and started to sit beside me.
I stood up, making Nala mutter at me again.
"Actually, I was just going to go back to the dorm."
"Hey, I didn't mean to intrude or whatever. I just couldn't concentrate on my homework so I went for a walk. I guess my feet carried me this way without me telling them to, 'cause next thing I knew here I was and here you are. I'm really not stalking you. Promise."
He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked totally embarrassed. Well, totally cute and embarrassed, and I remembered how much I had wanted to say yes to him earlier when he asked me to watch dorky movies with him. And now here I was, rejecting him and making him uncomfortable again. It's a wonder the kid ever talked to me. Clearly, I was taking this High Priestess thing way too seriously.
"So how about walking me back to my dorm? Again," I asked. "Sounds good."
This time Nala complained when I tried to carry her. Instead she trotted along after us while Erik and I fell into step together as easily as we had before. We didn't say anything for a while. I wanted to ask him about Aphrodite, or at the very least tell him what she'd said to me about him, but I couldn't come up with a good way of saying something that I probably didn't have any business questioning him about.
"So what were you doing out here this time?" he asked.
"Thinking," I said, which technically wasn't a lie. I had been thinking. A lot. Before, during, and after the circle-casting I was conveniently not going to mention.
"Oh. Are you worried about that Heath kid?"
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